The announced retirement last month of former New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O’Brien is certain to set off reflections and reactions from across the political spectrum as the legislative session winds down next year.
To his liberal critics, the departure of their favorite boogeyman is bittersweet. While they were ceaseless in their attacks, both political and personal, they never tired of making him the subject of fundraising emails. To the old guard establishment in both parties, O’Brien was a radical figure who upended the status quo in ways that made them uncomfortable and defensive. To conservatives, he was the fighter they had been waiting for to deliver the tough fiscal medicine and small government policies the Granite State desperately needed.
Then, there was the Bill O’Brien I knew. The friend I worked productively with for the two years of his speakership (2011-2012). To me, none of the stereotypes are entirely accurate but regardless of the version of O’Brien you subscribe one thing is clear – he was one of the most effective speakers in state history.
It is easy to forget the enormous size of the financial crisis the 2011-2012 legislature inherited. The 2010 elections were both a curse and a blessing for Republicans. While we captured a historic legislative majority, we faced the daunting task of tackling a nearly billion-dollar deficit and the lingering effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Making the situation worse, in reaction to the 2008 economic slump, legislative Democrats and Governor Lynch increased state spending by 25% without adequate revenues to support it, even after raising over 100 taxes and fees. Across state government, red ink flowed and some began suggesting that a sales or income tax was the only solution. Fortunately, taxpayers had Bill O’Brien in their corner. He was the right man for the time and place.
That session, we did something uncommon as political leaders – we kept our campaign promises. We had vowed to achieve a balanced budget without new or increased taxes or fees, refused to bond operating expenses or downshift expenses to local municipalities and we did just that, as well as restored some of the state’s depleted Rainy Day Fund. In doing so, we oversaw the largest decrease in spending – $11.6 billion down to $10.5 billion – since World War II.
Rather than defaulting to the usual solution of raising taxes, Bill O’Brien led us in cutting spending and eliminating or reducing 12 taxes and fees. Included were several reductions in business taxes. Based on those reforms, New Hampshire’s business tax climate in one year jumped from 50th to 46th, according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation.
No state budget is ever perfect and ours was no different. In retrospect, cutting the cigarette tax didn’t have the economic effect we had hoped. Despite this and very difficult spending choices, the 2012-2013 budgets produced a $72 million surplus.
Speaker O’Brien’s accomplishments did not end there. He began the process of improving New Hampshire’s business climate by passing over 40 pieces of legislation that reduced regulations on job creators. At the time our budget took effect the unemployment rate was 5.5% and by the time it ended stood at 5.0%. This translated into thousands of Granite Staters finding work.
That said, not all of his accomplishments related to the budget or business. He finally ended the legal wrangling over parental notification for minor children seeking an abortion by helping to craft a constitutional compromise. He was an importantly ally in helping us pass the New Hampshire School Choice Scholarship Act, which has allowed hundreds of financially disadvantaged students attend the school of their choice. And despite being demonized as an uncaring fiscal conservative, he fully supported my efforts to substantially reduce the developmentally disabled wait-list.
To be sure, Speaker O’Brien wasn’t perfect. He sometimes struggled to stay on message and counter the demonization of himself and the House GOP in the media, although I must take my fair share of the responsibility for those mistakes. And while he was far from the bully he was portrayed, there were times when he was too rough on and distrustful of those who disagreed with him. Despite our close relationship, there were times when we strongly disagreed on those issues.
But the accomplishments are undeniable. Were we perfect? Certainly not. Did we make mistakes? Yes. Was our record on balance pretty darn good? Absolutely – and Speaker O’Brien led the way.
Happy retirement, Mr. Speaker and thank you for your service.
D.J. Bettencourt served as a State Representative in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 2005 to 2012 and was the House Majority Leader for the 2011-2012 legislative term. He currently works as the Director of Development and Community Relations at the Salem Animal Rescue League and serves on the Economic Development Action Committee in Salem, NH.