The promises and the pitfalls: Seven years of Sununu’s speeches, reviewed

Gov. Chris Sununu delivers his budget address to the Legislature on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, as House Speaker Sherman Packard, center, and Senate President Jeb Bradley look on. (New Hampshire Bulletin - Ethan DeWitt)

Gov. Chris Sununu delivers his budget address to the Legislature on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, as House Speaker Sherman Packard, center, and Senate President Jeb Bradley look on. (New Hampshire Bulletin - Ethan DeWitt)

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 02-14-2024 4:03 PM

Modified: 02-14-2024 4:14 PM


When Gov. Chris Sununu climbs the well before the New Hampshire House of Representatives Thursday to deliver his State of the State address, he’ll likely talk up “the New Hampshire way” of governing.

He’ll make toasts to the state’s “economic advantage,” draw contrasts with the antagonism of Washington, and give tributes to his staff and his family. He might even tell the room that those who are born in New Hampshire are “lucky” and those who move here are “smart.”

Sununu will be giving his last State of the State address. He announced last year he would not be running for re-election this November.

But he’s given his share of speeches in his four terms, adopted his share of rhetorical habits, and made his share of promises. 

The Bulletin took a dive into seven years of speeches from Sununu to assess those promises.

Here’s a look back at what he asked for from lawmakers – and what he was able to achieve.

2017

Sununu entered office in 2017 with something of a blank canvas: A new Legislature, a change in parties in the corner office, and one month to craft a budget proposal that could set him apart from his Democratic predecessor. 

And he presented a budget to lawmakers that sought to capitalize on the new reality. He promised to increase the Rainy Day Fund to $100 million, and did so; he proposed devoting a new public school infrastructure fund, and received funding for it; he shuffled existing agencies into a new Department of Business and Economic Affairs; and he vowed to boost allocations to the state’s “Alcohol Fund” in order to fund substance use treatment efforts. He also partially funded full-day kindergarten in the state by using targeted grants to schools that relied on revenues from keno, which the state passed. 

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But despite a number of early victories, the governor also found his ambition checked by a Republican Legislature that was not always as eager to spend on certain programs. Sununu vowed to create a $300 million Drinking Water and Groundwater Trust Fund; the state devoted $80 million in its first year, and as of August 2023 had spent $186 million. His efforts to fully reinstate the Granite Hammer opioid law enforcement program were not funded to the level he had promised.

Meanwhile, an early effort by Sununu to pass a “right-to-work” law to bar automatic union dues fell flat, as a group of pro-union Republicans banded with Democrats to give the governor his first major defeat.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Sununu in 2017 was getting a budget passed at all. A revolt by fiscally conservative House Republicans nearly derailed the process and resulted in the House failing to pass a budget. The state’s 14-10 Republican-led Senate rescued the effort and delivered Sununu the final budget.

It would be an early sign of a long-term dynamic for Sununu: a close, collaborative relationship with the state Senate and a fractious, often unproductive one with the lower chamber. 

2018

With his first two-year budget behind him, Sununu devoted his 2018 State of the State address toward political advocacy. The results were mixed.

The governor threw his support behind “Marsy’s Law,” an ambitious effort to amend the state constitution to include a “bill of rights” for crime victims. The campaign, boosted by the state’s Coalition Against Domestic And Sexual Violence, sought to persuade lawmakers to support legal changes that would protect victims of crimes from certain deposition and discovery requests filed against them by criminal defendants. But the ACLU – and a coalition of Democrats and libertarians – raised concerns that the effort would infringe on the rights of defendants. Marsy’s Law failed decisively in the House, 284 to 51. 

Facing an ongoing staffing crisis at the state’s Division for Children, Youth, and Families, Sununu used his 2018 address to urge lawmakers to support a bill to add 16 new social workers to the agency; that request was ultimately stripped out of the final bill. He promoted “education savings accounts” – an early prototype of the state’s eventual “education freedom accounts” program passed in 2021 – but disagreements between the governor’s office and House Republicans tanked the effort. He backed an effort by Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley to pass tighter oversight of dog breeding after a high-profile case of animal abuse in Wolfeboro, but a regulations-averse House rejected it. 

And while a Sununu-supported law to add a work requirement to the state’s Medicaid program did pass the Legislature, it was soon overturned by a federal judge and later revoked by President Joe Biden.

Sununu did cement two legacy achievements in 2018: the creation of the “Doorway” program to help better centralize and distribute treatment options for substance use disorder, and the invention of Recovery Friendly Workplaces to promote and support businesses that hired people struggling with substance use. The two would feature heavily in speeches by the governor for years to come.

2019

Ahead of his second two-year budget, Sununu faced a test: a newly elected Democratic-led Legislature intent on increasing funding to schools, passing a universal paid family leave program, and staving off planned cuts to the state’s business taxes. That political friction eventually led to impasse – in a rare move, the governor vetoed the Democrats’ first budget and forced legislative leaders to negotiate during a three-month continuing resolution.

