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June 13. 2011 12:48PM

Tom Fahey's State House Dome: Transparency behind closed doors


 

The House and the Senate plan to put budget talks on the Web, streaming live audio and video of the meetings.

The question is how much there will be to watch.

When it came to settling the dispute over revenue estimates, the entire thing was done in private. Apparently, there wasn’t much to see. If there was, we’ll never know.

At the outset of talks on Thursday, staff from the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office distributed completed copies of agreements reached in the last week. They showed estimates that $4.4 billion would be coming to the state from tax revenue, about $17 million more than the House estimate and $23.8 million less than the original Senate estimate.

The House actually boosted revenue estimates by $45 million, when you count the $28 million concession that was made on red ink for fiscal 2011, which ends June 30.

There are plenty of fights ahead — on funding for the departments of Safety, Transportation and Environmental Services, on school aid formulas and on policy issues, including restricting collective bargaining, which the House keeps inserting in other bills.

Private discussions and backroom caucuses are common during the last stage of budget negotiations, and they’ve already started here. If lawmakers intend to video stream the reality of budget talks, there’s going to be a lot of what broadcasters call dead air. Maybe the camera can focus on a closed door during breaks.

While the door is closed, real fans of state budget issues can check out the budget calculator that the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies has put online.

A user selects a revenue estimate from the House, the Senate, Gov. John Lynch or the NHCPP, then tries to balance it with a series of spending and savings choices that are now before the committee of conference. It’s easy to use, but not so easy to achieve a balance, as any budget writer will tell you.

The calculator is at www.nhpolicy.org.

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As budget talks heat up, House and Senate lawmakers are working on more than 30 others bills on which they’d like to compromise. Included are those that would restrict unemployment benefits for workers fired for dishonesty; remove cable TV as a protected tenant service; allow teachers to use physical force to control students who pose a danger to themselves or others; pertain to the release of dangerous sexual offenders under the Justice Reinvestment Act; repeal the Region Greenhouse Gas Initiative; and determine whether the attorney general could be forced by law to sue over federal health care reform.

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Under a bill the House and the Senate have passed, property owners could appeal their tax assessment even if they had barred an assessor from their home. House Bill 316 hasn’t even reached Gov. John Lynch’s desk yet, but co-sponsors Rep. Andrew Manuse, R-Derry, and Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, are calling it “a significant victory for the citizens of New Hampshire.’’ It would protect the right to privacy and the right to a tax appeal, they said in a news release.

“Because of this change, property owners won’t have to choose between one of two guaranteed constitutional rights,’’ Manuse said.

The bill does not guarantee that an appeal would be successful or that those considering the case would look kindly on someone who blocks an assessor, then complains about his work.

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Controversy over the special election to fill a House seat in Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien’s district continues to reverberate.

A sign posted at the New Boston polling place told voters they needed a photo ID to obtain a ballot. The voter ID bill has not become state law and did not pass the Senate with enough votes to override a veto.

Even so, the sign’s effect on voters has prompted the America Votes group to ask the U.S. Department of Justice “to take appropriate steps to ensure that New Hampshire citizens will not be prevented from exercising their right to vote by an overly restrictive law or by ill-trained election workers.”

O’Brien’s favored candidate lost in each of five towns in the district, and Democrat Jennifer Daler was elected in the mostly-Republican district.

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O’Brien has to be wondering whether he’s done himself any good with his handling of the right-to-work issue.

During the five-plus weeks he’s tried to win votes for a veto override, organized labor has become more agitated and angry; he’s been accused of manipulating the process; anti-right-to-work businesses have bought full-page ads; and activists have charged that the national Right-to-Work campaign engaged in illegal election activity here. That’s not to mention bitter splits within the Republican caucus.

After Deputy Whip Rep. Shawn Jasper accused right-to-work opponent Rep. Matt Quandt of drinking on session days, Quandt’s friends began pointing out that O’Brien’s allies go out and down a few, too.

So now it’s about which side drinks too much? That should boost the Legislature’s public image.

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Wednesday will bring big news, no matter what Lynch decides on the issue of parental notification. A bill that would require notification of a parent before a minor could have an abortion arrived on his desk Friday. It is meant to replace a flawed bill that passed in 2003 and was repealed in 2007.

Lynch has until Wednesday to sign the bill, HB 329, veto it or let it become law without his signature. With no House or Senate session that day, all eyes will be on the Corner Office.

As of late Friday, he was not tipping his hand on his intent, only that he’ll give it careful review.

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The Executive Council has set the afternoon of June 22 for public hearings on the nominations of N. William Delker as a superior court justice and Ann Rice as a deputy attorney general.

Our colleague Garry Rayno reports that Executive Councilor Raymond Wieczorek took some ribbing after Lynch signed Senate Bill 195, naming the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport access road after the former Manchester mayor.

Department of Transportation Commissioner George Campbell told Wieczorek it was a good project to have his name on because it was under budget and ahead of schedule, set to open in November.

But Campbell said the project costs will go up now because “we’re going to have to hire three newspaper editors to recheck the signs three times to make sure your name is spelled right.”

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A special tribute to Gov. Walter Peterson is planned tonight at 7 at a public memorial service at the Capital Center for the Arts in Concord.

The event will be emceed by Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester. Those who knew Peterson, including Gov. Lynch, will deliver testimonials. The Peterson family will be on hand, D’Allesandro said.

He said the tribute, a celebration of Peterson’s life, will be a one-hour affair followed by a reception.

Both the House and the Senate observed moments of silence for the late governor, who died June 1 at the age of 88. He served two terms as governor, from 1968 to 1972, and continued a life of public service beyond the end of his days in elective office.

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Sen. Jim Luther, R-Nashua, plans a series of forums for presidential candidates in September. So far, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum have accepted his invitations to attend sessions at Nashua Community College.

Each forum will focus on economic issues, Luther said. With job growth running flat for the past decade, he said, “we’ve got a problem, and we need to talk about the approaches to it.’’ Questions will come from a panel comprising members of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce, the Business and Industry Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

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Say goodbye to Red Hampshire, the conservative website that served as a place for right-leaning people to post contributions and as a jumping off point to other like-minded sites.

Red Hampshire was started as an answer to Blue Hampshire, which is still active, with regular postings by several contributors.

The red version has been pretty static of late, with few original contributions, and it went off the Internet completely last week.

Former GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen, who was a contributor to the site, said, “It’s unclear whether it will be resuscitated.”

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Tom Fahey is State House bureau chief for the New Hampshire Sunday News and New Hampshire Union Leader.


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