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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Series examines Speaker O’Brien

Kevin Landrigan

Who is House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, how did he get to where he is and can he stay there?

Those are just some of the questions The Telegraph set out to answer in its Rise To Power series that begins today and runs through Wednesday.

My colleague Jake Berry and I set out to explore what makes O’Brien such an extraordinary political figure, how long will his management style wear well in the New Hampshire Legislature and how successful has he been with it.

The series examines O’Brien’s relationship with former law partner and legendary, Massachusetts House Speaker Tom (aka King Tommy) Finneran, how he became financially comfortable and what makes him a leading, New England legal expert on intellectual property.

We hope you find the series informative, revealing and yes, even entertaining. We supplement the stories with a variety of videos to include interviews with O’Brien himself, myself, my editor Michael Brindley and some key allies and foes in O’Brien’s world.

The two authors will be conducting a live chat on O’Brien and please send us questions via twitter at #obrienrisetopower. Soon, O’Brien will visit The Telegraph for an extensive interview with the paper’s editorial board that also will be available online.

Senate GOP leaders hopping mad at House

Rarely does any prophesy from this source come to pass this quickly.

We foreshadowed last week that the frayed relations between House and Senate Republicans running the Legislature were growing longer and earlier than usual in what is always a stress-filled, election-year session.

Boy, was that spot on.

This powder keg blew on Wednesday when the House of Representatives took the unprecedented step of slamming onto the table six Senate bills that were not of great import.

What was significant was the sponsors of the House hostages.

They nearly all were Senate GOP leaders including Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Robert Odell, R-Lempster, Education Chairman Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, and Sen. Jim Luther, R-Hollis.

The message was clear from rank and file House members: you Senate bosses messed with our bills and it’s payback time.

The House then employed a trick that is time memorialized in the State Senate – tacking their bills as full amendments onto others.

They did this with the 24-hour waiting period before an abortion bill put on a popular measure that would double the tax credit for research and development.

Ditto for letting cities and towns declare a moratorium on refugees – slapped onto a nondescript bill about expense deductions under the state Business Profits Tax.

In any other year, the House would declare those to be non-germane amendments that would have to first go back to a committee for a public hearing before any movement on the idea.

Not with this bunch that is hopping mad.

Bragdon said he was “appalled” by what he called the “political games” being played.

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, tried his level best to lower the temperature by saying he’s confident the two bodies will get back to the priorities of helping business recover in this economy once Senate leaders get over being “appalled.”

Good luck with that.

House Republicans put out by Senate’s actions

House Speaker William O’Brien said the House revolt came from both the top and the bottom of the pecking order.

O’Brien said he had received numerous complaints from individual House members and from constituents about what they considered to be shoddy treatment the Senate gave to House bills.

At the same time, it was the back benchers or those without portfolio on the House that instigated the fateful act.

First-term State Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, got it going with his gambit to table the bills.

“I told my wife before I left this morning that maybe I was ruining what political career I could have but it was the right thing to do,” Lambert said.

“The House has always backed down or not showed any spine at all when it comes to dealing with the Senate. It’s time they understood that we mean business.”

For Lambert, the tipping point was the Senate Ways and Means Committee stripping away his provision to legalize home poker games to a bill aimed at (HB 1260) one day revitalizing live racing in Cheshire County that had been home to a once-thriving dog track in Hinsdale.

“They wouldn’t even listen to the arguments I had for this; it was like I didn’t exist,” Lambert said.

And he’s not alone as The Sunday Telegraph talked to six other House Republicans put out by the Senate dismissing their proposals like first term Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline, who couldn’t even get the Senate to take up his House-passed bill on workforce housing.

This was one of 10 that Bragdon ruled out of bounds because the Senate had killed the concept last year.

“The Senate is the one playing political games and invoking rules to put things out of bounds like never seen before,” Flanagan said.

April revenues are coming up short so far

April revenues will be coming in this week and with just a few days left, the big month was looking to come up short.

This will change as big check envelopes are opened and the best news is the results will not be cataclysmic.

