December 08. 2012 9:22PM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Bipartisanship yet to take hold

New Hampshire Union Leader

Organization Day was filled with good tidings and promises of bipartisanship and civility, particularly in the House, where for the last two years the atmosphere was a little testy and decidedly partisan.

But one of the first acts of the new House leadership under Democrat Terie Norelli of Portsmouth was to fire Betty Lichty, the House speaker's receptionist.

Norelli first hired her for the position when she became speaker in 2006, and Lichty remained for the two years William O'Brien held the office.

While several former House Republican staff noted the firing on Twitter, as did former House Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker of Greenland, Manchester Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt went a step further.

He blasted Norelli for the move and in a letter asked her to reconsider the action, calling Lichty "not merely extremely competent. I dare say that she was loved by all who came into contact with her."

The official reason given for the move was to bring in new staff.

Certainly, that was the message Norelli left Wednesday after taking over as speaker. She named her former majority leader, Mary Jane Wallner, as the chairman of House Finance, which was chaired by Rep. Marjorie Smith of Durham when Democrats controlled the House from 2006 to 2010.

Smith did not run in 2010, but was reelected this year, and many believed she would want the spot again.

Norelli also named Stephen Shurtleff of Concord as the new majority leader. He had been chairman of Criminal Justice and Public Safety before.

But Vaillancourt had a different take on the action.

"This staffing decision flies in the face of (Wednesday's) promises to bring us together in an attempt to repair the damage of the last two years," he wrote. "I had hoped you were planning to staff the House with competent people rather than party officers out for a payback."

Vaillancourt sent his letter to the speaker's chief of staff, the media and all 398 House members.

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ANOTHER ROCKY START: The Senate was not much different as Senate President Peter Bragdon announced committee chairs Wednesday afternoon after the ceremonies had ended, and not one was a Democrat.

The Senate's 13-11 partisan makeup had many believing Democrats would hold some committee chairs, as they have in the past when the breakdown was close. But that was not the case.

Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen of Concord said she had encouraged Bragdon to name some Democrats as committee chairmen as she had named four Republicans chairs when she was Senate president and the breakdown was 14 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

"I was surprised and disappointed," Larsen said. "We had a discussion, and he said the decision was made and any appeal was not going to change it."

The voters sent the message they want bipartisanship, she said, but instead there was an unfortunate message sent "as we start the session that we hoped would be more bipartisan and with a greater sense of fairness.''

Ten years ago, Bragdon noted, there were 22 Senate committees, so there were plenty of chairmanships to go around, but that is no longer the case, with only nine major committees and two smaller ones.

Bragdon did appoint Democrats as vice chairs of several committees Friday when he released the committee assignments, showing three Republicans and two Democrats on most committees, with the exception of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which has four Republicans and two Democrats.

"With the workload, it would have made sense to have four Republicans and, say, three Democrats on Finance," Larsen said.

Whatever budget is developed will need bipartisan support, she noted, and the support of Democratic Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan.

"The Senate is very close, but the balance on the committees is skewed," she said. "Under our leadership in past years, it was more equal in treatment than we are getting right now."

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CHANGE COMES QUICKLY: It did not take long for the picture of former Speaker O'Brien to come down off the House's official website and for Norelli's to go up.

The change was made before noon on Wednesday.

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BILLS BECOME LAW: The 2011-12 Legislature is history, but its work lives on.

Forty-three bills were signed into law and will take effect Jan. 1. Some of the bills caused a stir.

One of the most controversial, House Bill 1679, would end partial birth abortions, but it is largely symbolic. Federal law prohibits partial birth abortions, and many people testified the procedure is not used in the state.

Despite the law's lack of teeth, anti-abortion activists say it continues the gains they have made the past two years.

Another new law changes the state's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative program to make it easier for New Hampshire to pull out of the Northeastern States compact if other states decide to leave.

Under the law, money from the sale of carbon emissions allowances for energy conservation measures will now go to programs run by the state's privately owned utilities rather than be distributed through a committee established under the Public Utilities Commission.

Another law touches on collective-bargaining rights. It will allow the chief negotiators in talks that reach an impasse to make presentations directly to the other side's membership or directors.

In-state tuition may become a little more difficult to obtain at the University System of New Hampshire's colleges. Come Jan. 1, every student receiving the in-state tuition rate will have to sign an affidavit saying he or she is a legal resident of the United States.

Spurred by a boating accident several years ago, the law resulting from Senate Bill 285 will allow the state to suspend a person's driver's license for serious boating offenses and vice versa.

The bill was inspired by the high-profile case of Erica Blizzard, the Laconia woman who was convicted of negligent homicide for killing a close friend, Stephanie Beaudoin, while piloting a boat the night of June 15, 2008, on Lake Winnipesaukee.

A day after Blizzard's conviction, in April 2010, she was arrested for reckless driving. Police said she was using her cellphone while driving 84 mph in a 65 mph zone, failed to signal a lane change and nearly hit a uniformed officer.

Another new law allows naturopathic doctors to receive the same reimbursement from health insurers as other physicians who perform the same procedures.

Beginning Jan. 1, the arrest records of police will have to be available to the public.

The arrest record must contain the identity of the individual arrested, the identity of the arresting officer, a statement of why and how the arrest was made, the alleged crime, and whether a warrant was issued.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays: I will be on vacation for the next two weeks, so there will be no State House Dome until after Christmas. I would like to wish you all the best for the holiday season, and may you enjoy your time with family and friends.

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Garry Rayno may be reached at