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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hassan rolls dice on casino aiding state budget

Kevin Landrigan

Talk about taking a political risk.

Sure, we aren’t shocked that Gov. Maggie Hassan would embrace one casino to ultimately help pay for her $11 billion state budget. ...

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Talk about taking a political risk.

Sure, we aren’t shocked that Gov. Maggie Hassan would embrace one casino to ultimately help pay for her $11 billion state budget.

But front-loading it into her initial document last week sets up an early and perhaps uncomfortable dance.

Only this Tuesday, a Senate committee will hear the first testimony on the signature bill, from Salem Republican Sen. Chuck Morse and Manchester Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, on which Hassan pins her hopes.

This would divvy up the money differently than Hassan does, spreading it throughout her state budget. The Morse-D’Allesandro plan is to split it among transportation projects, state aid to higher education and North Country economic development.

There’s no suspense here; the Senate will pass this bill in a matter of weeks.

By using $80 million from a casino for her budget, however, Hassan will essentially force the House of Representatives – a longtime opponent of expanded gambling – to pass or fail the casino linchpin.

The House Finance Committee will be making that judgment, and its chairman, Concord Democratic Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, recently predicted to NHPR’s “The Exchange with Laura Knoy” that gambling would again go down in the House.

Fortunately for gambling advocates, other high-profile opponents are willing to reconsider.

House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, and Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, have long histories of rejecting expanded gambling schemes.

In the wake of Hassan’s budget, both quickly went into the undecided column, with Shurtleff sounding like he could be persuaded if it’s the only way to get spending add-backs in Hassan’s budget for mental health, a women’s prison, higher education and state aid to hospitals.

What if it doesn’t make the cut with House budget writers?

“Then the House Finance Committee will be charged with the unenviable task of trying to find ways to fill what would become an $80 million hole,” Norelli said.

Now, that’s a big-time gamble.

A prominent House Democrat confided recently that the pro-gambling side appears to be 12 or so votes short. This sounds too optimistic; the shortage could be as much as 30 votes.

Doable? Yes, but only if Hassan gets heavily invested early on and likely calls small groups of House Democrats in to lobby them over the next pivotal five weeks.

Targeting Ayotte?

The heady week grew headier for the new chief executive, an Exeter Democrat, when Hassan was featured as the New Hampshire giant-killer on the McLaughlin Group last week.

Each week’s show on PBS ends with predictions, and here’s this shocker from Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post and a former Politico staffer:

“Maggie Hassan gets into the New Hampshire Senate race in 2016 and knocks off Kelly Ayotte,” Grim declared.

Here’s the YouTube link:

One final rejoinder to the new gov: Inviting an audience of legislators to applaud three times during your budget address isn’t high form.

Democratic grousing

The Executive Council will host a public hearing on Thursday on Hassan’s nomination of Jeffrey Rose, a Manchester Republican and BAE Systems public affairs executive, to be the new commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development.

The business community loves the pick, but the environmental community doesn’t so much because of the nice things Rose has said about the Northern Pass project.

The Hassan administration stresses that Rose had been chairman, but was not on the board of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, when it endorsed the high-wire hydropower transmission plan.

Yes, there have been a few Democrats privately grousing about Hassan’s appointments early on, and not just of Rose.

There’s the reappointment of likable conservative Republican Peter Thomson to another five-year hitch as the state coordinator of highway safety. Thomson is the son of the late arch-conservative Gov. Meldrim Thomson.

Add in another three-year term on the Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission for Michael Gatsas, of Manchester, longtime horseman and brother of Manchester Republican Mayor Ted Gatsas.

Also, there’s Hassan’s decision to designate Sunapee independent Joe Mollica to continue as chairman of the State Liquor Commission.

State law requires the panel to have all major parties represented, but the Liquor Commission has been without a Democrat since former Chairman Mark Bodi resigned under fire last spring.

Hassan has complicated those works with her expected call to convert the commission from a three-person panel to a single CEO type. She did add there could be a deputy.

