Column

The role of think tanks on our state’s politics

‘Think tanks” have been a growth business in Washington, D. C. When I went to college in Washington back in the 1960s there were just two notable think tanks, the more conservative, generally speaking, American Enterprise Institute and the more liberal, Brookings Institution. They researched and spoke out on broad public policy issues before the Congress.

Since then, dozens and dozens of other national think tanks have been created. States, including New Hampshire, now have their own think tank organizations.

During the legislative session, there is plenty of interaction between senators and citizens and community groups, lobbyists and other stakeholders and sometimes the press on significant bills facing public hearings and votes. That input and dialogue is vitally important. But some legislators rely on Concord based think tanks for the basic facts and potential consequences of legislative action on major issues.

Think tanks publish reports on the issues of the day and their staffs are available to brief legislators as well as respond to inquiries. While not very visible to those outside the legislative process, think tank representatives are regulars around the State House testifying or sitting in at committee hearings.

I cite the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies to explain how think tanks do their work. The Center was founded in 1996 when the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Business Industry Association, the University of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Municipal Association and other organizations determined there was a need for an independent, nonpartisan organization to help the legislature.

Two recent interactions I have had with the Center explain the important role think tanks can play in the legislation process. First, as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, I oversee the committee’s process to estimate revenue for the upcoming biennium. And while we hear from a number of economists to help us plan for the future, I place the greatest credence on the information that we get from Dennis Delay at the Center.

Dennis in not only the economist at the Center, he is also the New Hampshire Forecast Manager for the New England Economic Partnership. He is looking at the New Hampshire economy every day and sees where we are in the context of the New England and national economies. Late in the budget process in May, Dennis briefed Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, representing the Democrat minority, and me, to outline how he felt he could best explain the current economic situation.

The next week Dennis provided the Ways and Means Committee, in public session, with some criteria to consider as the committee deliberated over how much revenue to expect over the next two years. The Center and Dennis gave us the benefit of their research and experience, but took no position on what we should do. They leave decision making to elected officials. The second issue that the Center has been very helpful with is the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Constituents have come to me over the last few months telling me I should vote for expansion, period. Others say I should vote against it, period.

A recent paper by the Center suggests there might be several models for expansion to reach New Hampshire’s uninsured. Each option will have different costs and implications. To date, none of the additional options has been fully discussed and that is why the work of the bipartisan commission currently studying Medicaid expansion is so important.

Credibility for think tanks is crucial to their success. That is why many place confidence in the Center on Medicaid issues as Steve Norton, the Center Executive Director, is the former head of the Medicaid office for the state.

The work of think tanks in New Hampshire is very important as the issues legislators deal with are increasingly complicated and have extraordinary financial implications.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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