When New Hampshire lawmakers this month shot down as frivolous a group of fourth-graders' effort to name the red-tailed hawk the official state raptor, the pols got pasted as insensitive bullies. But in a state with an official — deep breath — tree, bird, dog, animal, insect, amphibian, butterfly, saltwater fish, freshwater fish, rock, mineral, gem and, yes, tartan, some say the legislators have a point.
Maybe, they argue, lawmakers' time would be better spent tackling things like budgets, taxes and education.
State Rep. John Burt is known for annually hosting Hot Dog Day on the statehouse lawn to raise money for animal advocacy groups. During the hawk debate, he argued that lawmakers had more important work to do and poked fun at himself in the process, declaring that soon the state would name an official hot dog.
"It was to get a point across that if we have these bird bills, we have to stop these and tell the teacher, 'I know you want to mean well and you want to encourage your kids and you should, but you shouldn't be taking up our precious time,'" said Burt.
New Hampshire's list of official tokens is far from the lengthiest: Oklahoma has 45 state symbols including five separate state foods such as the state bean — black eyed peas — and six separate meals, including chicken fried steak. There were more than 70 pieces of legislation nationwide this year, many brought by students engaged in a civics lesson, to name everything from the official Alaska state hostess, Miss Alaska, to the official legendary creature in Wyoming, the jackalope. (Alas, the jackalope passed the House but died in the Senate.) Massachusetts has nine bills to name symbols this year, including the official tai chi form.
Whose idea was this, anyway? According to State Symbols USA, a "National Garland of Flowers" created for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair inspired states to adopt official floral emblems and kicked off the trend of naming official stuff.
Controversy over the honorifics isn't new.
Witness the turbulent trip taken by the ladybug in 1977: After students at New Hampshire's Broken Ground grammar school introduced it in the 400-seat House of Representatives, the measure to name the official insect was referred, naturally, to the Committee on Claims, Military and Veterans Affairs, which determined it was an important enough question to create an "State Insect Selection Board." After a couple of parliamentary manoeuvres to stall or kill the bill, opponents were shouted down and the ladybug ascended into history.
In Hawaii last year, lawmakers couldn't decide whether the ukulele or steel guitar should be the official state instrument. The measure provoked a chorus of harrumphs and got snarled in legislative wrangling. When the Senate recommended sending the question to students, one representative said the kids shouldn't have that authority. Both chambers passed legislation this year to name the ukulele the official modern instrument and the pahu drum the official historic instrument.
Dave Alcox has been a social studies teacher for 19 years and is on the board of the New Hampshire Council for the Social Studies. He teaches civic engagement, values it as a vital tool for getting young people involved and completely understands legislators who say these kinds of bills can be a real drag on time.
"What was a novel idea in the past," Alcox said, "what you're running into now is you see a lot of people who say, 'Why can't we write a bill, why can't we write a bill?'"
Alcox gets his kids involved in other ways: Inviting lawmakers or the governor to speak to a class, or attending a speaking forum with past Supreme Court justices.
"You try to balance that 'let's have a teachable moment,' versus 'let's not try to tie up too much time,'" he said.
New Hampshire's lawmakers are not the only ones to think that just maybe they ought to cool it on the symbols: This year, Missouri is considering a bill to limit the number of state symbols to 28.