By John Toole
---- — DERRY — Gov. Maggie Hassan is three months into one tough job.
Consider the challenges: a struggling economy; active or threatened legal challenges over mental health, corrections and hospitals; reduced federal aid; communities clamoring for more help from the state.
But Hassan is still smiling and sounding like someone who might like to stick around for more.
“I continue just to be totally humbled by having this job, which is a terrific job, and I’ve enjoyed my first couple of months enormously,” Hassan said in an interview last week.
The budget and the economy are the prime challenges.
“We are focused on making the state more innovative and stronger,” Hassan said, pointing to her proposed balanced budget without a sales or income tax.
She has a mission: “Making sure we all understand what kind of investments we need to really seize the opportunity to drive an innovation economy forward in this state.”
Hassan is encouraged by Senate passage of a casino bill that would raise $80 million in licensing revenue for the budget, plus more revenue once the casino opens.
She is optimistic about the House, too, though the outcome is far from sure.
“I think we will do well,” Hassan said.
House lawmakers are beginning to see the tradeoffs, the governor is convinced, and understand New Hampshire stands to lose if Massachusetts opens casinos and nothing happens here.
“Without the revenue from one high end and highly regulated casino ... we are not going to be able to fund critical priorities,” Hassan said.
Keno does not appear to be in the governor’s cards, though Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, won House approval for a keno study. Hassan said the focus needs to be on the casino proposal.
For Hassan, the casino represents an important choice.
“We can either choose to seize this innovation moment or slip backward,” she said.
Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, wants a casino and would use gaming revenue to help pay for the Interstate 93 widening. Morse opposes a gas tax increase.
Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, prefers a 12-cent gas tax increase the House passed last week to fund road and bridge improvements.
Hassan won’t choose sides among the two. She commends them both for shining a light on infrastructure needs.
“Certainly, funding I-93 is one of the critical things we need to do,” she said.
Ultimately, Hassan reasons, the House and Senate must find common ground.
“What I’m in support of is a consensus of how we’re going to fund this,” she said.
She said she is encouraging the House and Senate to find it.
“I don’t think the gas tax, as it passed the House, is at that consensus point,” she said.
Last session the Legislature drew criticism — and low opinion numbers in polls — for a lack of civility.
Hassan likes what she sees and hears at the Statehouse and beyond. Bipartisan votes are a good thing, in Hassan’s view.
“The people of New Hampshire want this to work,” she said.
Discussions have been courteous, she said.
“There’s a lot of constructive spirit.”
Still, there are controversies.
Hassan appears ready to sign the repeal of parts of the stand-your-ground law, which would require people to consider whether deadly force is necessary in their self-defense in public places.
The House passed a bill to do that, though the Senate vote is in doubt.
“Law enforcement recommends I sign it,” Hassan said. “I continue to believe it is dangerous for people to open fire in public places when they have other options available to them.”
She said she will look closely at a House-passed bill allowing use of medical marijuana.
She supports the concept, but wants assurances it is limited and closely regulated.
“I think what is really important is that any bill tightly define what are the conditions marijuana can be prescribed for,” Hassan said.
Hassan is unlikely to allow an increase in the speed limit on I-93 from Canterbury to Vermont, which the House approved. She wants to hear from safety officials.
“Generally, I’m not crazy about people driving faster,” she said. “My instinct is not to do it.”
The governor was pleased the House left intact her proposal to increase spending on mental health, as well as the Executive Council’s recent decision in support of more beds at the state hospital.
“That is critical for the quality of life we have,” Hassan said.
There are sometimes dozens of people, including children, awaiting emergency mental health admissions, she said.
“That’s just not an acceptable state of treatment or access for us,” she said.
Hassan, who supported the doubling of the research-and-development tax credit to aid business, wants to do more with economic development, public safety, education and job training.
But she is realistic about the state’s challenges in a difficult economic climate.
“We are trying to use the limited dollars we have and limited revenue growth that we see to make sure we are taking some of the pressure off communities,” she said. “We are trying to build a budget that allows us to return money to local property taxpayers, whether it is through the school budget or the town budget.”
Hassan knows the mission of rebuilding the economy and state services won’t happen overnight.
“We are rebuilding as we can,” she said.