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NEW HAMPSHIRE

Supporters look to Lynch for fiscal relief

Health care and taxes on agenda

Granite Staters who voted to oust Governor Craig Benson, a Republican, are hoping Democratic governor-elect John Lynch will solve some of the toughest problems on the Seacoast.

For Portsmouth small-business owner Bob Hoffman, those problems include soaring property taxes and health insurance costs. Hoffman, an independent who voted for George Bush in the presidential election, owns the Mustard Seed Natural Living Center in downtown Portsmouth.

He blames Benson for signing a bill last session that he says paved the way for health insurance companies to charge higher rates for small groups and more in certain geographic areas of the state, such as the Seacoast. So he went for Lynch.

"Financially, Governor Benson cost me 10 percent of my income," said Hoffman. "Benson signed the bill, he supported it, he's responsible for it. Lynch said he'd veto a sales or income tax and he'd help repeal SB110 [Senate Bill 110], so he's a conservative enough Democrat for New Hampshire. The other issue he said he'd work on is the property tax, so I'm real satisfied."

The health insurance measure known as Senate Bill 110 was sponsored by state Senator Russell Prescott of Kingston, a Republican who also was unseated on Nov. 2. The idea was to let health insurers charge higher rates in order to attract more companies to the state, but rising bills caused a furor. Hoffman wants the measure repealed.

Lynch got 51 percent, or 339,121 votes, to Benson's 49 percent, or 326,618 votes, marking only the second time in 78 years that a first-term New Hampshire incumbent governor failed to win a second term.

The Seacoast gave Lynch a big push. Lynch won Portsmouth (8,554 for Lynch to 3,921 for Benson), Exeter (4,714 to 3,396), Hampton (5,021 to 4,279), and Benson's hometown of Rye (1,970 to 1,717).

Lynch made Benson's integrity the pivotal issue of the campaign, pointing to high-profile appointees who left state government amid questions over possible conflicts and ethical questions.

Benson said after the election that he would probably retire from politics.

"I believe in fate," Benson told the Associated Press. "I don't have any regrets in what I tried to do."

Lynch spokeswoman Pamela Walsh said the budget Lynch submits in February will eliminate the statewide property tax and donor towns. "That's the commitment he has made and what he intends to do," said Walsh.

As for health insurance, "he has made very clear that SB110 has had a devastating impact on small business and families, and he is going to work to repeal it."

On the Seacoast, Lynch supporters say they are looking to the governor-elect for relief from property taxes and health insurance costs.

Portsmouth Mayor Evelyn Sirrell, an independent, was elated by the Lynch win.

When Lynch takes over as governor in January, Sirrell, who founded the coalition of donor towns, hopes he will get rid of the statewide property tax that has burdened the city with onerous "donor town" status.

Sirrell has long said the tax is unfair because it is based on real estate values instead of incomes, hurting residents on low and fixed incomes in areas such as the Seacoast, where real estate values are increasing.

"It's wonderful," said Sirrell. "John Lynch . . . promised me faithfully that one of the first things he would work on is the education funding thing and getting rid of donor towns. That was the promise he gave me and I fully believe him."

W. Douglas Scamman, Jr., a former House speaker and Republican lawmaker from Stratham, also predicted that Lynch "should be able to get an education funding solution."

State Senator Dick Green, a Republican critic of Benson, predicted that Lynch will make progress on education funding, health insurance, and other issues, but warned: "Are we going to please everybody? No."

"There is no perfect answer to this because no matter what we do, somebody's going to be unhappy," said Green of education funding. "But that does not mean we shouldn't develop the distribution so the neediest communities get the aid, and the wealthiest communities do not receive the aid."

Meanwhile, former Portsmouth city councilor Evelyn Marconi, a staunch Republican, said she is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Lynch. "I blame the state Legislature for the property tax," she said. "It was in their court that it started and should have ended there.

"I don't think the governor can cure all the ills, but if the man has the quality to do so, perhaps he can get the Legislature to get off their duffs and do something positive," said Marconi.

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