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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Time for House to roll dice on gambling in NH

Kevin Landrigan

The showdown has arrived.

We should know by the end of the day Wednesday whether the House of Representatives will make history and endorse legislation that expands legalized gambling in a fundamental way. They’ve not only failed to do it before; it’s never been close. This one will be.

The casino gambling lobby has put together an impressive group of House GOP leaders, all below a neutral Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon. O’Brien has stressed it’s a personal conscience issue for members of his caucus, but it sure helps that it has the backing of Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem; House Finance Chairman Ken Weyler, R-Kingston; and House Ways and Means Chairman Steve Stepanek, R-Amherst.

Will that be enough? There are lot of Libertarian-minded Republicans in the House who don’t like the fact that a monopoly is being given to two businesses. Then there are pro-income-tax Democrats who would never vote for this issue, as it could help extinguish any momentum for fundamental change in the way the state collects revenue.

So, it could fall just short. But keep in mind this battle is all about setting the table for a new governor and a new Legislature in 2013.

Gov. John Lynch has already slammed the door on this subject by issuing his surprising edict that he’d veto any such measure. The next governor may feel differently, and it will be a front-and-center issue for the 2012 campaign.

Less is more

All signs point to Attorney General Michael Delaney soon announcing New Hampshire will join the multistate settlement with major banks over mortgage fraud.

If this happens, it means those who have been foreclosed upon wrongfully would be entitled to only about $1,500 apiece. This would lower the principal payments on loans by $15,000 for those who are still doing battle with Wells Fargo and other major banks. In New Hampshire, this could total $18 million. But since the agreements call for interest rates to skyrocket, even with the principal going down, these poor borrowers would end up paying more to erase their loans.

The state would get $10 million by joining the deal, some of which would be used by state prosecutors and banking regulators to set up a clearinghouse of information for prospective borrowers.

Many of the political leaders who have been on the forefront of this investigation, including those on the Executive Council, think the state could do better by continuing with a lawsuit of its own.

Pension conversion

The fight for the next wave of retirement reform took a significant hit last week. Rochester Republican Sen. Fenton Groen’s signature issue this year is to try to convert the pension system from one with a guaranteed benefit to one based on the performance of an employee’s investments.

The contribution change has the backing of top legislative leaders in both the House and Senate.

But the report of a system actuary that such a change would increase the unfunded liability of the system by $1.1 billion threatens to sideline this crusade before it could get any traction.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, is a cosponsor, and even he conceded the bill will have to sit in the Senate Finance Committee to figure out if tweaks to it could somehow reduce the future hit it would take on system finances. What already appears more likely is that legislative leaders will embrace it as a sound move for the future, but ship the issue off for more study.

District ramifications

The final redistricting of the state Senate didn’t do mortal damage to a freshman Republican senator, as some had thought.

Bradley unveiled final tweaks to the plan, which, among other things, cements the district of Meredith Republican Sen. Jeannie Forrester as super-solid Republican.

By all accounts, many in the Senate GOP inner circle see Forrester as a rising star, and putting Holderness back in her district, along with other changes, makes the seat nearly invincible for a familiar GOP candidate.

Some saw the movement of Loudon into the district of Raymond Republican Jack Barnes as a shot at Henniker Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn.

Sanborn was already on the move, since Henniker has been moved into the district of Senate Democratic Leader Sylvia Larsen, which is a solid “D’’ district whether Larsen chooses to defend it or not this fall.

But Sanborn isn’t moving to Loudon, where he owns commercial property; the most likely option for him will be Gilford, since it’s located in a District 4 where there is no incumbent.

There have been other moves on the Senate election front:

Nashua area Democrats: They haven’t announced yet, but Nashua’s Bette Lasky and Hollis’ Peggy Gilmour are getting ready to try to reclaim the seats they lost in 2010. Lasky’s job will be easier; the district becomes even more Democratic and GOP incumbent Gary Lambert is retiring. Gilmour’s rematch with Hollis Republican Sen. Jim Luther will be with the edge going to the incumbent, since he gets to pick up New Ipswich and Rindge and gets to drop a ward in Nashua in the new district.

Manchester MoJo: Democratic leaders are hopeful that former Senate Chief of Staff Donna Soucy will go for the Senate seat that Republican Tom DeBlois is expected to leave to run for the Executive Council.

