Every successful candidate for the New Hampshire legislature looks forward to this week. On Wednesday, all of the 424 members will be sworn in by Governor Lynch.
In the Senate, Secretary of State, Bill Gardner, will be called upon to read the results of each of the 24 elections for each Senate district and declare the winner.
With the Secretary of State validating each winner, the Governor will come into the chamber, swear Senators into office and congratulate each one. There will be many family members, friends and campaign workers there to help Senators, especially new Senators, celebrate.
While much of the day's activities will be ceremonial, it is called Organization Day for a reason. The Senate will formally vote to have Sylvia Larsen (Concord) be President of the Senate for the next two years. She is the choice of the Democrat Party majority in the Senate and thus there will be no opposition. While we have what political scientists call a "weak Governor state" in which there are many restraints on the Governor, constitutionally as well as through the oversight of the Executive Council, the President of the Senate is a very powerful position.
Unlike many other states, the President of the Senate in New Hampshire appoints all of her deputies, selects committee chairs, decides where each Senator will have their office and where they will park their car. And Senate staff members are ostensibly appointments of the Senate President. And when the Governor is out-of-town she serves as Acting Governor.
Individual Senators will be most eager to have confirmation of their committee assignments which will be made official on Wednesday. This is a significant step as the President attempts to match the personal interests and experience of members with the limited number of committee slots available. Senators will be spending many hours over the next few months in weekly committee hearings so which committees one serves on is very important.
Senators will also re-elect Tammy Wright as our Senate Clerk, Rob Bucholz as Deputy Clerk and Kit Carleton as Sergeant-at-Arms. When the work of Organization Day is completed, the Senate will be ready to kick off the legislative session next month.
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There will no waiting around for issues to evolve when the legislature convenes in January. There will be two jobs that need immediate attention. First, the need to find $75 million in spending reductions in the current fiscal year is critical. Secondly, in the law passed last year to reform the state retirement system, a section was put in that has potential major cost implications for communities thus impacting local property taxes.
The issue is over payments into the retirement fund for public employees who have higher than average income in the last year or so of employment. This one faces a "fast track process" to correct the law.
The retirement system will face legislative initiatives on other issues including a response to the falling value of investments. Nearly every investor has been caught in the stock market free fall eroding 25% to 50% of investments. Nothing is different for our multi-billion dollar retirement fund. But you and I can reduce spending when the market falls while the retirement fund has a contractual obligation to pay out a defined benefit to retirees regardless of investment returns. To make up for the decline in value, the retirement fund turns to employers: school districts, towns and cities, counties and state government to make greater payments into the retirement fund. Except for state government payments, the other government agencies will have to look to property taxpayers if retirement costs go up. Hopefully, the market will make some substantial gains in the near future to reduce the amount needed from employers.
Putting together a balanced budget for the two years beginning on July 1 will be a tough assignment. In the current biennium, revenues fell so far below estimates that a $250 million gap between revenue and spending was created. Building a budget that will be in balance for the next 24 month period in a very uncertain economy will take some sharp pencils and a bit of fortitude.
Next, the state highway fund is falling further and further behind in funding projects in the 10 Year Highway Plan even though the current plan has been cut back substantially. The problem is growing as drivers are simply driving less. Even as gas prices have dropped drivers continue to be frugal in their driving patterns. That means for every gallon of gas not purchased, the state highway fund misses out on 18.5 cents. It is one of the lowest gas taxes in the region and has not been increased in years.
Representative David Campbell (Nashua) is advocating an increase in the tax to meet rising construction and maintenance expenses for our highways and bridges.
There will be conversations about other new or increased taxes to make up for revenue shortfalls. But most legislators know raising taxes in an economy that is tough on working families and retirees is a non starter. Long time advocates of expanded gambling, especially slot parlors at the race tracks, will drag out old plans that have been defeated time and time again in both the House and Senate. Who knows what will happen? That is what the legislature will decide in the new session beginning next month.
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