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  • File photo. New Hampshire House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt (left) and House Speaker Bill O'Brien.

  • File photo. New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien is pictured.
  • Rep. D.J. Bettencourt
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Top GOP leaders in House share ideas

HUDSON – House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said he’s seen enough to become convinced that state taxpayers can’t afford to bring commuter rail from Boston through Nashua and on to Concord.

Studies show taxpayers must cover an operating deficit of at least $6 million and up to $12 million annually, and those living outside the southern tier won’t buy it, O’Brien said in an interview with The Telegraph editorial board Monday.

“I’m pretty sure the folks in Lancaster, Lebanon and Colebrook, and other localities not served by this, will say that they do not want to pick up these additional costs,” he said. “Maybe Nashua wants to pick up that deficit.”

O’Brien and House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt sat down with The Telegraph for the first time since the November election, when Republicans claimed a historic 3-to-1 majority in the House.

On other issues, O’Brien expressed confidence that House budget writers can craft a two-year spending plan that is $300 million cheaper than the one Gov. John Lynch offered, and does not strip away from cities and towns $145 million in state aid.

O’Brien said he is optimistic this could be the week Lynch and legislative leaders agree on a proposed constitutional amendment to target more aid to needy school districts and reduce the Supreme Court’s role in overturning legislation solutions on school funding. When it comes to rail, the success of the commuter bus lines reveals how those working out of state prefer to travel, he maintained.

“It’s clear from many studies that the best way to move people around are by buses,” O’Brien said. “With rail, one thing is for sure. It’s going to be a money loser.”

An Obama administration federal grant of $4 million to examine feasibility and design the rail service in New Hampshire does not dissuade the House leader.

“I know it’s federal money, but it doesn’t come from Germany,” O’Brien said. “It comes from my constituents’ pockets.”

“There is no reason to think that the numbers from that study are going to be any different. We have enough information now to know it’s not warranted.”

Bettencourt said he philosophically disagrees with O’Brien about the wisdom of rail. The two agree, however, that the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority created three years ago should be repealed.

Bettencourt was one of only 14 House Republicans to vote for creating the rail authority in 2007.

Bettencourt said he resented Rail Authority Chairman Peter Burling’s sharp criticism of how O’Brien lobbied for the bill to repeal the group (HB 218).

“The authority has become a political animal headed by its chairman.”

On budget issues, O’Brien said balancing the budget will require doing without agencies or programs that aren’t “core functions of state government.”

One example he offered for the cutting room floor this time was the Land Community Heritage Investment Program. The program’s grants will leverage six-to-one private support to preserve open space or historical buildings in New Hampshire.

“If you rank that program against one for a waiting list of children receiving developmental disability assistance, it’s not a close call. This one and others just are not core functions of state government,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien and Bettencourt said House budget writers may seek waivers from Medicaid and the Obama health insurance law so their spending plan can make cuts to existing eligibility or optional services not required under federal law.

“When the Democrats rammed through Obamacare last year, it was clear that they didn’t worry about its impact to state budgets,” Bettencourt said.

“Now, it’s becoming apparent just how far they overreached and how much it is damaging our ability to solve the billion dollar budget hole that House Republicans inherited this year. The least that President Obama can do is lift the crushing burden that his ill-conceived attempt at government-run health care has on New Hampshire citizens. We are committed to balancing the budget with no tax or fee increases, but it would make the task a little easier without this regulation tying our hands.”

As for joining the 26 states suing Obama over the federal health mandate, O’Brien said he’s willing to back a House bill ordering Attorney General Michael Delaney to join the suit.

A state Senate committee last week embraced an encouragement rather than a mandate.

“We have bigger things to do at this point,” O’Brien said. “I am sympathetic with the approach to have an advisory rather than a mandatory approach.”

On retirement reform, O’Brien said it makes sense that newer public employees should work longer and be older before collecting a pension.

Once the budget is completed, O’Brien said a special panel may recommend more systemic change for future public sector workers, such as converting government pensions from a defined benefit to a defined contribution.

Rather than guarantee a pension amount as under current law, this would vary the retirement payout by the performance of invested funds, such as with a private 401(k) retirement account.

“In the end, we want to come up with some fundamental change,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien is also seriously exploring cutting Lynch’s office out of being able to judge the redistricting plans of the Republican-led state House of Representatives and Senate.

Constitutional lawyers are examining the proposal of Rep. Paul Mirski, R-Enfield, that redistricting of the Legislature can occur with a concurrent order, which, unlike a bill, does not require a governor’s signature.

“The question of whether this is constitutional, I tend to think that it is and we’ve shared the concern with the secretary of state who seems to believe it is entirely appropriate,” O’Brien said.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.