By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington laid into Attorney General John Formella on his decision not to sign an amicus brief with more than 20 other states on a U.S. Supreme Court appeal related to the abortion drug Mifepristone Wednesday during the council meeting.
Formella defended his decision as based on the law not politics and defended his department after accusing Warmington of attacking it, saying there was no political motivation in his actions Tuesday.
He said there are compelling legal arguments on both sides of the case examining the Food and Drug Administration’s decision related to the drug. The nation’s high court plans to hear the matter on March 26.
Gov. Chris Sununu, speaking with reporters after the meeting in his office, said he was taken aback by Warmington’s comments but pleased with Formella’s response and said Warmington was the one playing politics with the issue.
“I was absolutely shocked I saw Councilor Warmington using a political argument to pressure the attorney general,” Sununu said.
But on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, Warmington shot back at Sununu’s comments saying, “A woman’s right to access reproductive health is not a ‘political argument’ – it is a fundamental freedom.”
The Democrat from Concord, who is running for Governor, told Formella and the governor at the council table New Hampshire is a pro-choice state and should be leading the charge on the Mifepristone appeal.
Danco Laboratories, which makes the drug, and the Department of Justice asked the high court in September to review a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which found the FDA didn’t take into account safety concerns when it made Mifepristone more easily accessible and available online in 2016.
Warmington asked Formella about an amicus brief other states had signed related to the proceedings and Formella replied that he made the decision on his own Tuesday, the deadline to file.
“I did look at this carefully,” Formella said, noting he had read the various positions and reached out to his counterparts in New York.
He noted that last year, a federal judge in Texas issued an order which would have invalidated the FDA’s original approval of the drug, which the FDA appealed to the 5th Circuit which reversed the district court’s decision and issued a decision to remove certain restrictions including only allowing Mifepristone’s use to a number of weeks of gestation.
What is in question now is whether the restrictions in place are correct.
Formella said he read up on it and “ultimately I think that there are pretty compelling arguments on either side of the question of the correct process.
“So ultimately I felt that the best course of action, I decided not to sign on to this action.”
Ultimately, Formella said, this isn’t a question of the drug on the market but what restrictions should be in place. He said he sent the council an email on his decision Tuesday night.
Warmington, an attorney, asked Formella if at any time did he consult health care professionals in the state on how they prescribe the drug.
“I didn’t do that councilor, because I look at it as my job to evaluate the legal arguments that are made,” Formella said.
“I don’t think there is a clear answer either way,” and thus, he said, he did not want to sign on to the brief.
Warmington said: “You don’t think that it’s important that this decision could dramatically impact the access to Mifepristone within our state?”
Formella said he does think it is important, “don’t get me wrong that’s an important issue at play in this case but when I decide whether to sign on to an amicus brief, first I have to decide whether I feel confident enough that a legal position with that brief is stated and then I have to decide whether the interests at play are important enough to sign on. I do think there are very important interests here but what I struggled with is clear…there are compelling issues on both sides” of the brief, Formella said.
Warmington said: “Well, I think it is appalling, appalling that you did not bother to look at how women in our state access this drug.
“That this decision…If it goes in that direction, how restrictive and what restrictions would it put on the access to safe and legal abortion in our state. I think that is appalling. I think it is appalling that our state is not leading the charge against this. This is one of the most pro-choice states in the country,” and she looked at Sununu and said, “you are a pro-choice governor. You say…”
Sununu interrupted Warmington and said, “Yes, let’s be very clear. He is not the head of public health, nor should he be making decisions about that. He is looking at the legal aspects as the attorney general.”
Formella confirmed the decision was his solely.
“I think it was really a terrible decision on the part of your office,” Warmington said, adding it should be reconsidered.
Formella said he had to respond to her because “you attacked the integrity of my office…We do not put politics over people in my office.”
Sununu after the meeting was asked about the exchange.
Sununu said, “to chastise the attorney general and insist he insert politics into his decision and his entire department, I didn’t know what to say. John’s incredibly bright and had the exact right response. That’s never been done. It’s not the way he runs the department.”
Sununu said the department does not look at things politically, nor should they, and “for her to insist he try to use politics in it was shocking.”
EDELBLUT PAY HIKE
The council, on a 4-1 vote authorized a salary increase for the Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut from a current salary of $144,516 to $151,666. Warmington cast the dissenting vote.
Former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, who is also running for governor as a Democrat, issued a news release opposed to Edelblut’s raise.
“Frank Edelblut has done everything in his power to undermine New Hampshire’s public schools and the only thing I would be considering is his resignation,” Craig said.
FORMER LACONIA STATE SCHOOL SALE
Republican Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas of Manchester said he knew there was no progress on the sale of the former Laconia State School because there were no champagne bottles to open at the meeting.
Robynne Alexander of Manchester has signed a purchase and sales agreement for the 220 acres for $21.5 million with plans to spend close to half a billion dollars to develop the parcel.
Charlie Arlinghaus, commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, said what he has said for months that there is progress, and he believes the property will sell to developers. But there is no closing date.
The deal was supposed to have been completed in 2023.
“We have a piece of property we are selling and we do not have a sale date,” Arlinghaus said.
Gatsas, who has expressed doubts that the deal will lead to a sale, asked about refundable aspects of the deposit, which he has continued to ask about.
Sununu asked Arlinghaus “Do you feel confident we are going to get to a closing?”
The answer was “yes.”
There has been some progress, Arlinghaus said, and an actual draft deed that has gone to them since the last council meeting.
