Ayotte, Morse, Craig, and Warmington weigh in on budget priorities, abortion, opioids

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 10-06-2023 5:28 PM

The New Hampshire state primary is a year away, but the race to succeed Gov. Chris Sununu in the corner office is well underway. Four major candidates have emerged so far, two competing for the Republican nomination and two for the Democratic nomination, but the filing deadline is June 2024, so more could arrive.

Cinde Warmington, a Democratic executive councilor representing District 2 since 2021 and an attorney specializing in health care, will face off against Joyce Craig, the Democratic mayor of Manchester since 2017.

And Chuck Morse, the former Republican Senate president for 10 of his 14 years as a state senator and a two-term state representative, is competing against Kelly Ayotte, the state’s attorney general from 2004 to 2009 and a Republican U.S. senator from 2010 to 2016.

The Bulletin talked to each of the candidates about why they’re running and where they stand on some of the major issues. Each candidate was interviewed for 15 minutes and asked the same questions.

Their No. 1 issue

Each candidate was asked about the main issue driving their campaign.

Ayotte is running to keep New Hampshire “safe, prosperous, and free,” she said. Public safety is the key focus there, she added. “Safety and prosperity.”

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“Having been attorney general of this state, I see, obviously, unfortunately, the fentanyl dealers,” Ayotte said. “We have a bail reform law that is causing dangerous people to get back on the streets. So I’m gonna be advocating for strong changes there.”

Morse said he was running to protect the “New Hampshire advantage” – the catch-all term often used to describe the state’s tax structure. Morse said that during his long tenure as Senate president he had helped to lower the business tax rates, eliminate the interest and dividends tax, and reduce regulations.

“What we’ve done and how we’ve done it, I did it,” he said.

Craig said economic opportunity is the cornerstone of her bid for governor, and said she would push for policies that support sustainable jobs, affordable housing, quality public education, and reproductive health care. And she said she would try to get state government better involved at the local level.

“Creating opportunities for families is what this campaign is about,” she said. “And as mayor, I know firsthand how important it is for local communities to have a partner in the governor’s office.”

Warmington said reproductive rights are one of the key drivers of her campaign. She said reversing the state’s restriction on abortions after 24 weeks and passing legislation to codify abortion rights into state statute are priorities.

“Freedom starts with being able to plan and prevent and space our pregnancies, and there is no autonomy, there is no freedom for women without that ability,” she said.

State budget priorities

If elected, the winning candidate would enter office in January 2025 with a newly elected Legislature and a daunting mandate: Propose a two-year budget in February and work with lawmakers to pass it by July. For first-term governors, it’s an opportunity to define their priorities early.

Warmington said her first budget proposal would include funding to expand child care options, address housing affordability, and support public schools. And she said if elected in November, she would begin “working with the commissioners and setting my priorities” during the transition period, ahead of taking office.

Craig said she would focus her budget on housing, education, and reproductive health care programs, and that she would work to make sure any funding that goes to cities and towns is supported by collaborations with state officials. “It’s making sure that the funds that are coming in are being utilized the way they should and impact our residents and our communities,” she said.

Morse said his budget would keep the state’s current tax balance. He’s happy with where the business tax rates are and does not think he would pursue further tax cuts now, arguing that the state needed to keep its revenues up to help address the continuing need to send targeted aid to school districts.

But he said other challenges persist, including homelessness and drug use in the state’s cities, and that a new budget would need to continue to address those issues.

Ayotte said she would prioritize a balanced budget and would work to make sure the planned phase-out of the interest and dividends tax continues. She said she would try to address the housing shortage by partnering with municipalities to try to encourage more construction. And she said she would push to increase funding for the New Hampshire State Police, in part to boost recruitment, while continuing funding for the northern border unit created by Sununu in the 2020-21 budget.

Freedom accounts, funding

In 2021, the Legislature created “education freedom accounts,” a mechanism allowing families both in and out of public school to use state education dollars toward private school and homeschool expenses. Democratic and Republican candidates differ on their support.

The state is also facing two separate lawsuits alleging that it is not meeting its constitutional duties to provide an adequate education due to ongoing property wealth inequities between school districts.

Craig said she does not support the education freedom account program and would push to repeal it. “I support our public dollars going toward our public schools,” she said.

She said her own path into public office began at the Manchester School Board, and that it had informed her desire to improve public schools.

“I feel strongly that strong public schools lead to thriving communities, and we need to do everything we can to ensure that every student, no matter where they live, has access to quality public education,” she said.

When it comes to the ongoing education funding lawsuits, Craig noted that Manchester is party to one of the lawsuits, and said she believes the state needs to do more.

