Three years ago, gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu ran on a platform that made clear helping New Hampshire’s businesses would be his top priority. That, he argued, would in turn help all Granite Staters by expanding opportunities and growing the economy. He was elected, and re-elected last November, meaning there’s something in his message that resonates with voters.
Last November, dozens of new Democratic faces won seats in the state Legislature, largely on the promise to restore the voice of the common citizen and upend the tax system that has for decades ratcheted up the pressure on local taxpayers and made it harder for workers to balance their personal and professional lives. The progressive wave was so great that the Democrats took control of both chambers, giving them what might seem a mandate to effect those changes.
Where we are today ought to have been apparent right then and there: a popular pro-business governor standing in the way of pro-worker, pro-local taxpayer reforms the Democratic majority had the votes to push through.
Some legislation is always bipartisan. Some falls along party lines, but is acceptable enough to the other side that it goes unchallenged. And some will, inevitably, become a battle of political or ideological wills.
Sununu signaled early on that despite the sweeping change voters made to the Legislature, he would be keeping his veto pen filled with ink. He has vetoed a variety of legislation, some dealing with business issues or taxes, and some not. The Legislature overrode his veto of the repeal of the death penalty — barely. Otherwise, he’s been able to muster enough votes, primarily among GOP lawmakers, to have the final say.
As promised, Sununu last week vetoed House Bills 1 and 2 — the state biennial budget measures. He did this despite Democratic leaders preemptively removing a family leave provision — and its funding through a payroll tax — which was one of their key promises to voters.
Sununu’s lengthy budget message focused on two things: business taxes and one-time revenues.
The last time there was a budget stalemate, in 2015, it was largely over reducing business taxes, which the then-GOP-led Legislature wanted and then-Gov. Maggie Hassan opposed. Ultimately, they reached an agreement under which tax reductions would be phased in over several years. Sununu and GOP lawmakers liked that so much that last year, controlling all branches of the state government, they pushed through further cuts to both the business profits tax and business enterprise tax, starting next year. This year, the Democratic majority put a halt to the cuts, freezing them at 2018 levels.
Focused on alleviating the pressure of education costs on local taxpayers, the Legislature also used several one-time windfalls to help fund its budget proposal. That’s typically frowned on as a budgetary policy; it’s better to put one-time revenues toward one-time expenses, because future budgets are usually based on what was spent previously, and if the revenues are no longer there, cuts must be made to offset that loss.
The Legislature was quick to pass a continuing budget resolution following passage of the budget, meaning despite Sununu’s veto, the government will continue to operate. But that’s not the same as moving forward, and budgetary uncertainty is never a good thing. Some common ground must be reached.
Democratic leaders will no doubt put family leave back on the table, since Sununu didn’t accept that sacrifice. But there seems little chance it will be part of the eventual resolution. They also ought to revisit those one-time revenues in favor of more sustainable sources of funding.
On the other hand, Sununu should recognize he’s largely benefited from economic factors that preceded his arrival in the corner office, and that lower business taxes — with the previous cuts, they’re now among the lowest in the region — won’t attract new business as readily as educated workers and a better quality of life will.
However it shakes out, both sides need to accept that the voters chose not only them, but also those on the other side of the negotiating table. The only mandate here is to do the best for all Granite Staters, and that means being willing to genuinely compromise.