After hearing, Executive Council still unsure on Jasper nomination

  • Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson talks about the governors budget address from his office, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Friday, November 17, 2017

House Speaker Shawn Jasper walked out with confidence. “I think it went well,” the Hudson Republican said, three hours after the start of an Executive Council hearing on his bid to become the next state agriculture commissioner.

He had some justification: The questions posed by councilors had been largely tame, the mood light.

But ahead of a likely Nov. 22 council vote, many of the councilors making that decision said they remain undecided. Several cited ongoing concerns with Jasper’s bid they said they still need to consider.

“We’re going to have to chew on this one a little while,” said David Wheeler, R-Milford, who had expressed reservations ahead of the hearing. Councilors Joseph Kenney, R-Union and Andru Volinsky, D-Concord said they are also undecided. Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston said he will vote yes; Councilor Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, was not immediately available for comment.

For members of the council, the hesitations are two-fold. Many took issue with the process of Jasper’s nomination itself. In a surprise move, Gov. Chris Sununu recommended the Speaker for the post in mid-October; by the end of the day, six candidates had put their name forward to replace him. On Nov. 2, at a full House session to vote on a vetoed bill, Jasper gave a “farewell speech,” doling out thank you’s and receiving standing applause.

All of that preceded any input by the Executive Council, the body with direct power to confirm or deny Jasper’s move. Speaking on Friday, Jasper expressed regret at the timing of the speech, but said if he’s confirmed, it would have been the last time he could have addressed the body.

Councilors also have raised concerns over the Speaker’s experience for the role. While past commissioners have been active farm owners or producers themselves, Jasper has been a landlord much of his life.

Throughout an extensive questioning period, councilors pressed him on that point. But Jasper said that he has kept active with the farming community nonetheless.

Raised on a chicken farm in Hudson, Jasper was active in poultry farming throughout his youth, briefly studying animal science at the University of New Hampshire. After brief attempts to continue his interests, he eventually left the business in his twenties.

For 29 years, the Speaker has also been an adviser to University of New Hampshire’s Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, which focuses on agriculture. Part of the role is bringing students to agricultural conventions and seminars around the country, he said.

Through that fraternity, he argued Friday, he’s been able to stay on top of new technologies and trends in the business. And he said his early years had fueled a keen interest in agriculture that continues today.

“You can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy,” Jasper said in testimony Friday.

Facing pointed questions, Jasper revealed a number of positions relating to agriculture: He does not believe small farms should be forced to add labels for genetically modified food; he harbors concerns about the impact marijuana legalization could have for children; he would not support a ban on cages or crates for chickens, calling temporary confinement necessary.

Jasper opposes government intervention in the agriculture markets but does support relief efforts during natural disasters, recalling the $2 million bailout for dairy farmers he helped secure as Speaker after a severe drought last summer.

Looking to the department, Jasper said he would focus on rebranding New Hampshire as a destination for “agri-tourism,” and would promote low-interest loan programs and “current use” state land designations to encourage young people to enter the industry.

And he said he would sit down with the department’s division heads to assess what it’s capable of.

“I think it’s important that the department not pretend it’s doing things well when it can’t,” he said.

As for his experience: Jasper plans to reach out and listen to farmers’ concerns, he said. And his time leading the House makes him capable of learning complex topics quickly, he added.

Many seemed satisfied with that answer, at least.

“I think the Speaker is a quick study, but I’m a little disappointed that he doesn’t have his arms around all of agriculture,” Wheeler said, arguing that he had focused on issues surrounding big producers rather than smaller “micro-farmers.”

In his own comments afterward, Volinsky raised objections to specific positions Jasper had taken, such as on GMO labels. And Kenney said he would need to hear more from farmers in his constituency, some of whom, he said, were worried about Jasper’s experience.

Prescott said he’d heard all he needed to; he’d talked to Jasper’s UNH professor, who gave a glowing review.

And speaking to his own qualifications, Jasper said his interest runs deep.

“Agriculture is part of who I am; it is my passion,” he added.