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Gov. Maggie Hassan legacy includes expanded Medicaid, casino loss

  • Gov. Maggie Hassan watches the celebration of the completed Mittersill project.



Monitor staff
Tuesday, January 03, 2017

In her final public appearance as governor, Democrat Maggie Hassan stood onstage in the dimly lit Rochester Opera House to congratulate the city’s outgoing police chief and welcome the new in a changing of command ceremony.

It was a fitting end to her four years in the corner office. Hassan is herself transitioning from one post to the next today, resigning as New Hampshire’s governor to be sworn in as the state’s junior U.S. senator.

Hassan leaves a legacy, her fellow Democrats say, of bipartisanship and civility at the State House in the years after a Republican majority slashed higher education spending and made headlines for bitter, in-party fights. One of Hassan’s own proudest achievements, she has said, is providing subsidized health insurance to 50,000 of the state’s low-income adults through expanded Medicaid.

But her record also includes the failed, and perhaps last viable attempt, to bring casino gambling and the associated revenue to New Hampshire. Hassan’s own disappointment, she said, is having been unable to raise the state’s minimum wage from the federal rate of $7.25 an hour.

The second half of Hassan’s tenure was defined by the opioid crisis, which the state is still struggling to contain as overdose deaths rise year after year.

Hassan heads to Washington, D.C., following a competitive race against Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte, which she won by a mere 1,200 votes out of more than 700,000 cast.

Last Wednesday, Hassan looked out over the Rochester theater, its windows covered by plush red curtains that blocked the mid-afternoon sun. Police officers and their family members filled the worn, wooden seats before her. Hassan didn’t make mention during her ten-minute speech that the event was among her last as governor. Only briefly did she allude to her future in Congress, saying she would keep working to make sure law enforcement has the resources they need.

She seldom looked up from her prepared notes, except toward the end, when thanking the two chiefs.

“When you think about what makes a democracy work, you realize that fairness and freedom go hand in hand,” she said. “Our public safety officials lead us in that goal, understanding that in order for each of us to be free we have to be treated fairly by our government.”

During her two terms as governor, Hassan was known for her discipline and ability to remain on message. The tactic at times, however, backfired. Hassan was dinged during the U.S. Senate campaign for repeating talking points and coming off as stiff in media interviews.

Hassan has often said her greatest privilege as governor was constituents’ willingness to confide in her their greatest challenges and successes.

“The fact that they take time to do that with me and honor me with that kind of insight into their lives is an extraordinary privilege,” she told reporters recently.

But Hassan herself has been reluctant to share much of her private life in public. The major exception is her son Ben, who helped catapult the attorney into public service. After Ben was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Hassan became a vocal advocate for him. The work earned notice from then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen who in 1999 asked Hassan to be a citizen adviser on a state commission for education funding. Hassan agreed, charting a course that led her to the state senate, the governor’s office and now the U.S. Senate, where she will serve alongside Shaheen, the state’s senior U.S. senator.

While Democrats say Hassan leaves behind a more civil State House, Republicans charge that she was the source of partisan divide.

“She was able to maintain the civility here in the State House under very difficult circumstances,” said longtime Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro.

Republicans take a different view.

“The Legislature did all the heavy lifting,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley. “She was always partisan, she was always looking for the next job.”

Hassan governed during two terms of divided government. In the last two years, she worked with a Republican-controlled House and Senate. The most high-profile showdown came during that period, when Hassan vetoed the Republican-crafted state budget largely over a set of business tax cuts. The stalemate lasted throughout the summer and resolved when the sides agreed to a trigger that would stop additional tax reductions if state revenues didn’t meet expectations.

Policy accomplishments, colleagues say, include signing expanded Medicaid, calling a special session to address the opioid crisis and restoring budget cuts to higher education made in prior years. During her first term, the state passed the first raise in the state gas tax in decades to help fund infrastructure.

Although Hassan pushed for the state to allow a single casino with an estimated $80 million of gambling-related revenue in her first state budget, the proposal was rejected by the Legislature.

Political observers call her impact on the state “modest.” The economy improved during her administration, and unemployment dropped to the lowest rate in the nation.

“How much credit she can take for that? I wouldn’t say full credit,” said Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “Certainly the economy was going strong all over the place.”

Some question how much impact a governor can have, or whether it can be fully known so soon.

“The ship of state is very large,” said Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican. “Even when the captain steers the wheel a couple of degrees left or right, it takes a lot of years before the ship responds.”

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