Right to know ombudsman bill hits Democratic opposition in House Finance committee 

  • Sunset over the State House on Thursday evening, January 10, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 3/27/2019 4:55:28 PM

After years of rocky starts and stops, a longstanding effort to establish a state official to resolve right-to-know disputes got a pair of victories this month, only to be dealt a serious blow on Wednesday.

Earlier this month two mirror proposals to create an ombudsman to resolve right-to-know conflicts picked up bipartisan votes in the House and the Senate, the latter in a unanimous decision.

On Wednesday, Democrats on the House Finance Committee expressed concerns around the feasibility of the proposal, and in a 13-8, party-line vote, recommended killing House Bill 729. The bill would allow citizens and organizations who had not received a timely answer to a records request to seek redress through the ombudsman, working under the Secretary of State’s office who would eventually deliver a verdict as a potential alternative to action in Superior Court. 

Lawmakers have been increasingly supportive of the idea in recent years. This year’s hang up, said Rep. Mary Beth Walz: job qualifications. 

Under both the House and Senate bills, the person adjudicating the claims must have 10 years experience as a lawyer, be versed in state and federal records laws, and be willing to accept a $48,000 a year salary from the state. That, Walz argued, would be a tall order.

“We’d be hard-pressed to find any lawyer in the state that could meet the qualifications, much less one who is willing to work for $48,000 only in the first year,” the Bow Democrat said. “So we concluded that this bill is just not ready to be passed.”

Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, a Stratham Democrat, raised further concerns that the bill put restrictions on the citizen members of the oversight commission. Under the bill, none of the ten citizen members could be current lobbyists or attorneys for any entity that might be subject to public records law.

“It really restricts the pool of lawyers in the state that could ever be on this committee,” Lovejoy argued. 

Republicans on the committee dismissed concerns over finding candidates for the post, pointing to indications from the Secretary of State’s office that certain retired lawyers would be willing to take up the position.

“I know a lot of lawyers that work for $100 a year, and they do a very good job,” quipped Farmington Rep. Joe Pitre.

The key, said Rep. Ken Weyler, the sponsor of the bill, is getting the office in place to begin with. “I think we really need to get started on this,” the Kingston Republican said. 

The vote came amid a slew of bills taken up by the Finance Committee Wednesday, which is coming up against deadlines to approve its version of the state budget. 

Voting in rapid succession, the Democratic majority moved to retain many of the major spending bills rather than pass them – a traditional technique meant to signal that the language should be added to the budget. Nearly all decisions fell on party lines; Republicans advocated the committee kill the bills instead.

Among the decisions: a 14-8 vote to retain HB 116, allowing the Department of Corrections to reclassify certain positions into better retirement benefits; a party-line vote to retain HB 120, which would add a licensing requirement for tattoo clinics and massage parlors; a 14-8 vote to retain HB 457, creating a panel to study recording and broadcasting House committee sessions to the public; a 12-8 vote to retain HB 616, granting a 1.5 percent cost of living adjustment for certain state retirees; a 13-9 vote in favor of a retaining a reversal of upcoming business tax cuts; and 13-9 vote to impose a capital gains tax to help pay for increased state aid for school budgets. 

All those retained bills will likely be added to the budget bills in the next two weeks, setting up a series of partisan standoffs. But the committee did find common ground on two items: stopping cuts to stabilization rates for schools and setting aside $10 million to protect waterways from invasive species. 

Members of the Finance Committee’s three subdivisions will be racing Thursday to finalize their recommendations for the final budget document; a draft of the House budget will be prepared in time for presentations – and a vote – next week, according to committee Chairwoman Mary Jane Wallner.

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