What New Hampshire state government did not need is a month in the tank and this wasn’t one.

The state tax on corporate profits is the biggest loser, however, as it was off more than $14 million for April while the other major business tax on business activity was up by about $6 million.

All told through last Friday, the revenue shortfall for the month was about $12 million.

Other good signs for the month are that a depressed interest and dividends tax had a surprising rebound last month, the tax on restaurant meals and hotel room rentals was solid and the state tax on cigarettes continues to outperform estimates in recent months.

There was no movement on the biggest black mark on the balance sheet, the $39 million owed by hospitals under the state’s Medicaid Enhancement Tax.

Revenue Commissioner Kevin Clougherty has reassured Gov. John Lynch and legislative leaders that the money will be in state coffers by June 30.

Medical malpractice bill will be reworked

The medical malpractice reform bill (SB 406) faces pretty significant overhaul by the House Judiciary Committee when it intends to rework the measure by the middle of the coming week.

Critics such as the trial lawyers consider it a “no fault” bill that would bail out negligent doctors and hospitals.

The most significant obstacle to getting House support would be to raise the legal standard that a malpractice victim would face if they turn down the “early offer.”

This provision would also force victims to reject the need for pain and suffering and limit attorney fees to 20 percent of the lump sum amount.

What complicates the bill’s passage for Committee Chairman Robert Rowe, R-Amherst, is that two of the state’s three largest malpractice insurance companies have now come out in opposition to it.

In written testimony, Maine Medical Mutual has warned should it become law that rates would have to go up or the company would have to cease doing business in the state.

With the lengthy House agenda sitting over in the Senate, this is one issue on which the House holds all the leverage as it remains one of the few things of great interest to Senate GOP leaders.

Justices disagree over government powers

It’s not Halley’s Comet but pretty close when two, sitting Supreme Court justices come to the Legislature to offer differing opinions.

That’s reportedly the case when the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the constitutional amendment (CACR 26) and related bills that settle the legal debate over whether the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of all court-related rulemaking.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, fervently believes the Legislature has preeminent power and at the very least is a coequal branch when it comes to making rules for the court system.

The newest Supreme Court justice, Robert Lynn, reportedly agrees with him and will state so.

This is by no means the view of his colleagues and that’s why fellow, Associate Justice Gary Hicks, has been dispatched to give the opposite view, namely that the judicial branch has supreme power over court rules.

This should make for a fascinating legal debate on the same day the Senate panel takes up other controversial matters including the House-passed plan to eliminate the requirement that only lawyers may be members of the State Bar Association (HB 1474).

Supporters of abortion rights have some success

You gotta hand it to abortion rights supporters for their dogged persistence in convincing the State Senate last week to kill or turn aside nearly all of a raft of anti-abortion measures.

With 19 Senate Republicans, there was every expectation in an election year that the conservative movement would not prevail on all the social agenda but make many advances.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England sure did the right thing when it called in reinforcements in the person of Dr. Lisa Shapiro, the lawyer/lobbyist with the Gallagher, Callahan et al firm in Concord.

They also already had in hand Policy Director Jennifer Frizell, who played that role and others on the Senate staff when Democrats were in control.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who was a pro-choice member of Congress, provided a lot of big time help when he raised thoughtful concerns about what the anti-Planned Parenthood bill (HB 228) would do to the state’s hopes of getting a Medicaid waiver from the Obama administration.

“There were just too many questions unanswered and concerns raised for the Senate to want to go forward with this,” Senate President Bragdon summed up.

But the anti-abortion forces in New Hampshire never go away quietly and they regrouped pretty strongly at week’s end with the House-passed bill to make killing of a fetus a felony and in some extreme cases murder (HB 217).

Perhaps their strongest advocate in the Senate, Sen. Raymond White, R-Bedford, had the bill reworked through the Senate Judiciary Committee to apply it to the unborn after the point of conception.

The House-passed bill defined the fetus relative to this bill as being at least 24 weeks old in tandem with its now-sidelined bill in the Senate to ban such later-term abortions.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also, check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.