State of the State address in review: What Sununu talked about and what it all means

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Press play to watch the full interview on NH PBS’s The State We’re In.

State of the State

Governor Chris Sununu gave his State of the State address February 17 before a joint session of the New Hampshire House Representatives and Senate. To discuss the speech with NH PBS’ “The State We’re In” host Melanie Plenda is Anna Brown, the director of research and analysis for Citizens Count, and Annmarie Timmins, senior news reporter for the New Hampshire Bulletin.

The content below has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview above or tune in on NH PBS’s The State We’re In.

Melanie Plenda: The governor mentioned New Hampshire’s strong economy, especially the recent 250 million surplus. Anna and then Annmarie, what’s driving the success?

Anna Brown: The $250 million surplus is a lot of things coming together at the same time. First of all, last year’s budget writers were very conservative in their revenue estimates because we didn’t really know what was gonna happen. Next, 2022 is a brand new year, but we’re still coming out of COVID. We’ve seen a lot of growth in the stock market, but also some uncertainty about inflation and bubbles. The revenue that we’re seeing come in is partly because they took the worst-case scenario into account when they were planning revenue. When you talk about a surplus, that means it’s more than they were planning on coming in. It’s also a factor of incredible business activity in New Hampshire. We saw tourism rebound incredibly last summer. Everyone wanted to get out and go to the beach and go to restaurants after a lot of cold and lonely times with COVID.

It’s something that we’re seeing at the national level too, with federal surpluses. The question then becomes, where do you put that surplus? Governor Sununu is very fond of one-time investments or returning it to towns and localities, but that doesn’t necessarily change long-term funding questions around school funding, for example. He’s usually hesitant to do long-term tax changes with that excess revenue. There’s a lot of things going into the budget surplus all at once, and it’s definitely great to have that money to play with but it might be a one-year thing. We can’t count on it for sure going forward. 

Annmarie Timmins: Our tourist economy really did bounce back quickly. When I talked to people who were coming here from out of state in those early days, they were people who could drive to New Hampshire because you couldn’t rely on your flight actually happening. Those people saw New Hampshire as the most free state. We didn’t have a mask mandate anymore, more restaurants were open, more hotels were open, and that was intentional by the governor. It was to get people here, and I think that worked. I think all of the main street rescue money, all the PPE, kept businesses afloat. In some cases, nonprofits did very well, they were able to hold onto fundraising money but also bring in extra money with the support, especially for people who were working in those areas that the government sees as the social service agencies. All of those things have gone very well for the state. One remark stood out regarding this surplus: Governor Sununu gave people encouragement to go to their town meeting this year and say, ‘you need to cut our taxes,’ so we’ll see where that goes. 

Melanie Plenda: The governor also mentioned that New Hampshire is number one in America for public safety. He was referring to the US News and World Report ranking of the 50 states, which looked at the correction system, measuring incarceration rates and racial equity, as well as public safety, looking at the violent and looking at violent and property crimes. Annmarie, what does that mean for the state?

Annmarie Timmins: In our court system, the demographic of race is not captured, so how do you know who’s being arrested? Who’s going through misdemeanor versus a felony? We know who ends up in jail and in prison, and that’s a fraction of who is being charged with crimes. I’m not persuaded so much by those numbers. I think it’s worth noting that corrections cannot keep staff, and that has caused problems with programming. They don’t have enough drug and alcohol counselors or psychiatrists. Maybe we have fewer people in there, but are we preparing them for success upon release? I think sometimes these studies don’t go far enough and we don’t even have the information to fully understand what’s happening in terms of equity.

Melanie Plenda: That’s a really good point. To Anna, there have been a lot of changes in public safety policy recently. What impact, if any, is that having on this?

Anna Brown: When you’re looking at this ranking and the data it was looking at, it was pulling from before the Coronavirus pandemic, so that had multiple impacts on our justice system. The courts are really behind on cases. They’re still struggling with that because in the beginning, of course, everything just shut down. Then you had to shift to scheduling limited things in person and doing something virtually. New Hampshire has been working on bail reform for the past couple of years, which has been very controversial because ideally you don’t want to incarcerate someone who’s awaiting trial just because they can’t afford bail. You get these really tragic situations; for example, one young man died in jail and he was awaiting trial for a very minor crime.

