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Governor candidates zero in on economy

  • Gov. Chris Sununu and Sen. Dan Feltes face off in a virtual Zoom town hall forum in the race for governor, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

  • Gov. Chris Sununu and Sen. Dan Feltes face off in a virtual Zoom town hall forum in the race for governor, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

Monitor staff
Published: 10/14/2020 5:39:30 PM

Sen. Dan Feltes and Gov. Chris Sununu had signed on for a town hall forum on disability rights Tuesday night, but it didn’t take long for their biggest area of disagreement to dominate the evening: the New Hampshire economy.

Sununu, the Republican governor currently vying for a third two-year term, hailed economic indicators demonstrating that New Hampshire has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, including low unemployment and poverty rates, and talked up the focus his administration has made on supporting small businesses to keep workers afloat.

Feltes, the Concord Democratic senator looking to unseat Sununu, pointed to what he said was a picture of an economy not working for people at the lowest rungs, and accused the governor of prioritizing business interests over residents.

Hosted by ABLE New Hampshire, the 90-minute virtual Zoom forum was the first official debate between the two candidates since Feltes took the Democratic nomination in early September. And while the two expressed broad agreement on initiatives to help people with disabilities, they clashed on broader topics, from raising the minimum wage, to Sununu’s handling of COVID-19 aid, to the state’s school reopening plan.

The sharpest blows, though, came on the subject of the economy.

“We need an economy that works for everybody, not just those at the top,” Feltes said, invoking what has been a mantra throughout his campaign. “And I think a lot of people, including our direct care support professionals on the ground, are suffering.”

Feltes invoked two of his campaign’s priorities, raising the minimum wage and establishing a mandatory statewide paid family and medical leave program, as two programs that could advance those interests. Sununu has vetoed bills advancing both efforts in the past two years, arguing that the first would cause employers to cut jobs and that the second amounts to an income tax on workers.

But Sununu quickly dismissed the charges of an ineffective economy.

“We have one of the strongest economies in the country right now,” he said. “Dan wants to talk about minimum wage, yet we have the lowest poverty rate in the country. If you have no experience, you can walk in today, even in the middle of an economic crisis, and get paid $11, $12 an hour washing dishes.”

“To say that this economy is not working for everyone,” Sununu continued, “is ludicrous.”

At stake is the state’s response to some of the biggest economic upheavals in a decade, which have arrived in the shadow of a pandemic that shuttered businesses and hobbled the state’s tourism economy. The next governor will have to deal with an expected multi-hundred million dollar shortfall in expected revenue.

Feltes has contended that the remaining quarter of a billion dollars in federal COVID-19 aid can be spent to shore up budget shortfalls; Sununu has countered that would be illegal.

Meanwhile, the two candidates disagreed on how the rest of the money should be spent. Sununu touted the half a billion dollars in federal relief aid that has gone to support businesses and organizations – about half of the state’s total aid.

Feltes said that more should have gone directly to struggling residents.

There were broad areas of agreement. Both candidates agreed upon the expansion of affordable housing. They spoke in favor of devoting funds to eliminate the waitlist for developmental disabilities services, and of supporting the state loan repayment program.

But the debate highlighted more subtle differences, too. Though the two candidates said they were committed to helping bring Granite Staters with disabilities into the workforce, Feltes took issue with a veto by Sununu of one of the senator’s bills: Senate Bill 2.

That bill would have built up the state’s job training program by rearranging contributions from employers into the unemployment fund to go more towards job training; Sununu said in his veto message in 2019 that it “irresponsibly diverts millions from the Unemployment Trust Fund.”

Throughout the debate, Feltes also urged for an across-the-board increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates to providers. New Hampshire has one of the lowest reimbursement rates in the country, part of which is determined by how much each state pays into the program.

Sununu has supported some rate increases but has argued that they need to be targeted to specific health service, and not applied across the board.

The two candidates also clashed over their vision for schools. Asked whether he would support the creation of a designated school in New Hampshire for blind and deaf students, Feltes said that he would prefer building up support for blind and deaf students in existing public schools first. But, he added, “I don’t think we should rule out” the possibility of a full school.

Sununu embraced the proposal, calling it an “awesome idea.” It was a concept that could be best served by a charter school, the governor contended. And it bolstered the case for increased school choice in the state, he said.

“Who’s the government to say you can or can’t have more choice when it comes to educating your kids?” Sununu said.

The exchange drove home a growing separation between the two candidates and their respective parties on the issue of school funding and school choice. Sununu has been supportive of an expansion of charter schools in the state and brought up votes by Feltes and other Democrats on the state’ Fiscal Committee to deny the first tranche of a $46 million federal aid package to charter schools.

Feltes and Democrats, meanwhile, say that the state needs to do more to meet its funding obligations to traditional public schools.

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