If they could be governor, this is what they'd say

SOURCE: The Concord Monitor
By Lauren R. Dorgan
Posted: Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

When Gov. John Lynch takes the podium today for his third inaugural address, he will face challenges that dwarf what he faced in his first two terms. But, partisans from both sides of the aisle say, he'll also have the opportunity to set the tone for the next two years or to lay out political capital as one of the most popular governors in state history to do something big.

Yesterday, several folks shared their advice for how Lynch should use the moment.

Former governor John Sununu, who hopes to take the helm of the state Republican Party this month, made a splash in the fall when he proclaimed that Lynch, a centrist Democrat who has routinely garnered approval ratings topping 70 percent, is "the worst governor the state has ever had."

Sununu opined that Lynch should use his speech today to set a strict tone in this difficult budget year, which many budget watchers and policy wonks expect to be the worst in a generation. Sununu suggested announcing a plan to hold down the budget to "level funding or better."

"The very simple way to do it is for him to say next year's spending level should be no higher than this year's spending level after we've done all the cuts," Sununu said. "If he really wants to do it right, he ought to cut 2 or 3 percent out of it."

Specific goals are key, Sununu said. Broad, general promises, he said, will only make it "harder in the long run."

In fact, Lynch has already asked state agency leaders to craft a set of budget proposals at 97 percent of current spending, although it's unclear whether he intends to press for that level.

The spiraling state of the national economy - and the toll on the state budget - will doubtless dominate the address.

"Obviously, these are unprecedented economic times, and the speech is going to reflect that," said Lynch spokesman Colin Manning.

After several rounds of cuts, lawmakers still have $100 million left to make up in the current budget, which ends in June. And many budget watchers expect the next budget season to be the most difficult in a generation or longer. The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies has estimated that just to keep promises and maintain levels of service, lawmakers might have to raise as much as $500 million in additional revenue.

Needless to say, Arnie Arnesen doesn't see entirely eye-to-eye with Sununu.

"I want him to say what bold means, Concord-style," said Arnesen, a liberal commentator and former Democratic candidate for governor.

Arnesen's prescription: Lynch should call for using expected federal dollars for infrastructure improvements to pay for projects that the state has been "incapable of doing," such as improvements to railroad lines.

Meanwhile, she said, Lynch shouldn't neglect state roads and bridges. To fill up the near-bankrupt highway fund, Arnesen advised, Lynch should join senior House lawmakers in calling for increasing the state's gas tax, which pays for road repairs.

That would give the state a "double shot in the arm" of infrastructure dollars, bringing immediate construction jobs and long-term benefits, Arnesen said. But it may be difficult advice for Lynch to follow: In all three runs for governor, Lynch has taken "The Pledge" against new taxes, and his 2006 campaign lambasted an opponent for flirting with the idea of raising the gas tax.

Saying she's tired of waiting for a bold rescue from the federal government, Arnesen also cited an unexpected example. "I want him to be a little bit like Meldrim Thomson," she said, praising the archconservative former governor's love of fixing problems in-state. "Mel Thomson used to tell the federal government to screw itself."

Arnesen also backed the idea of some Democratic lawmakers of installing a "circuit breaker" on property taxes, some sort of mechanism to make sure that folks aren't paying more than a certain percentage of their income in property taxes. Arnesen would increase the state property tax to pay the difference.

Few of Arnesen's ideas would get very far with Sherman Packard, the Londonderry Republican who just took over as minority leader in the House.

Packard called for fiscal restraint and laid out one underlying principle. "As far as Republicans are concerned, the worst thing would be raising taxes and fees and looking for any kind of a broad-based tax or something like that," Packard said.

Those options wouldn't necessarily be off the table with Diana Lacey, a State Employees' Association vice president who said she hopes the governor will tackle head-on the state's chronic funding problems. If Lacey had her druthers, Lynch would set up a task force to look at how to improve state government.

"I would like him to take the lead on forcing a large statewide dialogue on addressing New Hampshire's longstanding habit of we put off till tomorrow what we should be paying for today," she said.