Sunday, April 1, 2007

Winds of change blow briskly - GOP says Democrats going too far, too fast

Did you know the first modern, nationwide tobacco ban was imposed by the Nazi Party in every German university, post office, military hospital and Nazi Party office, under the authority of Dr Karl Astel's Institute for Tobacco Hazards Research, created in 1941 under direct orders from Hitler?

The following piece appeared in the Concord Monitor.

This week, the Democratic-led House will likely vote to establish civil unions for same-sex couples, increase the minimum wage and end New Hampshire's status as the last state in the country where adults don't have to wear seat belts.
Last week, the House passed a resolution calling on the president and Congress to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, mandated that children in boats wear life jackets and came close to repealing the death penalty and legalizing medical marijuana. Earlier this year, the House voted to ban releasing helium balloons into the sky, punishable by a $250 fine.

To many Republicans, these votes are tantamount to the apocalypse.

GOP lawmakers, struggling with their new role in the minority, warn that the House has rapidly liberalized on issues big and small. They say Democratic lawmakers are misinterpreting the desires of voters by advancing social change or imposing new government regulations.

Democrats say they have been elected to bring a fresh perspective to issues that have come up repeatedly in the past and failed, such as the minimum wage and the proposed ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. They also say that the Republican argument is built from a few votes among hundreds of bills considered so far, most of which have been dealt with in bipartisan fashion.

The House has rejected a number of proposed regulations, such as a tax on candy and a ban on cell phone use while driving, and kept others in committee - meaning they won't come to the floor until next year - such as a speed limit for boaters. And though Republicans on the campaign trail often equate Democrats with the income tax, the House is likely to reject an income-tax proposal by a wide margin when it comes to the floor this week.
"I would not say we're moving too fast," said House Majority Leader Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat.

Many Republicans strongly disagree. Democrats are "moving too fast to change the face of New Hampshire," said Rep. Lee Quandt, a fourth-term Exeter Republican, objecting to what he called a raft of "liberal-Democrat crazy bills" that are making the Legislature "an extension of the State Hospital, not the State House."

Watching from the Senate side, longtime Republican lawmaker Bob Clegg warned that New Hampshire's identity is "absolutely at risk." The Senate - with 24 members to the House's 400 - typically moves more cautiously than its legislative counterpart, and fewer bills start out in that body - especially those that go above and beyond general campaign themes.

But even some of the action taken by the Senate so far - to pass the smoking ban and to require health insurers to extend coverage to dependent children through age 25 - strikes Clegg, a Hudson Republican, as anathema to his vision of New Hampshire.

"We're a fiercely independent Yankee-type group of people up here. Now we've become sheeple," said Clegg, fusing the words "people" and "sheep." "It's the government taking away your freedom - your freedom to choose what's right for you."

Sen. Joe Foster, a Nashua Democrat, said not all of the measures passed in the House would survive in the Senate, just as the House may reject some bills passed by the Senate. But he dismissed the idea that New Hampshire must never create new regulations.

"I've heard a lot (from Republicans claiming) the state is no longer a 'Live Free or Die' state," he said. "If that means we are regulating smoking in restaurants, well then I guess that may be so."

Like Clegg, state Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen believes the new Democratic majority in the Legislature - where Democrats control the House and Senate simultaneously for the first time since the 19th century - was largely a byproduct of an election in which voters wanted to send an anti-President Bush, anti-Republican message at the federal level.

Democratic legislative candidates also benefited considerably from Democratic Gov. John Lynch's 74 percent-26 percent re-election at the top of the ticket over the lesser known Jim Coburn, who had served one term as a state representative. Lynch is widely viewed as a political moderate.

"I think that the Democrats are over-reading their mandate from last fall, and I think that they are close to going too far too fast on a lot of bills that people didn't have in mind when they voted for the Democrats last November," Cullen said. "The Democrats are very close to overplaying their hand on a lot of these bills, the 'nanny state' bills in particular."

In an interview with the Monitor last week, Lynch said he had thus far largely refrained from weighing in with lawmakers on issues beyond the agenda he set forth on the campaign trail, which included resolving the education-funding issue, raising the high school graduation rate and increasing the minimum wage.

But even if he hasn't taken a position on other legislative matters, he thinks the issues before the Legislature are not surprising. This year's debate is a continuation of discussions from past sessions, he said.

"Many of these issues that are brought up now have also been brought up in the past. They're not new with this session, they (just) have more support in this session," Lynch said, adding, "I think that's what this session should be for - debating these issues."