Warmington said she would push to repeal the education freedom account law entirely, arguing that it is an inappropriate use of tax dollars that should be spent to improve public education. “I do not believe that tax dollars should be subsidizing private schools,” she said. “… The obligation of government is to make sure that we provide every single child in our state with an opportunity for a great public education. If parents want to make a different decision. I totally support that as well.”

That plan would include ending annual payouts to families in the program; the Children’s Scholarship Fund estimated this month more than 4,000 students are currently enrolled. Warmington said she would work with the Legislature to create a fair effective date so that a transition would not happen in a school year.

And Warmington said she would not wait for the outcome of two school funding lawsuits before trying to change the state’s school funding formula, but would begin working with the Legislature “proactively” to find a better approach.

Ayotte said she supported “putting parents in the driver’s seat when it comes to education,” and would back school choice initiatives to allow parents to send their children to any school in the state. She said she would consider expanding the education freedom account program but did not commit to that. “There are a number of different ways you could do this,” she said, referring to expanding school choice.

Ayotte said the state should continue providing targeted state aid to schools to try to help deal with school funding inequities. And she said she would support public schools and work to ensure that public school teachers are paid more.

Morse said he supported the Legislature’s expansion of the education freedom account program’s income limits from 300 percent of the federal poverty level to 350 percent of the federal poverty level – about $105,000 in total annual income for a family of four. And he said he would back an eventual removal of the income cap so all New Hampshire families could use the program, but he said he would want that change to be phased in gradually.

Morse said the state’s recent efforts to broaden school choice, both through the increase of charter schools and vouchers, would strengthen the state’s existing public schools. “Because it just makes people compete for the child for the right reasons,” he said. “And I think that’s a good thing.”

The opioid crisis

New Hampshire’s opioid crisis has received less attention in recent years. But the state had 463 opioid overdose deaths in 2022 – the highest number since 2017, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office. And data out of Manchester and Nashua suggests that overdoses are continuing to increase in 2023.

To Morse, one of the biggest priorities is securing the state’s borders from the flow of drugs. “I think where the state should be is eliminating the source,” he said. “I think that becomes the first thing that we should do.”

That means working with State Police, he said, and ensuring that the 70 positions they have open are filled. Addressing the actual opioid crisis, he said, should be done through economics. “I think that comes with creating opportunities in this state. So people all have a chance to make a living and have a good life.”

Ayotte said the state needed to pass tougher criminal penalties against fentanyl dealers. “So that’s the message: that if you traffic in New Hampshire, you’re going to face real jail time.”

And she said as governor she would work with local communities to make sure the treatment options in place are “the very best, most effective programs to help people.” She touted her co-sponsorship of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act as a U.S. senator in 2014, which helped to send federal money to states during the peak of the opioid epidemic.

Warmington said she would address the sources of the opioid epidemic by integrating more mental health resources into public schools to address adverse childhood experiences, which can be triggers that may lead to drug use. She would continue funding harm reduction and treatment programs, paying for the availability of medication-assisted treatment, and supporting law enforcement efforts to curb drugs.

“This is very, very near and dear to my heart,” she said.

Craig said one key to addressing the opioid crisis is building a better collaboration between the state and city officials, like those in Manchester. That effort would help funding be better distributed and resources shared, she said. And, she said, the cooperation would help address situations where a lack of options in cities forces some people in New Hampshire to go to other states to find better treatment options.

“Certainly the experience that I have in Manchester provides a lot of information for me as governor,” she said.

As governor, Craig said she would improve data collection about the programs that state and municipal officials engage in.

Abortion

In January 2022, New Hampshire began restricting abortion access after 24 weeks, following a law signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in 2021 as part of the budget. Today, it is illegal to carry out an abortion after 24 weeks unless the pregnancy threatens the mother’s health or life, or the baby is found to have “abnormalities incompatible with life.”

Meanwhile, the state’s Republican-led Executive Council has denied state funding contracts to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and two other organizations in the state, Equality Health Center and Lovering Health Center, that provide low-income individuals cancer screenings, sexually transmitted infection testing, contraception, and sex education.

Craig said she would support legislation to repeal the 24-week ban and would push to codify abortion protections into state law. Craig added that she would restore state contracts to Planned Parenthood that Sununu had pushed for but that have been rejected by the Executive Council.

“I have two daughters, and many of us have young daughters, and I think it’s absolutely wrong that they have less rights to their bodies than we did when we were their age,” Craig said.

Warmington said she would also push to repeal the 24-week limit, with a particular focus on removing the provisions criminalizing conduct by physicians. She would push the Executive Council to restore state contracts to the reproductive health centers.

