An update on key issues in Concord
Legislators have many responsibilities including studying, debating and voting on bills; providing services to constituents; being advocates for people and institutions in their district on state government matters; and, by serving on study and planning committees that are looking at issues that will face New Hampshire down the road.
Another job for legislators is to monitor and hold accountable government bodies. Some of that work falls to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, the 10-member (five House and five Senate members) committee that generally meets monthly to approve acceptance and spending of money from Washington and the transfer of funds within departments.
But the Fiscal Committee, by law, is also responsible to oversee the audit process of the Legislative Budget Assistant. The LBA has two divisions: one that helps the Legislature manage the its budget process and a second one that performs financial and performance audits. It is the start of the new year and on Friday we received reports on several agencies.
New Hampshire Turnpike System: The economic impact on the state of the 89-mile limited access highway system since it was created in 1950 is very significant. The system relies on tolls to fund maintenance operations and bonds that pay for improvements. Tolls last fiscal year were down slightly as the opening of the new access road to the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport allowed travelers to avoid paying tolls. Total revenue for the turnpike system was $118 million with most of it coming from tolls. Two-thirds of the toll money comes from vehicle operators using the automated E-Z Pass system and the balance from those paying cash. A highlight of the report was that none of the system’s 179 bridges is red listed. That is certainly not the case with municipal and other state non turnpike bridges.
Liquor Commission: Since the end of prohibition in 1933, New Hampshire has been what is called a “control state” which means the state owns and operates retail outlets and oversees all aspects of the spirits, wine and beer business. Very importantly, it generates profits which flow to the state’s general fund. That is why, as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, I have great interest in how things are going at the Liquor Commission. Last fiscal year, sales were $603 million up over the prior year and profits, which is the income that comes to the state, up slightly at $145 million. Craig Bulkley, the commission chief of administration, reported that new stores in Bedford and West Chesterfield created “significant increases in revenue” proving once again the value of building new and modernizing old stores. Most exciting was the brief report on the new stores going in at the rest centers on I-93 in Hooksett. Working with private developers from New Hampshire, each of the current 8,000 square foot liquor and wine outlets will be replaced by 20,000 square foot stores. The northbound store could open as early as late this year and the southbound store in 2015.
Lottery: New Hampshire was the first state to have a lottery. Since the NH Lottery sold its first ticket in 1964, 42 other states have created lotteries. All profits in New Hampshire are used exclusively for state aid to education. Lottery revenues were up 9.6 percent to $280 million in the last fiscal year producing nearly $75 million for the state’s education aid program. New Hampshire lottery sales growth rate was third highest in the nation. Scratch card players produce 69 percent of lottery sales. The next highest is Powerball at 16 percent. The state participates in three multi-state ventures that give us a chance to see sales rise as there are, from time to time, hundreds of millions of dollars in some prize pools. That draws players and increases sales. A few years ago, the predecessor to our current lottery director told us we needed a $30 scratch card to increase revenues. The legislature complied, but Charles McIntyre, current director, reported that they no longer use the $30 card and sell cards starting at $1 up to $20.
Community Development Finance Authority: While there were few questions on the above audits and annual reports, the performance audit of the CDFA was pretty tough and critical of some policies and operations of the agency. CDFA was created by the state in 1983 and works to support affordable housing initiatives and economic development projects to benefit low and moderate income citizens with special emphasis on job creation. CDFA administers about $40 million in money that comes from state tax credits and a series of federal programs. For many legislators, including myself, I have seen the power and effectiveness of CDFA efforts in communities in my area. That means any problems identified by the performance audit need to be resolved so the agency can move along and continue its good work. But, oversight by legislators of agencies created by the state and funded, entirely or in part, is an important responsibility. The differences of opinion between the agency and the auditors on policy and management issues, however serious, do not seem impossible to overcome. The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee is one legislative tool to track and oversee government operations. After our session last week, I can report the process is working.
Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.