Gov. Chris Sununu tells NHJournal this week’s victories in the veto wars are a sign of things to come for New Hampshire Republicans — both in the ongoing budget battle, and beyond.
“The last couple of days are a great example of what we can accomplish when we are unified,” Sununu said. “There was a lot of political extremism from the Democrats this session, and we stood up against it.
“When Republicans stick together, the minority can become the majority,” Sununu added.
After weeks of attacking his record-setting veto pace and chants of “Veto Sununu” at their state convention, New Hampshire Democrats and their legislative majority were only able to overturn a single one of Sununu’s 55 vetoes. Is this a sign that uncompromising partisanship is the order of the day in New Hampshire politics?
“Actually, we had bipartisan support to sustain most of the vetoes,” Sununu said. “I prefer to work in a bipartisan fashion and, to be frank, we passed a lot of good legislation this year with the Democratic majority.” Among the bipartisan bills Sununu is most pleased with are new laws on suicide prevention training, increased penalties for animal cruelty, and banning offshore drilling.
“I actually signed more bipartisan bills this year than [Democratic Gov.] Maggie Hassan ever signed in a single year,” Sununu said. “Look, this is a purple state. I’m more of a social moderate, fiscally conservative Republican.”
When asked about whether that makes him a “squish” — the phrase used by conservative activists to describe less-principled moderates in the GOP — Sununu laughed.
“Did you see what happened the past two days? Who’s the ‘squish’ now?”
The GOP’s performance was significantly different from last year’s fiasco, when the Republican majority was unable to pass legislation to deal with the Supreme Court’s Wayfair decision on collecting out-of-state sales taxes or sustain his biomass veto. Why the change?
“That wasn’t politics, that was human nature. When you’re in power, when you have the majority, you start thinking ‘Well, I’m going to get just what I want.’ And Republicans really do have ideological differences that we take seriously. We tend to battle things out more than the Democrats, quite frankly. And sometimes we let the perfect become the enemy of the good.”
Asked about the suggestion that this week’s wins give him a stronger hand in budget negotiations with Democrats, Sununu demurred, saying he’s where he’s always been when it comes to the budget fight.
“I’m not going to raise taxes when we have a $200 million surplus, and I’m not going to sign a budget today that creates a structural deficit that has to be paid for tomorrow. Other than that, I’ve pretty much told the Democrats ‘Spend the money how you want.’ It really is a win-win. They have more money to spend and I hold the line on taxes.”
But, Sununu believes, there’s an element within the Democratic Party that wants to raise taxes as a matter of ideology.
“Democrats have been galvanized by tax hikes. Look at the proposals they had that didn’t pass. They want to raise taxes, even with all the new spending that’s already paid for.”
Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes (D-Concord) who is running to replace Sununu in 2020, disagrees. He has repeatedly argued the Democrats’ budget doesn’t raise the net tax burden on the middle class and he sees the just-completed veto session as a setback for Sununu.
“Forty of the record-setting 55 vetoes were legislation with bipartisan support,” Feltes told NHJournal. “The prior record of vetoes was 15 vetoes. Sununu doesn’t know how to do the job, and, unfortunately, Republicans who worked with Democrats on critical legislation folded up shop to serve Sununu, not their constituents.
“Sununu has brought Washington DC-style politics to New Hampshire, including holding hostage our people and our property taxpayers to get a budget with even more tax breaks mainly benefiting big, out-of-state corporations,” Feltes said.
Setting aside the questionable “tax breaks for big, out-of state corporations” claim, the property-tax argument is about to get trickier for Democrats as October 1 approaches and there’s no deal. Sununu says that’s the deadline for Democrats because, without the millions in his budget for cities and towns, the local municipalities won’t have that revenue in hand to set their property-tax rates.
The fact that Sununu has picked up the property-tax argument shows he has a strategy for the budget debate. The fact that Democrats are still making it shows they’re sticking with what they’ve been doing.
Which is just fine as far as Sununu is concerned.
“I think this week energized us for 2020,” Sununu said, adding that he’s already been working to get the GOP ready for next year. “I have personally been out recruiting candidates and helping raise money for the party. In 2018, we had a chairman leave and, quite frankly, the party was in disarray.
“Not anymore. We’ve got some really exciting candidates we’re recruiting. Not the same old faces, but some new, energetic candidates. We are going to win the House and we are going to win the Senate here in New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “You watch.”
And, he noted, many of the Democratic legislators who voted for “extreme” legislation are in Republican or GOP-leaning seats. The GOP is going to make sure the voters in their districts know about it, Sununu said, and they’re not going to wait until next year to remind them.
“We are going to strike hard and strike early,” Sununu said.