Where do lawmakers stand on business groups’ agenda?

Rep. James Martin would seem an unlikely candidate to have what can be viewed as the most pro-business record among the state’s legislators.

Martin, a first time representative from Brookfield, is a former lawyer from California, where he mainly represented big corporations and spent much of his time working pro bono for the disabled. But now he is a farmer, with 18 acres of hay, and he gives away what he produces.

He chose to move to New Hampshire eight years ago partly because he liked less government – no income and sales tax – and partly because he liked more government: better zoning laws that prevent someone from building a shopping mall right next to his farm.

Despite this eclectic view – or perhaps because of it — Martin ended up siding with the positions of five business groups 80 percent of the time over the past two years, siding with business more than any of the 400 state representatives.

Sen. Bob O’Dell, a moderate Republican, had an 81 percent agreement rate, the highest among the 24 members of the Senate.

The business organizations took positions that were also eclectic. While some positions might be expected from business groups – for instance, opposing an increased minimum wage, fighting a bill that required that large business pay for health insurance and favoring limiting the state’s ability to take private property – other positions might take observers by surprise.

The Independent Insurance Agents, for instance, concerned about the affect of tobacco on insurance rates, favored increased cigarette taxes and a ban on smoking on restaurants. The Lodging and Restaurant Association, which had opposed smoking bans in the past, did not take a position this time, since its membership was split. And while the Retail Grocers Association still opposes a cigarette tax increase, the group didn’t participate this year.

The Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire favored looking into requiring some sort of workforce housing in town zoning ordinances. The Timberland Owners Association favored fully funding the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program and the Lodging and Restaurant Association favored requiring restaurants to hire a certified food protection manager.

This mix – partly because of the variety of groups involved and partly because of what might be termed enlightened self-interest – suits Martin perfectly.

Martin really doesn’t see himself as just looking out for the interests of business, but fostering a growing economy that benefits workers and businesses alike.

“I view myself as pro-jobs, but that spills over into pro-business, because the more we can do to help business, the better the economy is,” he said.

Health insurance concerns

Martin is familiar with business. For 30 years, he specialized in antitrust and patent law, representing large accounting firms, pharmaceutical companies and banks for four decades. Yet he also represented disabled people, as well as those who are uninsured and under-insured, for free.

He wanted to retire to a farm, not for the money, but for the fun of it. “I always wanted to have a farm. I always wanted to drive a tractor,” he said.

He gives away his hay to other farming families that need it and donates pumpkins to a youth center. “It’s a business,” he joked. “A non-profit business.”

He quickly became involved in town affairs, becoming a selectman and town welfare officer. He was approached to run for the State House two years ago. His chief concern is the rising cost of health insurance, so he got an appointment to the Commerce Committee. Like the insurance agents, he believes that community rating has driven up the cost of health insurance.

“The most important factor in health care is the health of the groups, and not to have that examined is a mistake,” he said. Martin also wanted to see caps on pain and suffering to hold down malpractice rates, not exactly a position you would expect a former attorney to take.

Martin opposed increasing the minimum wage – “it is important to have an entry level for jobs” – and he opposed an income tax, because the lack of one is “a great calling card to attract new business.”

Yet he favored banning cigarettes from restaurants. “I feel sorry for kids who have to work in a restaurant for an eight-hour shift,” he said. “And I talked to a bunch of restaurant owners, who wanted to ban smoking in their restaurant, but were afraid that they would lose business if they did it on their own. So they wanted the state to make the same rules for everyone.”

The ban passed the House, but failed in the Senate by one vote. O’Dell, the Senator with the highest pro-business record, sponsored the bill. O’Dell had voted against the ban before, back when the Lodging and Restaurant Association opposed the bill.

O’Dell said he changed his mind because of the fund-raising work he was doing with the American Cancer Society. In addition to the personal tragedy that cancer causes, “there are tax consequences from the high cost of cancer care. There is a cost to business for not banning smoking in restaurants.”

O’Dell cut his teeth fund-raising for non profits, landing his first job while still in college working on direct mail for the Republican Party back in the early ‘60s, when it was still done on with a typewriter. More than a dozen years later, in 1974, he parlayed his fund-raising skills into a beltway consulting business, O’Dell, Simms and Associates, which helps with direct mail as well as matching up businesses in foreign development zones.

