Thursday, June 20, 2019

Failure to Invest

Every two years, the governor creates a budget and hands it off to the House. The House Finance Committee uses the governor’s budget as a sort of template, and writes a whole budget (in two parts), that includes where money needs to go, and where it’s coming from. When it passes the House, it moves on to Senate Finance, where it is further altered. One reason for this is that by the time a budget reaches Senate Finance, there are better state revenue estimates to work with. Any House bill that is amended by the Senate goes back to the House, where they vote to concur with the changes, or not concur. In the event of non-concurrence, the House can either let the bill die, or ask for a committee of conference. The budget for the next biennium is currently being worked on in two committees of conference.

Governor Sununu began threatening to veto the budget in early March, weeks before it ever reached the Senate. He was all puffed up and boasting of his extensive collection of red pens, and how he was going to veto all the “dumb ideas.” That was also two months before he suddenly announced, after months of hinting at a Senate campaign, that he was going to run for reelection. 

One of Sununu’s pet peeves is the paid family and medical leave program that is included in the budget. He and his minions have labeled it an income tax, and bray about that at every opportunity. Sununu cooked up a voluntary family leave plan with Governor Scott of Vermont, using state workers as the pool. The Vermont legislature had no interest in this plan, and created an entirely different one, just as NH did. Maine is also working on a family leave program. 

It’s the kind of benefit offered in states that are thinking ahead. In NH, we bemoan the fact that our young people don’t stay here. They don’t stay because a college education here will saddle them with the highest student loan debt in the nation, and when they leave school, they can’t find a good paying job, nor can they afford housing. NH also bemoans the fact that we can’t attract skilled workers.

I have a friend who is among the 16 percent of NH residents who works in Massachusetts. He does this because he couldn’t get a good paying job in his technical field here in the state he lives in. He’ll be eligible for the Massachusetts paid family and medical leave program that begins at the first of the year. By working out of state he gets better pay and better benefits. That is how a state attracts skilled workers. 

NH has the lowest minimum wage in New England, at $7.25. NH bemoans the fact that there aren’t enough workers to fill all the jobs that need doing, many of them being low wage service jobs, but we don’t want to pay people to do the work. The low wages combined with the cost of housing may have something to do with that lack of workers. The governor is expected to veto the bill that would increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Governor Sununu, on the other hand, is the highest paid governor our state has ever had. Governors in recent decades accepted reduced pay, as a nod to the poverty of our state agencies, and as a note of humility from the wealthy. (Poor people are not elected governor in NH, or anywhere else.) Governor Hassan was paid $110,400 each of the four years she served. Governor Lynch reduced his pay by $4,000 in 2009, during the recession. Governor Craig Benson didn’t even take a salary during his term. He gave his pay as bonus money for state workers. Sununu is being paid $20,000 a year more than Governor Hassan was. He received a pay raise on his first day in office – a raise negotiated by the state employee’s union, the same union he’s refused to negotiate a contract with, because the contract includes…you guessed it, pay raises. 

I love this state, but sometimes our arrogance is stupefying. We think that people will just come here to spend copiously, without our investing in the reasons they come – like our state parks, which continue to be inadequately funded by user fees.

New Hampshire has been skating by on spending little for decades, with GOP legislatures putting off work that needed to be done because they wanted to create the illusion that The Pledge works. Meanwhile, the state is being sued again for the terrible way we fund education, and the governor is getting ready to make a big Trumpian noise and veto a budget that does something good for workers and families. Other states are investing in workers and families, and attracting skilled workers, and NH is making the same mistakes over and over again, and expecting different results. 

Published as an op-ed in the June 21 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper 

Thursday, June 06, 2019

NH Made History

Last week history was made in New Hampshire. The death penalty was repealed in our state, making NH the twenty-first state to enact a repeal.

To accomplish this, the legislature had to override Governor Sununu’s veto, by a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. That it happened is a testimony to the kind of bipartisan coalition building that has been going on behind the scenes for years.

In 1998, a bill was introduced to expand the death penalty. Two state representatives, Cliff Below and Renny Cushing, took a different view, and introduced a floor amendment to abolish it altogether. Their amendment failed, but, so did the death penalty expansion bill. That was the beginning of the repeal movement.

The group that formed came to be known as the New Hampshire Coalition to abolish the Death Penalty. It included members from the faith community, police officers, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and family members of murder victims. They would spend the next twenty years speaking out, filing repeal bills, and building momentum.

As the years went on, the death penalty began to be repealed in other states. Groups like the Innocence Project were using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions and getting people released from death row. The NH coalition brought some of those death row exonerees to testify before the NH legislature. The testimony over the years of Curtis McCarty, Kirk Bloodsworth, and Sabrina Butler had an impact on how legislators began to think about the death penalty. Granted, the way the NH statute was written made a wrongful conviction unlikely, but even having the death penalty made the state part of something that is increasingly regarded as barbaric. 

Governor Sununu’s reason for vetoing the repeal was that he was standing with law enforcement; that the death penalty offers them some sort of protection, and shows support for them. A more tangible means of support would be to ensure that our police officers have good pay, good benefits, and excellent training. They’d probably appreciate it if the NH GOP stopped trying to turn NH into a right to work state, too. Another show of support would be to tighten up our gun laws, but I’ll save that topic for another day.

There has been a lot of talk about how the death penalty repeal was, “politicized.” A broad, bipartisan coalition was responsible for the repeal. The governor was furious at the thought of his veto being overturned, and so he lobbied House Republicans relentlessly.

In the Trumpian political world every single issue boils down to one thing: winning. The greater good was left in the dust as we hurtled down the road to “owning the libs.” The idea that the veto would be overturned, by people voting with their deeply held beliefs in mind was apparently not worthy of respect – it was LOSING.

In the House, 35 legislators who had voted for repeal in April voted against overriding the veto in May. The governor succeeded in convincing those folks to value party over principle. In Carroll County he turned only one member, State Rep. William Marsh from Wolfeboro. Despite Sununu’s hard work, the House did override the veto, and a week later so did the Senate.

It is unfortunate that the repeal was politicized, and even more unfortunate that those doing the politicizing pointed the finger at those who did no such thing. If Governor Sununu had stood up and said that he was disappointed in the veto override, but he understood that this was a vote by legislators on deeply held principles, he would have looked positively heroic, and I would be writing a different column. 

NH made history. The news of the repeal traveled all over the world. It was refreshing to read international press on the NH legislature that wasn’t generated by a Republican dropping his gun or his pants. We left the company of countries like Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Somalia where citizens are executed by the state. New Hampshire walked bravely into the 21stCentury. We’ve become an example that other states are using in their repeal efforts.

I’m proud of my state. There are far too many people to acknowledge, so I’m going to pick two. State Representative Renny Cushing of Hampton has been a leader in the repeal effort for 20 years, along with Arnie Alpert of AFSC NH. Their work to repeal the death penalty has been tireless and inspiring. I’m fortunate to be able to call them both my friends. 

On dark days when we ask ourselves why good change takes so long, and begin to doubt that it can happen at all, let this vote remind us that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.