Longtime rep puts stamp on budget

Last modified: 4/3/2011 12:00:00 AM
As hundreds of union members crowded a hearing room to protest a state budget amendment, the man at the center of the storm calmly answered his colleagues' questions.

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, defended his idea to put public employees' wages and benefits at the will of their employers after their contracts expire. "It allows the employer - in this case the taxpayers of a town or state - to have a stronger voice at the bargaining table," Kurk said, ignoring the heckling that followed.

It was not the first time Kurk has faced angry opposition since the legislative session began in January. He caused panic among state retirees by introducing a bill to lower their medical benefits. He angered advocates for the poor by presenting a budget amendment that would give local welfare agents permission to not serve all those in need. He has defended proposals to cut social services, ranging from treatment for people with mental illness to health centers that provide primary care to the poor.

Over more than two decades in the Legislature, Kurk has built a reputation as the Republican Party's go-to guy on budget matters, earning the confidence of party leaders who appreciate his institutional knowledge and his passion for shrinking government. But with the ascendance of a Republican super-majority in the House, and a desire by House leadership to transform state government, Kurk's ideas and budget expertise now hold particular sway. This year, Kurk served as chairman of the Finance Committee division that deals with human services, and the budget that passed the House Thursday is full of Kurk's proposals.

Throughout it all, Kurk has consistently stood by his ideas, even those that are unpopular. Despite the harsh rhetoric that protesters and union members have leveled against him, colleagues say Kurk has continued to respond graciously to questioners and has never shied away from explaining his ideas to anyone who asks.

"He's one of those people you listen to," said Bow Republican Rep. Tom Keane, a freshman legislator who serves on Kurk's division of the Finance Committee. "He has influence on the committee, and in the Legislature."

Kurk was elected to the House in 1987 and immediately got involved in state finances - first on the House Ways and Means Committee, then on the Finance Committee. In 1996, Kurk was appointed chairman of the Finance Committee, a position he held until 2004. When Democrats took over the House in 2006, Kurk remained active on the Finance Committee, though often as a dissenting voice.

This year, as a Finance Committee division chairman, Kurk heard hours of testimony from people with mental illness or developmental disabilities, from community health centers and homeless advocates, begging for services. Kurk was ultimately responsible for recommending cutting Health and Human Services - the state's largest department, with an approximately $2 billion annual budget - by about $200 million over two years, compared with what Gov. John Lynch had recommended. The cuts would hurt hospitals, people with mental illness, children ordered by the court to get counseling and a host of other programs.

Kurk said the committee worked hard to determine which cuts would cause the least harm. But, Kurk told the Finance Committee, "I've been doing budgeting for 20 years and this was the most difficult."

Yet if the scope of this biennium's budget was unique - aggravated by the recession, a debate over revenue estimates and the loss of federal stimulus money - those who have worked with Kurk say his willingness to cut government, particularly social services, is not new.

"He believes in individual responsibility to an extent greater than most legislators," said former Republican House speaker Donna Sytek, who first appointed Kurk as Finance Committee chairman. "He is against government involvement unless you absolutely have to be there."

Kurk has often tried to limit eligibility for state services, ensuring they go only to those most in need. In 1998, he led an effort to tighten the income guidelines for a health insurance program for low-income families, arguing that children of middle-class families should be not eligible for a program targeted to the poor.

Former Republican state representative Liz Hager of Concord, who served with Kurk on the Finance Committee in the 1990s, said Kurk often asked the Department of Health and Human Services for lists of potential cuts and tried to implement many of them. "That's old hat," Hager said, "other than this time he has the votes."

In the past, Kurk had a harder time persuading committee members to go along. "He did cast a lot of something-to-one votes," Hager said. "But he never let it go, even back then."

 Steadfast beliefs

Kurk holds onto a basic belief that communities will rise up to care for those in need. This session, Kurk outraged advocates for the poor by introducing an amendment to change the state's welfare laws to relieve cities and towns of the burden of caring for those who lose state services. Kurk told the Monitor that families, friends and neighbors, as well as religious, charitable and other organizations, will care for people in need.

That is a view he has held consistently. Fourteen years ago, Kurk proposed changing the same welfare statute. In response to concerns about the state getting less welfare money from the federal government, Kurk proposed a law stating that people who were denied assistance by the state and federal governments would be ineligible for local public assistance. Individuals, he told the Monitor in 1997, would look to "the churches, community organizations, and their friends and neighbors."

Colleagues say Kurk always tries to get the best value for the taxpayers' dollars and is unafraid to propose major policy changes.