And Warmington said she would make abortion rights a litmus test for any nominations to the state Supreme Court. “The next governor is going to appoint two state Supreme Court justices,” she said. “I will appoint justices who will protect reproductive freedom.”

Ayotte said she would stand by the 24-week ban signed by Sununu. “I support the current law, which like the majority of the states in this country addresses abortion during the last three months of pregnancy, and I would not change it,” she said.

When it comes to funding reproductive health care centers, Ayotte said she supports funding women’s preventative health care but would not renew funding to Planned Parenthood because it is “the largest provider of abortions in the country and also it’s really somewhat of a political organization.” Instead, she would devote state resources to community health centers and “look at each contract” when it came to the other reproductive health providers.

Morse voted for and supported the 24-week ban as passed, and he was one of five Republican senators that voted against a 2022 tweak to allow abortions after 24 weeks in cases where fatal fetal anomalies are detected. “I think the level that they’ve set abortion – that is where the public wants it to be,” he said.

And Morse said he supported the Executive Council’s decision not to fund the family planning contracts, and said he would “continue to govern that same way.”

Climate change

Political leaders in New Hampshire have differed on whether and how to encourage a transition to clean energy. Often viewed as an outlier in the region, New Hampshire is the only New England state not to join the U.S. Climate Alliance or set a formal mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Morse disagreed that New Hampshire needed to adopt a state emissions mandate, arguing that any energy transition should be driven by New Hampshire residents. Government-imposed attempts to push consumers and companies into lowering emissions would not work, he said. And he said he agreed with Sununu’s approach of taking positions on energy that focused on keeping energy rates as low as possible.

“If we just keep coming up with models that put (the cost) on the ratepayer, it’s not gonna work,” he said.

Ayotte said the state should encourage and push for more clean energy, but that she does not support agreeing to emission reduction goals. Instead, she said she would have an “all of the above” energy policy “that also focuses on the very best affordable clean energy” for residents.

Warmington said the state’s energy plan is overly reliant on fossil fuels, and that the Public Utilities Commission and Department of Energy are not committed enough to promoting clean energy. As governor, she would work to remove caps on net metering – the process by which consumers with renewable energy generators can get compensation for energy returned to the grid – and push the state to expand alternative energy sources.

“We need a governor, to start with, who believes in climate change and believes that government has a role in addressing it,” she said.

Craig said she would “support an energy policy that promotes renewable energy and transitions away from fossil fuels.” She praised efforts by Democratic lawmakers to expand net metering allowances for municipalities in state statute, a change that allowed Manchester to build the state’s largest municipal solar array and cut city emissions by 60 percent.

“I do think that we need to do more in our state to protect our natural resources and to decrease costs for our residents,” she said.

What sets them apart?

Each of the candidates was asked what set them apart from Gov. Chris Sununu and what set them apart from their opponents in the race.

Craig criticized Sununu for signing into law the abortion limits and for not working enough with local communities, and said she would lead in those areas differently.

As the mayor of Manchester, Craig argued she had been closely involved in carrying out policies and priorities that support her agenda, a background that she said would translate to the corner office. And she said as mayor she has helped expand Democratic representation on the city council, which she said she would also do for the Legislature.

“(I would cite) the executive experience that I have as mayor of the largest city in the state, on the front lines dealing with the state challenges,” she said.

Warmington also said she differs greatly from Sununu, including the signature of the abortion restrictions, his nomination and support of Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, and the push for education freedom accounts, and what she said was a lack of focus on encouraging construction of the 60,000 new housing units estimated to be necessary to solve the state’s housing crisis.

As for her opponents, Warmington said her time on the Executive Council has made her the best acquainted with the problems facing the state.

“I am ready to serve on day one,” she said. “Having been on the Executive Council is really truly like four years of on-the-job training to be governor, and I am ready to step in right away and take over.”

Ayotte said Sununu had done a “great job,” and that she wasn’t going to focus on any differences with him. She argued she’s the best person in the race for governor because she is the best person to build on Sununu’s policies.

“I have the experience, the background, and the fire in the belly when it comes to New Hampshire,” she said. “I love this state, and I look forward to getting up every single day and fighting for the people of New Hampshire.”

Morse also did not answer how he differs from Sununu. But he said his legislative experience in the state Senate gives him a perspective on how to usher in economic and policy priorities that the other candidates don’t have. He pointed to his longstanding effort to expand the southern stretch of Interstate 93, which he said helped create an economic corridor from Massachusetts that has accelerated the state’s economy.

“I stuck with (Interstate) 93 for 25 years to get that 18, 19 miles done, from the Salem border all the way up to Manchester,” he said. “It’s that kind of determination that makes a difference. … It doesn’t get done overnight. It gets done with the legislative experience of being able to work with the Legislature.”

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