Fierce rivals but same attitudes towards California's threat to first in the nation primary

Secretary of State Bill Gardner, right, and Colin Van Ostern, left, were fierce rivals for the job that Gardner narrowly held onto. But the pair agreed on the wait-and-see approach to the threat California poses to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary position for the 2020 presidential election.

The past year was a robust one for the state’s economy, with a jobless rate that hit a 30-year low and business growth that led to a flood of state revenues well above the most optimistic of forecasts.

But 2018 was also a year of controversy on many fronts, from energy and health care to law enforcement, education reform and even the right to privacy.

Here are our picks for the Top 10 Stories of 2018.

1. Northern Pass rejected by state siting panel

In March the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee issued its formal written decision that denied Eversource’s bid for the controversial Northern Pass transmission line.

The panel found that the project to bring Canadian hydropower down through New England failed to meet a requirement that it not interfere with the orderly development of the region.

Eversource has appealed that decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Gov. Chris Sununu, a vocal supporter of Northern Pass, sharply criticized the SEC, and after the decision he tried to place three new, public members on the panel.

The Executive Council only approved one of his nominees; one withdrew and the council rejected the third.

2) Turmoil, new leadership for Manchester police

This year was one of upheaval for Manchester police with cases of corruption, exposure of a longstanding practice of paid days off, and a change in leadership at the top.

Detective Darren Murphy of the Special Investigative Drug Unit was fired in February and three dozen cases he had worked on had to be dropped. Murphy was accused of having an affair with an informant and promising her more lenient treatment as a criminal suspect.

Aaron Brown, a street-level detective, was fired in April after having been on administrative leave for more than a month.

Both are under investigation by the Strafford County Attorney’s office into whether they had sexually assaulted the same woman.

A Manchester city audit concluded that in the early 1990s the practice of “chief days” was instituted and then expanded without authorization to give officers days off as a way of rewarding them for working “beyond the call of duty.”

According to the audit, 466 “chief days” were awarded between fiscal years 2009 and 2018 — with 131 of those days awarded in fiscal year 2017 under Chief Nick Willard.

In late April, President Donald Trump nominated Chief Willard to be New Hampshire’s U.S. marshal.

The Board of Aldermen in June voted to promote Deputy Police Chief Carlo Capano. He was the only candidate interviewed for the chief’s job.

3) Highways become squirrel death traps

A bumper crop of acorns the past few years created such a surplus of squirrels that many stretches of New Hampshire highway became squirrel death traps in late summer and early fall.

Squirrels weren’t the only wildlife population to mushroom this year; bears and other species also flourished thanks to the two previous years’ surplus of acorns and other forest food sources.

But this year, a scant acorn crop caused the squirrels to wander farther afield — and cross major highways — to find food.

Fish and Game experts noticed squirrels were so numerous they were snacking on food they were never interested in before.

“They will take bites out of peaches that are as hard as baseballs. I have never seen until this summer squirrels go after my high bush blueberry bushes, but they are all over them. It’s like a feeding frenzy,” said Rob Calvert, a state wildlife biologist.

As cooler temperatures came in late fall, the number of squirrels found dead along highways dramatically declined.

Fish and Game wildlife biologist Andrew Timmins said the surviving squirrels are likely doing fine now, especially in areas where homeowners put out bird feeders in the colder months.

“It doesn’t matter what the acorn crop’s doing if the bird feeders are full,” Timmins said.

4) Midterm elections: Democrats take over

A record midterm turnout of more than 580,000 voters ended Republican control of the New Hampshire House, Senate and Executive Council.

Gov. Chris Sununu of Newfields was the only prominent Republican incumbent to hold onto his office. He defeated former state Senator Molly Kelly of Keene.

For the fourth time in five elections, control of the House flipped. Democrats won 233 of the 400 seats and installed eight-term Rep. Steve Shurtleff of Concord as its speaker.

The state Senate flipped from a 14-10 Republican majority to a 14-10 Democratic majority. Four-term Manchester Sen. Donna Soucy became the first Democrat to be elected Senate president since 2010.

Democrats also held on to the state’s two congressional seats, with Manchester’s Chris Pappas becoming the first openly gay person elected to major office in New Hampshire.

Pappas replaces 1st District Rep. Carol Shea-Porter of Rochester, who did not seek reelection.

Rep. Annie Kuster of Hopkinton became the first Democrat to win a fourth consecutive term to the 2nd Congressional District.

5) Secretary of State narrowly keeps job

Secretary of State Bill Gardner faced by far the stiffest challenge of his 42-year career, narrowly keeping his post as the state’s top election official.

