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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lynch faced many challenges, including E-ZPass, Bill O’Brien and being bipartisan

Seven years ago, Gov. John Lynch said he bet his political survival that motorists would trade away the most lucrative turnpike toll discount in the country for a new age transponder that let them slowly pass through the booths without stopping.

“I was told that by my supporting E-ZPass and getting rid of tokens, that it would be the end of my political career,” Lynch said in a recent interview. ...

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Seven years ago, Gov. John Lynch said he bet his political survival that motorists would trade away the most lucrative turnpike toll discount in the country for a new age transponder that let them slowly pass through the booths without stopping.

“I was told that by my supporting E-ZPass and getting rid of tokens, that it would be the end of my political career,” Lynch said in a recent interview.

“You probably heard that, too.”

But he was right.

In June 2005 at Lynch’s urging, New Hampshire became the 21st state to join E-ZPass, which meant an end to the 50 percent break motorists got for using tokens, which was bigger than any other state.

To sweeten the pot, Lynch ordered E-ZPass transponders be put on bargain basement sale for $5, a deep discount from the $28 cost.

Then-Senate President Tom Eaton called it a “gimmick,” computed the lost sales at $2 million and predicted it would be a financial disaster for infrastructure.

But more than 300,000 New Hampshire motorists and businesses scooped them up to record one of the highest, per capita ownership of transponders in the U.S.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Clegg bought 22 for his personal and business vehicles.

“I put on my ethics form a $189 gift from Gov. John Lynch for the break on transponders,” Clegg said, joking. “The governor called me and couldn’t stop laughing while saying he couldn’t believe I did that.”

Chalk it up to the thinking of this 60-year-old Hopkinton business fix-it expert who believed that even in government, consumers would respond and be willing to pay or sacrifice a loss if they could see a greater benefit.

“I am convinced that the people of New Hampshire – if they understand the benefits they are getting from programs – that they are willing to change, willing to adapt and willing to pay for those programs,” Lynch said.

E-ZPass generated a $7 million annual boon to the turnpike system that allowed it to widen the Spaulding Turnpike.

The revenues also paid for “open road tolling” improvements on Interstate 95 that lets those with a transponder pass through at the speed limit.

“It used to be that peoples’ last memory of a wonderful vacation in New Hampshire was waiting in a traffic jam five miles long going back to the Portsmouth Traffic Circle,” Lynch said.

“Now they can zip right through with open-road tolling.”

While Lynch failed at the effort, he hopes Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan and the partisan-divided Legislature can employ the same strategy to find $250 million and finally complete the widening of Interstate 93.

Even though the state’s gasoline tax hasn’t been raised since 1989, Lynch would prefer the I-93 money come from restoring the $30 annual registration surcharge begun in 2007 and was repealed by the GOP-led Legislature in 2011.

“I don’t think anybody likes to pay, but that would have paid for the completion of I-93 and a new Exit 4A with money left over for required paving of roads and bridges and monies for the towns and cities,” Lynch explained.

“I am hoping this Legislature and new governor will be able to forge a consensus around how to get that project completed.”

After six years of harmonious relations with lawmakers from both political parties, Lynch today admits he underestimated the venom that would greet him from conservative William O’Brien, who in 2010 became speaker of the New Hampshire House.

O’Brien’s 3-1 GOP majority empowered him to block Lynch at every turn, the governor conceded.

Lack of trust

“I thought that I would still be able to work together in a collaborative way, much like I was able to do in 2005 with the Republican leadership at that point,” Lynch began.

“I think this place works on trust. People have to trust each other in order to want to work together to try and get things done.

“Before you can trust each other, you have to be able to communicate with each other. I stayed very much in close communication with the Senate, with the Senate leadership, but the speaker didn’t want to communicate with me at all.”

As a result, most of Lynch’s 2011 or 2012 initiatives never got off the ground, including plans to create an infrastructure bank, double a business tax credit or amend the constitution to justify targeting more education aid to needy school districts.

“When there is no communication, there is no trust and that is where that relationship really fell apart and it fell apart not only between the House and the Senate, between the House and myself but within the Republican caucus,” Lynch declared.

