Planned Parenthood contract to come before Executive Council a second time

  • Executive Councilor Chris Sununu is seen during a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Concord, N.H. Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 6/28/2016 1:30:10 AM

The Executive Council will vote Wednesday on whether to restore family planning funding to the state’s Planned Parenthood clinics, about 10 months after the council voted 3-2 along party lines to defund the organization.

But Wednesday’s vote holds a different dynamic, given that two of the five councilors are running for governor.

Chris Sununu, a Republican councilor from Newfields and gubernatorial candidate, is widely regarded as the Executive Council’s swing vote on the issue.

Sununu is pro-abortion rights and has approved Planned Parenthood contracts in the past, but he cast the deciding vote to deny the organization $639,000 in state money last year. Sununu had previously said his vote was driven by the secret videos of national Planned Parenthood officials allegedly discussing the sale of fetal tissue.

After a grand jury investigation last year, the organization was cleared of wrongdoing; instead, the makers of the videos were indicted on charges of making and using fake driver’s licenses to gain access to a Planned Parenthood meeting.

Now that New Hampshire’s Planned Parenthood contracts are coming before the council again, all eyes are on Sununu, and he hasn’t yet given an indication of how he’s going to vote.

“I am in the process of reviewing the proposed contract and continuing to talk and listen to people on the matter,” Sununu said in a Monday statement. “As I have always done, I will cast my vote on Wednesday with the best interest of my constituents in mind.”

Democratic and Republican politicians alike are making appeals to Sununu. Last year, Democratic Councilors Colin Van Ostern and Chris Pappas penned a letter to their three Republican colleagues asking them to reconsider their votes.

The two reiterated that sentiment Monday.

“I hope that it will pass,” Van Ostern said in an interview. “I’m glad we’re seeing it. I wish it had come up sooner to be honest.”

Van Ostern is also running for governor, and his campaign recently sent a fundraising email to supporters asking them to sign a petition to urge Sununu to restore Planned Parenthood funding.

Sununu is also getting hit on the issue by members of his own party. Fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate Ted Gatsas, who is also pro-abortion rights, pounced on the upcoming vote last week.

“Councilor Sununu has repeatedly voted to provide public funding for Planned Parenthood and only decided to flip-flop his position when he began to consider running for governor,” Gatsas, the mayor of Manchester, said in a statement Friday, adding that he would oppose funding Planned Parenthood as governor and instead give the money to other women’s health care organizations.

Other candidates running for governor, including Democrat Mark Connolly and Republicans Frank Edelblut and Jeanie Forrester, also criticized Sununu ahead of the vote.

University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said he’d be surprised if Sununu broke ranks with his Republican colleagues Wednesday.

“Of the two choices, flipping seems riskier,” Scala said. “To line himself up to the left of Ted Gatsas on that issue, it would be courting trouble.”

A second vote

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said the Planned Parenthood contract is coming before the council for a second time because there is still unused money for family planning services.

In addition, the federal government is providing new matching dollars for these services, and Meyers said he’s hoping the state can take advantage of that.

“We felt from a public health perspective that there was a need in New Hampshire,” Meyers said.

Planned Parenthood clinics have remained open since the organization was defunded last year, but some have had to cut back on hours and staff.

“While PPNNE doors have, and will continue to remain open, the funds in this contract are critical to ensuring people in all regions of the state have sustained access to reproductive and sexual health care services,” said Jennifer Frizzell, vice president for the Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund.

The money accounts for one-third of the organization’s public funding in New Hampshire, which goes toward STD screening, breast exams and access to contraception. No public money is used for abortions.

During Meyers’s confirmation hearing earlier this year, he promised to bring forward additional contracts for the Executive Council to consider.

Still, Republican Councilor Joe Kenney of Union said he was surprised to see the issue come up a second time.

“In my two years, I have not witnessed any other contract that has taken this path,” Kenney said. “If a contract has been voted down, it’s been voted down.”

Pappas and Van Ostern said the contract coming up again was not a surprise, given that it involves unused state money.

“This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that we’re at the point where we’re considering a contract,” Pappas said. “This is money that is unexpended in the state budget.”

The Democratic councilors say they hope the funding goes through so that family planning services can be restored to parts of the state that don’t have access to clinics, including the Monadnock Region and the Seacoast.

“It was voted down over politics,” Van Ostern said, adding that Republican councilors “should take a look at the contract and vote in the best interest of women and families in our state.”

Kenney said he won’t be changing his vote, saying the unexpended money could go to fight the state’s opioid crisis.

Kenney said he wouldn’t speculate on what Sununu’s vote would be, but added he could see the Newfields councilor getting pushback no matter what.

“If he votes against it, he’s going to get attacked from the left. If he votes for it, he’s going to be attacked from the right,” Kenney said. “He’s going to articulate his reason for his vote one way or another.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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