CONCORD — With Republicans having regained control of the New Hampshire House after a session with a Democratic majority, a potentially hot race for Speaker of the House is shaping up.
Former speaker Bill O’Brien of Mont Vernon, a lightning rod for cutting rhetoric from Gov. Maggie Hassan and the state Democratic Party during the campaign for governor, is facing current House Republican Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett, who is also a former speaker, and Rep. Laurie Sanborn of Bedford, who has been an ally of both of her opponents in the past and is currently House GOP Policy Leader. With a few races still pending final outcomes, Republican are expected to go into the next session with about an 80-member advantage.
The Republican will caucus on Nov. 18 to decide who to put forward as their nominee for speaker. Since a majority is required, it could mean more than one ballot. If there is no majority on the first ballot, some deal-making could take place among the candidates and their supporters before a final decision is reached.
The official election for speaker by the full House will not be until Organization Day in early December, Usually, that is a straightforward election in which the candidate selected by the majority caucus is elected speaker, but not always.
State House veterans remember that in 2004, Rep. Douglas Scamman returned to the Speaker’s post after 14 years with the support of Democrats, who were in the minority. With that help, and with much drama, he was able to defeat the late Michael Whalley, who was Deputy Speaker at the time and was the selection of the majority of the GOP caucus.
The Democrats this year are expected to choose current House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff of Penacook as their leader. Current speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, did not seek reelection to the House.
In the Senate, meanwhile, the Republicans, who now hold a 14-10 majority, today chose Chuck Morse of Salem to remain as Senate President. The Democrats are expected to caucus on Friday to choose their new leader to succeed the retiring Sen. Sylvia Larsen.
The New Hampshire Journal today interviewed all three candidates for speaker and present their views in alphabetical order:
Gene Chandler: Focused on the budget.
Chandler on Tuesday won his 14th two-year term to the House. He served as speaker from 2001 through 2004 and in many leadership positions over the years. He lost to O’Brien in the GOP caucus in 2010 as O’Brien went on to become Speaker and appoint Chandler Speaker Pro-Tempore.
Chandler is a long-time selectman and school board member in his hometown of Bartlett.
Chandler, 67, said he worked hard as the current House Republican Leader to help the GOP regain control.
“We put a lot of time and money into helping them run and it paid off,” he said.
Looking ahead, Chandler the “big issue, the big ball game” is again the state budget, “and the one critical thing is revenue. We have to be very careful and not rely on over-inflated revenue estimates. The other party seems to want to do that often, and it has led us into serious problems.
“I have a philosophy that we have to figure out first how much we really have before we can figure out how much we want to spend and where we want to spend it,” Chandler said. He said some departments have over-spent, and addressing that “is not going to be an easy task.
“It doesn’t look like there is going to be a lot of growth in revenue,” Chandler said. “It’s going to be a balancing act. But I do know that this is not the time to be raising taxes.”
Chandler said, “Businesses are having a tough time, and people are having a tough time.” State government, he said, “has to live just like people live,” meaning, he said, it cannot spend more than it takes in.
Chandler agreed there is not much the GOP can do to make a major change in the current Medicaid expansion law with Gov. Maggie Hassan in the corner office.
He said it is “great” that gasoline prices have dropped, especially given that the state raised the gasoline tax earlier this year, “but unfortunately we don’t seem to be able to escape the fact that electric rates are going to skyrocket.”
He also said that energy costs and business taxes “are things that we really need to take a good hard look at as a way to make our business climate more favorable. I don’t have the answer, but we need to look at it.”
Chandler said he has built a reputation as a practical, non-controversial leader.
“”I believe all members, regardless of party, deserve respect,” he said. “ We’ve all been elected by our constituents and we need to be respectful. I believe very strongly in the decorum of the House. I have tried to portray that throughout my time there. Others may have different ideas, but that’s just the way I’ve always operated.”
O’Brien: Won’t ‘tilt at windmills’
O’Brien said in an interview that he had a spreadsheet of the GOP House members in front of him at his Mont Vernon home and was making calls. He said that more than 80 of the 237 to 240 Republicans are freshmen.
“This turned out to be a non-wave election in New Hampshire for the first time since 2004,” O’Brien, 63, said. “And so the House looks much like it did after the 2004 election.”
O’Brien, how headed to his sixth term in the House, said he held no hard feelings toward Hassan for portraying him as a foil during her successful campaign against Republican Walt Havenstein.
She repeatedly called Havenstein a “rubber stamp” for O’Brien and his “disastrous agenda,” which she said “damaged” the state when he led the House during the 2011-2012 session.
“I saw a national news report where the Democrats had the approach of identifying a conservative in each state and trying to make that conservative the issue,” O’Brien said. “That may well have been my role in this state.
“I don’t take it personally,” he said. “If I do become speaker, I don’t think it will stand in the way of Governor Hassan and me discussing the issues.”
O’Brien said his priority as speaker will be on practical issues, such as the budget and public employee pension reform.
Asked whether he will push right-to-work legislation,as he has in the past, O’Brien – realizing he does not have a veto-proof majority – said, “I’m not tilting at windmills.
“Right-to-work will happen someday in New Hampshire,” O’Brien said. “But we’re here to help the people of New Hampshire, not to make an ideological statement.”
He said business taxes in the state must be reduced “so that we can create jobs. We have to reduce spending. I’m going to be courageous on that and I’m going to invite Governor Hassan to be courageous.”
He said the state has the “third-highest business taxes in the country” and “is getting a reputation of being an overly-regulated state. We have to change this impression by changing the reality of it. We have to look at workers’ compensation costs. Andour energy costs and electricity rates are terrible.”
“I assume Maggie Hassan and her folks care about these issues,” O’Brien said. “If I am elected speaker I’d welcome her ideas.”
O’Brien stopped short of saying that if elected, he would propose a repeal of the state’s current Medicaid expansion law. He noted that the program will lapse if a federal waiver is not received by the end of March, and even if the waiver is granted, the program will lapse at the end of 2016 if the Legislature does not act to reauthorize it.
“We’ve invited a large number of people to give up private insurance and go on medical coverage” funded by the government, he said. “We can’t pull that rug out from under them, but we have to understand that in the end, this is something that will bankrupt the state. I would ask the governor to work with us toward enacting a meaningful private market solution.”
But, O’Brien said, “more important than anything right now is working with the governor to achieve a sustainable public employee pension plan. We all want that to work and we all have some good ideas, so I welcome the chance to work on that.”
Sanborn: Time for change
“People really do think it’s time for a change, not in what we believe in but in how we do things,” Laurie Sanborn, of Bedford. “I think we can keep a sustainable majority in the coming years and how we do things does matter.”
Sanborn, 48, who was elected to her third term, said that while the budget is key, “My big focus in the State House is to make sure our state is a great place to find a job and run a business. We’re losing employers, and so many people are commuting out of the state to work. So we had better turn that around.”
She is open to the possibility of a business tax cut, but said, “We’re going to look at a lot of different things. There is no magic wand and there are a number of ways to make the state more business friendly.”
Sanborn, a former supporter of the often controversial O’Brien, said, “I’m not running because of Bill O’Brien. I’m running for the future of our state. We need to change the tone of politics in the state and we need to bring together all of the factions and work together in the same direction. I am that bridge.”
Sanborn said she is also focused on ensuring that all Granite State young people are provided a “great, quality education at all levels, including the college level. We really do need to innovate.”
Sanborn created the House Business Coalition in January, 2011, after she was elected to her first term and found that a caucus of legislators specifically focused on business issues, the economy and jobs did not exist.