IT’S BEGINNING TO look a lot like New Hampshire state revenues will recover.

December is one of the critical economic barometer months. As of last Thursday, on the eve of 2021, the state seemed poised to show another month in the black.

Kevin Landrigan Dome

Through Dec. 30, revenues were $6.3 million ahead of forecast.

The only variables unaccounted for were end-of-the-month transfers from the sales of liquor and lottery tickets.

(Raise your hand if you think there’s suddenly been a steep decline in alcohol consumption or wanton gambling.)

The hospitality industry continues to lie in its crater, bringing in 21% less than expected.

More than making up that shortfall, however, were real estate transactions. They came in 49% higher than expected for the month, contributing a $6.3 million surplus all by themselves.

Tobacco sales continue to boom (thanks, Massachusetts, for becoming the first state to outlaw menthol cigarettes last July 1) with revenue 54% over expectations.

Meanwhile business taxes continued a steady rebound, finishing 2.1% over plan.

Merrimack special election

As soon as Thursday, the Executive Council will set a date for a special election in Merrimack to replace Dick Hinch, the late House speaker.

Two former representatives, Wendy Thomas and Nancy Murphy, will meet in a Democratic primary.

Each has plenty of fans. Rosemarie Rung, the only Merrimack Democrat who held onto her seat in November, is backing Murphy. Some House liberals, including Rep. Sherry Frost, D-Dover, have said they are with Thomas.

This might not be an accurate assessment, but some view the primary as a stalking horse for the potential faceoff for state party chairman between longtime incumbent Raymond Buckley of Manchester and Emmett Soldati of Somersworth.

Some see Murphy as the more establishment figure in the Buckley mold and Thomas as a more progressive alternative like Soldati.

What’s more certain is that in either case, the primary winner will have her hands full.

State Republican leaders are celebrating at having convinced Town Councilor Bill Boyd to run.

Others gave it a look, including former Rep. Jack Balcom.

Boyd is emerging regionally as a party up-and-comer after years of working behind the scenes in other campaigns.

Like Boyd, Hinch came to the State House in 2007 as a local-office heavyweight.

Boyd, the council’s vice chair, is in his third term.

The general election between Boyd and the Thomas/Murphy winner is tentatively scheduled for March 9, Town Meeting Day for most communities but not Merrimack that has its annual event on April 13.

That’s the same day local voters have in the past elected Boyd, most recently through 2023.

Install him as the early favorite.

GOP promotes from within

After a successful 2020, the Republican State Committee is getting new leadership.

Executive Director Elliot Gault is moving back to take a post in Gov. Chris Sununu’s office, where he worked before being “dispatched” to take over the party apparatus.

“Serving as the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican party has truly been an honor and an experience that I won’t soon forget,” Gault said.

State Chair Stephen Stepanek bumped up Communications Director Joseph Sweeney to the top post.

It was a pretty good year for Sweeney too, who silenced doubters by breaking into the parochial town of Salem’s House delegation.

After topping voting on Nov. 3, Sweeney now will bird-dog all voting-rights changes as a new member of the House Election Laws Committee.

Sweeney’s timing to be top staff dog could be good.

With the GOP in charge of redistricting and President-elect Joe Biden in the White House, Democrats will be working hard to avoid losing seats in an midterm election.

“New Hampshire Republicans under Governor Chris Sununu’s leadership will demonstrate our effective and efficient approach to governing, and we will continue to work with our State House teams to ensure we defend and expand our legislative majorities, hold the Executive Council and corner office in Republican control, and send Republicans down to Washington in the 2022 midterms,” Sweeney said.

Bettencourt hasn’t lost fire

Gault’s move back to the Sununu office comes as Policy Director D.J. Bettencourt leaves to become deputy insurance commissioner.

Bettencourt’s new role doesn’t mean he’ll turn off his political antenna, as we saw last week.

Zandra Rice-Hawkins, executive director of left-wing Granite State Progress, took a shot at Sununu when she said he bore some responsibility for the “armed protesters” outside his home in recent weeks.

“Sununu vetoed background checks and repealed concealed carry licensing requirements, paving the way for dangerous individuals to more readily access and carry firearms. During the election, Sununu campaigned with anti-government and secessionist leaders, normalizing those viewpoints and building political power for those groups,” Rice-Hawkins said.

“For months, Sununu looked the other way as heavily armed white supremacists stood outside of Black Lives Matter events, and armed militias recruited during ReOpen rallies. Now Sununu is finally worried about safety — when his own is at risk.”

Bettencourt fired back on social media.

