Renovated liquor stores surge; more on bugs, veggies

Commissioners and high level officials are trooping before the Senate Finance Committee to present their budgets for the next two years.

They have already had plenty of practice. The same people offered their spending plans to the governor and her staff months ago so she could prepare her budget. And then they presented their cases to the House Finance Committee in February and March.

Among the departments before the Senate Committee last week was the Liquor Commission and the Agriculture Department.

The Liquor Commission is a business unit of state government that produces net revenue (or profit) that is then transferred to state coffers. Joe Mollica, a resident of Sunapee, is chair of the Liquor Commission and presented the numbers. In fiscal year 2012, that ended last June, sales and profits were up modestly held back by poor winter and tourism seasons along with disappointing economic conditions and rising gas prices. Those tourism and general economic factors heavily impact sales to out-of-state buyers.

In the current fiscal year, sales are up seven percent or $30 million over last year and net profits are up three percent. What is driving sales? Chairman Mollica says expanded store hours of operation with all stores open on Sundays has helped. Sales at new and recently renovated stores have soared. For example, the renovated North Hampton store sales are up 32 percent and the new store in Nashua is up 19 percent.

The Commission has also implemented aggressive price and marketing campaigns. Shoppers see “Price Busters” and other discounts that are aimed to increase the perception of value by out-of-state customers. Commissioner Mollica upped his projections of profits by one million dollars in each year of the next biennium to $133 million in fiscal year 2014 and $137 million in fiscal year 2015.

There will be some changes in the management of the Liquor Commission if plans from the governor and approved by the House are accepted by the Senate. Instead of three commissioners there will be one commissioner and a deputy commissioner.

Commissioner Lorraine Merrill noted in her introduction of the budget request for the Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food that the staffing at the department had shrunk over the past quarter century by 25-30 percent. She said, “The resurgence, even renaissance of local food and farms is creating economic opportunities … to New Hampshire residents and communities.” This growth in agriculture, of course, creates added demands on the department.

Emerald ash borer

The Commissioner highlighted the threat from a new problem. The emerald ash borer was recently detected for the first time in New Hampshire. It is the most destructive forest pest in North America. Ash trees make up 6 percent of our northern hardwood forest and are a popular landscape tree often used as a replacement for the elm trees lost to Dutch elm disease decades ago.

As a precaution, the state already has a quarantine on out-of-state firewood and there is an emergency quarantine of Merrimack County now in effect to prevent the movement of ash materials or hardwood firewood out of the county.

Dealing with the emerald ash borer is going to be a major challenge with potentially huge economic impacts. Commissioner Merrill said, “the reality is that the Division of Plant Industry lost 25 percent of its staff to the layoffs in the last biennium, leaving just three highly trained individuals to perform all the work of the division.”

And to make matters worse, two other new Asian invasive agricultural pests have arrived over the last couple of years. One, the spotted wing drosophila, seems to moving quickly across the state doing great damage to berries and soft-skinned fruits.

The Commissioner is asking for reinforcements by establishing and equipping a new entomologist position in the department at a cost of $77,000 per year.

Eat your ... potatoes?

The white potato will soon become New Hampshire’s state vegetable. It will join 26 other state emblems that include the state flag and ten state songs. In 2006 the legislature designated the pumpkin as our state fruit and three years ago apple cider became the state beverage. The Chinook was named our state dog, too.

The history of the potato and New Hampshire goes back to 1718 when Rev. James MacGregor sailed to New Hampshire from England with a sack of seed potatoes. They were planted in a common field in Derry. A state historic marker identifies the field today.

There was some competition between states over which one was the first to cultivate potatoes. The honor came to New Hampshire when in 1962 the Agriculture Commissioner of Virginia conceded “to the great state of NH, the honor of introducing to this country one of the great food crops.”

After hearing the testimony on House Bill 535, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee quickly, with good cheer, voted unanimously to recommend the Senate vote to make the potato our state vegetable. Such are the weighty issues that come before us.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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