By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
A year and a half ago — it feels like an eternity — the voters of New Hampshire said they did not want a unified government with one party controlling the legislative and executive branches of government.
A blue wave put Democrats in control of the Executive Council, the Senate and the House and gave Republican Gov. Chris Sununu a much closer race than anticipated.
The 2018 vote is not an aberration. New Hampshire is fond of divided government. The once reliably Red Granite State became a little purple from the time voters put Jeanne Shaheen in the governor’s office about 25 years ago.
She had one term with a Democratically controlled Senate, but the others were with Republican controlled legislatures.
Despite the divided government, Shaheen and lawmakers agreed on a response to the state Supreme Court’s first two Claremont education decisions, to make Martin Luther King Day a state holiday, to establish the children’s health insurance program, statewide kindergarten, community rating for health insurers and oversaw the deregulation of the electric industry among other things.
When Shaheen left office, voters went Republican putting Cabletron founder Craig Benson in the corner office and giving the GOP large majorities in the House and Senate.
That era was mostly characterized by friction between the legislature and the governor.
Then the state returned to divided government electing business executive Democrat John Lynch as governor with a Republican legislature.
For four years of Lynch’s eight years in office he had Democratically controlled legislatures and executive councils but the other two were with Republicans in control including his final term in 2011-2012 when Republicans had veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.
Democrat Maggie Hassan had a Democratic House her first term, but a Republican Senate and Republicans controlled both the House and Senate her final term. She did have a Democratically controlled Executive Council all four years.
That brings us to 2016 when Republicans gained control of state government passing laws that Democratic governors had vetoed like voting restrictions and eliminating a concealed carry permit for pistols.
That brings us to the current term with Sununu the lone Republican in an otherwise Democratically controlled government.
Problems began from day one but became obvious when Sununu presented his proposed budget. It included tens of millions of dollars in projects around the state that should have gone through the capital budget process but did not.
Sununu was trying to do what his father had done the last time state revenues produced significant surpluses: Use the surplus for one-time projects and keep the money out of the operating budget so it does not “grow state government.”
But Democrats viewed the surplus as an opportunity to address needs short-changed over the years due to limited revenues like Medicaid reimbursement rates, education funding and improving the state’s mental health system which had fallen into disrepair following major program cuts due to the late 1980s recession.
The disagreements did not stop there. Democrats sought to reverse some of what the GOP controlled government had done like voting restrictions, and they tried to institute background checks and waiting periods before buying a gun, greater protections for workers, net metering and paid medical and family leave.
Before the 2019 session was over, Sununu had vetoed a record 53 bills including the budget package and touted his vetoes as a major accomplishment blocking what he called “the Democrats’ really dumb ideas.”
If you want to solidify your political base, vetoing 53 bills is a good idea, but not so if you want to accomplish something.
What Sununu did is equivalent to throwing a Molotov cocktail into the house next door, in this case fueling the partisan divide that has gripped the nation for some time.
The partisan divide is one of the fundamental reasons most Americans believe their government is broken and incapable of addressing critical issues like racial inequality, the accelerating wealth disparity, climate change, meaningful and rewarding jobs, and the dying middle class.
In Concord people used to say, “we are not like Washington, we come together to solve our problems,” but that is no longer true.
One of the most important issues the state has faced in a long time is the coronavirus pandemic.
Billion Dollar Battle
Sununu and legislative leaders presented a united front at the beginning as the state grappled to address the first few known cases, but when the money came — $1.25 billion through the federal CARES Act — things changed.
Citing a 2002 law passed after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., that gives governors broad authority in an emergency, Sununu maintains he does not need legislative approval for spending the money as he sees fit or the Executive Council’s approval for state contracts with vendors hired to fight the pandemic.
Democratic lawmakers cited another law that said all off-budget revenues or spending has to have the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee’s approval and the litigation was on.
Initially a superior court judge said the lawmakers do not have standing and dismissed the suit, but later agreed the members of the Fiscal Committee do have standing, and reinstated the complaint, but refused to stop Sununu from continuing to spend the money.
And that is where it sits today as most of the $1.25 billion has been allocated if not spent.
While the Democratic lawsuit may look a little like sour grapes during an historic pandemic, it goes to the heart of legislative authority.
Under the state constitution, the legislature has the “power of the purse” because only legislators can decide to tax, what to tax and how much, not the executive branch.
The legislative leaders would be negligent if they did not challenge Sununu’s contention because it has significant ramifications into the future.
While it will not happen this year, lawmakers of both parties should want to more clearly define the governor’s expanded authority under an emergency in law.
Lawmakers need a judge’s ruling to determine how much power the governor has before deciding on any changes. New Hampshire traditionally does not want governors to have too much authority.
Maybe that is something both Democrats and Republicans representatives can agree on, because it is central to their power as policy makers and appropriators.
But that is for future legislatures to decide.
This week the 2020 session will come to a close, except for veto day this fall, and the ending is pretty ugly.
The House, particularly this tumultuous year, has been extremely partisan, from reprimanding seven Republicans for either not attending or failing to provide proof of attending sexual harassment prevention training to a unanimous GOP caucus refusing to change deadlines so bills would not need a two-thirds majority to pass, effectively killing most bills in the House.
The change was needed because legislative action was suspended for three months due to coronavirus.
However, the Senate, which has always been more bipartisan due to the small number of senators, salvaged some of the session’s most important bills.
The Senate meets Monday to act on seven bills, including several that will be approved on a strictly partisan vote, the red flag bill, independent redistricting commission and allowing Nashua to retain money for the safe station program although it is ending and transfer the money for treatment and recovery counseling.
Other bills will have bipartisan support like one temporarily changing voting laws during the coronavirus pandemic to protect voters and election workers and allowing electronic notary procedures and witnessing wills.
The House will have about 35 bills Tuesday it can either concur with the changes the Senate made or non-concur, which would kill them.
Many are omnibus bills containing the contents of multiple House and Senate bills on one topic like child protection or sexual assault or highway improvement.
About two-thirds of the bills had strong bipartisan support in the Senate, and Democrats have enough votes in the House — a simple majority — to pass the bills and send them to the governor.
But there is no reason to expect the ending to be smooth and dignified. The Republicans and Democrats took shots at each other last week citing familiar grievances.
The Republicans claimed the Democratic leadership is not communicating with them, and Democrats calling Republicans obstructionists.
Divided government is one thing and often results in better legislation if all sides can have a little of what they need, but this hyper-partisan warfare does not serve the people of New Hampshire.
No one wins and unless the Senate salvages the session like it did this year, it is a waste of everyone’s time, money and energy.
If the Senate had not performed its magic, the Legislature may as well not have met and voters did not intend that when they went to the polls in 2018.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.