John Poirier, president of the New Hampshire Health Care Association and a former assistant commissioner of health and human services, said that Kurk in the early 1990s was the pioneer behind the New Hampshire Long Term Care Commission, which looked for ways to create incentives to get people to pay for their own care instead of having government pay for it. "It's still a fabulous idea, and it was probably 20 years ahead of its time," Poirier said.

In 2005, Kurk tried to make it harder for elderly people to get into nursing homes, with the goal of giving more seniors services through less expensive community-based care. At the time, opponents of the change questioned whether New Hampshire was ready for a switch from a nursing home-centered system to a community-based system.

"He's willing to take tough positions, sometimes unpopular positions," said Bartlett Republican Rep. Gene Chandler, a former House speaker who also appointed Kurk as finance chairman in the early 2000s.

 Inside knowledge

Kurk is smart and articulate. He has a bachelor's degree from Brown University and a law degree from Harvard Law School. He was a business professor at New England College for 35 years, starting in 1970, and retains a professorial manner.

Lobbyist Jim Monahan said Kurk understands complicated details of Medicaid policy as well as anyone in the field. "He really grills you, but he's grilling you from a position of knowledge," Monahan said.

Kurk's style - described by several colleagues as "brainstorming out loud" - has gotten him in trouble. Jay Ward, a lobbyist for the State Employees' Association, the union that frequently clashes with Kurk on retirement issues, said Kurk throws out too many ideas for consideration, without collaborating with colleagues in advance.

"He'll bring in amendments that are not vetted or thought out," Ward said. For example, a bill Kurk sponsored this session that would have changed medical benefits for spouses of retirees went through numerous iterations, causing confusion among retirees and committee members.

At the same time, colleagues on the House Finance Committee say Kurk feeds off the energy of his colleagues and is always willing to improve his proposals. "You don't see the guy backing down because someone said so, but because someone has a better idea," Keane said.

Kurk's staunch fiscal conservatism, combined with his willingness to work hard and his institutional knowledge have earned him the respect of House leaders. Speaker William O'Brien said he consulted with Kurk even before he was elected to lead the House. "He's one of the most effective legislators in our body," O'Brien said.

Yet even with his strong belief in less spending and lower taxes, Kurk has shown that he will compromise when necessary.

Rick Trombly, a former House Democratic leader and now a lobbyist for the teachers union NEA-NH, said Republican leaders in the past capitalized on Kurk's willingness to pass budgets that included tax increases. "Democrats would be saying you're voting for smoke and mirrors. Republican leadership would always bring out Neal to say, 'I don't like it, it goes against my philosophy, but you have to do it,' " Trombly said.

Kurk is also willing to oppose the majority in his own party. Kurk is pro-choice and opposes requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions. Kurk worked closely with Democrats to pass a bill outlawing payday lenders. He has been a strong supporter of LCHIP, the state's conservation program, though he recently acknowledged the need to cut it given the state's budget situation.

While Kurk has worked with Democrats, he has also alienated some of them.

"He does have some Democrats he listens to," said Rep. Sharon Nordgren of Hanover, who serves with Kurk on the House Finance Committee. "I'm not one of them."

 Nobody's business

While policy has often placed Kurk in the center of attention, he is intensely private. He and his wife, Helene, are both active citizens in Weare and serve on a variety of town boards. Kurk has the same reputation as a budget-cutter in his town hall as he does at the State House.

For years, he avoided having his photograph taken. In the legislative "blue book," a guide where lawmakers submit a picture of themselves and information about their family, legislative priorities and background, Kurk's space is almost entirely blank. Kurk has talked to reporters throughout the budget process, but he declined to comment for this story because it was a profile of him. "I'm very concerned about my privacy," he said.

Privacy isn't just a personal matter to Kurk. In the Legislature, he has sponsored bills protecting the confidentiality of motor vehicle records, financial information and mental health records, and banning retailers' use of radio frequency identification chips. He led the state's fight against Real ID, a federal law requiring states to conform to a national standard for identification cards, which would put every ID holder in a national database. He once tried to establish a state office of privacy.

"We think he's in the witness protection program," Sytek joked.

While much of Kurk's role in this year's budget debate has seemed familiar to those who know him, one surprise to many was his decision to get in the middle of a debate over collective bargaining with his amendment to curtail those rights for public employees. While Kurk has clashed with unions in the past, often while advocating changes to the retirement system, he is not generally at the forefront on labor issues.

Kurk said he proposed the amendment on the grounds that it would help taxpayers by convincing unions to forgo benefits. Some have speculated House leaders were behind it. Asked about House leadership's role in the amendment, O'Brien said, "None of that surprised us." But he would not say where the idea originated.

On the other hand, as he has demonstrated time and again, Kurk sets his own agenda.

(Shira Schoenberg can be reached at 369-3319 or sschoenberg@cmonitor.com.)




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