“As usual, complete and utter nonsense from @ProgressNH. This statement is not only tasteless, but devoid of any sense of decency,” Bettencourt tweeted.

“It’s more destructive invective into an ever growing toxic political climate. Sadly, I’m not surprised by their shameful rhetoric.”

Democrats seething

House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton had his first serious explosion at the powers that be last week after learning how acting Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, had divvied up membership on House policy committees.

Some quick math:

With Hinch’s passing, Republicans have 212 members in the House, for a 53.1% majority. Democrats, with 187 members, make up 46.9% of the membership.

So when Packard decided to give his party 57% of the seats (12) on the important House Finance Committee, Cushing blasted off.

Strictly by the numbers, Democrats should have 10 members (9.8 rounded up) of the 21 on the panel.

“This is yet another disheartening example of House Republicans attempting to shut Democrats out of the process,” Cushing said.

Later he added, “If the Finance Committee is to consist of 21 members, Democrats are entitled to 10 seats on the committee. The Republican Party is trying to say that 2+2=4 except for this one time, when 2+2=5.”

Cushing noted the last time the GOP ran the House, Finance had 26 members.

The partisan division on committees wasn’t consistent, with Democrats receiving a smaller percentage on this critical committee than on any other.

The House Public Works and Highways Committee, which puts together the two-year capital budget, has 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which will craft any tax cut bills, has 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

The Senate often has ignored the math in its committee assignments.

Democrats have 10 members — or 41.7% — in the 24-member upper chamber but two of seven spots (29%) on the seven member Senate Finance Committee.

No-maskers fare well

With a slim House majority and unified support in the GOP caucus, Packard looks to have used committee assignments to reach out to all Republican factions, including those not with him from the beginning.

We know that most of those who oppose mask requirements and wouldn’t wear them at the University of New Hampshire when the House met in November didn’t vote for Packard for speaker on the first ballot.

Instead, most went with maverick Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry.

But many of them did just fine with their committee roles.

One of their leaders, Rep. Keith Ammon, R-New Boston, got a spot on the busy and influential Commerce Committee.

Rep. Dawn Johnson, R-Laconia, who has had a target on her back for linking to an anti-Semitic cartoon that she later deleted from her Twitter account, will join Ammon on Commerce.

Rep. Michael Yakubovich, R-Hooksett, has proposed legislation to end the ban on “armed civilian groups.” Rep. Tony Lekas, R-Hudson, is a co-sponsor on many bills that want to strip or check Sununu’s powers in dealing with future calamities.

Packard put both on the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee, the very committee that will act on the nearly three dozen bills that deal with changing or repealing the governor’s emergency authority.

As for other dramas, conservative rabble rouser and Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, is back on House Criminal Justice and Public Safety. Former Speaker Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, had dumped him after Burt made what many viewed as insensitive comments.

It sure looks like Shurtleff is headed for that U.S. marshal nomination under Biden if he wants it.

The former House leader asked Cushing for and got a seat on the lighter-load House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee.

What do you do with a retired supreme court justice who volunteers to run and ends up in the middle of this crazy State House maelstrom?

Give him a real job, that’s what. So Rep. Robert Lynn, R-Windham, now has a coveted seat on Finance, almost unheard of for a freshman member.

State budget deficit shrinking

Legislative Budget Assistant Michael Kane recently gave the Senate Finance Committee an upbeat update.

Kane said it now appears the deficit by June 30 could be as small as $26.5 million.

Of the many moving parts in that calculation, one will become stationary in days with the release of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year that ended last June 30.

Kane said the estimate now is that the previous year ended with a deficit of about $81.5 million.

How is it getting smaller? Besides improving state revenue (see above), other factors are at work, Kane said.

First, the state government hiring freeze Sununu put in place in response to the pandemic will dramatically increase the “lapsed” or unspent money state department heads give back to the treasury.

Also at least $10 million in new programs haven’t gotten started while Health and Human Service administrators have dealt with COVID-19.

“There are still a lot of unknowns,” Kane said.

The LBA chief is always on the lookout for the unexpected wrinkles that come every year and can be good or bad for a state’s spending plan.

For example: the federal Payroll Protection Program, which Congress passed in March to help businesses during the pandemic.

In New Hampshire, businesses received $2.6 billion to subsidize payrolls and keep the lights on. That’s almost as much as the state’s General and Education Trust Fund.

All those PPP loans are not federally taxable.

But if the loans become grants, as many expect, they will be subject to the state Business Profits and Business Enterprise Taxes, Kane said.

“This is worth watching the revenue in March and April to see if any companies are building that into their BPT or BET payments,” Kane said.

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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