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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Romney tries to make his mark

Kevin Landrigan

When you’re the early prohibitive favorite, who wants to share the stage with anyone?

That’s where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney found himself Friday night while appearing with four other potential 2012 candidates at the Americans for Prosperity gala honoring former Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne.

This speaks to why, after the rest of them leave at the close of the weekend, Romney will return Tuesday for an intimate meeting with some business leaders in Nashua.

As a courtesy, Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce President Chris Williams was helping to set up the private sit-down for Romney.

Before the big cattle show Friday, Romney tried to make some noise of his own, visiting a Manchester gas station to protest soaring oil prices.

Romney was the only potential GOP candidate who leads President Barack Obama, by seven points, in the new University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll done for WMUR-TV.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the third-place finisher in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, did pretty well, trailing Obama by four points, while former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty lagged by seven.

All of this is why the New Hampshire Democratic Party is chiefly focused on knocking Romney down a peg; witness the complaint it lodged that Romney illegally used his political action committee surplus to support his 2008 campaign.

“That was political and frivolous,’’ Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. “What is more interesting is the New Hampshire Democratic Party appears obsessed with someone who isn’t even an official candidate yet. Methinks they protest too much.’’ released results of its survey of Massachusetts Republicans by Magellan Strategies, which were a mixed bag for Romney’s universal health care law.

Asked if Romney’s law would hurt his 2012 chances, 42 percent said it would, while 43 percent said it wouldn’t and 13 percent said it could help him.

More alarming, 40 percent labeled Romney an “establishment’’ Republican, but 37 percent said he was a “moderate or liberal” member of the GOP.

Only 13 percent described him as a “tea party conservative.’’

Obama continues to suffer the economic hangover here, as his favorability remains underwater with 52 percent disapproving of the job he’s doing, while 44 percent approve and the rest are undecided.

Courting justice

Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Dalianis, of Nashua, admitted that when it comes to consolidating the Hillsborough County Superior Court operations, the means she had were sound, but the method was flawed.

Dalianis and new Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau backed off on their plan to move trials out of Hillsborough South on Spring Street in Nashua to Manchester.

The pair will return with a separate bill that tries to achieve that in the 2012 legislative session.

None of this changes the closing and eventual sale of the Nashua District Court building on the Walnut Street Oval and moving the district, probate and family court cases to the Spring Street courthouse.

“We still think we can make a case for the superior court because the numbers, the savings are huge,’’ Dalianis said Friday.

“The mistake we made was trying to achieve this late in the budget. We realize it took some people by surprise, and the prudent thing is to pull back and make the case on the policy next year.’’

Nashua lawyer David Gottesman, a former Democratic state senator, thanked Dalianis for the move and vowed to keep fighting to keep a trial court in Nashua.

“We are pleased that the chief justice has withdrawn her proposed amendment to HB2 that would have precluded any input from the public,” Gottesman said. “However, in light of the comments of the chief justice that she plans to revisit the issue, we will certainly have more to say.

“The Nashua Bar Association is forming a permanent committee to address the court consolidation issues, and with the aid of our business community, legal community and elected community officials, will fight to keep the superior court here in Nashua, where it belongs. Access to justice in the trial court of this state in this community is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

This was a big win for Gottesman’s replacement in the Senate, Hollis Republican Jim Luther, along with Nashua Republican Sen. Gary Lambert.

Bulletin to the Gate City: This isn’t going away.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, likes the idea, and repeated it to Dalianis and Nadeau when they met Friday with House Judiciary Chairman Robert Rowe, R-Amherst.

“The concept makes a lot of sense, but it obviously got the noses of some politicians pushed out of joint,’’ Rowe said. “We’ll give it very serious consideration next year.’’

Back-door tricks

The games have begun as House and Senate rank-and-file lawmakers look for one more way to keep their pet projects alive.

One of the most time-honored tricks is to try to take a bill that’s having a big problem in one legislative body and slap it onto another that those in the offending body really want.

You can’t blame Manchester Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt and Bedford Republican Rep. Keith Murphy for trying.

Vaillancourt’s plan was to lower the interest rate charged on late property taxes. He tried to attach it to the Senate-liked cause to permit consumers to take out high-interest title loans.

