Capital Beat Year in Review: When Democrats and Gov. Sununu were on the same side

Monitor staff
Published: 12/28/2019 11:19:22 PM
Modified: 12/28/2019 11:19:10 PM

Addressing supporters on election night 2018, Gov. Chris Sununu had an elephant in the room to confront.

The Republican governor had just stormed to re-election, beating Democratic challenger Molly Kelly by seven percentage points. But for Republicans, the rest of the news was bleak: a sweeping loss of control in the House, Senate and Executive Council.

Suddenly, two words hung over Sununu’s celebration: “divided government.” Sununu tried to take it in stride.

“The next two years are going to be a little bit different, but that’s okay,” he said. “That’s New Hampshire. Anybody who has ideas is invited to the table. Anybody who thinks that they can move the ball forward, get results for the people of New Hampshire, come on into the office. We are open arms to everybody.”

A year in, the words appear overly optimistic. Democrats in the State House have clashed with Sununu at a near-daily rate, exchanging barbed public comments and fiery press releases on issue after issue. At points it was gun laws. At other points paid family leave. Business taxes were a sticking point that nearly imperiled the two-year state budget.

An undercurrent of tension ran throughout the summer; a three-month budget standoff brokered only in September.

At the end, a record number of bills were vetoed – 55 in total. Many of them began as bipartisan efforts. With slim majorities, Democrats saw almost all vetoes upheld.

The friction seemed endless. Sununu appeared to take every chance he could to decry “Washington-style politics.” Democratic and Republican state parties traded tweets calling the other “disgusting,” and at times everything seemed geared to the 2020 elections – even mere months after the previous election.

But the Legislature is a complex animal, and even despite their seemingly best efforts, lawmakers do reach compromises. Here are some of the major things that got done this year, partisanship aside.

Mental health plan implemented

New Hampshire’s scarcity of treatment beds has strained not just the mental health system, but the availability of hospital beds and substance use treatment as well. Last year the state Department of Health and Human Services rolled out a 10-year mental health plan to remodel the state’s services.

This year, the Legislature got major parts of it off the ground. The budget compromise funds the first phase of construction of a new forensic hospital to take in mental health patients, a plan to move child mental health beds out of the New Hampshire Hospital and into other facilities, an increase of designated receiving facility beds at hospitals, the roll-out of children’s mobile crisis units, and an increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates to lift community behavioral health centers and others.

Many of those initiatives were not in Sununu’s proposed budget, but he signed them in, along with a $25 million across-the-board budget cut to DHHS to balance everything out.

Animal cruelty laws tightened

In the wake of the grisly saga of Christina Fay, convicted for abuse and neglect of 84 Great Danes in Wolfeboro, lawmakers tried in 2018 to revise the animal cruelty laws. At issue: How to better deal with the town’s cost of re-housing the pets while cases crawl through the courts.

But a solution putting the financial onus on the accused fell apart in the House last year due to process concerns. This year, the Legislature and Sununu took a different route with a cost-of-care fund created by the state to help towns alleviate the costs of care, with $100,000 deposited each year.

Online sales defended

Midway through summer 2018, Sununu suffered one of his biggest legislative embarrassments. The U.S. Supreme Court had handed down a ruling, Wayfair vs. South Dakota, that opened the door for states to collect sales tax for New Hampshire businesses shipping out of state, which politicians of every stripe said could erode the Granite State’s tax-free advantage.

Sununu had convened an emergency session of the Legislature to pass a policy attempting to deter states from collecting that tax through a registration process, but lawmakers rejected it, arguing it would tie businesses’ hands unnecessarily.

The new bill has a similar structure, requiring states to alert the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office of any attempt to collect tax. But this time, the governor’s office laid better political groundwork and it passed with bipartisan support.

Sports betting legalized

A key priority of Sununu’s proposed budget in February was sports betting. The proposal called to legalize online betting in New Hampshire and open up willing cities to physical betting locations.

That proposal attracted bipartisan support – and opposition – in the House and made it through the Senate on a voice vote. Now, online betting is set to launch Monday. Response from cities has been divided, but voters in six cities have so far approved bringing retail betting parlors into town, filling up just over half of the 10 possible cities allowed for in the bill. In November, Concord voters said no.

The year of red ink

There are many more bills that could make this list – 335 in total that Sununu signed into law. But inter-office collaboration has a limit, and there were a number of bipartisan efforts that didn’t survive the governor’s veto pen.

Of the 55 bills vetoed, 40% had Republican sponsors, according to House Democratic leadership, while 78% received bipartisan support at the first vote. Some vetoes came despite appeals from members of Sununu’s own party.

One effort that rankled some Republican senators was a proposal for an independent redistricting commission to recommend how to redraw political voting districts after the Census in 2020. Sununu said it would put too much power in the hands of party heads picking members of the commission, while proponents countered that the current system rewards the party in control of the Legislature.

Another was subsidies for biomass power plants, which burn wood chips. The subsidies had attracted support in both parties, but Sununu argued that passing them would increase energy costs for ratepayers.

Sununu setbacks

Sometimes the divided government created setbacks for Sununu’s priorities. An effort to create a “Learn Everywhere” program to expand alternative educational credits for students in public schools was quashed by the rules committee, and the first of a $46 million grant to expand charter schools was halted by the state fiscal committee.

Still, as Granite State partisans sharpen their knives for a presidential election year of rehashed battles over guns, spending, abortion and education, it’s worth remembering  that cooperation – every once in a while – is still possible.


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