Colin Van Ostern, the 2016 Democratic nominee for governor and former executive councilor, buried Gardner — a Manchester Democrat — in a caucus vote of House Democrats. But among the entire Legislature, Gardner won on the second ballot, 209-205.

Gardner said he especially wanted to win a record 23rd term so he could preside over the 100th anniversary of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary in 2020.

Van Ostern focused his attacks on several controversies Gardner endured — agreeing to serve on the ill-fated Trump voter integrity commission, siding with the GOP-backed state law that tightened voter registration requirements and feuding with town clerks and moderators who wanted to postpone Town Meeting Day due to snowstorms.

Gardner and allies criticized Van Ostern for raising more than $250,000 in his own campaign account. A former treasurer of his also created a different political committee that spent another $70,000, much of it on helping to elect House Democrats in November.

6) Hub-and-spoke response to opioid crisis

Gov. Chris Sununu has taken advantage of a big boost in federal grant money to create community-based treatment across the state so that addicts can get more services at the local level.

The so-called hub-and-spoke model is designed to ensure that all citizens are no more than an hour away from a substance abuse treatment center.

Despite this promise of more money, hospitals in Manchester and Nashua chose not to participate in the program.

Hospitals are running seven of the nine hubs in this new approach. The state will partner with Granite Pathways, a local subsidiary of national provider Fedcap, to offer services in the Nashua and Manchester areas.

“Is it going to work perfectly on day one? Probably not, but that’s OK. It’s about having a coordinated system, to get the feedback from different regions of the state to get the information, to get the data so that we are constantly making the system better,” Sununu said.

In December the Executive Council voted to more than double the treatment rate the state will pay to “high intensity” providers to bring New Hampshire’s payments in line with reimbursement rates in other New England states.

7) Medicaid expansion passes with work mandate

As an executive councilor, Sununu initially was not a fan of the Medicaid expansion or Granite Advantage Health Care plan, that provided insurance coverage for more than 50,000 low-income adults.

But as governor, Sununu presided over a grand compromise that not only renewed the program for five years but included a work or community service requirement for able-bodied adults who weren’t caring for a child.

The work provision was widely seen as critical to securing enough senior Republican lawmaker votes to get this plan through the GOP-led House and Senate late last spring.

But there was a glitch.

The Trump administration approved the work requirement but with some restrictions that caused senior Democratic lawmakers to vote against adopting rules needed to carry out the program.

Republican lawmakers insisted the Trump amendments were not significant and the spirit of New Hampshire’s program could be accommodated with them in place.

This is clearly an issue that will live on in 2019.

8) Record payouts to settle DCYF lawsuits

The state of New Hampshire agreed to pay $6.75 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of two young sisters who were sexually abused by their biological parents while in foster care.

The girls’ grandparents sued the Division for Children, Youth and Families in 2016, alleging the parents were allowed to have unsupervised visits with the girls in 2013 even though police were investigating reports they had molested other children at a homeless shelter.

According to the lawsuit, the couple videotaped more than a dozen incidents in which the girls were assaulted, including one in which the older girl’s mouth was covered with duct tape and her hands bound behind her back.

The state also settled the lawsuit with a former child protection worker in the Nashua office of the Division for Children, Youth and Families.

Ashley Rossiter received a $275,000 settlement after she claimed the agency did not protect children.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said the agency underwent a significant transformation to better serve families — including a state budget that restored cuts made during the last recession nearly a decade ago.

Lawmakers also agreed to create the Office of the Child Advocate. Sununu hired a former child services expert who had worked for the state of Connecticut to look into complaints lodged against DCYF and to monitor and comment on state responses to cases of abused and neglected children.

9) Lawmakers turn down education choice reform

Sununu and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut fought hard but could not convince the Republican-led House to support legislation to create education savings accounts.

These so-called freedom savings accounts were designed to allow lower-income families to send their child to another public, private or parochial school.

The measure would have permitted state tax dollars to be spent on tuition or home-schooled expenses.

The state Senate repeatedly backed Sununu on this issue and put similar measures before the House on three different occasions in 2018. But House Democrats worked with fiscally conservative Republicans to doom the campaign.

Critics maintained it would create a precedent-setting subsidy that could drain millions of dollars each year from local property taxes used to support public schools.

10) All-time Powerball winner changes ID rules

A Merrimack woman who bought a Powerball ticket and won a $560 million jackpot made history in another way in 2018.

The woman convinced a Superior Court judge to rule that forcing the woman to identify herself would be an “invasion of privacy.”

Winning lottery tickets were subject to the state’s Right-to-Know laws and lottery officials had said her identity had to be disclosed because she had signed the back of the winning entry.

The Lottery Commission decided not to appeal the court’s ruling.

The jackpot won in early January was New Hampshire’s largest lottery prize ever and the nation’s eighth highest of all time.