Capital Beat: Rosy picture at State of the State masks bitter fights to come

Monitor staff
Published: 2/15/2020 8:53:15 PM

There was no scolding in Gov. Chris Sununu’s speech. No warnings against tax increases or admonishments about runaway spending proposals.

Instead, Sununu painted a portrait of compromise and opportunity in his State of the State address Thursday. Addressing a Legislature held by an opposing party for the second year in a row, he pointed to some areas of common ground, and other areas where he had proposed his own versions of Democratic ideas.

The effect was hard to dismiss. Even Senate President Donna Soucy and Speaker Steve Shurtleff appeared appreciative.

But beneath the veneer of camaraderie are some bitter disagreements.

And this year, it’s not just the areas that Democrats and the governor don’t agree on that are likely to be the most problematic – firearms restrictions and voting laws for instance. It’s the issues where there purportedly is common ground that may be the hardest of all.

This year, there appear to be two parallel tracks at play for many priorities: the versions offered by the Democrats and the versions offered by the governor. The real question is whether the two will ever intersect.

Last year, Democrats newly in control of both legislative chambers led the charge on a host of their own priorities. Many were knocked down in vetoes – the most ever issued. But while some of those efforts were non-starters for Sununu, others appeared to strike a chord. So much so that Sununu has introduced his own versions of the plans this year.

The effect: A series of Democratic proposals matched and maybe canceled out by plausible alternatives from the Republican governor.

Top of the list: paid family and medical leave. That proposal, attempted twice by Democrats and some Republicans, had been slammed by Sununu as unworkable, largely due to the fact it was mandatory. After the 2018 election, he put forward a voluntary option with Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont – one that Democrats quickly disavowed.

This year, he has put forward a voluntary plan that doesn’t involve Vermont, again relying on establishing an initial pool via a benefit to state employees and a tax credit for businesses that sign onto paid family leave themselves.

Two bills, two potential excuses for the sides to not negotiate.

Net metering is another case study. A Democratic plan to let larger energy producers sell excess energy back into the grid was quashed by Sununu despite bipartisan support, and the Legislature only barely failed to override the veto. Now, Sununu has put forward a counter net metering plan – one more limited, but one that he says will not hurt ratepayers.

These are areas that seem ripe for compromise. But so far, the pattern is the same. Both sides make urgent speeches, often talking past each other. Lawmakers’ proposals get vetoed; Sununu’s counter-offers get voted down.

It’s a political dynamic that can at times seem more like a shell game than a debate. And it was on display last week.

On Monday, straight in the middle of the news dead zone hours before the New Hampshire primary, Sununu dropped his veto of Senate Bill 159, the latest iteration of a net metering bill that Democrats and some Republicans had hoped would finally win him over.

Sununu has long opposed some of the more ambitious expansions of net metering, arguing that utilities would pass on the costs of buying the power to ratepayers. He said as much in his veto message.

On Wednesday, Democrats returned the favor. The House Energy Committee recommended that Sununu’s more modest preferred net metering bill, House Bill 1481, be shelved, 12-8. Democrats say they have incorporated pieces of the governor’s suggestions into a House bill led Rep. Howard Moffat, a Democrat from Canterbury.

Thursday’s Senate session, meanwhile, saw another parallel effort by Sununu fall. Last year, the governor vetoed a bill to expand the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) by increasing the fee on property title transfers. Last week, the governor’s version – a voluntary checkbox on property title forms – was tabled by the Senate.

And some areas of supposed common ground received a frosty reception during the governor’s speech. When Sununu presented his voluntary paid family leave plan, the Democratic side of the room kept silent. When he talked up the hub and spoke opioid system – the $46 million embraced by both sides last year – his opponents, who have recently soured on the program, stayed in their seats.

It isn’t that compromise isn’t happening in Concord. Both Sununu and Concord Sen. Dan Feltes have come together over one transformative idea: prescription drug imports from Canada. The two testified in favor back-to-back last month, relishing in the brief moment of unity ahead of their fight for governor.

Meanwhile, advocates on two sides of a bill to establish a protective order for vulnerable adults met in the governor’s office this week to hammer out an agreement.

And Sununu and Democratic and Republican leadership has come together to support a tightening of New Hampshire’s sexual assault laws to bar relations between teenagers and adult authority figures in the wake of the Howie Leung prosecution, to name another example.

But as the election year ratchets up, and as the bipartisan vibes from last year’s compromise budget fade, don’t expect many in Concord to shout those efforts from the rooftops.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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