But O’Dell got tired of commuting from Lempster, N.H., to Washington, D.C., and like many lawmakers, is now semi-retired. He still does some consulting work for the firm, which now employs 75 and which he still chairs.

‘Fair and open’

O’Dell, who was recently honored by the BIA for his sponsorship of the Research and Development tax credit, is not exactly surprised that he has the most pro-business voting record.

“My philosophy starts with a political environment that is fair and open to business,” he said. “We do what it takes to accommodate the needs of business, to help them succeed and by working hard not to raise business taxes.”

But that doesn’t mean he wants government to just sit back and not interfere. Seeing how other countries and states attract business with economic development zones, he thought that the Granite State could be more competitive by sponsoring the R&D tax break.

“We want to send a signal to high-tech companies that will translate into high-income jobs with benefits,” he said.

On the other hand, like Martin, O’Dell sides with the more traditional conservatives when it comes to the community rating system. “It’s gone farther than I would have gone with it,” he said. He also favors becoming more “aggressive against unnecessary malpractice suits” and “not imposing mandates on insurance companies” positions dear to the heart of the insurance agents.

Not all of the top rated were moderate Republicans. In both the House and the Senate, the runner-ups were more classic conservatives who had high ratings despite diverging with business groups on their more moderate positions.

For instance, Rep. John Thomas, with a 79 percent rating, voted against the R&D tax credit because he thought it was not fiscally prudent. He also opposed increasing the cigarette tax for fear of hurting tourism and opposed the smoking ban.

While he hoped restaurant owners would ban smoking voluntarily, “that’s their decision, not mine,” he said.

The Belmont representative is not reluctant to call himself pro-business. A former GE engineer, he spent the last seven years of his career running the local credit union before he retired 15 years ago. Now he acts as a semi-retired consultant, helping small businesses get off the ground.

Thomas spends most of his time now devoted to the Legislature, He not only serves on the Ways and Means committee, he also serves on the telecommunication, energy and FCC advisory committee for the National Conference of State Legislature.

His major legislative goal is to keep taxes down and keep New Hampshire “a business-friendly state when it comes to the tax burden. That’s what makes the world go round.”

His major legislation last year was a bill modernizing the right to know law in the electronic age, a bill which is being criticized now by media organization as being too vague concerning e-mail communications. But, Thomas said, you have to balance the right to know with the need to conduct public business and guard trade secrets from competitors.

He also sponsored a resolution, which did pass, backing New Hampshire’s participation in the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. He’s the legislative adviser for the group, which gives out grants to helps businesses work together with university researchers to develop new products.

One the Senate side, Peter Bragdon, one of the Senate’s staunchest conservatives, was the runner-up to O’Dell, with an 80.5 percent rating.

A matter of percent

On the whole, Democrats fared worse then Republicans, but they also often agreed with business groups.

In the Senate, Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat with the lowest rating, still agreed with business groups nearly 55 percent of the time. D’Allesandro’s rate might have been higher, but he missed a number of key votes last session due to a wedding in the family.

On the House side, the Democrat with the lowest rating – Anna Tilton, a freshman lawmaker from Marlborough — agreed with business groups nearly 35.5 percent of the time. In baseball, that translates into a pretty good average.

Tilton, who works as a librarian for the Center for Holocaust Studies in Keene, doesn’t have a background in business, though her husband is a semi-retired contractor — and her interests seem to center on more humanitarian concerns. The only bill she introduced last session was a resolution condemning the genocide in Darfur.

However, she said, many of her positions do benefit small business. She isn’t surprised that the insurance industry is against community rating.

“Well, duh, so they can cherry-pick the very healthy,” she said.

Small businesses benefit from spreading the risk, she maintained.

She also quoted one small-business woman who told her that she is struggling to provide for her workers while Wal-Mart “doesn’t have to provide health care. What’s up with that? If they are going to dump people onto the public service system, they should be made to contribute more.”

Similarly, raising the minimum wage would be good for business, “because if you retain your employees you will have less turnover and make more money. I mean, companies spend so much money into training and then lose them. Wouldn’t it make sense to provide them with a little more?”

If you disagree with Tilton, don’t bother opposing her re-election to the House. She isn’t running. As an employee, she said, she lost too many vacation days attending House sessions for the grand total of $100 a year. This year she is running for Cheshire County Register of Probate — less exciting issues, she said, but more money.

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