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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Liquor commission restructuring among changes panel recommending

CONCORD – A special House committee is recommending sweeping changes to administration at the state Liquor Commission in response to personnel and operational controversies there.

Chief among them is replacing the three-person commission with a single person in charge with the help of a deputy commissioner. ...

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CONCORD – A special House committee is recommending sweeping changes to administration at the state Liquor Commission in response to personnel and operational controversies there.

Chief among them is replacing the three-person commission with a single person in charge with the help of a deputy commissioner.

The committee also urges the Legislature to bring the commission back under legislative budget control two years after the Legislature gave the commission near-total autonomy over its finances.

Committee Chairman Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, said she was optimistic the group’s 13 findings made while Republicans controlled the House of Representatives will be carried forward by the new Democratic majority in 2013.

“None of these were partisan issues; I tried to make sure everyone on the committee had a voice and offered their input into what were the best reforms we could come up with,” Ober said.

But Rep. Kenneth Gidge, D-Nashua, said he respectfully objects to several of these changes and believes the commission has done a good job managing a monopoly.

“My first advice is do no harm, let them make some money which they have been doing very well,” Gidge said. “There’s no good reason for the Legislature to be any more involved in this industry than it has been.”

In the campaign for governor, Democratic winner Maggie Hassan and Republican Ovide Lamontagne endorsed the concept of having the governor and Executive Council appoint a single administrator.

Outgoing Gov. John Lynch endorsed this idea three years ago but could not get the Democratic-controlled Legislature at the time to agree with the change.

Ober said the panel’s work found that the three commissioners have “separate fiefdoms” of responsibility and their decisions are rarely questioned by their two peers.

State Rep. Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, said he too agreed with this finding.

“It would be one thing if we heard the commissioners realize what the problems were and were moving to address them,” Jasper said. “That’s certainly not what I heard.”

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, created this commission after the Executive Council forced one commissioner to retire and The Telegraph detailed questions over whether there were as many as 300 bottles of missing wine from a Portsmouth liquor store.

Attorney General Michael Delaney also reported on what he called shoddy contracting at the agency that led to it paying a beer lobbyist $30,000 to produce a report on what could be gained by selling beer at state liquor stores.

The lobbyist at issue, now-retired Clark Corson, denied he had done lobbying for the agency to kill a House bill that would have allowed grocery stores to sell liquor.

The study group did not conclude Corson broke any state laws but recommended a new statute that would not permit hiring someone as its “consultant” unless he or she had ceased being a lobbyist for at least five years.

Other recommended changes would get rid of three executive jobs the Legislature had created three years ago, would make the commission comply with legislative rulemaking requirements and permit liquor licensees to first be warned for any infraction before they are fined or have their licenses suspended.

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