When Republican State Rep. Shawn Jasper of Hudson was elected to the House speakership last year, scores of Republicans in the Statehouse were reportedly unhappy; many predicted that Jasper’s leadership would undermine the Republican agenda in favor of more moderate or liberal goals. But ultimately Republicans stood as one and passed several key pieces of legislation, including the state budget.
Overall, Jasper characterizes the 2015 session as a resounding success.
“It has worked out much better than I ever thought that it could have,” Jasper said. “We did things that really nobody had been able to do.”
He points to things like adjusting Common Core testing requirements, workers comp reform and business tax cuts as huge wins for the party.
But how did what many feared would be a turbulent year turn into a relatively peaceful and productive one for Republicans?
According to Jasper’s political ally former Majority Leader Jack Flanagan, the process and perhaps the mundanity of refining and passing legislation softened the hard feelings that started the 2015 session.
“Once we established committees and started debating bills, a lot of the hurt feelings sort of subsided. Not that they went away, but they were more focused on the work that had to be done, the bills that had to be processed and getting legislation done,” Flanagan said.
He said there were times when lawmakers swallowed their pride and worked with Jasper to get bills through that they cared about.
“It became, ‘I still don’t like him but I want my bill to pass,’” Flanagan said.
Even Rep. Al Baldasaro of Londonderry, a member of the conservative faction miffed by Jasper’s election, thinks lawmakers had to put aside their feelings and unite as a party to get bills passed.
“As Republicans, we did the people’s business,” Baldasaro said. “We may not have any respect for the speaker on what he did, because he actually screwed over the caucus.”
Baldasaro referred to the fact that the Republican caucus had narrowly selected former Speaker Bill O’Brien to be their nominee over the more moderate Rep. Gene Chandler.
For his part, Jasper said, those Republicans upset about his election, which likely required the Democratic vote to go through, said the sky was falling. Jasper said many claimed he would appoint Democratic committee chairs or vice chairs, that he was anti-gun or that he wouldn’t share the Republican agenda.
“I think pretty much everything that they anticipated turned out to be not true and the House moved on in a normal fashion,” Jasper said.
As Flanagan describes it, Jasper’s leadership style is shaped by his being a stickler for parliamentary procedure, a fan of Statehouse history and a traditionalist when it comes to decorum. Indeed, Jasper made at least a few speeches and letters to House lawmakers reminding them of what he thinks of as their unwritten duties to conduct themselves with carefully chosen words and calm tempers. He did this last March after several lawmakers brutally mocked a bill presented by fourth-graders (who were present) that would have established a state raptor. And Jasper started the year in much the same way, after certain lawmakers made controversial comments on a Facebook thread about a bill that would ban toplessness.
Baldasaro remains unamused by that speech, calling it a “scolding” and saying it infringed on free speech.
Flanagan said Jasper was also instrumental in uniting the party.
“You could say that about the budget. When I was in the room with, shall we say, people that aligned themselves with Bill O’Brien, sure,” Flanagan said. “I think he explained to all parties involved [what] was the best thing for our caucus was to get the budget passed and I think we all agreed. He put it out there like, ‘What’s the best way to do it? Are there issues that need to be addressed that you can or cannot live with?’”
While Baldasaro and more than 50 Republicans voted against the ultimate House budget that moved on to be reconciled with the Senate budget, he says Jasper did do his job by working with Republicans instead of Democrats, with whom he feels Jasper has too much in common.
“I think he’s too cozy with Democrats and he’s the typical establishment [Republican],” Baldasaro said.
Either way, it seems clear that Jasper has a very different approach to governing than his Republican predecessor, Bill O’Brien.
“[Jasper] also claims that he represents both parties. He happens to be the speaker but he also considers himself basically the chair of that large body,” Flanagan said.
That’s a far cry from O’Brien, who earned the ire of lawmakers and stakeholders on both sides of the aisle when he deployed what some described as strongman tactics to pass right-wing bills and a lean state budget.
According to Jasper and other lawmakers, there was a feeling that regardless of O’Brien’s conservative credentials, the baggage attached to his name after 2011 would impede the Republican agenda. And if it didn’t slow down their ability to pass bills, it would taint their successes.
“I do believe that that is true,” Jasper said. “I also believe that we probably would not have a state budget right now if he were the speaker.”
Bumps in the road
Last spring, O’Brien told the Hippo that the budget would be the true test of Jasper’s leadership. While we now know how that turned out — with a Republican-crafted budget largely unchanged by a veto from Gov. Maggie Hassan — the process wasn’t always smooth.
An early plan floated by budget writers in the House had taken the controversial step of carving out $88 million from the Department of Transportation budget, which would have resulted in about 700 layoffs, according to department officials.
Some lawmakers, with the backing of Jasper’s appointed House Finance Committee chair, Neal Kurk, had floated a plan to fill that hole by raising the gas tax by 8 cents. But they ultimately couldn’t get the votes and it was never proposed. This sent Republicans scrambling to find another way to avoid the layoffs.
Republicans brainstormed in caucus well into the evenings in the days leading up to the deadline and Democrats accused them of redrafting the budget behind closed doors, and said the process had completely broken down.
At this time, O’Brien and his camp were against the gas tax increase and O’Brien characterized the DOT cuts as a cynical ploy to open the window for that tax.
Jasper and Flanagan downplay this period in the budget process, saying the back and forth is very common and that the House budgets are generally leaner than the Senate’s version since the latter enjoys more up-to-date revenue estimates.
In the end, budget writers moved money from the state university system and dipped into the Renewable Energy Fund.