Cook on Concord: With new teams, the State House action begins
John Lynch was sworn in as governor on a snowy Thursday, Jan. 6. Taking the oath before a full House chamber and an audience on television, he set a positive and cooperative tone, emphasizing the need to solve the state’s problems together with legislators from both parties.
Lynch set a heavy legislative agenda when he called for it to solve the education-funding matter “this year.” He also emphasized that it did not matter who received the credit for the solution, but the people needed a solution. That is a major task, since many on different sides of the issue are considering a “targeted aid” system that would eliminate donor towns and the statewide property tax that creates them.
While this may be a practical solution, similar efforts in the past have resulted in opinions from the Supreme Court that they were not consistent with the Claremont decision and therefore unconstitutional. Already, there is an indication that any such plan coming to the Senate will be referred to the Supreme Court for such an opinion.
It is fairly certain that any attempt to lessen aid will meet opposition, and if the Claremont coalition towns believe they are being shortchanged in any solution, a challenge to the law is likely. That is probably another reason why seeking an “Opinion of the Justices” is a good step, since the question will be answered in a neutral forum rather than in a controversy. In any request by the Legislature to the court, “friends of the court” can file briefs arguing for or against proposed solutions.
Any formula for aid has winners and losers, as was seen last year with last-minute changes in the formula without the benefit of a public hearing or public debate. Many school district leaders in places such as Manchester will be pressing hard for recognition of the special needs of immigrant and refugee populations, students attending Title I schools, people from inner cities, special education populations and the like in calculating where state aid goes.
In attempting to spread the immigrant population throughout the state, human service organizations face closed doors in many places where there is no housing or services, so Manchester is one of the few places in the state that can accept such people and, in turn, its officials believe the state that it serves in this way should be supportive of the special efforts of the city.
Lynch also called for environmental policies that would allow the present generation to pass the environment to the next in better shape than it received it. While a noble goal, people wondered how it would play out in actual policy, and be applied to controversies existing in the state over such things as the expansion of the Mount Sunapee Resort, a bio-energy plant in Hopkinton, removal of groundwater for bottled water commercial purposes and logging in the North Country, among others. The devil is always in the details.
After the ceremony, Lynch and state leaders held a receiving line in the Executive Council chambers, with Lynch presiding over his first Executive Council meeting, where the executive councilors and the governor pledged to work together for the good of the state.
After that, the State House was opened to the public who came to a reception, heard comments from the governor, chief justice, secretary of state, House speaker and Executive Council members. Music in various parts of the State House allowed the public to walk around and see their capitol.
All of this was a reminder of how close New Hampshire government is to the people and how diffuse power is, with all of the participants on a relatively equal footing. In how many states could the public walk right into the outer office of the governor or the Executive Council chambers and have an opportunity to talk to all of the officeholders on such an occasion?
Out of sight, certain practical aspects of the transfer of power were taking place. As guests and dignitaries exited the Executive Council chamber to observe the inaugural ceremony, Governor Benson’s receptionist was seated at the desk. Upon returning, Governor Lynch’s receptionist was seated there.
Behind the wood paneled door to the governor’s office, locks were being changed, vacuuming was going on, walls were being painted, furniture was being replaced and all was being made new for the incoming governor and his staff.
The governor’s staff offices, all connected to the corner office and proceeding down the corridor, are few in number, and the actual staff is small. The Lynch staff is likely to be more organized and defined than was Governor Benson’s staff, which included many “virtual” staff members and had no chief of staff, a function the governor preferred to reserve to himself.
Finally, on Saturday night, the 8th, the governor led a celebration of his inauguration at the Inaugural Ball held at the Center of New Hampshire in Manchester and C.R. Sparks in Bedford. One of the most elegant events in history, the celebration was enthusiastic, bipartisan and fun, notwithstanding yet another snowstorm. More than one observer noted the fact that Lynch had already begun to contribute to the economic vitality of the state, for if it snows heavily each time he has an event, the New Hampshire recreation and tourism business should be strong!
All in all, a good start. May it continue.
Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.