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Liquor Commission study: Go to 1 commissioner, tighten budget oversight

For the seventh time in 18 years, several lawmakers want to cut the number of state liquor commissioners from three to one, arguing it will improve control of a sprawling state agency that has faced allegations of illegal lobbying, financial mismanagement and poor supervision.

The recommendation was one of many released yesterday by a special House committee established in August by Speaker Bill O’Brien to investigate the Liquor Commission after O’Brien began hearing about problems within the agency. The bipartisan committee, led by Rep. Lynne Ober, a Hudson Republican, also recommended unanimously that the Legislature reclaim full oversight of the agency’s budget, which registered $535 million in sales last year.

The Democrat-controlled Legislature made the agency’s budget an “enterprise” fund, outside the general fund, in 2009. The move, led by then-Sen. Maggie Hassan, gave the Liquor Commission more independence to fill vacancies and transfer money within its budget.

Skeptics are already predicting a dead end for the committee’s recommendations and not only because so many prior lawmakers have failed to reduce the number of commissioners. More importantly, they say, the Democrats have taken control of the House since O’Brien established a committee seen by some as a pet project.

“This path seems to have been blazed by Speaker O’Brien’s administration,” said Rep. David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat and one of two Democrats seeking to replace O’Brien as speaker. The other candidate, Rep. Terie Norelli of Portsmouth, couldn’t be reached yesterday. “The Liquor Commission is one of the few things that is working right now in terms of making money,” Campbell said. “I don’t think upsetting that apple cart right now is the way to go.”

But Ober, who won praise from Democrats on the committee for a nonpartisan approach, hopes that approach will make a difference.

She said a Democrat, Rep. Tara Sad of Walpole, has agreed to co-sponsor the bill reducing the number of commissioners with Rep. Marilinda Garcia, a Salem Republican. Sad and Republican Rep. Dan McGuire of Epsom will join efforts in urging lawmakers to create a commission to study the promotion of New Hamspshire wineries.

Ober also believes the committee has done something past legislators did not: While the group wants to have just one commissioner and one deputy commissioner, it also recommends keeping three directors to oversee the distinct divisions within the agency: law enforcement and licensing; administration; and marketing.

“We have a better management structure,” Ober said. She noted that the 2009 Legislature, led by Democrats, recommended some of these same changes. “Those Democrats who are about to become the majority, we have said to them, ‘We like your structure.’ This really shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

Hassan’s spokesman was noncommittal about whether Hassan would favor moving to one liquor commissioner.

“Gov.-elect Hassan is always open to constructive ideas to improve state government,” said Marc Goldberg in an email. “She will certainly review the committee’s proposals and discuss them with legislators from both parties as part of an effort to ensure the Liquor Commission is functioning as effectively as possible.”

The committee’s 36-page report is available at gencourt.state.nh.us, under “Special Hse Cmte on Liquor Commission.” Also there are the numerous documents committee members reviewed, some of them obtained through Right to Know requests. The committee’s meeting minutes, which include interviews with several Liquor Commission players, are also on the website.

As part of its investigation, the committee concluded that the Liquor Commission, in violation of state law, hired a lobbyist last year to fight a bill that would have allowed grocery and convenience stores to sell spirits. It also concluded that the state attorney general’s office did a “woefully inadequate” job of investigating that matter. Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice, who led that investigation, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The committee was unable, however, to draw any conclusions about $100,000 of wine that turned up missing this year from a Portsmouth store. It may have been stolen, the report said, or it could have been “lost” due to an inventory error. That case remains under investigation by the attorney general’s office.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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