by Amanda Phillips
New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson is a rare breed of politician… he's the kind who keeps his promises even after the campaign is over. I met him the day after he vetoed an $8.8 billion budget, stamping the budget with a custom-made 2-by-4 red VETO stamp that his staff had purchased for him. The budget would have resulted in a $200 million deficit, which would eventually have to be paid down with tax increases. With his budget veto, he kept his campaign promise to keep taxes low and rein in state expenditures.
The entire state is buzzing with the news of his veto. Many in the media are comparing him with Mel Thomson, who similarly butted heads with the legislature by vetoing over-spent budgets. Thomson ran for governor on the platform, "ax the tax." Though lawmakers may have been frustrated with Thomson, he was a favorite with New Hampshire taxpayers who re-elected him twice. It appears that Governor Benson also admires Thomson; a prominent portrait of Mel Thomson with the quote "Low taxes are the result of low spending" greets all visitors to the Governor's office. Granite (and Free) Staters can expect him to continue to follow Thomson's fiscally responsible lead.
The budget veto wasn't the only promise Benson kept last week. Despite the extraordinary demands on his time from lawmakers, media, aides, counsel and cheering taxpayers, he kept his appointment with around 20 members of the Free State Project (FSP). Free Staters are evaluating the "Live Free Or Die" state as a leading candidate for the migration of 20,000 liberty-oriented activists whose goal is to build upon and expand the existing freedoms in the chosen state. Instrumental in arranging the meeting was John Babiarz, FSP member, Chair of the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire (LPNH), and Benson's appointee to New Hampshire's Efficiency in Government Commission. That we could have access to the Governor on one of his busiest days is a testament to the political savvy of both Babiarz and the LPNH.
Benson greeted Free Staters visiting from Oregon, Nevada, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire with grace and a natural charm. As busy as he was that day, he was genuinely happy to see us. I congratulated him on his bold move in vetoing the budget, and asked him how he thought the situation would play out. He candidly replied, "Nobody likes that budget. … It has become a political game of 'me beating you,' and that's unfortunate. All I can say is 'Do the right thing.'" Later in the conversation he shook his head and added, "I see these bills come across my desk, and I wonder 'Where do they come up with these things?'"
As refreshing as it is to encounter a statesman who doesn't want to play political games, it's even more refreshing to note the many New Hampshire legislators supporting him on his budget veto. Today they managed to sustain Benson's veto, despite strong opposition, and passed a continuing resolution to avoid a shutdown and allow time for a new budget to be written.
Keith Murphy asked the all-important question on every Free Stater's mind, "Governor, how would you feel about 20,000 libertarian activists moving to New Hampshire." Smiling broadly, Benson replied, "Come on up. We'd love to have you!" Contrast Governor Benson's response with those of the other candidate states' governors. Montana's governor advised us to choose Idaho, while Idaho's governor advised us to go elsewhere. New Hampshire's Governor Benson not only welcomed us, he welcomed us enthusiastically. He is the only governor who has done so.
As the rest of the group soaked up this happy news, I followed up with, "Would you consider becoming a Friend of the Free State Project?" Benson replied, "I'd love to be. I'll be a part of anything that John (Babiarz) is a part of. … Send it to my office; we'll look over it and consider it." Babiarz had campaigned against Benson in the governor's race, but you'd never know that they were once political opponents. Benson added, "John and I had a great time campaigning. We agreed on everything. We had a nice conversation during the debates."
James Maynard, who is running for Keene City Council, chatted with the Governor about how "We share another distinction. In yesterday's (6/27/03) issue of the Keene Sentinel, they spent half their op-ed page attacking you, and the other half attacking us." The Governor smiled and commented, "Then you are in good company." Maynard also thanked the Governor for vetoing the proposed budget, calling it "both bold, and the right thing to do."
As we continued to chat about various issues, Benson asked us to call him Craig. Dave Mincin jovially commented, "I've never been on a first-name basis with a governor before." Benson was very candid with us, at one point commenting "I'm trying to put myself out of a job." When was the last time you heard that from an elected politician?
Devera Morgan asked him about his position on victimless crime, to which he replied, "We would have to look at those one issue at a time."
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Benson which issues he thought were "low-hanging fruit" for libertarian activists in his state. He mentioned the next two items on his agenda are a Taxpayer Bill of Rights and School Choice. I couldn't have been more pleased with his answer.
After a few more minutes of chatting, an aide informed the Governor that he needed to keep another appointment. Benson had been gracious, welcoming, and generous with our entire group. After smiles, goodbyes and hearty handshakes, I left the meeting with no doubt in my mind that New Hampshire should be the Free State. It's already most of the way there, and we have an ally in the state's highest office.