With a few days left before legislative deadlines, it looks like a bill to regulate public risk pools is dead.
House and Senate members put long hours into legislation after the state’s largest pool – the Local Government Center – was charged with violating state laws and failing to return nearly $70 million dollars of taxpayer money.
Senator Ray White – a key architect of the effort – blames the Local Government Center’s crew of lobbyists and Senate leadership for failing to pass a reform package.
Dan Gorenstein (DG ): Senator Ray White had high hopes for the public risk pool bill.
Specifically, he saw a way to make sure cities and towns wouldn’t get overcharged when they bought insurance from groups like the Local Government Center.
Current law says that any surplus– that’s taxpayer funds above and beyond business costs -must get returned.
But since that statute passed in 1987, that hasn’t always happened.
White: “The House Bill clarified in no uncertain terms the exact definition of reserves and surplus and had a method of returning the surplus to the taxpayers.”
DG: While both the Senate and House passed versions of the risk pool bill earlier this session, legislative maneuvering has now all but dashed any chance of reform.
This lost opportunity inspired White, a Bedford Republican, to rip Senate leaders and the Local Government for blocking the plan.
Senate President Peter Bragdon disputes the notion that the long arm of LGC had anything to do with killing this bill.
He says there are important questions that lawmakers must confront about the operation of these risk pools.
But he explains the House ultimately declined to meet with the Senate to find some common ground.
Bragdon: “I think everybody agreed that something needed to change. And I guess that’s what I was hoping for through a committee of conference. It probably wouldn’t be perfect but it would address some of these concerns.”
DG: Neither House leaders nor Senator White were convinced something was better than nothing, if that something included pieces of the Senate plan.
In his 4 page open letter, White castigated LGC for poisoning the House bill.
“For years, LGC has resisted disclosure, transparency, regulation, accountability and good governance...Now that we were at the finish line on meaningful reform they have engaged in a furious lobbying campaign to scuttle this bill. They have spent well in excess of $1 million of taxpayer money on an armada of lawyers and lobbyists to protect their interest, their turf and the status quo.”
Simply, White says the Local Government Center is out of control.
White: “I think that they need reform, and they need accountability and they need oversight, and I don’t see an organization that is willing to submit themselves to any of those things.”
DG: When faced with these kinds of accusations in the past, the non-profit LGC has touted its mission.
Essentially, that its sole purpose is to help local governments do their jobs better.
LGC’s Merelise O’Connor reacted the same way after reading Senator White’s letter.
O’Connor: “LGC, like any other organization or person has a right, and we feel we have a responsibility to advocate for our members who are the towns, cities, schools and counties in New Hampshire.”
DG: O’Connor says LGC has worked hard this session to share information and data on the operation of its risk pools.
She says Senate Ray White is wrong; the Local Government Center didn’t want to scuttle this bill.
O’Connor: “We will work with the House and Senate now and in the future towards sensible, thoughtful legislation.”
DG: In response to White’s letter, O’Connor says that they are opinions, and they are just that.
But White’s note hits on a theme that continues to dog the Local Government Center.
And that is money.
Over the past several years, critics have questioned whether LGC spends too much on lobbyists and lawyers.
Mary-Louise Woolsey, who sits on the town of Hampton’s Budget Committee, says the public’s money is being abused.
Woolsey: “What are we doing here? The arrogance of it all is just dazzling. The public certainly deserves better than this.”
DG: Earlier this year, an LGC official said the organization will likely spend in excess of $1 million dollars to defend itself during the Securities Bureau hearings.
The state employees union has asked to LGC to total up what it’s spent since 2009 on these activities.
LGC says it will have an answer by mid-June.
By then, the Securities Bureau Hearing is expected to wrap up.
There is some faint hope that ruling may help the next Legislature figure out a way to address the law regulating public risk pools.