NH legislative leaders set the right tone

The newly sworn-in members of the New Hampshire Legislature didn’t sit in a circle, hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” on Wednesday, but they might as well have.

On the procedural first day of the new session, Democrats and Republicans could not have said nicer things about each other or chanted louder the mantra of bipartisan cooperation.

No wonder fallen former House Speaker William O’Brien exited Representatives Hall from his back-row seat as soon as his successor, Democrat Terie Norelli, officially replaced him. All of Wednesday’s goodwill must have made him nauseous.

During his turbulent two years as speaker, O’Brien had a petulant penchant for offending legislators who didn’t agree with him, whether they were Democrats or fellow Republicans. That was his twisted notion of bipartisanship.

And that’s why much of the day’s double-edge rhetoric was as much about denouncing the past as framing the future.

“This Legislature works best when we work together,” Norelli said. “The citizens of the great state of New Hampshire sent us here, I believe, with a message: They want a Legislature that puts partisan politics aside and works in a respectful way on the issues that matter to the Granite State. And that is exactly what we should all plan to do.”

To start things off, Norelli pledged to quickly undo some of O’Brien’s more divisive acts, such as reinstating weekly meetings between Democratic and Republican House leaders. She said she also will disband the disruptive Redress of Grievances Committee, which was one of O’Brien’s grand schemes to impose legislative hegemony on other branches of state government.

These significant first steps are in keeping with the clear message New Hampshire voters delivered on Election Day.

But with victory comes responsibility. It’s one thing to talk about the need for both parties to work together to find solutions to the state’s problems, but it’s quite another to forge constructive compromises. Just take a glance at Washington, where inklings of post-election rapprochement have dissipated.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see that Norelli and GOP Senate President Peter Bragdon have tapped experienced and reasonable lawmakers to fill out their leadership teams. The two minority leaders – Democrat Sylvia Larsen in the Senate and Republican Gene Chandler in the House – have been presiding officers
with proven records of civility.

Still, it’s going to be another tough budget season, as evidenced by Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan’s call for department heads to submit budgets containing 3 percent less than the current biennium. But Hassan also wants to restore some funding cut from social services and higher education.

With no big infusion of money on the horizon, and existing revenues expected to remain essentially flat, that means there will be budget losers. And losers usually don’t go down without a fight.

So while it’s easy for Republicans and Democrats to promise cooperation in December, it’s quite another thing to practice it in the spring, when the budget will be finalized. That will be the true test of the new leadership.