I knew things were going to be different around the State House last week as I saw the barriers and "STREET CLOSED" sign. And there were half a dozen state police cars lined up down the street. We usually have two state troopers in the State House. Last week there were many, many more troopers.
On Wednesday both the House and Senate were in session and while there were more people in the hallways than usual, everyone knew the next day would see the major protest groups in Concord in front of the State House.
When the Senate met, the public gallery was full. The gallery is quite small with just three rows of chairs seating possibly 60 people. Half the gallery on Wednesday was filled with union observers based upon the shoulder patches and printed identifications on shirts and hats. The rest of the gallery held the predictable group of lobbyists with their orange badges, a few staff members and other visitors.
Bills were handled routinely and efficiently which has become the normal pattern for the Senate. Once in a while, as on Wednesday, we start the day by voting "ought to pass" on legislation to name a section of state road or a bridge for a fallen soldier. It is always a sad time with family members present as the names of Senators are slowly called and 24 votes are recorded in favor of the naming bill.
Last week, the parents of Marine Corporal Timothy Gibson, were on the Senate chamber floor to watch us vote to name a bridge in Merrimack for their son. They were presented with a symbolic roll call tally sheet signed by each Senator. It is our way of honoring our heroes.
Then it was back to our regular schedule. A major bill of the day was the second and final vote by the Senate on reform of the New Hampshire Retirement System. The current liability or underfunding of the system is approximately $4.7 billion or about $95,000 for every current state, municipal, school district and county employee belonging to the system. States across the nation face similar problems but the New Hampshire system was reported to be the fourth most underfunded system in the country.
That underfunding will start to hurt the state’s bond rating which will incease borrowing costs and will see state and local government retirement costs go up dramatically in the near future. We face a critical situation and everyone agrees that change is needed.
The reform plan (Senate Bill 3) will make many changes including increasing the number of years police and fire fighters will have to work to retire. They also will have to average out over a longer period of time their income from special details and other assignments that in years just before retirement push up retirement benefits for the life of the retiree. And, employee contributions to their retirement fund will go up over the next two years.
This is a controversial bill, but it is needed and Senator Jeb Bradley (Wolfeboro) deserves the thanks and appreciation of New Hampshire citizens for the single-handed leadership. Senator Bradley is a former two-term Congressman and before that served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He is well remembered in the House at the architect of deregulation of our electric energy system.
The Senators voting for Senate Bill 3 are counting on the House going along with what we believe is part of solving our retirement system problems. Retirement system reform is complicated and every change will have far reaching consequences for decades to come impacting the daily lives of public sector employees and their retirement as well as that of taxpayers. The need, however, to make the system financially sound at a sustainable level is in everyone’s interest.
Following the retirement reform vote, the union observers quietly left and when the Senate adjourned at 6 P.M. there were just four visitors in the gallery.
It was advertised by The Old Courthouse restaurant in Newport as "Alaska, the Iditarod and the World’s Greatest Athletes, an amazing saga with an awesome Alaska menu." And it was all of that.
Newport native Bill Bartlett told his story of competing in the 1,150 mile Iditarod in 1980. It was a first time, one time adventure for Bill and what a great story. From the loan of a truck with 200,000 miles on it, using up $8,000 in personal savings and the community support Heidi and Bill received from the Newport community including "I support Musher Bill" buttons, it was a true adventure. Told by Bill, with his wonderful humor, it was almost as if you were listening to a professional standup comic and raconteur.
Dr. Charlie Berger, a veterinarian in East Thetford, VT, complemented Bill’s talk describing how unique sled dogs have become in recent years through selective breeding. He has been a volunteer vet for the Iditarod and a similar but less known event, the Quest for the Yukon, for many years.
Together Charlie and Bill presented a wonderful story about an Alaska tradition that touches us for a day or two each year as we see or read accounts of the Iditarod each spring. Their presentations were backed up with an excellent Alaska oriented dinner of reindeer soup, sockeye salmon and, of course, baked Alaska. I look forward to similar events at The Old Courthouse.
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