Near the end of a press gaggle this week, Gov. Chris Sununu was thrown a straightforward question: What, in 2017, was your signature accomplishment?
His reply was buoyant, the kind a governor with a 61 percent approval rating might be expected to say, and get away with.
“We have a litany of real successes for constituencies all across the state,” he said. “I’m very, very proud of that. We did it by throwing politics aside, focusing on simply getting the job done for the people of New Hampshire.”
In some respects, Sununu is right; the Legislature was largely generous to the first-term Republican. But the passage of a balanced budget and a full-day kindergarten Bill isn’t all that happened in state politics this year. Let’s review.
January. Kicking off the year, with full control of the Legislature and governor’s office for the first time in twelve years, Republicans go after a long-sought issue: concealed carry. In a 13-10 party-line vote, held over Democratic objections that the process was rushed, the Senate votes to eliminate the requirement for concealed carry gun licenses. Republicans argue obtaining the license involves long wait times and impedes the Constitutional right to bear arms. The bill will fully pass the House and be signed into law by Sununu in February.
February. A hard fought push for a New Hampshire right-to-work bill, advocated by Sununu, dies in the House. The snag? A small group of 32 Republicans who said it would weaken unions. The proposal is shelved to 2019.
The country’s eyes briefly turn to New Hampshire’s voting system, after President Trump is reported to claim in a closed door meeting that he would have won the state but for the thousands of people bused from Massachusetts in illegally. The comments come as debate picks up about a string of proposed voting laws in the State House that would tighten requirements at the polling booth. Sununu, in an interview, says he’s not “aware of any widespread voter fraud,” but that the president had raised concerns that bear investigation. Others in his party call for a more stringent review.
Meanwhile, Frank Edelblut, a former Republican state representative and 2016 gubernatorial candidate, is confirmed as Education Commission after an unusually contentious hearing at the Executive Council.
March. The Legislature passes $2 million in relief funds to dairy farmers hit by 2016’s drought; Sununu signs the bill in April. Bills raising the minium wage to $12 and the minimum age to marry to 18 are killed in the House and Senate. Sununu begins laying the groundwork for support for a plan for full-day kindergarten.
A push to depoliticize the state’s redistricting process by delegating it to an independent commission is killed in the Senate. Democrats argue the present Legislature-led process allows the dominant political party to game the system every 10 years; Republicans say it’s more accountable and democratic.
A bill to prohibit transgender discrimination is tabled by the full House, despite a 15-2 committee recommendation, after a fierce campaign and debating period by advocates for and against. Some representatives on the committee flip their votes, citing strong public opposition in emails and calls. Sununu declines to weigh in.
And finally, fallout from the burgeoning crisis at the Division of Children, Youth and Families comes to a head after a Monitor report finds that 1,500 abuse cases were rapidly closed in two days, and Sununu puts the head of the agency Lorraine Bartlett, on administrative leave.
April. Momentum grows for a new bill to allow parents to use state public school adequacy grants for use at private schools: Senate Bill 193. A furor erupts in the House after Rep. Robert Fisher is unmasked as the creator of a misogynistic online forum called Red Pill. He resigns after a hearing in May, despite an 8-6 committee vote not to pursue formal action against him. Manchester lawyer Gordon MacDonald is confirmed by the Executive Council and sworn in as New Hampshire’s attorney general.
May. Introducing: the Hanover bears. After leaving a trail of rampage in suburban Hanover, a mother and three bears come under threat of euthanasia by New Hampshire Fish and Game. But national attention, an online petition, and a last-minute intervention by Sununu, the bears are captured and relocated to Pittisfield. North Country representatives, meanwhile, are less thrilled.
A dispute between the state and Dartmouth-Hitchcock over the hospital’s fulfillment of a contract leads the CEO to resign, at Sununu’s request.
June. Voting season begins. The Legislature passes a bill criminalizing fetal homicide, allowing someone who kills or attacks a pregnant woman to be charged for killing the fetus. A slight amendment is made beforehand: the removal of a loophole allowing pregnant women to commit murder with impunity.
Senate Bill 7, a bill tightening the documentation process at the polling booth heads to Sununu’s desk, trumping more extensive efforts that would have required residency. Lawmakers also pass bill decriminalizing marijuana found in small amounts. Sununu checks off a major agenda item with “Kenogarten,” a bill to fund all-day kindergarten that introduces keno, a restaurant gambling game, as a funding vehicle.
And the Legislature pushes through a budget. It isn’t the smoothest sailing; the ascendant House Freedom Caucus, requesting a three percent increase cap, torpedoes the House vote entirely and complicates conference negotiations. But the bill makes it through, swinging some conservative holdouts via cuts to the business enterprise and business profits taxes.
July. Crisis hits the Manchester Veterans Affairs hospital, after a searing Boston Globe report revealed substandard care, unhygienic working conditions, long patient wait times, and a litany of other problems. Top officials are quickly removed; a Congressional review taskforce is soon established.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Bill Gardner faces a lawsuit over his decision to hand over New Hampshire voter data to a presidential commission to examine electoral integrity. After changes are made to address privacy concerns surrounding the data, the suit is withdrawn.
August. New federal immigration policies threaten an Indonesian community in Dover, which had for decades been living under a special exemption from deportation that required regular check ins. A push to convince U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to reverse its decision on New Hampshire’s community will eventually include a letter from Sununu to the president.
September. A meeting of the presidential electoral integrity commission at St. Anselm College in Manchester draws a wide swathe of lawmakers, many Republicans. Gardner takes the chance to challenge an op-ed written by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Vice Chairman of the commission, who falsely claimed that 5,000 people who had voted in New Hampshire with out of state licenses had committed fraud.
Sununu meets President Trump in Washington, and asks him to change his agency’s funding formula for about $1 billion in opioid aid, much of which has headed to large states at the expense of harder-hit states like New Hampshire. The president is receptive, Sununu reports. A month later, however, the agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, announces it will not be changing its formula for 2018.
October. A decision by New Hampshire Speaker Shawn Jasper to seek the position of Agriculture Commissioner – and step down if successful – sends shockwaves through the House.
Meanwhile, Sununu submits a long-shot bid for an Amazon headquarters in Londonderry, with a catchy, if pugnacious unofficial slogan: “All the benefits of Boston without all the headaches.” It’s a 75-page proposal that’s as much an unlikely application for the worlds largest Internet retailer as it is an advertisement for New Hampshire as a place for business. The bid also included a promise for a commuter rail project if selected, a potential reversal of the governor’s long-held opposition.
November. Jasper is narrowly confirmed as Agriculture Commissioner, after opposition from some of the more conservative members of the Executive Council. Then, Deputy House Speaker Gene Chandler wins over the gavel, but only after a write-in campaign threatens to derail the prospect. Chandler, a moderate, makes a point of including conservative members in his leadership appointments, including all of his Speaker’s opponents.
December. Sununu announces the creation of Civil Rights Unit within the Department of Justice, with a focus on addressing hate crimes and institutional bias within the justice system. He nixes an ongoing debate over a hike in toll prices within the state, announcing he will prevent it from moving ahead.
And in a bold move, the governor breaks from the familiar and chooses to opt out of a contract with AT&T to expand New Hampshire’s emergency responder network, instead going with Rivada Networks, a start up. The final contract is set to be reviewed by the Executive Council next month.
In all, it’s hard not to call it a successful legislative session for Republicans, with promise for Sununu’s re-election campaign. But 2018, with rumors of a Democratic wave, a round of potentially contentious bills circulating, and an emboldened faction of O’Brienite House conservatives, could bring along new challenges.
Navigating them will be up to the governor.
(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)
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