Against such a backdrop, many of Sununu’s proposals – most notably a student debt relief plan – did not survive. But some did: The Legislature passed the Jason Flatt Act, a bill to increase suicide prevention trainings for public school teachers; added a requirement that 20 percent of the state’s renewable energy fund went toward projects to benefit low-income residents; funded a $500,000 study to look into the state’s highest-in-the-nation pediatric cancer rates; and approved the first $8.75 million of Sununu’s proposal for a new state psychiatric hospital, though with half has much funding as the governor had requested.

And Sununu followed through on a vow in his speech to create a New Hampshire Career Academy, a program allowing high school juniors and seniors to graduate high school with an associate’s degree and job opportunities with state employers.

2020

The promises in Sununu’s February 2020 State of the State address came one month before COVID-19 swept the state, redirected the executive branch, and uprooted the state’s legislative calendar. Add to that a Democratic-led House and Senate, a record number of vetoes from Sununu of Democratic bills, and a court-approved effort by the Sununu administration to spend COVID-19 federal relief dollars without legislative input, and there appeared few avenues for compromise. 

So, many of the legislative priorities Sununu stated in February were replaced by executive ones, bolstered by more than $3 billion in total federal dollars nearly exclusively under executive branch control. And after a standoff between House Democrats and House Republicans saw Republicans vote against deadline extensions, dozens of bills – both Republican- and Democratic-led – died on the table, dashing any hopes of legislative victories. 

One victim of that process was Senate Bill 730, Bradley’s voluntary, Republican alternative to the Democrats’ mandatory paid family and medical leave program. Sununu had championed the bill in February; by June, it was brushed into the bin as the state hunkered down. 

2021

If 2019 and 2020 presented major setbacks for Sununu’s legislative agenda, 2021 gave him a fresh start. Granite Staters had splintered in the 2020 election, voting for Biden, a Democrat, but returning the State House to Republican control. And after billions of dollars in state and local COVID relief funds, state business tax revenues were high, and Sununu and the new Republican Legislature had plenty of spending cushioning.

For his third budget, Sununu pushed for tax reforms, advocating for a reduction in the meals and rooms tax from 9 to 8.5 percent and a reduction in the Business Enterprise Tax to 0.55 percent. He also persuaded lawmakers to increase the amount of revenue the state sent back to cities and towns under the meals and rentals tax, setting a firm commitment of 30 percent revenue sharing after years of underfunding. 

Sununu proposed a targeted funding relief program to schools with high proportions of lower-income students, and lawmakers approved that and a freeze of attendance levels to pre-pandemic levels to allow schools to continue receiving funds despite erratic, COVID-affected enrollments. 

The governor used the new Republican majorities to usher in the creation of the state’s Department of Energy, which combined functions of the Public Utilities Commission and Site Evaluation Committee and Governor’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. 

And he delivered on some of the recommendations of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency, the state panel formed to explore reforms after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, by securing $1 million toward a body camera revolving fund for law enforcement and creating a Public Integrity Unit within the Attorney General’s Office – though some advocates said the state fell short of its lofty goals.

2022

Sununu’s 2022 State of the State included fewer concrete promises – and many of those he did mention were already under executive control. He promised the creation of a “veterans campus” to provide housing in Franklin, and allocated $23 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding. He created a $100 million “InvestNH” housing fund, which spent $50 million in federal funding toward grants to developers to incentivize housing complexes across the state and devoted other buckets to cities and towns for zoning reforms.

Sununu successfully called for the creation of a $100 million settlement fund to pay victims of sexual and physical abuse at the Sununu Youth Services Center, the state’s youth detention center. 

He also pushed for a broad bill, Senate Bill 400, to use state law to induce regulatory zoning reform at the local level, but saw it killed by a skeptical House. And he promised a private-public partnership between the state and Wellpath to open up more psychiatric beds at Hampstead Hospital, and ultimately deployed $15.1 million in federal aid money to do so. That partnership has often fallen short of its obligations, according to a New Hampshire Public Radio report.

2023

In his final budget year, 2023, Sununu attempted to leave a handful of lasting marks on the state. He proposed an ambitious licensing reform effort that would see the state eliminate 34 licenses and 14 regulatory boards. He also unveiled a revamped approach to the school funding formula by increasing the state’s base adequacy funding – the money that goes by default to every student – at the expense of targeted aid programs. 

But as usual, the governor’s plan differed from its execution. With a near-evenly divided House and the possibility of an impasse that could sink any hopes of feasible budget, legislative leaders opted toward compromise: An 11th-hour deal between House Majority Leader Jason Osborne and House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm secured a fragile budget deal that few other lawmakers – or Sununu – dared to disrupt. 

In the end, Sununu received approval of a universal licensure law allowing reciprocity – even as much of the licensing reform was killed; a 10 percent and 2 percent succession of pay increases for state employees; about half of the additional funding he wanted to continue the InvestNH housing program; and $134 million in historic Medicaid rate increases that he had pushed for.

And he walked away with a familiar result: a budget with a medley of policies that no side could fully love, decorated with enough spending that no side could really complain.