William O’Brien’s name isn’t exactly a household word in Maine, but across the New Hampshire border, he has a bit of a reputation.
As speaker of the House there from 2010 to 2012, O’Brien’s bio boasts that he “presided over the passage of a budget 11 percent smaller than the prior budget, reducing overall spending by more than $1.2 billion.”
The budget “included no new state taxes or fees, reversed the past two terms’ budget accounting gimmicks and used responsible revenue estimates.”
With the Granite State’s lower house in Democratic hands this session (the Senate retained a Republican majority), O’Brien is a back-bencher once again, paying more attention to being chief operating officer for the Americas for Brainloop Inc., a multinational firm offering secure information services to business.
Yet his term in leadership of the world’s fourth-largest representative body was an occasion not only for action, but also for reflection. He shared some of those thoughts in a recent speech to the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s annual gathering, and expanded them in a later interview.
While Maine has had both sales and income taxes for more than a generation, New Hampshire has avoided both.
Citing a “libertarian streak” on both sides of the aisle in Concord, he said that his state has “held more tightly to the idea that government should be limited and small, and our people seem to value being self-reliant. And we knew almost intuitively that the influences that mattered more than government were those of the family, of church, of social groups.”
That’s changing now, he noted — no state is immune to the social forces empowering the government at the individual’s expense — but New Hampshire has succumbed more slowly than most.
Though Maine and New Hampshire have almost equal populations and demographic profiles, his state’s poverty rate is two-thirds of Maine’s (and was the lowest in the nation last year at 10 percent), and it has a median income that’s much higher ($63,480 compared to $46,790 in 2012).
While some attribute this to sharing a border with the richest part of Massachusetts, O’Brien said that many studies show low tax rates and public spending are also influential factors in growth and prosperity. Other states that share New Hampshire’s policies are doing well even without high-tech-oriented neighbors, he noted.
And there are also matters of philosophy and policy that matter as much as the bottom line when it comes to that elusive standard called “quality of life” — factors that have drawn many Bay Staters to seek refuge north of the Merrimack River.
“When calls come for government to be more involved in people’s lives, it’s easy to say â€˜Yes’ and hard to say â€˜No,’ and I know that from experience,” he said. “But I made up my mind I was going to do the right thing for people, not the easy thing, and the worst that could happen would be I would go back to private life and run my business.”
He wanted to bring to public office the personal lessons that had illuminated his life — that welfare policies, created from the best intentions and with the goal of helping others, had grown far beyond their value and were now harmful to those they were intended to benefit.
“People are being diminished by government, by dependence on it, generation after generation. My family didn’t have much, so if I wanted a better life, I had to work at it, get an education, make myself a more marketable commodity.”
But today in his state, “We figured out that a family of four would have to earn more than $50,000 to replace all the welfare they could get and pay taxes. This is a real problem, because it means the state is telling them they can never get ahead, never survive on their own, never have a chance to become independent.”
And people who want to help people break free of their dependence have a fight on their hands, because “it’s so hard to break through the name-calling and the degradation that is heaped on them by their political opponents.”
He said that when he met former Vice President Dan Quayle, he “expected to find an amiable dunce, because that’s the way the liberal establishment had depicted him. Instead, I found a sharp, quick-witted and accomplished businessman who had built a successful career by his own effort. Then I began to understand the power of the establishment to define people it didn’t like.”
Now, O’Brien is just a part-time legislator again, which is what he thinks every lawmaker should be. Those who spend decades in public life come to value their careers more than the interests of the public, he believes.
And, truth be told, today’s headlines would make you think he’s right.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.