Distant Dome: Advisory Ethics Opinions Reveal Sticky Issues On Influencing the Legislature 

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

Journalists are well aware of the Friday afternoon news dump, which is a way of burying a story not favorable to your cause.

The dump is particularly effective if you can ensure anyone a reporter would want to contact has left for the day.

But if you really want to make sure a story has almost no legs, you dump on a Friday afternoon with a Monday holiday to give the ripples three days to settle down.

Friday with most lawmakers already at their destinations for the week-long vacation, it wasn’t exactly a news dump, but an ethics opinion dump with a couple of sticky issues.

One concerned campaign contributions from organizations and lobbyists who have business before the legislature and the other lawmakers who are employees of state higher education institutions.

The two-word description at the heart of the two cases is undue influence.

One was from the House and the other from the Senate so there is no bicameral bias.

The House issue was submitted by House Environment and Agriculture Committee chair Judy Aron, R-South Acworth, who asked members of her committee if they received campaign contributions from the Humane Society Legislative Fund, and if they did, they should recuse themselves from voting on bills the society supports.

Aron told the Ethics Committee she received a $500 donation from the HSLF and a letter from the organization’s director Kurt Ehrenberg stating what the organization does and thanking her for protecting animals in her community.

Aron told the committee she was concerned the letter and donation could be seen as a “quid pro quo situation” and she did not want committee members accused of quid pro quo or of a contribution appearing to buy their votes.

She asked the Ethics Committee for a recommendation.

The committee quoted the ethics guidelines prohibiting lawmakers from soliciting or accepting anything of value, or if they know it is an attempt to influence an official activity, or if the giver will be the subject of or have an interest in a matter before the Legislature.

But the committee also noted that the guidelines exempt political contributions to defray costs for a campaign or as a gift.

The committee’s advisory opinion said “As the Ethics Guidelines are currently established, it is not an ethical violation to accept a campaign contribution. We advise Representative Aron that it is the responsibility of her committee members to decide for themselves whether they should accept legal campaign contributions from individuals or organizations who may support or oppose legislation that could come before them. The members of her committee would not be required to recuse from voting or otherwise participating in official activities relating to legislation HSLF has supported or opposed solely on the basis of having received a campaign contribution from HSLF.”

The Senate request for an advisory opinion asks if Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, who is an employee of the Community College System of New Hampshire as an adjunct professor, and Sen. Daniel Innis, R-Bradford, who is an employee of the University System of New Hampshire as a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire.

The question was if the two should recuse themselves from bills of interest to their employers.

The committee noted there are two ethics laws that cover the situation that do not really align and had a long discussion over which statute would govern. One exempts wages paid by the state from the “gift” prohibition.

Ultimately, the committee decided “Given the nature of their employment — not in a position of influence —  the Committee found that Senator Carson and Senator Innis may participate in matters in which their employers, the Community College System of NH or the University System of NH, lobby, testify, or seek to influence the outcome of the matter under consideration.”

Neither Carson, nor Innis could be accused of being a member of what used to be referred to as the UNH mafia, which included Sens. Clesson “Junie” Blaisdell and Ralph Hough and Rep. Bill Kidder.

Both advisory opinions are what you would expect given the insular nature of the State House and the ambiguities in the ethics guidelines when it comes to accepting contributions for political campaigns.

If the committee had sided with recusal in either case, the entire campaign fundraising mill that has existed for decades would have come crashing down.

As campaigns for House and Senate seats have become more and more expensive, the fundraisers have become near weekly for state Senate candidates, or for political action campaigns affiliated with the House Republicans, the House Democrats, the Senate Republicans, the Senate Democrats and any of the libertarian PACS.

At those fundraisers, the organizations like the Humane Society or Casella Waste Management or Eversource or Comcast or the NH Medical Society or the NH Bankers Association or the American Cancer Society or Anthem or dozens or others do not contribute directly, but their lobbyists do and those contributions are reported. 

If you know the players, you can match them to the company or organization. 

It is not necessarily quid pro quo but if you want to play in the legislature you have to feed the horses. 

While most donations at that level are for $50 or $100 from the lobbyists, they can reach higher like the Humane Society and target some key folks with a $500 donation, which is much more impactful at the House rather than the Senate level for a candidate.

But there is also something more going on that exerts a lot more influence than the Humane Society and the American Cancer Society.

In the last election, two organizations coordinated their activities and spent $1.4 million in contributions to House and Senate races.

That money was spent on funding candidates with a libertarian philosophy particularly when it comes to things like voucher programs and environmental issues.

The Koch Foundation-backed Americans For Prosperity and Make Liberty Win together spent the $1.4 million and one of their priorities is education voucher programs like the Education Freedom Accounts program that has grown exponentially mostly as subsidies for private and religious school tuition and home school costs, not alternatives for poor kids need alternatives to public schools.

The Make Liberty Win PAC is largely funded by the Young Americans for Liberty organization, which in the upcoming election cycle has already pumped nearly $5 million into Make Liberty Win, with who knows how much targeted to New Hampshire State House races.

The YAL organizations recently touted the nearly 100 New Hampshire lawmakers who it supports through its Hazlitt Coalition of state legislators.

The group is sponsoring a Liberty Candidate Academy at no cost to attendees Feb. 24 in Knoxville, TN.

So if you are checking the gifts for NH lawmakers see where any of them might be this week and if they are in Knoxville, you will know why.

The Hazlitt Coalition has seven of the 10 Republicans members of the House Education Committee including vice-chair Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, and the clerk Arlene Quaratiello, R-Atkinson.

Five members — Cordelli, Quaratiello, Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, Kristin Noble, R-Bedford and Katy Peternel, R-Wolfeboro, went to the YAL conference last August.

Three Hazlitt members are also on the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee including Chair Michael Vose, R-Epping, Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack, and Lex Berezhny, R-Grafton. 

This is the committee that oversees many fossil fuel issues, and fossil fuels are the lifeblood of Koch Industries.

While the $100, $200 and $500 political contributions can sway some issues, multi millions of dollars can almost buy you a legislature or at least a near majority of the Republican members.

If you wonder why the New Hampshire legislature increasingly does not reflect the views of the majority of Granite Staters, follow the money which wants to return to an America before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when churches took care of the poor, regulations were nonexistent, most people did not go to college, there were no unions and the millionaires kept most of their money instead of sharing some of it with the country where they were able to, today, become billionaires.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com. Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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