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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

O’Brien has gained, lost plenty at Statehouse

The following are some top accomplishments and setbacks during the first term of House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

TWO-YEAR STATE BUDGET: Plan spends 11 percent, or $1.2 billion, less than previous one and 18 percent, or $536 million, less in state spending.

TAX CUTS: Eliminated 10 percent tax on gambling winnings, first time cigarette tax is cut – by 10 cents a pack – and got rid of an annual, $30 surcharge on auto and truck registrations.

REGULATORY RELIEF: There were 43 laws passed to cut regulations and give industries more flexibility that affected haulers and shippers, boatmakers, homeowners, insurance carriers, banking and trust institutions, grocers, hunting and fishing guides, small electricity generators, rural hospitals, restaurants and retailers among others.

RETIREMENT REFORM: Made sweeping changes making new public safety employees work longer and be older before collecting a pension. Raised paycheck contributions for public workers to help reduce system’s unfunded liability of $3.7 billion. Artificially blocked rates from going up for public employers above already-scheduled increase of about 20 percent.

ED FUNDING: Became the first House speaker after 14 years and 80 tries to get the three-fifths majority to pass a proposed amendment to the state Constitution to target more aid to needy school districts and end mandate of per pupil grants to all communities. Still seeking compromise with Senate leaders and Gov. John Lynch.

PUBLIC EMPLOYEE LABOR LAWS: Teachers now must wait five years, instead of three, before receiving tenure. New law got rid of the “evergreen” provision, which if agreed to, would have kept all existing, public employee contracts in force until a new pact was reached.

PRISON RECIDIVISM: Lynch agreed to make changes to controversial 2010 law that let all serious offenders get out on supervised parole before serving their maximum prison term. This eliminated mandatory early release for sexual and violent offenders.

PARENTAL RIGHTS: The Legislature passed over the veto of Lynch a new law requiring a minor girl notify a parent before she can get an abortion.

JUDICIAL OVERHAUL: The court system is in the process of eliminating its probate, family and district courts and merging them into the circuit court that administrators say will save more than $38 million over 10 years and ensure that closed court “furlough” days are over.

MEDICAID MANAGED CARE: The Legislature has directed the state Medicaid Program to join more than 45 states that put all those clients into a managed care model to improve health care outcomes while saving $16 million in state dollars over next two years.

WELFARE FRAUD: O’Brien has led the effort to create an aggressive new database to track those cheating to get public assistance; House passed his bill and Senate expected soon to follow suit.

SETBACKS

RIGHT-TO-WORK: For two years, O’Brien has tried without success to have New Hampshire become the only state in the Northeast that won’t allow labor and management to sign a contract making all employees join a union or pay “agency fees” to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

RGGI PROGRAM: O’Brien wants New Hampshire to get out of the 10-state intiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions calling it a “cap and trade tax” on electricity consumers. Lynch vetoed the bill last year and the state Senate failed to overcome that move.

REPUBLICAN STATE CHAIRMAN: O’Brien fought openly with then-Chairman John H. Sununu over the new GOP boss, getting behind tea party leader and ex-candidate for governor Jack Kimball. Kimball quit after less than six months on the job after a poor fundraising performance and inadequate communication with legislative leaders.

OUT-OF-STATE COLLEGE STUDENT VOTING: Soon after taking over, O’Brien championed election law reform to prevent from voting students going to school in New Hampshire that live in other states. House committee shipped bill off to oblivion after legal experts claimed it was unconstitutional.

LOSE FOUR OF FIVE: Democrats have rolled up nearly every victory to fill House seats left by vacancies, including one in O’Brien’s home district to replace fellow Mont Vernon state Rep. Robert Mead after O’Brien made him chief of staff.

HEALTH CARE LAWSUIT: O’Brien engaged in a losing, public feud with Attorney General Michael Delaney trying to force him to have New Hampshire join 26 states suing the Obama administration over a federal health care mandate. New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled the Legislature had no such authority to order an executive branch official to act.

OBAMA CONTRACEPTION MANDATE: When President Barack Obama announced a federal mandate, O’Brien said he was surprised to learn 12 years ago the state required health insurance plans to cover women’s contraception coverage. O’Brien convinced the House to pass a bill letting any employer with a “religious or moral” objection to ignore the requirement; the Senate this week quietly put that bill to death.

NEW HAMPSHIRE RAIL TRANSIT AUTHORITY: O’Brien opposes any taxpayer role in bringing commuter rail trains from Boston through Nashua and on to cities north of there. He embraced getting rid of rail transit group and backed amendments to severely restrict its powers. Lynch vetoed that change and the House sustained the governor’s decision.

PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS: Endorsed former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid. The former congressman from Georgia finished an embarrassing and distant fifth place in first-in-the-nation primary.

GAS TAX CUT: O’Brien attacked the Obama administration policies on energy and called for a two-month cut in the state tax on gasoline to jump start last year’s tourism season; Senate Republicans called it a gimmick and without debate killed the idea.

RNC SLOT: Juliana Bergeron of Keene, the woman who, with O’Brien’s help, Kimball beat to become chairman, got her revenge earlier this month by winning a seat on the Republican National Committee in a five-vote victory. O’Brien had personally endorsed the woman Bergeron beat, House Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker, R-Greenland, a close personal and political ally to the speaker.

– KEVIN LANDRIGAN