EXCLUSIVE: Speaker O’Brien puts jobs, economy, taxpayers at forefront of agenda
Already looking at home ensconced in the Speaker’s office, Rep. Bill O’Brien immediately jumps into answering questions, often before they are asked. The Mont Vernon lawyer, 59, is a thoughtful, dignified presence, and is expected to bring an emphasis on decorum and procedural correctness to the upcoming legislative session. During our recent one-on-one interview, Speaker O’Brien is found to be an engaging conversationalist, equally interesting whether gravely discussing the impending budget shortfall, passionately asserting the voters’ expectation of a common-sense government, or humorously relating anecdotes from his travels to remote corners of Ireland.
The two-term Representative beat out State House GOP fixture Rep. Gene Chandler in a nail-biter of a race – fewer than 10 votes separated the two candidates in the final tally – with extremely high stakes considering the historic nature of the incoming Republican majority. O’Brien has only good things to say about his former competitor, citing their long-standing friendship and commitment to work together. Addressing his motivation for putting his hat into the ring for Speaker, he pointed to his newcomer status as an asset, stating that his relative lack of experience with the often-disillusioning legislative battles and failures allows him to bring a fresh, optimistic perspective to the leadership. As Speaker, O’Brien will preside over a House that includes 163 new members.
New Hampshire’s new Speaker lays out a bold agenda, but he is quick to address what he views as the take home message of the midterm elections. He doesn’t see the Republican wave as a partisan mandate; rather he sees it as a cry for help from the common-sense people of New Hampshire who were fed up with the Republicans, are now fed up with the Democrats, and are giving the GOP one last chance to make good on their campaign promises to govern as fiscal conservatives. O’Brien noted that he similarly didn’t consider the 2008 election results to be a partisan mandate for Democrats, and believes that they made the mistake of viewing it as such. Make no mistake about it; the Speaker’s agenda is focused on what he perceives to be citizen frustration with excessive government, runaway spending, and high taxes. (CLICK HERE to see Speaker O’Brien’s Agenda At A Glance)
O’Brien’s views on social issues like abortion and gay marriage are well documented, and he makes no effort to hide them. As co-chair of the conservative House Republican Alliance, he has been at the forefront of opposing what he describes as the “radical social reforms” pushed by the Democrats over the last four years, including legalization of gay marriage, euthanasia, and medicinal marijuana. He confirms that requests have been made by House Republicans to being drafting a bill that would overturn the gay marriage decision, and defends the right of members of his caucus to do so, but is careful to re-assert his focus on fiscal issues. “The Democrats never talked about gay marriage or euthanasia during the 2008 campaign, and voters didn’t like the surprise when they got into office,” said O’Brien, “our concentration must be centered around fulfilling our campaign promises.”
One of O’Brien’s chief gripes about past Republican leaders is what he sees as a track record of running on a platform of small government, lower taxes, and lower spending, but failing to follow through on that pledge. Pointing to the $650-$700 million standing budget deficit, O’Brien lays out what he sees as his caucus’ fiscal agenda very clearly, “We have to make hard decisions. We have to identify what the core functions of government are, and those functions that out of decency go beyond the core functions that we want to provide. We want to take care of people who are physically, mentally, or financially challenged, but at some point we’re going to have to say that in the end those problems are going to best be taken care of by strong families which result in a strong economy.”
O’Brien considers reversing the so-called “Claremont Decisions” to be another of the key promises the Republican majority must make good on, and he is taking an aggressive approach. O’Brien said that the rulings “essentially impose on the legislature an obligation to centralize primary and secondary education and to fund that” and that he will push to “take those handcuffs off New Hampshire.” He definitively stated that he plans to introduce a Constitutional amendment in 2012 that would overturn the controversial NH Supreme Court ruling that changed the public school funding structure.
In O’Brien’s view, the biggest issue looming over the incoming legislators’ heads is clearly the massive unfunded liability owed to the state employees’ pension fund. “We have to address it; this is not the sort of crisis where I can do this for a few years and then watch someone else come in and get grayer hair that I have.” The Wall Street Journal and The Economist estimate that the fund will be bankrupt in 11 years, but that assumes an extremely favorable eight percent rate of return. “We’d be lucky to get half of that,” O’Brien quips.
He proposes two solutions that are sure to turn State House and union heads alike; first, to eliminate the “Evergreen Clause,” a provision that essentially locks in the benefit levels of state employees’ contracts, and second, to shift the state employees’ pensions to a defined contribution plan that would be self-funded. “Moving to a defined contribution plan for new [state] employees is the only solution to the impending crisis, as I view it…The state’s goal needs to be to maintain a decent pension for our state employees, but not in a way that bankrupts the state,” he said of his proposal, “We have to fix that out of fairness to our public employees, and out of fairness to the people of New Hampshire.” O’Brien mentioned that he has raised both issues when meeting with Governor Lynch, and felt that the Governor was receptive to working with the Republicans, but he admitted that he hadn’t yet raised the issue to the head of the State Employees Association (SEA).
O’Brien comes across as a driven individual with big ideas and the quietly forceful personality to see them through. He offered a summary of his philosophy approaching the new session, and some of his top legislative priorities:
With a historic election leaving him with a historic majority on his side of the aisle, the pressure is on and the stakes will be high for the new Speaker. However, O’Brien believes he understands what concerns with the current direction of the state led Granite State voters to make such a strong statement at the ballot box last month. “They arise out of fiscal concerns, they arise out of concerns about a government that has exceeded the people’s ability to pay for it,” he says. O’Brien remains convinced that if he leads the way for the Republicans majority to stick to their campaign promises of restoring fiscal sanity, govern with common sense, and above all, listen to the voters, they could pave the way for the people of New Hampshire to have faith in their government again.