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Jasper confirmed as agriculture commissioner with help from Dems

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 22. 2017 11:24AM

Shawn Jasper (File)

CONCORD — House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, narrowly won confirmation as commissioner of agriculture Wednesday, setting up a battle to replace him as the New Hampshire Legislature heads into the 2018 session.

The two Democrats on the council, Andru Volinsky of Concord and Chris Pappas of Manchester, helped deliver the appointment to Sununu, a first-term Republican.

"I think if the person is qualified, you get your choice, governor," said Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord.

Republican Councilors David Wheeler of Milford and Joseph Kenney of Wakefield said they could not support voting for Jasper until the end of the 2018 session.

"I have had a lot of opposition in the last several days," Kenney said.

Jasper said he's looking forward to the new challenge and vowed to stay out of the House speaker's campaign to replace him, as did Sununu.

"The most important part of what the department does is connect the people in agriculture to the markets," said Jasper, 57, after the 3-2 vote to confirm him.

Sununu stressed he can work with whomever House members choose as their leader later this month.

"I think the speaker was a terrific choice," Sununu said. "I thought he did a great job at the hearing. I am excited about getting to work and I am confident the Legislature will do just fine in electing a new speaker."

The post will pay Jasper $92,801 a year to start, and his five-year term runs to Nov. 18, 2022.

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.

Wheeler said Jasper clearly lacks some of the knowledge about today's challenges facing the industry, but that wasn't the deal-breaker for him,

"What is more troubling to me is taking the speaker of the House in the middle of the term and appointing him to be commissioner," Wheeler said.

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.

Earlier this month, Jasper gave farewell remarks to the House of Representatives, which clearly rankled some members of the council.

But at a lengthy public hearing last week, Jasper had solid support from the industry as well as from Merrill, who endorsed the pick.

"The process was a little bit difficult," said Councilor Pappas, who provided the third and decisive commitment to vote for Jasper. "I think it was presumptuous to give a final address, but be that as it may I think he does bring a number of strengths."

All five councilors admitted the reaction to Jasper among the public was mixed. Some conservative Republicans continue to hold a grudge against Jasper given that it was House Democrats who first handed the gavel to him in a stunning December 2012 upset of then-Speaker Bill O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican.

This past year the conservative House Freedom Caucus was sharply critical of Jasper's handling of the state budget, which initially the GOP-led House turned down when Jasper's Finance Committee presented its recommendations last spring.

Ultimately, House and Senate GOP leaders came together on a compromise budget Sununu signed.

As for the GOP defections Wednesday, Sununu said they were understandable.

"No one likes to see him pulled out of the role he was doing well," Sununu said. "I think their concerns were legitimate in terms of moving forward now or down the road."

Kenney and Wheeler said the action was contrary to past practice.

In 2016, the GOP-led council then made Republican state Sen. Jerry Little serve out his term before they would vote for him as banking commissioner.

Next Thursday, the House membership will pick its leader.

House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff said Jasper will resign as House speaker on the morning of the House vote and then will take the oath as agriculture commissioner at a later point.

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