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Hassan focuses on commuter rail, minimum wage and low education costs in inaugural address

Last modified: 1/9/2015 3:19:46 PM
Gov. Maggie Hassan kicked off her second term yesterday pledging support to increase the state’s minimum wage and bring a commuter rail from Boston to Nashua and Manchester.

In her noontime inaugural address, Hassan framed many of her goals to improve the state’s economic climate – from keeping higher education and health care costs low, to improving access to child care and maintaining Medicaid expansion.

“We must not let ourselves believe that if we simply do things the same way we’ve always done them, the future will take care of itself,” Hassan said. “The needs of families and businesses are changing, and we too must adapt our approach to meet those needs.”

Hassan renewed her support to restore and increase the minimum wage, an issue she often highlighted in her re-election campaign.

The state’s minimum wage is set at the federal level of $7.25 an hour, and Hassan said yesterday it’s long past time to increase it. In recent sessions, the Legislature voted to abolish the state’s minimum wage and later rejected a proposal to reinstate a minimum wage at $8.25 an hour and then steadily 
raise it.

Hassan argued that increasing the state’s minimum wage will strengthen the economy by putting more money in consumers’ pockets, and said it would have a ripple effect on wages higher up the pay scale.

Hassan also voiced support for construction of a commuter rail from Boston to Nashua and Manchester. For several years, New Hampshire has been exploring the feasibility and cost of developing a commuter rail, and officials have outlined a range of route options, including extending passenger rail all the way to Concord.

The Executive Council approved a $3.7 million rail and transit study in 2013 to study options and costs, among other factors. In December, the Council granted the company more time to complete the study. Officials expect a final report later this month. Funding for the project remains the big sticking point, said state Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Boynton.

“There is no obvious funding mechanism in New Hampshire,” he said.

Hassan emphasized the benefits of rail, saying it can improve access and “provide new transportation and housing opportunities, the kind of opportunities that 21st-century workers and families are looking for.”

Hassan also signaled a commitment to address the state’s rising energy costs, which is considered one of the most critical issues facing the business community. This winter, electric utilities have increased their rates up to 100 percent in some cases and blame the spikes on a lack of natural gas pipeline infrastructure in New England.

Hassan focused on improving the state’s efforts in conservation and efficiency, and also said the region needs to increase its natural gas supply and diversify energy resources.

Two proposals that have faced strong pushback are a 70-mile natural gas pipeline through southern New Hampshire that would be built by energy giant Kinder Morgan, and the 187-mile Northern Pass project.

Hassan didn’t mention either proposal by name, but said New Hampshire will not capitulate any plans that aren’t right for the state.

“We must innovate, negotiate, and get to solutions that lead to a stronger, more affordable energy future,” she said.

In spite of those policy goals, the issue that will likely take center stage this session is the budget.

Hassan promised she won’t employ a sales or income tax to balance the budget, but offered few other specifics. She will reveal a full proposal by Feb. 15.

In her first term, Hassan built potential casino revenue into her budget proposal. She didn’t mention a casino in her inaugural address, and hasn’t yet said whether she will include gambling revenue in her budget proposal.

Unlike in her first term when Democrats controlled the House and the Executive Council, Hassan now faces Republican majorities in both legislative bodies and in the Executive Council, which will likely make it harder for her to push her agenda. She said yesterday she looks forward to working in a bipartisan fashion and didn’t take any direct shots at Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, said Hassan struck the right tone of party cooperation in her speech.

But, he added, the two big initiatives she touted – raising the minimum wage and constructing a commuter rail – are costly.

“Minimum wage has been rejected a number of times; it’s a job-killer,” he said.

House Majority Leader Jack Flanagan, a Brookline Republican, sounded a similar tone.

“She has a lot of great ideas,” he said. “I just don’t know where the money is going to come from.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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