NORTHERN BORDER SECURITY
State efforts to bolster northern border security received about a half million dollars at the Executive Council table Wednesday to “fight crime and illicit activity” coming in from Canada.
The funding, through June of 2025 will provide money to local law enforcement in Berlin, Pittsburg, Northumberland, Gorham, Colebrook, Fish and Game and the Coos County Sheriff to beef up border security.
Additionally, the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources will also receive funding toward the effort.
Sununu has sounded the alarm that the northern border is under increasing pressure, and the federal government has not responded with more help, though some, including the ACLU of NH say there is no reason for this funding to be used.
Commissioner of Safety Robert Quinn said this funding is a portion of the roughly $1.5 million the state has allocated to bolster security, with another aspect being funding for equipment like vehicles to patrol the border, which is less than 60 miles in length and there is another parcel of money to provide State Police overtime. There is training that is taking place, which is part of the money, Quinn said, but the plan is to provide overall law enforcement coverage of the border area.
The council unanimously agreed to authorize the Division of State Police to enter into grant agreements in substantially similar form and format as detailed in the letter dated Jan. 17, 2024 with state agencies, counties, and municipalities listed for a total amount of $519,954 to reduce the instance of crimes and illicit activity near the Canadian border.
The money comes from the state’s general fund.
PROBLEMS FOR STATE RETIREES WITH ANTHEM
New Hampshire state employee retirees are experiencing long hold times, prescriptions that have not been transferred timely and other problems with Anthem BX/BS which are significant.
While Anthem may say the problem is resolved, the state wants to know if that is the case from retirees with more than 11,000 people impacted.
Executive Councilor Janet Stevens, R-Rye, said this is a system problem not a user problem and it has gotten worse.
State officials said they are on it and the governor said there are things that the state can do, which include termination of the contract or assessing penalties.
MISSION ZERO COMPONENT TO HELP ER BOARDING CRISIS APPROVED
The council approved $1.2 million in funding to address the shortage of housing for individuals discharged from inpatient psychiatric treatment.
The Department of Health and Human Services is partnering with the Granite United Way to expand its landlord incentive program to support individuals as they transition from New Hampshire Hospital and other inpatient psychiatric residential facilities to the community. The expansion of supported housing is a key component of Mission Zero, an initiative created by DHHS to eliminate psychiatric boarding in Emergency Departments across the state.
“Successful treatment does not end the day a patient is discharged from the hospital,” said Sununu in a statement after the meeting.
“With wraparound services, Mission Zero works to not only address the challenges of emergency department boarding, but to provide Granite Staters with the tools to reintegrate into their communities and thrive.”
The funding will provide property owner incentives, coordinated landlord engagement, and strong tenancy support to individuals who are discharging from New Hampshire Hospital or other psychiatric residential facilities and hold an active Housing Bridge Subsidy Program voucher.
“Part of Mission Zero is about ensuring that people leaving inpatient psychiatric care have the support they need to be successful, and that starts with safe and stable housing,” said DHHS Commissioner Lori Weaver. “Access to low-barrier, supportive housing with wraparound services is one of the most effective ways to provide stability to patients and improve their quality of life. We continue to work with our community partners to develop solutions that can help people transition safely back into community-based settings and help prevent future crises.”
MUSIC AND HONORS
Concord Community Music School and Concord High School 10th grade student Dylan Stewart played the keyboard piano for the council at the beginning of the meeting, including the theme from “The Sting.”
Sununu also recognized WREN, an acronym for Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network upon its 30th anniversary. The organization is based in Bethlehem.
Pam Sullivan, its executive director, said the organization was founded by a group of three women who realized the women of the north country did not have opportunities as in other areas of the state to earn money for their crafts and needed an entrepreneurial network and gallery. The organization was also central to redevelopment of the downtown of Bethlehem.
TWO HOUSE REPUBLICANS SWORN IN
The governor swore in two Republicans who won House seats in special elections last week.
State Rep. Sean C. Durkin of Northumberland will complete the unexpired term of former Rep. Troy Merner, R-Lancaster who resigned and is now facing charges he voted illegally when he moved out of the district.
That was for Coos County District 1 including Dalton, Lancaster, Northumberland, Stratford, over Democrat Cathleen A. Fountain of Dalton.
Michael Murphy of Gorham was also sworn in and will represent the voters in Coos County District 6.
Brian T. Tucker of Hopkinton resigned as justice for the New Hampshire Superior Court as he is reaching mandatory retirement age.
Lori Weaver was confirmed as the commissioner for the Department of Health and Human Services through February, 2028 at a salary of $161,791.
Lori Harnois was nominated to continue as director of the Division of Travel and Tourism Development within the Department of Business and Economic Affairs.
Patrick McGonagle of Gilford was nominated as the Belknap County member of the Fish and Game Commission and Andrew Livernois of New Hampton was nominated as justice for the New Hampshire Superior Court.
Sean Toomey of Warner was nominated for reappointment to be the state Fire Marshal.
HOUSE AND LAND IN CRAWFORD NOTCH PURCHASED
The council agreed to buy a house and land adjacent to Crawford Notch State Park.
Executive Councilor Joe Kenney of Wakefield, a Republican, asked if the state parks had the resources to keep up a house on approximately half an acre of land in Hart’s Location.
The property is being sold by William J. King, trustee of the King Family Revocable Trust, and is an in-holding to Crawford Notch State Park and located on the westerly end of Arethusa Fall Road.
The sale amount is $555,000, and paid for through the Parks Fund, said Sarah Stewart, commissioner of the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources.
Stewart said the house is in excellent condition and will be used as a public rental within parks.