“I don’t mean this in any unkind way, but not all bills pass, and that’s part of the lesson associated here.”
Representative John Sytek was discussing the bill to make a mastodon the NH State Fossil (H.B. 113).
“I’ve had my own bills not pass,” he continued. “And, well, that’s life!”
He and 19 other members of the NH House of Representatives were part of the committee responsible for hearing testimony in support of the bill. These representatives would then offer their recommendation to the rest of the 400 members. The full House would then vote on whether to pass the bill.
[image of the NH State House, Concord, NH, taken by the author]
In other words, at a time when the House was voting on hundreds of other bills, the recommendation of that specific committee was crucial to this particular bill.
Of the 20 committee members, only four were present for the testimony.
A small group of 4th graders, Thom Smith and two local paleontologists—Dr. Will Clyde, UNH, and Dr. Gary Johnson, Dartmouth—presented their arguments in support of a state fossil late that afternoon on February 3rd.
The recommendation of the committee, voted 11-4 against the bill, was “inexpedient to legislate.”
“Remember, we were listening to a bill having to do with a symbol for the state. An icon,” Rep. Sytek explained by phone.
“This wasn’t a bill about the budget. This wasn’t eminent domain. This wasn’t licensing of doctors.
“All I’m saying is this bill, in and of itself, was interesting, and we’ve respected the efforts that the kids made, but this isn’t amending the constitution.
“So people who had other obligations want to meet their other obligations. And like every legislator, or everyone in life, you’ve got to balance one thing against another.”
[image of NH State House front stairs and entrance, taken by the author]
Representative Greg Smith, one of the committee members not present for the testimony, answered questions later by phone about the bill and the legislative process.
“Basically,” he said, “we’ve got [hundreds of] bills. In a short couple of months, meeting one or two days a week, we’ve got to get through all those bills. And we’re basically volunteers.”
“I think timing-wise, the timing didn’t work out. I think this was intended to be one of the first bills that we saw, and, if you recall, we had such a snowy winter that a lot of the testimony [was] delayed.
“I wonder if things had been different, if this had been one of the very first bills we heard, the House might be more receptive to passing a bill early on like this.
“If we’re only sitting around for 2 hours and then we’re going home, it’s a lot different. Now,” he said, in reference to the number of bills in the House, “you’re in the traffic jam.”
Inclement weather this winter (a season, I might add, that even now, in April, is not yet over) prevented hearings from occurring as scheduled. Hearings were rescheduled to be heard on one long, full day versus over several days or weeks. Time was indeed a factor.
[Here is where bills are either passed or not passed. Image inside the NH State House, taken by the author]
And it’s easy, I think, to scoff at something such as a proposal for a state symbol or dismiss it as inconsequential in relation to issues like the budget.
But isn’t there substantial value in an engaged group of citizens, especially at such a young age? Isn’t this something we want to encourage, in a country where most adults are cynical of and many are ignorant of the political process?
And isn’t there great value to furthering educational and scientific resources, at a time when the country is concerned about both?
This is not to say that I think legislation should be passed simply because a group of young citizens are engaged. And I am also not suggesting that all educational or scientific bills be passed on the premise that they are related to education or science. But it did make me wonder why—beyond time and the subjective determination of importance—so many voted against it.
This is particularly puzzling when Rep. Sytek made a point to explain that the testimony given by the 4th graders was superlative.
“I want to commend [Thom Smith] for the work that he did in instructing and teaching these young citizens how our process works.
“Whether anything came of it or not, it’s virtually a dress rehearsal for their own time in the legislature. Because I think some of them will be there! The kids were remarkable! The passage or non-passage of the bill had nothing to do with the presentation.
“I made a point of telling the rest of the committee that this was one of the best presentations I’d seen,” he explained. “Now, I’m not talking about the Department of Health and Human Services necessarily; I’m talking about when interesting constituencies come: high school kids, maybe grammar school kids, a local organization trying to push something for their town comes in.
“This was really dynamite. I appreciated the effort [they made.]”
[image inside the NH State House, taken by the author]
So what were the reasons?
Would creating a state fossil require funding from the state? Would it involve more work for the legislature? Was the research, reasoning or quality of the testimony lacking? Did the legislators think a different fossil would make a better symbol?
