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Some councilors still undecided on Jasper moving to agriculture nomination

State House Bureau

November 18. 2017 11:30PM
Shawn Jasper 

CONCORD — House Speaker Shawn Jasper made the best case he could for his confirmation as commissioner of agriculture in a four-hour public hearing before the Executive Council on Friday, but only one councilor was ready to pledge his support for Jasper after all was said and done.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Jasper won’t be confirmed when the council votes on Wednesday at its regularly scheduled meeting. Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, was unequivocal in his support.

“I’ve decided to vote for Shawn Jasper as commissioner of agriculture,” he said after the hearing.

Democratic councilors Andru Volinsky of Concord and Chris Pappas of Manchester would not commit, but spoke highly of Jasper and commended his performance at the hearing.

“I’ll be following up with the speaker prior to our meeting on Wednesday,” said Pappas. “I think he has a good head on his shoulders. He understands the industry; he understands the lay of the land; and I was very encouraged by his testimony today and his responses to our questions.”

Volinsky said he would not support a delay in making the appointment to allow Jasper to continue as speaker at least until the spring of 2018, when most of the business for the current session will be wrapped up.

“I’d say there were a couple of issues that came up that are of concern, but there are also ways in which the speaker acquitted himself well,” said Volinsky. “I am not supportive of the five or six month delay some of the others raised. We need to make this decision and it needs to be executed in due course.”

Republican councilors Joe Kenney of Union and David Wheeler of Milford could be the hold-outs. Kenney suggested delaying any appointment until the House adjourns at the end of May.

Wheeler, whose family runs a 65-acre Christmas tree farm and maple sugar operation in Milford, asked the most detailed questions and expressed his disappointment in some of the answers afterward.

“I was a little disappointed in his lack of knowledge about micro-farms. His testimony focused on big dairy farms,” said Wheeler. “Nor did he appear to have a lot of knowledge about the problems that face agriculture. I’m still undecided, and am going to have to chew on this one a little while.”

What some thought was a shoo-in has turned into a bit of a cliffhanger, as Jasper and all the candidates who would replace him as speaker anxiously await the outcome of Wednesday’s vote.

All five councilors expressed concern about Jasper’s credentials in agriculture, the process by which Gov. Chris Sununu brought the nomination forward, and the extent to which the Executive Council has been marginalized in the process.

In September, incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill announced her decision to retire when her current term expires at the end of the year.

A month later Sununu announced his intention to nominate Jasper for the position, bypassing the traditional process of awaiting a list of nominees from the Agricultural Advisory Board.

The board eventually provided Sununu with a list of names that included Jasper, and the governor formally nominated the speaker on Nov. 8, leading to Wednesday’s confirmation hearings.

It all seemed a bit rushed and pre-ordained to a council accustomed to being consulted on major commissioner appointments prior to public disclosure.

The fact that Jasper made his farewell speech to the House of Representatives before he was confirmed did not sit well, even with his most ardent supporter.

“It was an awkward situation, saying farewell with your fingers crossed behind your back,” said Prescott.

Jasper has said previously that if he is not confirmed, he plans to continue as speaker until his term expires at the end of next year. That would make all the effort expended in the past two months by contenders for the job a monumental waste of time.

All the people who spoke at the hearing supported Jasper’s nomination, including incumbent commissioner Merrill, current and past state representatives, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, UNH faculty in the farming and cooperative extension programs, and active farmers.

Jasper comes from a long line of poultry farmers in the Hudson area, and has been a faculty adviser to the UNH agricultural program fraternity for years, but has been a legislator, not a farmer, for much of his adult life.

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Thank you, Sununu