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Gov. John Lynch says he has few regrets, bipartisan legacy after eight years in office

  • Governor John Lynch laughs as he speaks to the Monitor on Tuesday, December 4, 2012.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • Governor John Lynch laughs as he speaks to the Monitor on Tuesday, December 4, 2012.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

Keeping taxes and spending low is an article of faith for many Granite State politicians. But Gov. John Lynch says residents are willing to pay and spend more if they understand how they’ll benefit from things like open-road tolling lanes on the Seacoast or the widening of Interstate 93.

“I’m convinced that the people of New Hampshire, if they understand the benefits of projects, they will support the financing. Too often in New Hampshire, the discussion initially goes to the financing rather than the benefits of the project that you’re trying to pay for,” Lynch said Tuesday during an interview with the Monitor’s editorial board. “That would never happen in the private sector. If you’re going to build a plant, you talk about whether we should build it, what it’s going to do for the company, look at all aspects of it and then you figure out how you’re going to pay for it, how you’re going to finance it. Too often, the discussion is reversed in New Hampshire.”

Lynch, a Hopkinton Democrat, is preparing to leave office next month after four two-year terms. He’s the state’s longest-serving governor in nearly 200 years, and has one of the highest approval ratings of any chief executive in the country – 70 percent, according to a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released in October.

Lynch said he hopes people remember him as an accessible governor who tried to lead in a bipartisan fashion.

“I hope they think of me as somebody who tried to bring people together to solve problems and create opportunities, and do it in a bipartisan way, being able to put party politics to one side. And I think that’s what people will think of me. They tell me that they do,” Lynch said. “And I think the progress that we’ve made, whether it’s in education or health care or infrastructure or responding to the myriad of natural disasters that we’ve had, I think we’ve been able to do it because of bringing people together.”

While he said he wishes he’d made more progress on things like reducing the cost of health care and completing the widening of I-93, Lynch said he’s not leaving office with a lot of second thoughts.

“I don’t focus a lot on regrets,” Lynch said.

That doesn’t mean he’s entirely satisfied. Lynch said he wishes newly elected governors had the power to appoint commissioners and department heads, instead of the current system where most agency heads serve fixed terms longer than the two-year gubernatorial term.

“The governor should be given the flexibility and the freedom to appoint her or his own commissioners, because ultimately the governor’s responsible, held responsible, and accountable for the effective management of state government,” Lynch said. “So I think the governor should be able to bring in a team. On the other hand, it’s going to be harder to recruit somebody if that person is only going to be there for a couple years. So it’s a balance.”

And he expressed unhappiness about the contentiousness of the last two years, after Republicans won big majorities in both legislative chambers in the 2010 election. The Senate, led by President Peter Bragdon, “was a lot more reasonable to deal with” than the House, led by Speaker Bill O’Brien, Lynch said.

He said his weekly meetings with the House speaker and Senate president ended once O’Brien took the gavel.

“In order to build trust, you need to communicate. If you don’t communicate, there will be no trust,” Lynch said. “So there was no trust in the House. And it was not only no trust between the Democrats and the Republicans. There was no trust within the Republican caucus itself. And you can’t run a business or you can’t run state government when there’s no trust. How do you work together if you don’t trust the other side?”

Lynch used his veto power over the last two years to block or stall specific bills, but didn’t use his position to become a vocal critic of O’Brien. The job of pushing back, Lynch said, belonged to moderate Republicans, not him.

Still, he said, O’Brien is no longer speaker. (Portsmouth Democrat Terie Norelli was formally elected this week as the chamber’s new leader.)

“That one person is no longer in the leadership position, which is a benefit of two-year terms, I guess, that people saw that and didn’t like what they saw and so they decided to, basically, move the pendulum in the other direction,” Lynch said. “It’s not a good thing that happened. It could happen again. I don’t think it’s a comment on New Hampshire. I just think it was kind of a fluke that it happened.”

Hot-button issues

The Nov. 6 election ushered in big changes. Lynch, who decided not to run for a fifth term, will be replaced by fellow Democrat Maggie Hassan of Exeter, a former state senator who will take the oath of office Jan. 3.

Democrats won back the House and took seats in the Senate, leaving Republicans with a 13-11 majority in the upper chamber. Democrats also took three of the five seats on the Executive Council, which had five Republican members following the 2010 election.

Lynch, often cautious in his public statements, offered his take this week on a number of the hot-button issues that he’s leaving behind.

For example, he voiced sharp opposition to expanded gambling – a position that puts him at odds with Hassan, who’s said she favors a legalized casino as a source of state revenue.

Lynch said he believes allowing one casino could lead to more, and damage would be done to New Hampshire’s brand, politics and quality of life in exchange for a short-term budget fix.

“We have all these good things going for us. Let’s not mess it up by doing something structurally different,” Lynch said. “And I worry that expanded gambling will mess up our successful strategy.”

The state is also facing a number of ongoing lawsuits – from hospitals unhappy about funding, from advocates for the mentally ill who say state services are unacceptably poor, from female prisoners who say their prison in Goffstown is worse than facilities for male prisoners.

“I think the state can settle the different issues with regard to the hospitals. I think we almost could have last time, but we didn’t have the cooperation of the House,” Lynch said.

As for the prison suit, he said some form of privatization, such as a private company building a new facility and leasing it to the state to run, could be the solution.

And, Lynch said, while progress can be made on improving community-based housing for the mentally ill and the capacity of New Hampshire Hospital might be an issue, patients are getting better care today than they were a decade ago.

“I think overall, where we are as a state in terms of mental illness is better today than 10 years ago, and that’s what people who run the organizations tell me,” Lynch said.

Advice and what’s next

As for Hassan, Lynch said he believes she’ll be a centrist and pragmatic governor.

“I think my advice to her, which I think she knows anyway, is to be bipartisan. But to be bipartisan, the onus is really going to be on her, as it was on me, to demonstrate you’re bipartisan. But I think she knows that instinctively,” Lynch said. “So she’s got to go out of her way to involve Republicans and Democrats in not only the decisions she makes, but the people she appoints.”

Lynch is only 60, but he’s shown no interest in running for another political office. A successful businessman and the former chief executive officer of furniture manufacturer Knoll Inc., he said he wants to return to the private sector and maybe teach.

But, he said, he’ll miss being governor.

“I thought, when I ran in 2004, that I would like this job. But I never realized how much I would. I’ve loved being governor,” Lynch said. “And I’m happy walking down Main Street, which I do all the time, just by myself, saying hi to people, shopkeepers come outside to say hi. That’s all I need. I don’t need to go to Washington.

“I am going to go into serious withdrawal on Jan. 3,” he added. “You’ll probably see me walking Main Street, looking for a parade to march in.”

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

Legacy Comments1

Thank you, Governor Lynch. While any Governor will have critics, and you aren't an exception, I think you have been one of the greatest Governors the State of New Hampshire has ever had. Thank you for your service to our State. Alan

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