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New Hampshire's Lawmakers Have Conflicts Of Interest

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Most state lawmakers in this country aren't paid enough to pay the bills. Lawmakers in New Hampshire, in fact, make just a hundred dollars a year, so they need to have another gig. And that can mean conflicts of interest. Casey McDermott of New Hampshire Public Radio reports.

CASEY MCDERMOTT, BYLINE: New Hampshire is home to the largest citizen legislature in the country - 424 members in total. Every once in a while, though not very often, you'll hear some of them speak up during floor debates to acknowledge that they have a personal connection to a bill they're about to vote on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED LAWMAKER #1: Could be impacted by this legislation - I still intend to vote...

UNIDENTIFIED LAWMAKER #2: Voting for this bill actually works against my own interest.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWMAKER #3: I may have a conflict on this issue. I want to declare that.

MCDERMOTT: It's not unusual to see landlords sponsoring bills dealing with evictions, retirees voting on changes to the state retirement system or business owners setting the rates for the very same business taxes they have to pay. This blending of public and private interests is common among lawmakers of all ranks. And if you ask legislative leaders, this is a strength, not a weakness, of New Hampshire's political system.

DONNA SOUCY: I think people elect legislators who have a basis of knowledge.

MCDERMOTT: New Hampshire Democratic Senate president Donna Soucy is one of the most powerful people at the Capitol these days, but she's also an attorney for the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, an influential labor union.

SOUCY: Basically contract negotiations, grievances, disciplinary matters - all of that work for firefighters in local communities.

MCDERMOTT: Soucy's filed paperwork to disclose that her position with the union could create a conflict of interest on some pieces of legislation, but she hasn't actually recused herself from voting on any bills the union has lobbied for or against this year.

SOUCY: I have not advocated for any of those issues. I've merely cast votes and indicated that I would do so.

MCDERMOTT: But that's not rare. The top Republican in the New Hampshire Senate, Chuck Morse, is also a small business owner. He runs a greenhouse and plant nursery. When bills on wages, benefits or hiring practices come before the state Senate, Morse isn't shy about speaking up on how that legislation would affect companies like his.

CHUCK MORSE: A lot of people want businesspeople to come up here. So when they ask businesspeople to come up here, I'm certain they wanted them to vote on things.

MCDERMOTT: Most states have ethics committees tasked with preventing public officials from letting their outside roles blend too closely together with their jobs in the Legislature. New Hampshire has one, too, but it takes a hands-off approach to policing conflicts, only acting if it receives a question or complaint. With few exceptions, state reps and senators are allowed to vote on or even sponsor legislation that could directly affect them. The prevailing thinking at New Hampshire's Statehouse is that if you force lawmakers to sit out every time they have a conflict, pretty soon, you won't have anyone to participate.

DOUG LEY: You don't want to disqualify people because of what they know and their knowledge base or their experience base.

MCDERMOTT: In addition to being the second ranking Democrat in the House, Doug Ley is the paid president of New Hampshire's chapter of one of the country's largest teachers unions - the American Federation of Teachers.

LEY: You know, then we're looking for people who - OK, you have no experience in the field, and you have no knowledge of the field. Perfect. You'll make a good legislator.

MCDERMOTT: As a lawmaker, Ley has testified repeatedly on the teachers union's behalf, but he's not recused himself from voting on any of those same issues.

LEY: If there's a position that I need to take based on my constituents that is not, let's say, for whatever reason - not aligned with AFT New Hampshire, then it's not going to be aligned with AFT New Hampshire - so be. I'm not their lobbyist.

MCDERMOTT: The union does not employ its own lobbyist at the New Hampshire Statehouse this session. Then again, it might not need one. For NPR News in Concord, I'm Casey McDermott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.