What, outside of personal feelings regarding the symbol, would prompt a representative to vote against it?
Rep. Greg Smith was frank.
“I think it’s a bit subjective. You might get different answers from different people.”
“[T]here seems to be an effort by some fourth grade classes, as part of Civics [class], to try and submit bills for different things. [This] fossil bill is a good example.
“I think these are very worthy lessons. It’s great that the fourth graders are involved. But folks also need to understand that when we vote ‘yes’ on something like this, we’re telling the rest of the House, ‘hey, you guys should take the time and go vote on it and send it to the Senate’ because it’s that valuable.
“I think that’s where a lot of us have a concern: that the time we spend on things like the state raptor or the state fossil takes time away from other subjects that we don’t have as much time to research and debate. [This is] my opinion, but I think I speak for a number of others.
“I didn’t have any objection, you know, mastodon vs. mammoth,” he said in response to whether he disagreed with the choice of fossil proposed. “It was really more around that I didn’t feel that the state needs a state fossil.”
“We had a bill come to committee on a state poem,” he continued. “I was out of town that day, but I would have voted against it. I actually lead the charge against an effort to make Feb. 6 Ronald Reagan Day in NH, because Ronald Reagan never lived here, never grew up here. I’m a Republican, and I still thought that it wasn’t appropriate.
Rep. Sytek offered similar reasoning.
“It is true that it could easily be passed in the sense that it didn’t cost the state any money,” he said. “The question, I think, for some people is the appropriateness of talking about something like this when we’re faced with an enormous budget shortfall.
“It looks inappropriate to be talking about things that are of no fundamental significance to the Republic at a time when [we’re working on] the whole tax structure, spending on worthwhile social projects [such as] mental health issues [or] the condition of our roads and bridges. We can talk about everything. We’ll stay there as long as it takes to get the job done. But it doesn’t seem right to be talking about this.”
[image from Getty Images illustrating some of NH’s State Symbols]
Rep. Greg Smith highlighted the scarcity of fossils in the state as a reason not to have a state fossil.
“[I]f we’re going to do something to make the State of NH Whatever,” he said, “there needs to be a strong and unique connection to NH.
“[L]et’s say, we found the biggest Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in the world and we found it in NH, well, that would be kind of interesting and unique.
“If we found more mammoths or mastodons in NH, [if] we found 100 mastodons, and it was world-famous, well, that would be kind of compelling. Something that makes it a connection to NH, not just a fossil for the sake of having a fossil.”
New Hampshire’s geology, however, makes it exceedingly difficult to find the type of fossils he described. As mentioned in the previous post, the geological components within the state do not preserve fossils as well as that of other states. Does that mean that the state should not celebrate the remarkable fossils it has?
“I feel bad, in a way, for the kids because I know they put a lot of time into it, but I would also say that they’re operating in an adult environment,” Rep. Smith stated. “And I saw a lot of really good bills that representatives put a lot of time into that would have, I believe, positively affected the citizens of NH, but they were voted down or they were killed off by special interests. So, I don’t want [the] fourth graders to be discouraged, but again, they’re being treated as adults. We’re not coddling them just because they’re fourth graders.”
“That may sound mean-spirited. It’s not meant to be, but it’s part of reality.”
The bill, not surprisingly, did not pass the NH House. And it cannot be introduced again for another two years.
“[T]hings don’t necessarily pass the first time around,” Rep. Smith said. “If it’s voted down, you can’t introduce the same bill in the same session. [I]n two years, you’re going to have 20-25% of the House turnover. So maybe they come back in two years and try again.”
“And,” he advised, “if you can get a more senior person or maybe a State Senator to weigh in, that carries weight. And then it becomes more of a personal favor. But you know, the committees, we pay attention to that sort of thing, too.”
Below are emails sent by some members of the committee to Thom Smith, published with permission by those who sent them.
Dear Mr. Smith,
Thank you for writing. In short, I voted against this bill because I believe we have too many state “this or that”, too many special days, and too many special people days that we recognize already. Our committee also killed a day in recognition of Ronald Reagan recently as well as the adoption of a state poem, and last year the House tabled a bill creating state colors. It is also possible the House may table the pending Bobcat bill.
