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State Senate hears call for changes to state Liquor Commission


CONCORD - One of the main recommendations of last year's House Liquor Commission investigative committee was to have one person in charge instead of three commissioners.

The recommendation is contained in House Bill 599, which easily passed the House last month and had a public hearing Wednesday before the Senate Executive Department and Administration Committee, where there was no opposition to the change.

Reorganizing the commission into the traditional commissioner and deputy commissioner administrative structure for state agencies was one of 13 recommendations of the special House committee.

Committee member Rep. Marilinda Garcia, R-Salem, the prime sponsor of HB 599, told the Senate committee that her committee found communication to be lacking between agency divisions.

"If there were a single commissioner and perhaps a deputy, that would be a better overall structure," she said.

Another investigative committee member, Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, told the Senate committee that every time there is a study of the Liquor Commission, whether by the Legislature or some other group, the first thing they say is: "There ought to be one commissioner."

She also noted the lack of communication.

"The culture at the commission needs to be changed," McGuire said, "and the best place to start is at the top."

In her proposed budget, Gov. Maggie Hassan streamlined the administrative structure at the agency to a single commissioner and a deputy commissioner. Hassan had been the prime sponsor of 2009 legislation that gave the agency greater flexibility by removing legislative and Executive Council oversight over its budget and contracts.

Soon after she took office, Hassan renominated current commission Chairman Joseph Mollica to another term, but left the third commission spot open.

If the bill passes, Mollica would be the commissioner, and the other commissioner, Michael Milligan, would be deputy.

The commission came under fire last year for a number of issues, including the alleged loss of cases of wine in a Portsmouth liquor store move and hiring a lobbyist to help kill a bill that would have allowed grocery and convenience stores to sell liquor. State agencies are forbidden by law from hiring lobbyists.

The problems prompted former House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, to name the investigative committee to study the commission last summer and fall.

Other allegations emerged as the House committee did its work, including alleged bootlegging, favoritism, the mishandling of a lucrative warehousing bidding process, ignoring commission rules and state law, and significant tensions within the agency.

The Senate Committee did not take an immediate vote to determine its recommendation for the bill.



grayno@unionleader.com



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