Lakes Region Murky: Word is that Strafford GOP Sen. Jim Forsythe has had second thoughts about retiring after two years on the job.

Forsythe was heavily involved in the presidential campaign of Ron Paul, and that recharged his batteries. If Forsythe stays out of the game, look for Laconia GOP conservative operative Pat Hynes as a possible replacement.

Meanwhile on the Democratic front, there are some party leaders who would like nothing better than to have Laconia Democrat Andy Hosmer drop his congressional bid and jump back into a Senate race he could win this fall. There’s no sign of that yet, but the lobbying behind the scenes will continue.

Senate Prez Primary: Yup, that’s how it’s looking now that the redistricting plan has put President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, in a likely GOP contest with Merrimack Town Councilor Dan Dwyer. A political action committee for Dwyer’s Senate run was filed Jan. 18.

This sure explains Bragdon’s vigorous support last week for the first time to shut down the exit ramp tolls in Merrimack on the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

Bragdon is also going to go after the endorsement from retiring Bedford Republican Sen. Ray White, and this Merrimack toll play is a good start. People forget that while Merrimack is coming out of White’s district, the incumbent owes his seat to the town. In 2010, White lost his hometown to fellow Bedford resident Gary Danielson by 500 votes, but wrapped up the upset by winning Merrimack by 1,200.

Expensive board targeted

The fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity has chosen another target: the Board of Tax & Land Appeals. New Hampshire Director Corey Lewandowski said the group is solidly behind Forrester’s bill to convert the four-person board from a full-time group to one that would be paid $25 a day plus mileage.

“It’s ridiculous that all of these members are costing the state more than $100,000 apiece and the board’s budget is more than $1 million,’’ Lewandowski said.

Salary records confirm the each member is paid at least $74,400 and that each one with benefits costs the state $109,000.

“To put it simply, the Board of Land & Tax Appeals is a dinosaur – an antiquated relic that is no longer a vital or vibrant part of our system and is in dire need of modification if it is to continue operating,’’ Lewandowski said.

OK, but along with good government, could this be more than a little payback for longtime Chairman Paul Franklin, a Republican who decided he couldn’t stay silent any longer when he sent a letter last March 6 to The Valley News about the GOP leadership in Concord?

“The Republican leadership currently in control has a narrow, ideologically driven agenda that is shortsighted, not inclusive or truly reflective of New Hampshire’s diverse citizenship, and generally favors corporate interests rather than those of our citizens,” Lewandowski said.

Such tough talk rarely goes unanswered.

Where’d the money go?

Republican state Rep. Steve Vaillancourt has put in for a Freedom of Information request for legal services used by the House for its redistricting.

Vaillancourt had tried without success to amend the House plan, feeling it shortchanged his home city.

We know House Legal Counsel Ed Mosca did the lion’s share of the work, and his salary is $53,500 a year.

Vaillancourt also learned that two prominent Manchester law firms, Devine, Millimet and Nixon Peabody, have been paid from the House’s legal account.

Shuffling for position

The Democratic race for governor is heating up.

Former Barrington Democratic Sen. Jackie Cilley will make it official that she’s in this primary to replace Lynch.

The perceived early frontrunner, former Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan, showed off her establishment backing.

Her finance committee includes super-lobbyist and FOO (Friend of Obama) Jim Demers, of Concord, Lynch campaign treasurer Kate Hanna, of Bedford; former Senate Majority Leader Joe Foster; and longtime Democratic fundraiser Alan Reische, of Manchester.

Hassan’s Hillsborough County team includes some familiar activists, led by Lasky; Manchester real-estate executive Will Kanteres; likely Executive Council candidate Chris Pappas, a Manchester restaurateur; Nashua political godmother Jane Clemons; and Nashua Rep. Cindy Rosenwald.

Another question will be answered at week’s end when New Castle Democrat Mark Connolly reveals his intentions.

On the GOP front, North Hampton businessman Steve Kenda’s potential entry spices that race up.

Frontrunner Ovide Lamontagne was in the news last week as one of the architects of the school funding amendment that Bragdon unveiled last week.

The third GOP candidate, Kevin Smith, of Litchfield, was at the national prayer breakfast Thursday as the guest of U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. Smith also made a courtesy call to the Republican Governors Association and reports the open New Hampshire governor’s race is “certainly on their radar.’’

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan) and www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.