There was a bail reform law that passed that said you can’t hold someone just because they can make bail unless they’re going to be a serious risk to the public. The way it was written though, some people are coming back and saying this law goes too far. People are concerned about some of the people that are getting let out on the streets. Just because maybe they’re low income doesn’t mean there’s still a risk to the public and we should have this higher bail threshold. That was one bill that Governor Sununu did call out during his State of the State; SB 294. It’s looking to pull back on some of those changes that were made in recent years, making it a little harder to get out on bail again. It’s definitely a controversial bill when you’re looking at law enforcement reform, criminal justice, and the differential impacts based on race and other economic issues in New Hampshire.

Melanie Plenda: Let’s talk about some of the Coronavirus accomplishments that Governor Sununu touched on. Among those that he mentioned were being the fastest with the initial vaccine rollout, New Hampshire was the first state to open the vaccine up to everyone, 1.5 million rapid test delivered to households across the state, kept schools open, built out internal surge centers at hospitals, cut red tape to fast track nurses licenses, and holding Washington accountable for their illegal mandates. That’s a pretty rosy picture he was painting, but one thing he didn’t mention was the delays in accepting money from the federal government. Annmarie then Anna, let’s discuss the wins but also some of the losses there.

Annmarie Timmins: I do think that this state led the way for a long time. We did have the highest case growth in the country, our vaccination rate was really lagging for a long time, and we don’t know what it is right now because of reporting challenges. The strike teams helped expand capacity and brought the military national guard. There were a lot of creative responses to COVID, but there were some other questions too in terms of schools. We kept them open, but schools have been caught in this place where they can’t go remote anymore and they have to decide about masks. Some of these tough decisions that are far less politically popular have been handed down to the schools and I’ve heard it expressed that people wish he would just tell them what to do, because then it’s a backup for them. They have to face the parents and the students, so I think that has been a little bit of a challenge. 

I think promoting the vaccine has not gone well. We’ve put a lot of money out there for promotion. There essentially was no promotion for the longest time. I think any of us who practically counted the days so we could get our vaccine assumed everyone would do the same, and we’ve seen instead that there was a lot of pushback against that. In terms of this money that was denied from the federal government, we were the only ones to deny it. 

I think now another state has been offered millions of dollars that would’ve helped get that vaccine out to more diverse communities and people at home. It just got caught up in conspiracy thinking. Someone on the fiscal committee alleged there were octopus creatures living in the vaccine; that really appealed to the folks who are anti-vaccine. They came out in force, they were storming executive council meetings, shutting them down, and being hauled out by the police. It became a real fiasco and that money eventually was approved in a really underhanded way. The executive council, after the meeting where they voted it down and all the police made nine arrests, did not put it on the public agenda for the next meeting. That crowd did not know to come and they passed it then with very little discussion. But at that point it was late, it slowed the state’s ability to get its vaccine registry up and going, which allows it to track vaccination rate and success in different parts of the state. DHHS said it did really have true consequences for us in terms of the vaccination effort, and Sununu has been really supportive of vaccinations. He’s gotten out there every week and talked about it. Maybe he didn’t participate in this pushback, but he certainly wasn’t able to turn it around for quite some time because of that pushback from the anti-vaccine crowd.

Anna Brown: It’s interesting that one of the first things Governor Sununu mentioned in his State of the State was that over 2,000 people have died in our state, and that’s a real loss and we’re mourning those people, but he also said at a different time, he wanted to go from the ‘new normal’ back to the ‘old normal.’ He did implement the mask mandate and at one point in the beginning of the pandemic, he was very aggressive in terms of putting schools remote. It seems he’s ready to move past that completely, which is a little different from the state legislature. Citizens Count did a rough breakdown of all of the bills this year by topic and there are dozens upon dozens of bills related somehow to COVID-19 mask mandates, vaccine mandates, what security or public health measures businesses can and cannot put in place, what they can ask employees about or not. Governor Sununu seems ready to move it on and put COVID in the rearview mirror, but I’m not sure that the legislature is on the same page.

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Granite State News Collaborative

The Granite State News Collaborative is a statewide multimedia news collaborative that draws on and amplifies the strengths of its members to expand and add missing dimensions to coverage of issues of concern to the NH public as a whole, as well as to particular communities. Through coordinated reporting and engagement activities, the Collaborative will pursue inclusive and responsive coverage that builds public trust and holds government accountable to its citizens