Republican Gov. Chris Sununu orchestrated a smidgen of showmanship Tuesday by presenting a ceremonial check at the N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 central office in Keene, touting the education funding and municipal aid headed to the Elm City through September’s budget compromise.
Joining Sununu were Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay and Keene Mayor Kendall Lane, who flanked the $4,469,419 blown-out blue check.
“I think to everybody’s credit, we’re not Washington,” Sununu said during his brief remarks. “We’re not stuck in gridlock. We’re not shutting down government. We really all came together to make sure this was a win for New Hampshire.”
Sununu, who is in his second term, is running for reelection in 2020.
The only local Statehouse lawmakers at Tuesday’s event were state Reps. William A. Pearson, D-Keene; and Michael Abbott, D-Hinsdale, though Sununu’s spokesman said all were invited through the chamber liaisons in Concord.
Pearson described Sununu’s big-check rollout as “disingenuous” given the governor’s holdout over education funding, with his budget proposal including a $142,246 cut to Keene’s education budget from 2020 to 2021, and offering $3,686,285 less in education funding to Keene than was reached in the compromise budget, according to the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office.
State Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, said he was given just shy of 24 hours notice for Tuesday’s event, which he could not attend due to prior obligations in Concord.
“This idea was hastily prepared,” Kahn wrote in a text message to The Sentinel. “I posted on my Facebook page about the irony of the Governor taking a victory lap on the back of the Democrats’ Opportunity Plan, a plan he villainized and vetoed over the past 6 months.”
The Democrats’ Opportunity Plan also included paid family leave, an issue many candidates ran on in their 2018 victories that ultimately fell victim to budget negotiations even before Sununu’s veto.
But Lane and Malay praised the funds coming to Keene, and Lane even found a silver lining in the $9 million in funding for Keene State’s planned business hub that was cut from the $13.4 billion compromise budget for the next two years, despite Sununu going to bat for it in his initial proposal.
“We’re actually working to use some tax credits and actually follow through with that program and do it locally,” Lane said.
After Wednesday’s short ceremony, Sununu went more in depth into what broke the budget impasse after his June veto, in a sit-down interview for The Sentinel’s politics podcast, Pod Free or Die.
Sununu started with how he was able to reach a compromise with Democrats on the budget by September.
“We were able to show the other side that a lot of the spending initiatives they wanted across the board could be done without the tax increase,” Sununu said of the business profits tax rate, one of the key sticking points in the stalemate. “And by doing that, I think it allows New Hampshire to maintain its place as kind of the place for private businesses to come, the place for millennials to come.”
Workforce development and attracting younger people to the state — not just millennials, but the emerging micro generation of those born after 1997 known as Gen-Z — has become a priority in Concord’s corner office, Sununu said.
To address the labor shortage stemming from New Hampshire’s aging population, Sununu noted how affordable housing has become a crucial need, and even teased a forthcoming plan.
“So we’re going to be releasing some ideas on housing, and it isn’t fluff,” Sununu said. “It’s real detailed stuff, and it’s exciting, the ability to incentivize — whether it’s local communities or developers — to actually create the product we need to see for [workforce housing].”
Some towns and cities in New Hampshire “get it,” Sununu said, while others are more stubborn about holding onto single-family homes and preserving the rural character of their communities. The governor cited places like Bedford, Rochester and Londonderry as good examples of ways Granite Staters can smoothly implement more dense housing to attract workers.
“Some cities and towns don’t [get it], and I don’t want to pick on anyone in particular,” Sununu said. “They know who they are. But, you know, local control is a very good thing, right?”
The governor described concerns about urban sprawl and overly dense housing as “old-school thinking” stemming from the 1990s and early 2000s.
“With how you can design these [rental units], where you can build them, the architecture you can implement, the kind of full [range] of services you can provide — it’s not just an apartment building, it’s a lifestyle complex now,” Sununu said. “They have health and fitness centers, they have recreation areas ... they have really cool ways to design the stuff that, for example with Keene, can completely fit right into the niche of what Keene is all about, and really, I think, enhance the opportunity for these businesses to want to stay here, want to grow here, make the investment here.
“If you don’t have the workforce,” Sununu continued, “I don’t care how good your product is. It ain’t gonna happen.”
In appearances on the Fox Business Channel and CNBC, Sununu occasionally jokes about “stealing” businesses from states like New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut when making a pitch for the Granite State’s low tax climate.
Preserving that amid the new Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature was key this past session, he said, noting how New Hampshire’s biggest competition for attracting businesses are states with similar tax incentives.
“It’s too easy for folks to make a choice to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to Texas. I’m gonna move to Florida, or I’m gonna move to Idaho, Tennessee,’” Sununu said. “These are the places we’re actually competing with for millennials now: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina a little bit, Tennessee, Idaho, Utah — those are the competition.”
Nevertheless, the attraction of big cities like New York and Boston will always be there for young people, Sununu said.
“That’s a cultural experience that a young person wants, and God bless it, I think it’s great,” Sununu said. “... We can’t and shouldn’t be trying to compete with that.
“What we’re going after is kind of the 28 to 35, right?” Sununu continued. “Those folks coming out of the inner city, young companies, so to say — companies that are on the verge of really maturing and taking that next step. Young families, folks that are really starting to consider, ‘Yeah, I really want to live in a place where I have individual liberty and freedom.’ ”
Focusing on quality of life issues like housing and education, along with keeping bureaucracy to a minimum, is what Sununu described as New Hampshire’s long-term formula for success.
“That’s the younger generation we’re going after,” the governor said, “and that’s the kind of quality of product we really need to build, not for what we want, but for what they want.”