Note: This editorial has been corrected to reflect Gov. Sununu auctioned off a copy of his veto of Senate Bill 1, not House Bill 1.
Heading into this legislative session, in which the state’s biennial budget was to be hammered out, it was clear the new Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature would have some grand plans — expensive plans, to be sure, but not unreasonable. But to put any of them into place, they’d have to get them signed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who after calling for bipartisanship and compromise, spent the entire session telling anyone who would listen that he was loosening up his veto-signing arm.
At one point, he even auctioned off a copy of his budget veto of Senate Bill 1 — the Democrats' family leave plan — at a Republican fundraiser. Democrats railed at the thought, trying to turn it into a scandal; we found it a sign that the governor has a sense of humor, even amid a fierce budget fight.
The fact that Sununu has, by a wide margin, apparently set a record for vetoes is an indication he is entrenched in his views; or, he sees refusing to compromise as a smart political move for his future. The two are not mutually exclusive. Vetoes are to be expected any time the Legislature and governor’s office are held by opposing parties. Democrat Maggie Hassan twice issued 13. Democrat John Lynch killed 15 bills in 2012. This session, Sununu stands at 50 after six more vetoes Friday.
By far the most visible of these is his veto of the Legislature’s two-year, $13 billion budget. As expected, lawmakers immediately passed a continuing resolution to keep the government going under the 2018-19 budget rules. That’s better than a shutdown, but it means many departments are not getting the increased funding they were planning for. It means necessary planning for the next two years is on hold. It means promises aren’t being kept and any new programs or restructuring can’t take place.
The biggest issues are putting money into property-tax relief and municipal aid that comes from one-time revenues, which the Legislature’s Democratic majority supports and Sununu says is fiscally unsound, and business tax cuts, which Democratic lawmakers want to freeze and the governor supports.
There have since been a few meetings, none of which has resulted in promising proposals.
Still, we’ve been in the position before of thinking there’s no path to resolution, only to find as the situation deteriorates and the pressure mounts, there are ways to find common ground. In 2015, Hassan vetoed the GOP-led Legislature’s biennial budget. Among other differences, Republican leaders wanted to give businesses tax cuts, while Hassan had promised state workers a raise. Also looming was extending the state’s Medicaid expansion, the N.H. Health Protection Plan. After state revenue projections came in higher than expected, lawmakers agreed to modest state worker raises. The Medicaid extension was put off — its expiration wasn’t imminent — and Hassan eventually agreed to phased-in business tax cuts with a sunset clause.
The deal wasn’t perfect for either side. It involved giving something to get something else. Both sides exposed themselves to the possibility they’d be taken to task for giving an inch, and both sides survived. The conflict was resolved. The state was better off for it.
We’ve received many letters on the budget impasse, from backers of either the governor or Legislature. Those include two recent letters signed by local municipal leaders. Last month, dozens of Democratic municipal leaders, including some from Keene, signed a letter to Sununu, extolling the benefits of the Legislature’s budget and calling for him to accept their “compromise budget” and negotiate. Soon after, a slew of prominent Republicans, again including some locally, penned a letter to legislative leaders, supporting Sununu’s budget and calling for the lawmakers to “work with Governor Sununu in crafting a true compromise budget.”
It seems disingenuous to call for those you disagree with to come to the center while in the same breath stating your view is right and theirs wrong. We choose to ignore this political posturing and find the common ground. In this case, it’s that both letters call for compromise. If that’s not just lip service, they ought to be talking to those they support instead of trying to cajole the opposition.
We could use some actual negotiating about now.