Capital Beat: Governor’s inaugural address steered clear of several big issues that Democrats will push

  • Gov. Chris Sununu soaks in the applause as he and his wife, Valerie, are greeted at the State House for his inauguration on Thursday as Speaker of the House Steve Shurtleff (right) joins in the applause. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/5/2019 2:51:13 PM

As policy blueprints go, Gov. Chris Sununu’s inaugural address ran the gamut: opioid treatment, education, energy policies, suicide prevention. The hour-long speech covered a swath of territory familiar to anyone in touch with New Hampshire’s major problems.

But just as revealing as the policy areas Sununu did weigh in on were the areas he didn’t. Major initiatives pushed largely by Democratic lawmakers went unmentioned in the governor’s speech.

And for good reason: They’re also the efforts the Republican governor opposes most, and the ones with the biggest potential for friction under a Democratic Legislature.

Let’s start with the biggest elephants in the room:

Marijuana

After months of input from stakeholders at a study commission, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, is taking his bill to prime time.

The longtime champion of marijuana legalization is pushing for a law that would allow those 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of recreational marijuana, and create a regulatory structure for cannabis businesses in the state. Cushing, buoyed by successful legalization efforts in each of New Hampshire’s surrounding states, argues the bill is as good as it’s going to get.

“I think we have really sound legislation,” Cushing said. “It’s probably the most comprehensive that’s been put before a legislative body in any of the 50 states.”

One hitch: Sununu has made his animosity to the bill more than clear, telling a commission recently that he would “absolutely” veto legislation “regardless of what the language looks like” and spelling out deep concerns about the effects marijuana could have on the state’s opioid epidemic.

The Senate, meanwhile, presents a murkier picture. Historically unsympathetic to House efforts to legalize, the chamber’s flip toward Democrats this year may not necessarily deliver the votes to pass legislation and override a veto. At a press conference Wednesday, Senate President Donna Soucy said the Democratic caucus has not taken a formal position on the bill and would assess the final language if it left the House.

The rest of us will be waiting, too.

Guns

It’s back: A proposal by Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, to allow school districts to ban firearms is getting a second go-around in 2019. But where Hennessey’s bill was a late amendment to existing legislation expanding school drug-free zones – proposed in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting – Rep. Jaqueline Cali-Pitts’s bill is more expansive.

Rather than give districts the specific ability to ban firearms, Cali-Pitts’s bill gives them free range to set regulations of firearms, knives and related weapons – powers presently afforded only to the state.

It’s one of a cluster of new gun-control measures proposed by Democrats this year. Rep. Katherine Rogers of Concord is putting forward a bill requiring criminal background checks for commercial sales of weapons, with violation a criminal offense. Rogers is also fielding a bill to impose a waiting period between buying and receiving weapons, with the aim of reducing impulse killings and suicides.

And Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, is putting forward a “red-flag” bill, which would create “extreme risk protection orders” allowing firearms to be confiscated from those deemed a danger to themselves and others.

Of course, none of these proposals are likely to sit well with the governor, who has repeatedly argued the state’s gun laws are fine as they are and whose first piece of major legislation in 2017 was a law eliminating the need for concealed carry licenses.

And with bipartisanship on any gun measure in scarce supply, moving legislation past the governor’s veto pen is a tall order.

Tax cuts

Amid his funding proposals, Sununu made one priority clear for the New Year: a fight to keep the business tax reductions as planned. Since changes made in the 2017 budget, New Hampshire’s business profits tax has dropped incrementally from 8.5 percent toward an intended 7.5 percent after 2021.

“Lowering the cost of doing business through tax relief has allowed businesses to reinvest in their workforce,” Sununu said in his speech. “Tax relief is a reason why more people are working in New Hampshire than ever before.”

This week, the latest round of reductions went into effect – from 8.1 percent to 7.9 percent – and Democrats have been explicit in calls to stop further decreases, calling them handouts to national corporations that didn’t ask for them.

