Senate bill takes aim at education commissioner’s political activities

  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Frank Edelblut, smiles at the polling station in Bedford, N.H. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Edelblut is seeking the party nomination in Tuesday's state primary. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A bill to curtail the political activities of New Hampshire state commissioners appeared before a Senate committee Wednesday, part of an effort by Democrats to limit what they call inappropriate uses of the office.

Senate Bill 466 would prohibit sitting commissioners from campaigning for office, participating in or contributing to partisan election campaigns, and acting as or assisting lobbyists. The state’s Executive Branch Ethics Committee – a seven member group whose members are appointed by the governor, treasurer and secretary of state – would make advisory rulings on any alleged violations.

Proponents described it as an opportunity to establish clear boundaries; critics called it an assault on free speech.

Proposed by Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, the legislation would apply to all commissioners. But left unsaid during testimony was the bill’s likely target: Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, whom Democrats have long accused of improperly politicizing his role.

Edelblut, a former state representative was appointed to the role after a narrow loss in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Since taking the role, the commissioner has spoken at Republican party functions, drawing the ire of some who critics who argued he should leave partisan politics at the door.

In December, the commissioner used his official Twitter account to direct a message to Democratic Executive Councilor and Congressional candidate Chris Pappas. The tweet, which featured an image of children participating in the Cyber Robotics Coding Competition, read: “Hey @ChrisPappasNH, how about this investment in our future. 2600 NH students participating in a coding competition.”

Democrats have held up the tweet as evidence of overt politicization done in an official capacity – Woodburn’s bill was submitted the day after the post. And the animosity took on practical implications on Feb. 7, when Pappas and Democratic Executive Councillor Andru Volinsky voted against a routine salary increase for the commissioner, claiming in interviews he had not fulfilled his duties.

Throughout the hearing Wednesday, Edelblut was left specifically unmentioned. But Woodburn argued the bill is necessary to set expectations for future behavior.

“This doesn’t replace good judgment,” he said. “Nothing in law can replace the good judgment of a commissioner who balances things correctly. But I think we do have to have some guidelines and that the guidelines need to be clear and concise.”

Some on the committee were skeptical; Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, took issue with provisions disallowing political contributions to local elections, and questioned whether the bill might limit a commissioner’s ability to testify freely at legislative hearings.

And Greg Moore, director of the New Hampshire chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said the bill could also hamper the governor’s ability to choose qualified staff that aren’t overtly political. Meanwhile, a clause prohibiting a commissioner from “assist(ing) a lobbyist” could create confusion, he added.

But above all, Moore said, the bill would threaten the commissioner’s personal rights.

“We believe it is absolutely essential to protect free speech at every turn, and this obviously works against that,” Moore said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)