As long as he stays there, Michael Milligan, of Merrimack, is entitled to his pay as a commissioner through mid-2015 whatever the Legislature decides to do with his SLC.

Does Hassan’s budget plan contemplate slotting Mollica into the CEO slot and Milligan as the deputy or blowing the administration all up, paying them what they’re owed and bringing in a high-powered Fortune 500 chief in their place?

We’ll see.

Controversial resolution

While all eyes were on Hassan and the budget, the Senate was locked in a partisan battle over abortion rights that left some bruised egos in a place otherwise known for its collegiality.

The focus was on a nonbinding resolution from the Senate Democratic Leader that tried to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision on Jan. 22, 1973.

The ruling made abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy legal while allowing states to regulate them in later stages.

The resolution would have recognized the “critical importance of continued access to safe and legal abortion,” which might not offend some in the anti-abortion community.

But this clause surely did:

“A majority of citizens support access to safe and legal abortions, oppose efforts to overturn or weaken the principles and do not want politicians to interfere in their personal medical decisions.”

Groups such as Cornerstone Action and New Hampshire Citizens for Life cried foul on that one.

“As I told the legislators, proposing and supporting a nonbinding resolution to celebrate a controversial decision that creates division among Americans is irresponsible and only intensifies the political gridlock that already exists,” Cornerstone Action Executive Director Ashley Pratt said.

“More importantly, there is nothing worthy of commemoration in a decision that has led to the death of nearly 60 million babies.”

Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, and his leadership team then brought in a rules change to require such resolutions to have a two-thirds vote of the body to be adopted.

Given their nonbinding nature, these resolutions in both legislative branches have always gone through by majority vote.

But Bragdon said it only makes sense that resolutions that have some weight and are sent to Congress have overwhelming support from both political parties.

“The rule change helps ensure the Senate’s focus is on passing laws that have a positive impact on New Hampshire families, taxpayers and businesses,” Bragdon said.

“Resolutions do not do that; they are too frequently used on both sides of the political spectrum to make purely political statements that accomplish nothing except to divide people.

“If a proposed resolution and its inherent political statement has broad bipartisan support, then it will be easy to get two-thirds support. If not, our time will be better spent on lawmaking and not grandstanding.”

Senate Democratic Leader Sylvia Larsen, of Concord, authored the resolution. She said the rules change smacked of a cynical power play.

“The Senate governs itself by majority rule, and why would we want to have a minority of senators block the will of the body?” Larsen said.

Further, Larsen said she brought the resolution into the Senate in December before this quickly crafted rules change was written and then quickly adopted on Thursday.

Bragdon ruled it applied, and the resolution lacked the two-thirds vote and died.

This was only the second business session for freshman Laconia Democrat Andrew Hosmer, and he found it jarring.

“I couldn’t see why a resolution like this would dissolve into a partisan war,” Hosmer said. “I don’t think it bodes particularly well.”

Democratic critics maintain several prominent state senators were afraid of the resolution for fear of what it could do to their chances of winning a Republican primary against a social conservative.

There’s Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, widely seen as a potential leading contender for the U.S. Senate, but he might have to get past former Congressman Frank Guinta, an anti-aborton Republican.

How about Londonderry GOP Sen. Sharon Carson, who many view as a future challenger to 1st District Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter?

But to get that far, Carson might have to get past former two-time candidate John Stephen, a Manchester Republican who’s a favorite of the anti-abortion movement.

Jennifer Frizzell, former Senate policy chief and political director for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, had a blunt warning to those wavering GOP senators:

“They can run but cannot hide until 2014.”

Closing the books

So, what will Hassan do about the current deficit in the budget, which ends June 30?

There is some legal settlement money that will help close the books, and Hassan is exploring what legal authority she has to sweep up money left in dedicated funds to help things along.

If it isn’t clear enough, look for Hassan’s legal team to try to stick language into the companion bill of her budget to carry out the dedicated fund sweep.

The current trailer bill to the state budget continues the freeze on hiring, out-of-state travel and equipment purchases, which also lends a hand.

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