House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said the legislature delivered on its commitment.
Republicans moved on from the 2010 elections with large majorities in the House and Senate, as well as a 5-0 advantage on the Executive Council. It was a monumental bounce back for a party that was looking for a message and a pulse following 2008. But questions swirled with regard to how the GOP would handle its re-discovered power in New Hampshire. Would leadership be able to steer the ship away from touchy social issues? How would House leadership in particular be able to handle — and sometimes muzzle — nearly 300 legislators, many of whom were new to elected office?
Democrats are sure to say the state’s Republican leadership overreached. They are saying the GOP strayed into social issues when the economy needed lawmakers’ attention. And maybe Republicans did go too far. That’s certainly possible from a voter perspective, but for the most part, they say they kept their focus on all things financial.
There’s plenty of truth to that in the form of legislation.
Aside from a controversial bill that required parental notification on abortions — and that’s not insignificant — the GOP largely stayed the course. That doesn’t mean everybody has to like everything they did, but many wondered if GOP leadership would be able to steer the ship away from things like repealing the state’s same-sex marriage law. That might not be the case for the entire two years, but at least for the first half of this one, they took the ball and ran with it in the direction voters told them to.
Along the way, O’Brien has gained the ire of many as he, perhaps stubbornly, continued to lead his caucus in an ever fiscally conservative direction, even if it meant cutting services to those with mental health needs or those with developmental disabilities. He stared down the protests on the Statehouse lawn, even tossing protesters from the House gallery in a move some called illegal. He seemingly embraced his lightning rod status. And his caucus followed him just about every step of the way.
Lawmakers in the House passed legislation to reform the retirement system, they passed several measures aimed at creating a more business-friendly environment, they passed a bill to require a supermajority in the legislature to raise taxes and passed a Constitutional amendment to expand local education control.
Still, this session will be most remembered for how dramatically lawmakers cut back state government. The state budget represents a 15-percent cut in spending from what was proposed for the last biennium.
The only notable legislative hiccup was the right-to-work bill, which passed both the House and Senate but has so far been stymied by a Gov. John Lynch veto.
Running through the legislation, at least on the surface, it looks like the “promises made, promises kept,” message is appropriate. The GOP might find in 2012 that the people who had their promises kept are outnumbered by more moderate voters who didn’t ask legislators to cut so deep. We’ll see on that. A general election with a presidential race topping the ticket is sure to drive turnout, up, up and up.
Product of 300?
O’Brien and GOP leadership got their legislation through for the most part, but not without some shenanigans along the way.
Of course, there was the move to try to force out Rep. Michael Brunelle, D-Manchester, with the premise being that he had a conflict of interest since he was also executive director of the state Democratic Party. O’Brien probably could have done without that in hindsight — not that it was his idea.
There were other problems that legislators could have done without. House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt made derogatory comments about John McCormack, the Bishop of Manchester, on his Facebook page. Former representative Martin Harty made comments suggesting he’d like to send people with disabilities to Siberia, before resigning. Those incidents got plenty of attention too.
There were some quirky moves on the legislative front, such as exhaustive support for a 10-cent cut in the cigarette tax under the premise that the cut would draw residents from Massachusetts across the border for cigarettes, thus ultimately driving in more revenue. Many are skeptical that will turn out to be reality.
Still, considering how many new legislators there were in the House, it’s a wonder there weren’t more instances to cause head-scratching.
It’s almost a given that Republicans won’t have the same majorities following the 2012 elections, as it’s next to impossible to build on majorities that are already this big.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said earlier this year Republicans probably see this time as theirs, an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often. It’s a chance for Republicans to really shape the state.
So maybe at some point they’ll figure they actually need to seize the day, so to speak, on social legislation as well.