As Finance Committee Chair, Forrester Wielded Budgetary Power Quietly

Sep 7, 2016

This year’s race for New Hampshire governor has a crowded and diverse field. There are legislators, mayors, executive councilors, and all with private sector experience.

As part of our primary coverage, we’re looking at how those experiences shape the candidates' bid for the corner office. All Things Considered host Peter Biello talked with NHPR reporter Paige Sutherland about Republican Jeanie Forrester and her time as chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee. 

To start off, for people who don’t know the role of Finance Committee Chairperson – break it down for us?

You could say that the Chair of Senate Finance is the most powerful position in the New Hampshire Legislature. Any bill with money attached to it has to go through Finance and the committee chair is in charge of crafting the state budget – meaning every state dollar that gets spent comes across his or her desk.

Speaking of budgets, the last state budget process was a bumpy one. Tell us a little about that and Forrester’s role as chair during that process.

Yes. New Hampshire last year had its first budget veto in 12 years – a new thing for most people involved in the process, especially Forrester, who was managing her first budget.

The veto meant lawmakers had to take another stab at writing the budget in hopes of striking a compromise with the governor.

But with the books still open, it meant advocates and lobbyists had more time to fight for what they wanted in the state’s budget. Many of them came knocking on Forrester’s door. One was Jim Monahan, a well-known Concord lobbyist. He told me Forrester managed that process quite cannily.

“She’s very careful not to overpromise to folks who lined up outside her office door asking for changes. There was certainly a sense that she understood people’s priorities and needs but I don’t think folks left those meetings feeling as though they were receiving promises that couldn’t be fulfilled,” Monahan said.

Jeanie Forrester served as Senate Finance Chair from 2015-2016.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Quite a budgetary year to be a Senate Finance Chair novice. What was your take-away with how she managed the committee?

Although Forrester was chair, being in the room you would have often thought Chuck Morse, the Senate President, was running the show.

He was the most vocal during meetings – giving fiery speeches whenever he disagreed with something or wanted something passed. Forrester was more behind the scenes and pretty calm whenever she disagreed on an issue.

But if you talk to Senate veterans, they’ll tell you that dynamic isn’t entirely unusual.

The Senate president is always going to have a big role in budget negotiations – as important if not more so than the finance chair.

Aside from the budget, what were some of the issues Forrester focused on?

Forrester pushed for a rate increase for home health care providers – the first time in roughly a decade. She was very vocal on putting money towards Meals on Wheels.

And she’s also been active on substance abuse issues – both during the budget process, the special session as well as the last legislative session. I think a big part of that is rooted in her past work at a substance abuse treatment center.

She’s also been very responsive to law enforcement. Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein, who’s testified numerous times at the State House on behalf of the New Hampshire Police Chief’s Association, talked to me about this.

“We have an issue, bring it to her, she has been attentive, she has been curious about these issues, asks good questions. If she sees something she believes when we’ve testified and discussed outside committees and what have you she is right there, she is right behind us, she is supportive,” Goldstein said.

You saw that this past legislative session when the House killed a bill she sponsored that would have put money towards a program targeting drug dealers. Forrester was pretty vocal about the House’s rejection and lawmakers ended up going into a special session to pass it.

During her time as chair were there any controversial decisions she made that stand out to you?

One would be her vote against continuing the state’s Medicaid Expansion Program. Her position, like many Republicans, was that she wanted to require everyone in the program to have to work or volunteer – something the federal government has rejected in the past.

"If she sees something she believes when we've testified and discussed outside committees and what have you - she is right there, she is right behind us, she is supportive," Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein said.

But it was at odds with her strong advocacy on substance abuse treatment. Those in the substance abuse community said continuing this program was one of, if not the most, important issue for getting help for people struggling with addiction.

Also her position on the state employee pay raise. This issue became a pivotal one during the budget veto as the Governor made it a priority, but Republican budget writers in the House and Senate never even included it in their spending plans.

Jay Ward, who lobbies for the state employees union, says he was shocked when Forrester said the pay raise never came up during budget meetings.

“She was making up things saying we never talked to her about it when indeed we did. We had members calling her consistently about it but she made up stories for political gains,” Ward said.

A 2 percent raise for state workers did end up in the final version of the budget. But that final budget, the one on the books today, is basically the Senate backed spending plan – the one Forrester oversaw as chair.