“Nobody trusted each other, and you can’t get something done if that’s the case. It’s true for this building as it is for private companies.”

Now, with Democratic ally Maggie Hassan taking over as governor and new leadership in the House and Senate, Lynch believes that politics of confrontation will become a thing of the past.

“I do think it is an anomaly. I think we are going to see civility which there has always been and there will be much greater collaboration and communication. Sure there are going to be differences of opinion and differences in terms of policy but I sense a new tone, a better tone out there,” Lynch observed.

By contrast, when ex-House Speaker Doug Scamman was in office, he and Lynch would meet every day and talk every weekend.

“We might not have agreed on everything, he had his own pressures to deal with when he was speaker, but we had a great relationship,” Lynch said

A natural with disaster

Lynch said he never imagined the state would endure 10 natural disasters during his eight years in office including a fierce tornado, a trio of 100-year floods and an ice storm that put nearly half the homes in the state in the dark, some for more than two weeks.

“I didn’t think that I would be facing any natural disasters,” Lynch recalled.

“There is no blueprint or policy manual on how to manage them. I just did what I thought was the right thing to do, which was to get over there and be hands-on and try to treat victims of the flooding as if they were members of my own family.”

Lynch believes one of the smartest, bureaucratic things he did was to create a powerful, czar-like director of emergency management to help him navigate the state through these crises.

Lynch said one of his most satisfying accomplishments was the team effort of averting a financial disaster for the state by protecting the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from near-certain closure in 2005.

The Defense Department had put Portsmouth on its closure hit list and even members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation were skeptical about turning that outcome around.

Lynch recalled picking up the phone and calling retired Gen. Anthony Principi, who chaired the new Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

“I asked him to be independent and objective because people thought the commission was going to be pressured by the Department of Defense to reach the same conclusion that they had in terms of the shipyard,” Lynch said.

“To his credit, he lived up to what he said to me, he was independent and objective and concluded that it was the gold standard of shipyards across the country.”

A photograph of the “Wall of Yellow” with 5,000 shipyard workers in yellow T-shirts lobbying in Boston has a prominent place among Lynch’s vast collection of memorabilia in the office along with the baseball he threw out as the first pitch at Fenway Park and playful, fictional drawings of first lady Susan Lynch done by Somersworth fourth-graders.

“When the commissioners drove into the shipyard, the workers stood on both sides of the street and applauded. They could have booed; they could have thrown apples but they applauded,” Lynch recalled.

“Principi told me that set the whole tone for their review of the shipyard and whether it should stay open.”

Tough choices

Over the years Lynch sympathized with a few political allies who had to go, but he never looked back after forcing out several agency heads who made errors in judgment, including Banking Commissioner Peter Hildreth, Employment Security Commissioner Tara Reardon, and Liquor Committee Chairman Mark Bodi.

“You could probably add to that moving on with a difficult decision which was replacing longtime Safety Commissioner Dick Flynn,” Lynch began.

“Dick is a person who I like a lot. I appointed him to the Adult Parole Board, a place where I thought we needed new leadership and that internally was a very unpopular decision.

“I think the people of New Hampshire expect all of us to adhere to high standards of integrity. When that doesn’t happen, we have to make a change.”

“Although I felt badly for the individuals involved, I always felt it was the right thing to do.”

Lynch revealed partisan Democrats in the early days watched with alarm when time after time the governor would pick Republicans to high ranking positions.

Among those were ex-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte of Nashua, who turned into the strongest GOP figure in the state, and an ex-GOP candidate for Congress chosen for the state’s highest court.

“I think initially Democrats would come up to me and say, we don’t mind you being bipartisan, but do you have to be so bipartisan, can’t you be a little more partisan in some areas,” Lynch concluded.

“I have never cared in any of these appointments whether somebody was Democrat, Republican – I haven’t asked, I didn’t want to know. I just picked the very best person I could for the position. I think people over time understood that was my style.

“While I heard that initially, that kind of comment faded pretty quickly.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).