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Editorial: Three bipartisan challenges for the new Legislature

Of all the messages New Hampshire voters seemed to be sending last month, perhaps the loudest was that they wanted a change of tone at the State House. And as new leaders were sworn in last week, they made clear that they were listening.

“This Legislature works best when we work together,” said Democratic Rep. Terie Norelli, who was elevated from minority leader to speaker of the House. “The citizens of the great state of New Hampshire sent us here, I believe, with a message: They want a Legislature that puts partisan politics aside and works in a respectful way on the issues that matter to the Granite State. And that is exactly what we should all plan to do.”

Already there are signs of improvement. Norelli says she intends to meet regularly with leaders of the House Republican minority. And she intends to swiftly disband the Redress of Grievances Committee, a kangaroo court empowered by the former GOP leaders that was a distraction at best and, at worst, an attempt to subvert the judiciary.

Additionally, the leaders of both party caucuses in both the House and Senate are experienced, civil politicians no doubt capable of toning down the incendiary rhetoric of 2011-12.

What would give voters even more confidence, however, would be swift progress on some big, nonpartisan challenges facing the state. Here are three to start with:

∎ Prisons. The men’s prison in Concord and the women’s prison in Goffstown are both in dire need of replacement. The issue isn’t new, and honest politicians of both parties would be quick to acknowledge it. The state, in fact, is facing a lawsuit over conditions for women. This is a big-ticket item, but it’s not ideological. Lawmakers also have little choice: Act now or be forced to act by the courts.

∎ Northern Pass. In an interview with the Monitor last week, outgoing Gov. John Lynch said he had tried unsuccessfully to bring PSNH and its opponents together to hash out a compromise on the controversial plan to bring hydroelectric power from Quebec down through New Hampshire. He lamented the race to gobble up North Country property – with the big-spending winner deciding a major energy and environmental policy for the state for years to come. This issue cuts across party lines, and newly elected lawmakers and Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan should renew efforts to ease the uncertainty in the North Country.

∎ Expansion of Interstate 93. In a pre-election speech, Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement said the state needs $250 million to finish the widening project between Exit 3 and Manchester.

In his interview with the Monitor, Lynch argued that taxpayers are willing to pay for infrastructure projects once they’re convinced they’re necessary. This is a case that’s certainly worth making.

Consider: Since the interstate was built in the early 1960s, traffic has increased by more than 600 percent – to 115,000 cars per day in Salem, according to state statistics. Accidents have increased, as have traffic jams between Massachusetts and Manchester. And 14 of the 43 bridges between Salem and Mnachester are on the state’s “red list.”

Finding a way to fix the road would be appreciated by commuters and tourists alike.

It won’t be all sweetness and light at the State House, of course.

Already, House Republicans are complaining that Norelli fired a popular staffer.

Senate Democrats are disappointed that they won’t be named to lead any committees, despite their near parity in numbers with the Republicans.

But what matters to voters are results. If at the end of two years Hassan and the Legislature had actually committed the state to plans for new prisons, helped settle the Northern Pass issue and figured out a long-term scheme for the highway, they will have made significant, bipartisan progress – just as they are promising.

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