Sununu criticized for absence from special session on online sales tax

  • Sununu

For the Monitor
Published: 7/26/2018 7:55:07 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu vowed to take action to protect New Hampshire’s online retailers from collecting sales tax, but during Wednesday’s special legislative session to pass a bill he championed, Sununu was far from the State House.

As a majority of state representatives gutted a measure intended to push back on last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling greenlighting internet sales taxes, Sununu was returning to New Hampshire after attending a Republican Governors Association conference in Aspen, Colo.

New Hampshire’s two Democratic gubernatorial candidates quickly labeled Sununu as missing in action.

“The special session yesterday did not go as planned and the question on everybody’s mind is ‘Where was Chris Sununu?’ ” Molly Kelly said on a campaign call Thursday with reporters.

“For weeks leading up to the special session, the governor promised to fight, but yesterday he was nowhere to be found. When it was time to do the hard work of gaining support for his bill, it turns out he was in Aspen, Colorado,” added the former state senator from Harrisville.

The other Democratic candidate for governor, former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand, was equally cutting with his words.

“I’m disappointed but I’m not surprised that Chris Sununu was absent yesterday because his leadership’s been absent the last 18 months,” Marchand said.

The Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate claimed that if the governor had been present, the legislation may have passed. But a House conservative leader who had opposed the measure disagreed and argued that even if Sununu had returned from Colorado earlier, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Regardless, the defeat of the bill in the House was a political slap in the face to the governor, who had called for the special session in response to the high court’s South Dakota v. Wayfair ruling, and to the state Senate, which earlier Wednesday had unanimously approved the measure. The bill aimed to set up hurdles to states trying to collect sales taxes from New Hampshire businesses that sell their goods over the internet.

After the bill was assembled last week by a special legislative committee, it passed the Senate, 24-0, on Wednesday before the House voted, 164-151, to gut the Senate legislation and instead called for a commission to study ways to protect New Hampshire’s no-sales-tax advantage.

The amended House bill was backed by 85 of the 139 Democrats in the chamber and 78 of 175 Republicans and one Libertarian. Many of the lawmakers voting against the Senate legislation said the process was too rushed, that the measure was unconstitutional and that it could have opened up New Hampshire to lawsuits.

Sununu departed New Hampshire on Sunday evening, apparently to attend the RGA conference.

“The Governor attended a long-planned Republican Governors Association meeting in Colorado. He remained in contact with his legislative team throughout the day and returned to New Hampshire (Wednesday) afternoon,” the governor’s office told the Monitor on Thursday.

The bill appeared to have bipartisan support heading into the special session, and passage of the measure would have handed Sununu a major political victory just 3½ months before November’s election, where he’s running for a second two-year term in the corner office.

But the conservative New Hampshire House Freedom Caucus on Tuesday came out in opposition to the measure.

“We did talk to members of the governor’s staff on Tuesday, explained our concerns about the bill and warned them that the bill was likely to die and that a slower process was in the governor’s best interest,” state Rep. JR Hoell of Dunbarton told the Monitor.

But Hoell, a Freedom Caucus leader, argued that if Sununu had been at the State House in person, the bill would have still failed. And he placed his blame with the House Republican majority leadership, which he’s often tangled with in recent years.

“I think the fault was not with the governor or his staff. I think it was the House leadership not counting votes again,” Hoell said. “House leadership thought they had it. House leadership didn’t talk to their members. House leadership dropped the ball.”

But Senate Democratic leader Jeff Woodburn and House Democratic leader Steve Shurtleff, who are both backing Kelly’s gubernatorial campaign, targeted the governor’s absence.

“Governors can make things happen. They have the bully pulpit,” said Woodburn, the state senator from the North Country.

Shurtleff, who represents part of Concord and Penacook, claimed that “if (Sununu) had gone to the Republicans and spoke to them, that might have helped.”

“I think if he had been there,” he added, “I think it would have swayed some members of the House.”

Shurtleff said he didn’t lobby his caucus members, but rather urged them to “vote your district and you vote your conscience.”

Kelly criticized Sununu, arguing “he couldn’t even bother to show up at the State House to push a bill he says would help our small businesses.”

Marchand said that if he were governor, he wouldn’t “advocate for a special session that would be on a day that you’re not going to be in the state.”

But Marchand, who faces off with Kelly in the Sept. 11 primary, took aim at the entire special session.

“I think this entire process is a charade,” he said. “The bill was likely illegal and it is a tactic by Chris Sununu to falsely scare people into thinking that a sales tax is coming to New Hampshire. It’s an election-year gimmick, and I applaud the Democrats and Republicans in the House who voted against the bill and for the study committee instead.”

The criticism of Sununu for leaving the state was reminiscent of the GOP targeting then-Gov. Maggie Hassan’s out-of-state fundraising trips as she was gearing up for her 2016 campaign for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte.

Now it’s Democrats’ turn to make hay.

“When (Gov.) Hassan left the state, it was a big issue and everybody ranted and raved about it,” Woodburn said.

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