But Senate and House Democrats are split on the details. Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester is forwarding legislation to freeze the rate where it stands now, 7.9 percent. That would head off future decreases, which are dependent on the state hitting revenue targets in order to kick in.

D’Allesandro’s proposal is supported by members of his caucus.

“With Sen. D’Allesandro’s leadership, we will work to suspend and stabilize further business-tax cuts and use the increased revenue to provide property-tax relief for hardworking Granite Staters,” said Sen. Dan Feltes in a statement Wednesday.

But key members of the House see it differently. Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, would rather the state reverse course and restore the rate to 8.5 percent.

Without serious horsetrading, either proposal could be a deal-breaker for the governor in the budget.

Paid family and medical leave

The issue that formed the dominant focus of Democrat Molly Kelly’s election plan did not, in the end, propel her to the governor’s office. But members of her party in the Legislature remain determined to get a paid family leave program across the finish line.

As always, the devil is in the details. And here again, House and Senate Democrats diverge widely in ideas. Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat, would like to resurrect the original version of the bill put forward last year by Mary Stuart Gile, her now-retired Concord colleague. That means the creation of a state-run program with mandatory participation by private-sector businesses – no more opt-out provision.

Excluding an opt-out component should help assuage national paid family leave experts, who said allowing employees to skip participation would introduce solvency problems. But it’ll also likely open up the bill to charges from Sununu and others that the program acts as a backdoor income tax on New Hampshire businesses.

Sununu didn’t address paid family leave head-on in his speech Thursday. But a line strenuously opposing “a sales or income tax of any kind on my watch” received raucous applause.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are pushing a proposal closer to one floated by Sununu on the campaign trail: a “public-private partnership” that could allow companies to opt for plans with outside insurers. One potential sticking point with the governor: the Senate plan would function like unemployment insurance, Feltes said, meaning participation would be obligatory.

Voting bills

It wouldn’t be a legislative year without a fight over voting rights, and last biennium’s passage of Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 1264 – which tightened eligibility at the polls and made voting an effective act of residency, respectively – left plenty to fight about.

Rep. Timothy Horrigan has submitted legislation to reverse those bills, which Democrats argue would suppress turnout among young people and minorities at the polls. Sununu and Republicans have defended the measures as security efforts that bring New Hampshire in line with other states.

On this issue, the political needle for Sununu and other Republicans is unlikely to budge. But the debate will be interesting to watch, particularly as SB 3 continues to be litigated and HB 1264 awaits its rollout in July.

Energy

Closing his remarks Thursday, Sununu touched on energy policy, drawing his preferences in bright lines: lower rates. The governor prominently vetoed two bills last year, one to subsidize the state’s biomass industry and the other to give economic benefits to solar projects by increasing net metering caps.

“I have always said we should view energy policy through the lens of the ratepayer,” he said.

Both bills, he argued, would have raised rates by prioritizing pricier renewable energy and passing costs on to ratepayers. And while the biomass veto was narrowly overridden in September, the net metering bill stayed dead.

But that’s not to say Democrats won’t take another swing. Portsmouth Sen. Martha Fuller Clark has already submitted legislation to restore last year’s effort, raising the net metering cap to sell renewable energy at retail prices from one megawatt to five.

An attempt in September to override the governor’s veto passed the Senate, 21-3, but fell short in the House.

This time, its fortunes may improve.

Not all Democratic priorities are dead on arrival in the corner office; efforts to address the state’s mental health backlogs, psychiatric care, child services problems and opioid epidemic are some of many areas with potential for collaboration. But the major fights loom all the same.

As he wrapped up his speech Thursday, Sununu gave a bit of friendly advice to incoming lawmakers seeking to advance legislation.

“You gotta see it to the end,” the governor said. “If your mind is on something, if your heart is in it, don’t fall asleep!”

For Democrats, however, the bigger threat could be the stroke of his pen.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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