THE RACE TO replace late House Speaker Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, is on its way to becoming the most expensive special election ever.

Through March 22, the candidates — and special interest groups backing them — had raised $73,200.

Kevin Landrigan Dome

With three weeks of contributions left to report for the April 13 election, spending on the race between Republican Bill Boyd, a Merrimack town councilor, and ex-state Rep. Wendy Thomas, D-Merrimack, could crest at over $100,000.

As expected, Democrats have the early advantage on campaign cash.

Thomas has raised $24,296 on her own, nearly twice as much as Boyd’s $12,796.

Some of Thomas’ biggest donors were out-of-state residents. She received $1,000 apiece from Justin Bronder of San Jose, Calif., and Sante Fe, N.M., investment executive Kevin Rowe, and $500 from Emily’s List, the abortion rights political action committee.

Other donors included Lawrence Drake of Portsmouth ($1,000), Democratic Party chairman candidate Emmet Soldati of Somersworth ($1,000) and the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s non-federal account ($1,000).

Act Blue, the national group that vacuums up small donations from liberals, funneled another $3,400 to Thomas.

As of this report, she had spent about $2,700 on signs and $3,100 for mail.

Boyd’s donations were mostly in-state — $2,000 from former Gov. Craig and First Lady Denise Benson, $1,000 from the Hillsborough County Republican Committee, $1,000 from the Vault Motor Storage franchise, $2,000 from Nashua developer Thomas Monahan and $500 each from Hudson lobbyist Bob Clegg and 2020 1st Congressional District nominee Matt Mowers.

Since the end of the reporting period, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a fundraiser for Boyd.

Boyd spent $1,500 with Spectrum Monthly to provide graphic and other services and $1,300 with Reach Communications of Manchester for online ads and marketing.

The state arm of the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, known as the NH Leadership Committee, has spent $29,424 on Thomas’ behalf.

That included $12,000 for online ads and about $17,000 for mail.

The fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity is the only independent expenditure group working for Boyd. They have spent $6,700 so far, which included $2,000 in online ads and $2,800 for postcards and mail.

Budget gets privacy item

The last trinket put in the House budget trailer bill (HB2) last week would short-circuit a vendor’s contract with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Last October, HHS submitted to the Executive Council a contract with Unite Us of Nashua for three years at $700,000 a year to create a database that helps identify “social determinants of health.”

The idea is to help health-care providers by letting them know about patient behaviors that impact their health, such as eating and exercise habits.

State Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said this amounts to an intrusive Big Brother-style invasion of personal privacy.

He pointed out that voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved a personal privacy amendment to the state Constitution.

“This is going way beyond the simple collection of health information,” Edwards said.

After two attempts over two days, the committee finally approved, 12-9, his recommendation to prevent HHS from spending any more money in this contract until the Legislature’s Health Care Oversight Committee conducts its own study of the issue.

Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, pointed out the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee considered this change in a separate bill (HB 601).

The other House committee recommended by a 14-5 vote to kill the bill.

Rep. Keith Ammon, R-New Boston, is asking the House this coming week to approve the amendment, which is identical to what is included in the proposed budget.

“We are taking another bite of the apple,” Rogers said. “I don’t see why we are going to overturn anything.”

Here’s the rest of the story:

Former HHS Commissioner John Stephen represents another company in the field known as Aunt Bertha, The Social Health Network, in Austin, Texas.

He said his client already is doing the same work for Florida and Pennsylvania, and its free website has more than five million users.

“The key here is to provide informed consent every step of the way, so every individual knows what information is being given out and to who,” Stephen said during a recent interview. “Nationally, nobody is talking about this issue, but it’s a big one.”

Now that’s remote work

Legislators make a lot of personal sacrifices to do this job, for which they get paid $100 a year plus mileage.

Rep. Rogers took that to new lengths when House Finance was finishing up work sessions on the spending plan last Monday.

