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Staff photo by Don Himsel

Speaker of the House William O'Brien of Mont Vernon at the State House recently.
Sunday, April 29, 2012

Speaker O’Brien divides lawmakers, finds like values in alliance

Long before he took the gavel, House Speaker William “Bill” O’Brien held strong views of governing. But it wasn’t until he rose to power that those views became a political vision.

As an attorney, a taxpayer and a citizen, O’Brien’s ideals of small government, limited spending and strong constitutional rights were deep-rooted and uncompromising. But since he took office in 2010, his positions and his actions have divided lawmakers, social service providers and voters across the state.

Proponents of O’Brien’s small-government views have applauded the speaker for working to limit the role of government, as well as tax rates, by balancing the state budget.

“He’s been the strongest voice we’ve had in a while. … The people of New Hampshire ought to be very grateful for what he has done for us,” said Jane Aitken, a board member of the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers, which honored the speaker last summer.

Still, opponents see O’Brien as an ideologue who has worked to gut essential public programs and services, such as collective bargaining and welfare services, with little thought to the consequences.

“I don’t know him well … but if we were to look at what he’s done, it’s clearly an ideology kind of thing,” said Mark MacKenzie, president of the state branch of the AFL-CIO. “At some point it’s not about facts. It’s not about information. It really is about his beliefs and his beliefs alone.”

A new Republican alliance

O’Brien’s views have always been rooted in the belief of small government and strong individual rights. Before he joined the Legislature, he constantly fought for limited spending as a member of the Mont Vernon School Board.

“It was behind everything he did. He wanted to reduce taxes; that’s what he was there for,” said Peter King, chairman of the board at the time, who often clashed with O’Brien.

But it wasn’t until he got to the state Legislature that he knew where his beliefs fell on the political spectrum.

Recruited by a colleague to run for office in 2004, O’Brien, for the first time, reviewed the Republican Party platform.

“I had been so apolitical to that point, I wasn’t sure where I was,” he said. “It was refreshing to see written down what, in my view, was my philosophy.”

When he entered the Statehouse as a freshman legislator, O’Brien quickly gravitated to a group of like-minded lawmakers who recently had come together to form the House Republican Alliance.

The alliance, which formed in the late 1990s and continues today, sought to rescue the Legislature from more moderate Republicans who had journeyed far from the party principles of low spending and constitutional rights.

The group “was as attentive to … the state and federal constitution and the party platforms as I thought we should be,” O’Brien said. “Those are the basic operating rules for any government.”

In his first term in office, O’Brien sided often with the alliance, earning an 82 percent score from the group, which evaluated representatives based on their commitment to Republican principles.

He was voted out of office in 2006 during a Democratic sweep, but in the years that followed, he worked to organize and recruit Republican candidates. O’Brien returned to the Legislature two years later and was appointed a co-chairman of the alliance.

From that position, he continued to advocate for strict conservative values, taking an increasingly combative tone with opponents from both parties, colleagues said.

“They’re ideologues. They try to make the world in their own image, and only God can do that,” said state Rep. Lee Quandt, R-Exeter. Quandt is considering challenging O’Brien for the speaker’s chair.

“We used to sit down and talk with the Democrats,” said Quandt, who was a founding member of the alliance. “Now I don’t believe there are any communications. … They don’t want to talk.”

But O’Brien used the position to make connections and continued to rise on the Republican leadership ladder. In 2010, after Republicans took majorities in the New Hampshire House and Senate, he was elected speaker.

“He has always maintained strong Republican values and he shaped the party platform,” said state Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, who has served with the alliance since it formed. “That makes it easier to stand behind now. … In everything that he’s done, he’s been right in concert with the ideals of our party.”

Legislative impact

Since he took the gavel, O’Brien has pushed his conservative vision in the party agenda and the bills he sponsors.

This year, the speaker signed on to legislation proposing to prohibit a statewide income tax, to prohibit employers from taking union dues through automatic deduction and to allow the state to bypass federal health care law by joining an inter-state exchange, among others.

Some of these bills failed – the union dues bill stalled in the House – while others, including the health care exchange bill, are still under consideration in the Senate. But the real effect the speaker has had comes through his party’s platform, he said.

Among the key accomplishments of his office, O’Brien points to the House’s $10.4 billion budget, which cut $1 billion, or 11 percent, from the previous year’s spending plan.

“We promised people that we wouldn’t raise taxes or fees because there’s been substantial and numerous increases over the last four years,” he said. “Our job was to keep our eye on the ball … and we did that.”

But others dispute the Legislature’s gains.

The House budget, which passed last summer, included stiff cuts to public aid programs, higher education and other areas vital to the state, service providers said.

Under the spending plan, New Hampshire hospitals lost more than $115 million in payments, forcing more than 1,000 layoffs statewide. The state’s universities lost a record 45 percent of their public funding, and the state’s Division of Family Assistance had to cut back some programs, such as Aid to the Needy Blind, to absorb $14 million in lost funds.

“There are a number of kinds of services that have been reduced that make it harder for people who are struggling to cope. … The social safety net has bigger gaps and holes than it did before,” said John Tobin, executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which provides legal services for low-income earners.

“I don’t understand his philosophy around education, especially higher education,” said Thomas Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College & University Council. “When you have a highly education population like New Hampshire has, you have lower crime rates, you have a healthier state, you have citizens that are more engaged. … We’re losing all of that now.”

Moving forward, O’Brien is looking to the next legislative term, when he hopes to return to the speaker’s chair.

Among other priorities, he plans to put forward legislation once again proposing to repeal the state’s same-sex marriage law, and he’s planning again to lead the charge for Right-to-Work, which he said would improve the state’s economic competitiveness.

“The advantage to New Hampshire being a Right-to-Work state would be of equal importance to our advantage of having no income tax, no sales tax,” he said. “This is clearly something we have to do.”

But opponents believe passing the measure would only continue the speaker’s reign of destruction, weakening unions and harming teachers, firefighters and public sector workers.

“They started off by killing the minimum wage. Then they tried to roll back lunch hours, now this. … They are trying to tear down working people one step at a time,” said MacKenzie, of the AFL-CIO.

“These people truly believe in no government,” said Rick Trombly, of the New Hampshire branch of the National Education Association, the statewide teachers union. “They don’t believe in small government. They believe in no government, and they won’t stop until they’ve got it.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or