Coming to N.H. State House in 2019: Divided Government

Nov 7, 2018

While voters chose to reelect Gov. Chris Sununu on Tuesday, they also voted to put both chambers of the state Legislature and the Executive Council in the hands of Democrats, reversing the State House's current balance of power.  These changes will test the governor, which he acknowledged during his victory speech.

“Look the next two years are going to be a little different, but that’s OK. That’s New Hampshire, right? Anybody who has idea is invited to the table," Sununu told supporters in Manchester.

NHPR Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers discussed the implication of the shake-up in Concord with All Things Considered Host Peter Biello.

So, the governor is going from dealing with a GOP-run State House to one led by Democrats. What does this mean?

Well, every governor plays a mixture of offense and defense: pushing policy goals they favor, and trying to stall or kill policy ideas they don’t. The flipping of the State House will almost certainly put Sununu on his back foot a bit. Goals he’s had – like creating a voucher-style plan for schools, and enacting right to work legislation -- are now absolute non-starters. Further efforts to cut business taxes and regulation are also unlikely to gain traction. And really anything having to do with taxes will now be far more fraught.

So, getting what he wants will be harder. But might Sununu tailor his notions of what he’s willing to accept given that Democrats will control the legislative branch?

We heard the governor claim he’ll be open to ideas from all points on the compass. And it’s true that in his first term he worked with Democrats on some significant bills, like full-day kindergarten. But what the Democrats ran on and hope to pass  -- and these issues range from paid family leave, to increasing the minimum wage, to expanding job training programs, to say nothing of more purely partisan priorities on guns control or election law -- these, or at least most of these, probably won’t fly with Sununu.

To take one issue, here’s what Sununu said on NHPR this morning when he was asked about the possibility of raising the minimum wage beyond the federal rate:

"Why? We have some of the highest per capita income in the country. We have the lowest poverty rate in the country. So talking about untethering and raising the minimum wage - it’s a nice political talking point but all you are really doing is putting constraints on business, that creates a compression of how much they can pay for labor, and you can get disastrous results."

OK. So raising the minimum wage seems very much off the table.

It does and I’d say the governor was equally adamant when asked about commuter rail, another policy Democrats would plausibly pursue.

Do you expect the next two years to consist of Sununu playing more of a backstop role, by blocking stuff he doesn’t like?

That’s what governors often do when they aren’t in the majority. We saw that when Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, ended up with a heavily GOP Legislature after the 2010 elections. We also saw a bit of it after the 2014 election, when Gov. Maggie Hassan had a GOP legislature to contend with.

The first matter of consequence Gov. Sununu will be proposing is the state’s next two year budget. Should we expect him to get much out of that?

We’ll see. The reality is governors don’t tend to get too too much of what they propose in any budget, and that’s regardless of whether they share the party affiliation with the legislative majority or not. Sununu has indicated he plans to use his budget to plow a bit more money into UNH and the community colleges, to boost the healthcare work force. He’s also talked about giving raised to home health aides and nurses. Those goals are in line with things Democrats have also talked about, so we’ll see how that shakes out.

What about having Democrats controlling the Executive Council. What will that mean?

It surely would harder for the governor to make certain kinds of nominations. Recall his selection of Frank Edelblut to lead the Department of Education last year. There is no way a Democratic council would have backed that. Any judicial picks – and Sununu will pick at least one Supreme Court justice this term -- will get closer looks. But I’ve got to say, I can only recall one or two judicial picks from any governor getting turned down over the past 15 years. But state agencies will likely have to stay on their toes a bit more. Because the council table will become a place where Democratic councilors can exert power over the governor -- and the commissioners who serve them.