As he prepares to take the reins as Speaker of the New Hampshire House for the second time, Rep. Bill O’Brien of Mont Vernon says he is taking steps to make sure the discussion and debate in the State House for the next two years is about the issues – and not him.
O’Brien was elected by the House GOP caucus on Tuesday as its nominee for Speaker in a vote of 116-112 over current House Republican Leader Gene Chandler, himself a former speaker. The formal vote of the full House will come on Dec. 3, and with Chandler now backing O’Brien, there is little, if any, chance of an attempt at a coup to overturn the decision of the majority caucus.
O’Brien, a lightning rod for controversy during his stint as Speaker from 2010 to 2012, said in an interview he is intent on compromise and listening to proposed solutions to a variety of issues with “no pride of authorship.”
But he held firm on one major issue: The current Medicaid expansion program will not stand unchallenged.
“I’m not going to leave alone that ticking time bomb,” O’Brien said. “Hopefully we can address it and transition back to private insurance.”
O’Brien noted that in 2015, the state will learn from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) if it will receive a necessary waiver for the New Hampshire plan. He noted that even if the waiver is granted, the plan would cease at the end of 2016 unless reauthorized by the Legislature because federal funding would drop below 100 percent. That provision, sometimes referred to as a “sunset,” was proposed by state Senate Republicans as part of a compromise with Gov. Maggie Hassan.
“One thing we will not do is renew the program with enabling legislation,” O’Brien said. “We are not going to continue with bad decisions.”
Instead, he said, “I hope the good pieces are retained and the bad pieces are jettisoned.” He proposed “opening up New Hampshire to true health care coverage competition by allowing out-of-state insurance carriers” and by allowing a broader choice of coverage options in the private market.
“But we have to respect those who have been enticed out of private insurance” and provide options, he said. “I hope the governor works with us, but we are not going to leave that disaster waiting to happen unaddressed.”
O’Brien will at some point soon name a leadership team, and while he has not said who will be on it, he did say that he will not be the sole source of the GOP caucus’s message on issues.
“We’re going to have a lot of voices out there,” he said. “It’s hopefully a way of getting folks and those on the other side to start talking policy, rather than who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.”
“We’re going to focus on the issues,” which is what, he said, the voters of New Hampshire want.
“We’re going to develop an agenda for the caucus” that he said will address the concerns of Granite Staters. “And the areas we have talked about is reducing business costs, and dealing with workers compensation costs, the retirement system, electric rates and the regulatory burden on businesses.
“There is a reason why New Hampshire’s economy has stagnated while other economies are starting to pick up, and we have to look at ways to reverse that and get rid of the reasons for that stagnation,” O’Brien said.
He said he is deeply concerned about the cost of a college education in New Hampshire.
“I have tried to give a consistent message to UNH” and the state university system as a whole “that they have lost sight of their mission to provide an affordable education to young people” and adults who want to further their education “by making it too expensive,” O’Brien said.
“I believe the community college system is doing a good job,” he said, emphasizing the importance of its mission, “and that’s where I want to put the money.
O’Brien said he wants to develop a working relationship with Hassan.
“There are so many areas where the governor recognizes there is a problem,” said O’Brien, “and it doesn’t matter whose solution addresses them.”
He said the New Hampshire Retirement System’s unfunded liability “is a perfect example” and that there will be “no pride of authorship” in finding a solution.
“Tell us what your solutions are, governor,” O’Brien said. “That’s where compromise should take place. The people of New Hampshire really want and should have the best bipartisan solutions in place.”
As for business taxes, O’Brien said, “Mel Thomson was right that low taxes are a result of low spending. In a slogan like that there lies a fundamental truth, and we still have to be doing that. The answers don’t have to be revolutionary but there has to be a start.”
O’Brien said that with the focus on fiscal and regulatory issues, he does not believe Granite Staters want lawmakers to spend time arguing social issues.
“New Hampshire citizens are not interested in a knock down, drag out fight over euthanasia,” he said. “And the definition of marriage is settled. It’s an issue I believe the people of New Hampshire would be disappointed if we spend time on.”
Hassan on Thursday and issued a statement saying she looks forward to working with O’Brien and plans to meet with him after he formally becomes Speaker on Dec. 3.
That’s quite a change from Hassan’s campaign rhetoric, which effectively tied her Republican foe, Walt Havenstein, to what she often called the “slash and burn” O’Brien agenda.
As for being a constant target of Hassan during the campaign, O’Brien said, “I’m glad she knows who I am.”
Hassan is being promoted by some Democrats already as the top potential candidate to take on Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016. Ayotte openly backed Chandler over O’Brien in the Speaker’s race.