Mark Connolly: State law allows our government to be for sale

For the Monitor
Published: 12/23/2018 12:15:07 AM

New Hampshire state government should not be for sale. The problem is that it is because current state law allows it to be.

It has recently been reported that Gov. Chris Sununu’s 2016 inaugural committee paid out some hefty sums personally to the governor as well as his sister and political operatives, including a registered lobbyist. In fact, the governor received $39,360 over the past two years from his own inaugural committee, his sister’s company received some $50,188, and $9,500 was paid to a lobbyist who represents Eversource and other corporate clients. Even former governor John Sununu received funds – totaling $1,277 – and all of these monies are considered by a representative of the inauguration committee to be reimbursements for expenses not covered under the state budget.

But the detail for such “expenses,” including some $19,716 paid to Gov. Sununu for travel-related matters, are not clear. And there is no state law in effect that addresses how and why such “inaugural” funds can be used.

Let’s consider the governor’s inauguration fund payout in a broader context. New Hampshire law concerning political fund-raising and lobbying restrictions are notoriously weak. Starting with the governor’s inauguration committee, it collected some $450,000 two years ago from dozens of corporations and lobbyists who regularly conduct business with the state and who have matters before the Legislature and regulatory bodies – like Eversource, which contributed $25,000 to the 2016 committee and subsequently several of its executives hosted fund-raising events and contributed to the governor’s 2018 re-election. Needless to say, Eversource has had a substantial construction project (Northern Pass) before a state agency – the Site Evaluation Committee – and even before the SEC voted against Northern Pass, the governor was publicly saying it was taking too long in its deliberations.

And then there’s Centene Corporation, another $25,000 donor to the governor’s 2016 inauguration committee. Centene has managed the state’s Medicaid Managed Care program, a multi-billion contract covering some 24,000 state citizens. The contract is reviewed and approved by the Governor and Executive Council.

There’s also the law firm of Gallagher, Callahan and Gartrell of Concord, another $25,000 contributor to the 2016 Inauguration Committee, with clients such as Eversource and the New Hampshire Banker’s Association.

The practice of soliciting funds from corporations, lobbyists and other influencers for inaugural galas is a time-honored practice on both sides of the political aisle in New Hampshire, but the Sununu sum of $450,000 is the most raised by any New Hampshire governor’s inauguration committee. Beyond the obvious question of does a governor really need an elaborate celebration many consider wasteful and extravagant, the fact remains the state has no real guidelines concerning what can and cannot be done with such monies.

On the federal side, President Donald Trump raised some $107 million and like the Sununu committee, was largely funded by corporations, lobbyists and other entities with business interests with the government – and this committee is now facing criminal investigations for misspending allegations.

New Hampshire’s campaign finance laws are a mess. Before a candidate for governor files for that office, he or she can collect $7,000 from individual donors. In addition, candidates can also accept unlimited donations through their political committees, and lobbyists can “bundle” money from clients who do not have to be disclosed.

In the 2018 governor’s race, Sununu’s campaign collected some $1.3 million from out-of-state campaign contributions and of this amount some $48,000 was from contributions of unknown origin. In addition, the campaign accepted $35,000 from foreign limited liability companies that are not identified. In fact, corporate-related funds constitute 42 percent of Sununu’s 2016 inauguration committee and campaign funds.

We now have more registered lobbyists in New Hampshire than state representatives – a big deal considering New Hampshire has the fourth largest legislative body in the English-speaking world. Several lobbyists are involved in state legislative campaigns, e.g., hosting events and raising money for candidates. And starting this spring, there will be regular lobbyists hosting events for state senators at Concord-area bars. Is it any wonder state senate campaigns for a two-year stint can now cost over $200,000?

In New Hampshire, lobbyists can contribute funds to legislators sitting on committees that review matters for their clients. Lobbyists can also represent clients before state agencies and whether or not such representation has to be disclosed is a gray area under current state law.

Out-of-state money from PACs and the like – some of which is not disclosed – for offices like governor and U.S. Senate are much higher and concentrated in amount than are individual contributions. Current state campaign finance laws are now so riddled with loopholes that an individual owning several limited liability corporations can contribute multiple times over to the same candidate.

Like Washington, D.C., New Hampshire state government is for sale. When candidates tell you, “individuals and entities contributing to my campaign do not influence me,” do you really believe such a self-serving declaration? The next Governor’s Ball is in full preparation mode. How about toning it down – and how about giving any excess funds to state education, where there is a real need. The incoming Legislature should take a hard look at the state’s current political “catch me if you can” campaign finance laws and clean up the mess.

(Mark Connolly is the principal of New Castle Investment Advisors, LLC, and is the former director of securities regulation for the state of New Hampshire.)

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