Though I realize your students must be very disappointed in the disposition of this bill, this is a great learning opportunity for them. I have sponsored many bills, most of which, by a huge majority, have failed to become law. No small effort was exerted in an attempt to see these bills pass and yes, I was disappointed.
The House has had well over 800 bills filed this session, can you imagine if even 50% of them had become law? Your students have learned a great lesson from the legislative process they experienced and failure is one of those experiences.
Thank you again for writing,
N.H. State Representative
Strafford District 9
Unfortunately, I was busy at another hearing during the public session and at a work obligation for the executive session, so my comments are only of limited value.
With that said, I would have likely voted against passage as this committee has a significant amount of work and bills like the state poem and this one take us away from oversight of the various boards and the pension system. In general the committee is one of the busier ones and these extra bills do not get the attention they may deserve. One must consider that we are volunteers and in the case of myself, someone who works a full time job outside of Concord, cannot afford to take more than two days off each week to address this legislation.
I would love for a school class to take on a more technical issue, for example do we really need laws about cutting of hair, or what age to go to a tanning salon, or what requirements need to be met to paint someone’s nails……
Having sponsored/co-sponsored the 3rd most bills this year in the house, one gets used to bills not making it through the system. The founders intentionally made it hard to get a bill passed just to minimize how quickly changes to our government can take place. Specifically there are 3 separate gates [ House, Senate and Governor] to get through before a bill becomes law and this adds a significant amount of impedance to the system and this tends to slow down how quickly a statutory change is made.
FWIW, there are bills that I am working this year that are now in their 12th year and we may actually pass both chambers for the first time.
Please share the following quote with the students:
Never, never, never give up.
FWIW, I would love to see a public classroom take a stand on drivers ed bill, or finding a solution to the “smarter” “balanced” assessments debacle.. There are some real issues that need to be addressed in the state and it seems our committee is not working on any of the critical issues.
N.H. State Representative
Merrimack District 23
Here is the committee report that will appear in the calendar for this bill:
HB-113. This bill would designate the mastodon as the official state fossil (as does Michigan). It is the result of the third (now fourth) grade class project at Bradford elementary school. The Committee was impressed with the quality of the effort. The pupils enlisted the aid of both UNH and Dartmouth professors. Three well-spoken pupils stated their case in testimony before the Committee. However, the Committee felt that New Hampshire has enough cultural and historical artifacts such as our state motto, flower and bird. There was no compelling evidence to indicate that the lack of a state fossil would detract from the imagery of our state nor would adding this designation significantly complement the extant array of our state emblems.
My own personal comments follow.
The members who heard the presentation by your class were genuinely impressed by the obvious work that you as a teacher (I teach at Salem High, BTW) and your pupils did. It is often true that many members (of a citizen legislature) cannot be present for every hearing. However, they are used to reading bills, listening to other members of the Committee and making reasonable judgments on those bases.
However, to varying degrees, the majority of the committee simply did not feel that we need an official state fossil, regardless of the quality of the presentation. One of the professors said that this would raise public awareness of paleontology. I simply do not see that that is true nor do I see that as persuasive even if so.
Many bills are introduced and most of them do not get passed. That is a reality that every legislator understands. Last term, we had a similar presentation by schoolchildren who wanted to see NH adopt orange and red as our official state colors. That bill did not get passed for similar reasons.
Your class should understand that we turn down even requests from the Governor. The legislative process works slowly and persistence (i.e. future efforts) often are successful.
I hope this helps,
N.H. State Representative
Rockingham District 8
Video of a Kearsarge Regional student asking to have a mastodon as state fossil, posted by Rep. David Borden:
I cannot extend a large enough THANK YOU to Thom Smith or his marvelous students. I am so very impressed and grateful for their efforts, and I am so very sorry that the bill did not pass.
Thank you again to Representatives David Borden, Nancy Stiles, and Tom Sherman.
And thank you so much to Gary Andy.
Thank you to Representatives John Sytek and Greg Smith for their time and their responses to my questions. Thank you to Representatives John Sytek, JR Hoell and Steve Beaudoin for being willing to share their emails and the reasons behind their vote.
While this segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is not about the state fossil bill, it is about the bill to make the red-tailed hawk the state raptor. This bill was introduced at the same time, and it, too, was voted down.