Cullen claims Democrats are moving too fast with the civil unions bill, on which Lynch has not taken a position. "This is a huge issue that got basically no public discussion in the campaign last year," he said. "New Hampshire has not been known as a lab rat for social policy. There are only three states that have civil unions."

Earlier this year, Democratic Sen. Peter Burling told the Monitor he was a "little startled" by the same-sex marriage and partnership bills proposed in the House, which he said deserve "quieter waters, a calm spell, so that we can really deliberate and think about it and try to do good work." Burling was concerned it wouldn't be possible in a year in which Democrats are learning to operate as a majority while trying to pass a responsible budget and achieve a Supreme Court-ordered definition of an adequate education, among other tasks.

"I don't think it was wrong to say that at the time," Burling said last week, adding that he thinks civil unions will pass the House and Senate. A 15-5 majority on the House Judiciary Committee endorsed civil unions while recommending the Legislature study full marriage for same-sex couples, instead of passing marriage this year. Burling and other lawmakers increasingly see civil unions as a moderate, bipartisan position that will extend legal rights to same-sex couples. "People find (the absence of those rights) a basic violation of New Hampshire's sense of fairness," he said.

As for the election "mandate," Burling said Democrats in the Legislature partly owe their majority status to the Iraq war and the president's "fascination with bad policy." But voters at the state level were also "fed up with Republican just-say-no policies," he said.

Wallner agreed. "I even think at that (state-legislative) level people were looking for change," she said. "I think they were kind of tired of always the naysayers and making New Hampshire always different. I mean, we're different because we don't wear seat belts? Well, that's not the reason we want to be different. . . . That's not something to be proud of."

The debate about the meaning of the 2006 election will likely continue until voters go to the polls next year. After the House voted in favor of the war-withdrawal resolution last week, Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican, said the House was advancing a "far left" agenda that would not be condoned by a "silent majority" that he believes will restore Republicans to power in 2008.

"The people that didn't come out and vote will vote these people out when they start seeing the gay marriage, when they start seeing the civil union, the parental notification (for abortion) being taken away," Baldasaro said.

Rep. Mike Brunelle, a freshman Democrat, said the claims of a silent majority are spurious.

"You can't just say because we are making demonstrative and very progressive change in the state of New Hampshire that we don't have a mandate to do so," he said. "The fact is, the people of New Hampshire voted overwhelmingly to replace the leadership."

Brunelle, who serves as executive director of the Manchester City Democrats, worked during the election to expand his city's Democratic House delegation, which grew from 17 to 29 seats, out of 35. He agreed that Democrats spoke about broad themes on the trail - such as improving education, expanding health care access and protecting the environment - more than specific bills. But that's no different, he said, from the years in which Republicans campaigned generally about low taxes or limited government and then passed the parental-notification law.

"If I was knocking on a door when I was canvassing and running for state representative and I tried to talk to a voter about 1,300 issues, they would tell me to go home long before I got through 10 of them," Brunelle said.

He said voters wanted a "new and fresh perspective," and Democrats are delivering.

Unlike some rank-and-file party members, House Republican Leader Mike Whalley said he won't be "one of the people that sits there and screams that the sky is falling." For now, he's focused on leading the Republicans as the "conscience of the majority" and trying to prevent "bad things from happening." He said he'll evaluate the legislative year only after it ends, when the House, Senate and governor have all weighed in.

"We don't know what the results are going to be," he said. "But I'm not pleased with what we've done so far. Most Republicans are not pleased with what we've done so far."

Like many Republicans, Whalley remembers Lynch's inaugural address, when the governor noted the "historic change" in the Legislature but seemed to caution against a shakeup. "Our duty to the people has not changed," Lynch said. "Our duty is not to seek Democratic solutions nor Republican solutions. Rather, we must seek New Hampshire solutions."

So far, "that's not happening," Whalley said. What is happening, he said, is that New Hampshire is becoming more like its liberal New England neighbors - above and beyond the will of the voters.

"I don't think the voters went to bed Nov. 6 and said, 'Let's all vote tomorrow so we change this state and it's not at all like it was when we went to bed,'" he said. "Sadly, I think that's what's happening."

Brunelle disagreed. "We are voting our conscience and voting responsibly, and I think the people will appreciate that," he said. "We understand what the people of New Hampshire want."


Quote of the day.

"I don't think the voters went to bed Nov. 6 and said, 'Let's all vote tomorrow so we change this state and it's not at all like it was when we went to bed.'" "Sadly, I think that's what's happening." Mike Whalley

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