Liquor panel wants controls back in place
CONCORD - A special House committee recommends replacing the three-member Liquor Commission with a commissioner and deputy commissioner and returning greater budgetary control to lawmakers.
The Special House Committee to Evaluate the New Hampshire State Liquor Commission also suggested returning liquor revenues to the state's general fund and strengthening the current law forbidding state agencies from hiring lobbyists.
In 2009, lawmakers made the liquor commission more autonomous and created a enterprise fund to hold liquor revenues. The changes were intended to give the commission greater flexibility to react to the marketplace and maximize profits.
The special House committee essentially recommends the changes be reversed, and streamlines the agency with one individual at the top who is accountable.
The House committee Tuesday agreed unanimously on the report, which contains 13 specific recommendations.
After the vote, committee Chairman Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, said her committee worked in a "totally non-partisan fashion. Every member's questions were answered."
Committee member Rep. Ben Baroody, D-Manchester, said when he was appointed to the committee he expected it to be a witch hunt, but that was not the case.
"You should look for common ground and common solutions and this committee has done that," Baroody said.
The committee was appointed by House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, this summer after reports of missing liquor and of potential illegal lobbying.
Other issues emerged as the House committee did its work, including bootlegging, favoritism, the mishandling of a lucrative warehousing bidding process, ignoring liquor commission rules and state law, and significant tensions within the agency.
Law changes needed
In making its recommendations, the House committee concentrated on law changes needed to address the issues.
According to the report, "The committee reviewed past studies and legislation about changing from a three-commissioner to a one-commissioner format. After much discussion and debate, the committee felt that legislation should be filed to change the structure . . . The committee felt that there needed to be one person who was ultimately in charge and responsible for management of this state agency."
The committee also believes lawmakers and the executive council need greater control over the agency's finances and contracts.
One of the recommendations is restoring the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee's and Governor and Executive Council's review of inter-department transfers.
Committee members want the special liquor enterprise fund eliminated and the money to go into the state's general fund, which returns legislative oversight over the Liquor Commission's budget.
The committee also wants to abolish three new unclassified division director positions.
The commission has yet to name anyone to two of the three positions identical to three classified positions that were never eliminated.
Eliminating the non-classified positions, which serve at the pleasure of the commission, will allow Enforcement Chief Eddie Edwards to continue in his position.
Many of the House committee's early hearings concerned whether longtime beer distributor lobbyist Clark Corson also lobbied on behalf of the commission - in violation of state law.
The commission and Corson claimed he was hired to do a study of the potential for beer sales in state liquor stores, but others testified he was lobbying on behalf of the commission to kill a bill that would have allowed the sale of liquor in grocery and convenience stores.
"Although there is insufficient proof beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is enough evidence to conclude that lobbyist Corson was hired through an unwitting 'straw man,' the Rumbletree agency of the Liquor Commission, to organize and lobby to oppose HB 1251 on behalf of the commission and in contravention of state law," the committee report states.
The committee members also noted the investigation by the Attorney General's Office did not include interviews with many of the key players.
"This committee has concluded that the investigation by the Attorney General's Office was woefully inadequate because several key witnesses were never interviewed, most notably former commissioner Mark Bodi and Representative John Hunt," the report says.
The committee recommends the law prohibiting state agencies from hiring lobbyists be changed to include the provision that lobbyists must wait five years before they can work for any state agencies.
And the committee wants the commission to comply with the state's rule-making process.
Many Liquor Commission rules have expired and need to be resubmitted to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.
Another recommendation is that a commission be created to study the promotion of New Hampshire wineries and to propose any legislation.
The next legislature will have to decide if any of the committee's recommendations will go forward.
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Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.