The House disagreed 213-134, and kept the title loan bill (SB 57) clean.

Murphy wanted to revive his plan to allow motorists to get inspections only every other year instead of annually.

This idea isn’t dead, but trust me, the Senate will submarine it soon, and Murphy knew it.

The idea was to attach the biennial inspection to the popular proposal to let auto dealers register newly bought cars rather than make buyers go to city and town halls (SB 156).

The House disagreed, and kept the inspection cause off that docket, 218-130.

Credit House Republican leaders with resisting the temptation to tick off key senators and opposed those gambits.

But don’t think for a minute you’ve seen the last of this and other tricks of the trade.

Voter photos

Color Secretary of State Bill Gardner beet-red-faced about the photo voter ID bill that the House Election Laws Committee endorsed and which comes up for a full House vote Wednesday.

As broke Wednesday, Chairman David Bates, R-Windham, has the full blessing of O’Brien for this reform to create a “provisional ballot’’ for the estimated 42,000 in the state who could come to the polls without a New Hampshire driver’s license.

They would then have three days to appear before a city or town clerk to present valid identification.

Gardner believes this could be a nightmare for the locals and jeopardizes the mandate of his office to come up with final and certified results from any election by hard and fast deadlines.

“It’s just appalling that legislators seemed so uninterested in protecting ballot confidentiality,” said Joan Flood Ashwell, election law specialist for the League of Women Voters.

“This wasn’t an oversight. The problem was pointed out to them by a committee member, and they just dismissed it.

“This is what happens when the public has no opportunity to comment. The Senate produced their substitute version of SB 129 without a public hearing and now, the House has produced yet another substitute version, also without a public hearing.”

The Senate-passed version from Londonderry Republican Sen. Sharon Carson would have allowed local officials to take a digital photograph of a non-ID voter and count the ballot as legitimate at the polling place.

High-risk funds

Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas hasn’t given up trying to restore some of the $217 million in cuts from the House-passed state budget.

On Friday, he pitched for a plan to continue serving the most high-risk Children in Need of Services cases. These are youths who are habitually truant from school, have disobeyed their parents or run away too many times.

State officials fear these 50 highest risk will end up at the John H. Sununu Youth Services Center for criminal delinquency if local programs to help them can’t intervene.

Nashua Children’s Home Executive Director David Villiotti made a compelling case in writing to the Senate Finance Committee.

Nashua School Superintendent Mark Conrad has warned the CHINS cut will downshift higher special education costs to property taxpayers.

Former Nashua Police Chief Cliff Largy said placing runaway youths at Villiotti’s agency saves the cost of police supervision.

“Restoring funding for CHINS not only best serves youths in need, it also provides economic benefits that are not readily apparent,’’ Villiotti said.

Toumpas also wants to preserve some part of the ServiceLink program that’s a communications lifeline for senior citizens.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, revealed his panel will start taking votes on its two-year budget plan the week of May 9.

Banking on leadership

Gov. John Lynch’s nomination of a new banking commissioner is a master stroke.

The four-term Democrat coaxed out of retirement longtime Merrimack County Savings Bank CEO Ron Wilbur, who is universally well liked in financial and political circles.

Most important, Wilbur brings a steadying influence to an agency that has been wracked with controversy as its former commissioner, Peter Hildreth, was forced to retire rather than face removal from the Executive Council.

Meanwhile, few people are watching, but we’ll keep noting this fiscally conservative council continues to get rough with the fine print and not be a rubber stamp for contracts.

Last Wednesday, it turned down a pair of two-year deals.

“This is our job, to be the stewards for the taxpayers and not just lie down and spend money we can’t afford,’’ Milford Republican Councilor David Wheeler said.

Paying the piper

As if they need it, legislative leaders and Lynch will get another cold dose of reality about how unpopular it really is to cut spending even in this recession.

The Granite State Poll done by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center Director Andrew Smith asked likely voters which were their most popular programs to cut in this spending plan.

Reducing state aid to higher education got less than 10 percent.

The two most popular ideas, cutting mental health care and basic services for the poor, got less than a third support.

The poll continued to find, however, absolutely no voter appetite for solving this budget message by raising taxes, either.

A key Statehouse operative put it best: “Everybody secretly wants large government; they just don’t want to pay for it.’’

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or