The eight-term state representative suffers from degenerative bone disease. (“I call it arthritis on steroids.”)

She had a bad relapse after attending the all-day session inside a car at the University of New Hampshire in Durham last January.

“I couldn’t get up out of the bed the next morning,” she said.

A steroid prescription helped, but her physician decided Rogers needed an outpatient medical procedure that involved injecting muscle relaxants deep into her knees.

So when the House budget writers had their final vote online, Rogers cast hers from a radiology department table.

“Some of my colleagues asked me which was more painful, getting that big needle or voting on this budget,” she said. “I’m just glad both are over.”

‘Liquor cops’ targeted

The proposed House budget contains another change to state government, this one at the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.

Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, championed this effort to eliminate the Division of Enforcement and Licensing and replace it with “Education and Licensing.”

Under the amendment, those who work with licensees on rules and regulations would no longer be liquor enforcers.

Under current state law, liquor enforcement officers must complete training courses with the police standards agency within six months of starting the job.

Leishman said this was one of the recommendations in the February 2021 performance audit of the division.

”Past audits of Liquor Commission have been for naught. Issues have persisted and have not been addressed for more than a decade,” Leishman said.

”In my six terms on Finance, the Liquor Commission is the only agency that would keep me up at night.”

Liquor Commission officials point out they already have dealt with many of those audit findings.

Kate Frey with New Futures, an anti-substance abuse advocacy group, told Leishman this change “would put in peril” a $6 million federal grant the commission receives for a variety of work, including youth tobacco compliance checks.

Look for that concern to be raised when the budget goes over to the Senate.

Marketing more shots

Gov. Chris Sununu said he expects younger residents to sign up for the vaccine in lower numbers than older ones, who are more at risk if they got COVID-19.

That’s why Sununu was working at week’s end on an upcoming public awareness campaign to encourage stragglers to get their shots.

Sununu said the effort was kicking off with billboards, some of which were being put up last Friday, as well as advertising on social media and television stations.

“This is your shot to get back to normal,” Sununu said.

The promotion will have a website, yourshot.nh.gov.

Claim sparks accusations

Leading Democratic lawmakers reacted strongly to an Associated Press report that Mary Goddard, an intern in 2017 at the Sununu Youth Services Center, was told to destroy her notes and lie about a sexual assault allegation involving a teen boy and a former counselor.

“The actions taken by the state and the Sununu Youth Services Center — under Governor Sununu’s watch — to cover up sexual assault allegations are absolutely appalling,” said Senate Deputy Minority Leader Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua.

“The residents of the SYSC are children under the state’s care, and it is extremely troublesome that the state has not come forward with information about these stories.”

The counselor has since pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and witness-tampering charges.

State HHS officials have declined to comment on the report. The center has been the subject of a criminal investigation for nearly two years.

More than 200 men and women have joined a lawsuit, alleging they were physically or sexually abused as children by 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.

Sports betting soars

March Madness has been very, very good to the New Hampshire Lottery.

Executive Director Charles McIntyre reported that during the first three rounds of the college basketball tournament, $2.7 million was wagered at The Brook in Seabrook and $1.7 million was bet at the Filotimo Casino & Restaurant in Manchester.

Seabrook is on course for its biggest month since it opened in August 2002, after sports betting was legalized in the state.

“We are pleased to see the tremendous betting volume taking place at New Hampshire’s retail sportsbooks, as well as online and via mobile devices through the DraftKings app. It speaks to the pent-up demand, as sports fans missed out on this incredible tournament last year,” McIntyre said.

BIA offers politics program

Next Friday morning at 10, the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire will present its annual program on the state of legislative affairs, “Croissants and Crossover.”

Panelists will include Bob Sanders of the NH Business Review, Garry Rayno of InDepthNH.org, Dean Spiliotes of Southern New Hampshire University and yours truly.

Details at biaofnh.com/events.

Kevin Landrigan is the State House bureau chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at klandrigan@unionleader.com.

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