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Gov. Sununu On His Budget, Voter Fraud Claims, & Cultivating A 21st Century Education System

Allegra Boverman for New Hampshire Public Radio

N.H. Republican Governor Chris Sununu reinforced his support for President Trump during an in-depth Exchange interview  last week, even as he acknowledged that certain matters could have gone more smoothly in recent weeks.   He also discussed his budget, defending his decision to boost funding for community colleges but not the university system, which expressed "deep disappointment" in the decision.

On President Trump's allegations of widespread fraud involving busloads of voters coming to New Hampshire to sway the election, Sununu appeared highly doubtful but also unwilling to criticize the President -- as other prominent Republicans and Democrats have done.  He also seemed to reserve judgment, suggesting that the White House may have access to information not yet public.

"Is there specific evidence of voter fraud that I know of? No there's not, there's not," he said. "Do we need to strengthen our voter laws? Yes, there's no doubt about that. We have a lot of ambiguity in our voter laws. I think there's a lot of areas where we can strengthen and more clearly define the laws to make sure that it is a clean process... But you know I do hear the president's concerns. We have been reaching out to the administration and basically saying, look, if there's real evidence, then, yes,  let's keep that conversation going and let me understand what you know. Maybe they know something we don't. But is there clear evidence of voter fraud here? I don't know of any." 

On President Trump's executive order on immigration -- now held up in the courts, much to Trump's displeasure -- Sununu acknowledged that the roll out could have been better but also said that the President is facing undue antagonism, a reflection of the country's visceral political divide. 

"I don't think it was received very well. And, again, maybe the timing was a little tough. But again I support any chief executive that has to make tough decisions, to simply say: What is the process? Let's take a pause, understand our process, before we make any big jumps and leaps  forward."







Q: So you've reached out to the White House saying, give us evidence. Have you reached out to the White House, saying, stop it please? Because a lot of top Republicans, former party chairs, former national committeemen, people who have worked on many, many Republican campaigns, are all saying, please, White House, just stop saying this.


SUNUNU: No I haven't said stop it yet. But I'm saying, What is this really based on? If there's information, if there's evidence there, then by all means I think we all need to see it. But right now we're not privy to anything.


Q: What more evidence would they have, than all these party chairs, top party officials, the Secretary of State's office, town officials, up and down? What more evidence would the White House have that these people who are on the ground here in New Hampshire don't have?


SUNUNU: I'm not sure, although it is the White House. They were involved, as we were both involved, in a very significant election the last time around. They had efforts across the state that even I didn't have. So if there's something there, by all means, we're happy to look at it. But right now, we're just making sure that the laws that we have on the books are strengthened, that we get rid of some of that ambiguity, we define what a resident is, what domicile is – these areas where we've left it very grey. We'll strengthen that up and make sure that whatever we have in the state of New Hampshire going forward is something viable and clean.



Q: If they show you something that you don't think is satisfactory -- and most Republican officials in the state seem to think they will not present anything viable – then do you say, OK President Trump, I supported you but please don't impugn our elections.



SUNUNU: Let's be clear. I very much support the president; there's no doubt about that. If it comes to bear that there really is nothing in terms of evidence, then of course we're going to be very, very upfront and forthright about that. We're here on the ground; we're here in the state of New Hampshire; we know our process. I've been in contact with the Attorney General about this as well, and again, right now, we don't have any evidence that we know of. So if something else comes to bear, we'll deal with it when it comes up.


Q: Another person wrote in on social media, who says: Please present evidence proving your allegation that the state's Democratic party registered Massachusetts residents to vote illegally in New Hampshire. This is a comment you made back around the election on the Howie Carr show.


SUNUNU: I did use the term that they were being bused in, and the fact of the matter is, we have folks that come into this state, whether they're working on campaigns or they come in very temporarily, and can register to vote. It is actually legal to do that. So again it's not technically fraud. I understand that. I think that maybe we misuse the word fraud or other folks misuse the word fraud. It isn't fraud because our laws are very loose and do allow it. Do I think it's fair? No I don't. Are they real residents of the state? No. They are not.



Q: You mentioned campaign workers  signing up to vote in New Hampshire. Is there evidence that that happened?


SUNUNU: Sure. Yes. I mean, it's legal. Don't get me wrong. If they're here temporarily working on a campaign, they can walk in and they can claim that they are a current resident of the state. Again, what is a resident? That's a very loose term. They can walk in, same-day voter voter registration, and cast a vote, and then literally the next day leave the state – that's legal in our process. That's where I think most people would agree we probably just need to tighten it up.


Q: So how would you like to change this system, Governor Sununu. I know there's been a lot of talk about this in the legislature as well. What specific changes would you like to make?



SUNUNU: We're looking at things like: What is a resident? What does domiciled mean? You have to look at the current law on the books, tightening those definitions up. Also making sure that if there are cases where  voting registration is being abused -- we actually have an Attorney General and a process that follows up that actually will look at these cases and pursue them. We haven't pursued a significant case of voter  fraud in the state in years. Part of it is because the law is so loose; it's really hard to to go after those folks and to prove anything because we have a very very loose system here. 


We have the First in the Nation Primary. We have a huge responsibility. We have massive voter turnout in the state. Those are all very , very good things. If there's anywhere in the country where we need true integrity of our system, and we need to ensure that, it's right here in New Hampshire.




Q: I want to ask about your efforts to attract businesses to the state, a big priority. Your initiative is 100 businesses in 100 days. However, the big complaint that I hear from economists and business leaders time and time again is: Never mind the jobs; we need workers to fill the jobs already here. So what specific ideas do you have in mind to address this part of the equation?



SUNUNU: In our budget, we really looked at, for example, health care workers (public sector). We pay our health-care workers in this state rock-bottom sums. We really do. We pay toll booth collectors more than nursing attendants. We pay people more to wash your car than we pay to wash and care for our elderly and our loved ones. So we've created a program out of what I call the infrastructure revitalization fund that will be created at the end of this fiscal year as we enter into June. We've put $5 million aside strictly for raising the wages, addressing the wage disparity problem we have currently between New Hampshire and other states.


I've also created a program that increases debt assistance. So when you come out of one of our schools and you stay and work in one of these high-need areas, we'll help you pay down your debt. Let's incentivize that work force. We have incredible opportunities to drive exciting new high-paying jobs into this state. We can't sit back. I think we've sat back on our heels for the past few years. That's not the role of the governor; the role of governor is to be forceful about it, to be aggressive about it.



We've already had numerous companies in here....We have something like 150 lined up. They're really knocking on the door; they're dying to come in. They love what we're talking about; they love that we're being pro-business, breaking down regulations, lowering business taxes, dealing with the things that really encumber their ability to do what they do best. But we're going to break all that down and really open the doors and finally say, we're open for business.


Q: Can you tell them that they'll find the skilled workers that they need right here? Again, that is the complaint I just hear time and time again.


SUNUNU: There's no doubt we have the workers here; were just not retaining them. So much of our workforce after they graduate from high school or college or community college, picks up and goes south of here. So we need to incentivize them to stay. And when you look at the programs that we have here – educating and creating that skilled workforce – they're tremendous. I mean they really are second to none and that's what gets some of these businesses very excited.


For example, I was at Sig Sauer recently. They have plants all over the world and the CEO is telling me how the productivity in Portsmouth far exceeds any of his plants around the world. He's got a great workforce. They're excited to come to work; their productivity is so high. Part of that is because we generate programs that create the skill sets and train exactly to the needs of that business.


And we can do that all over the state again -- whether it's through our high schools or career schools or community colleges, the university system. We have this infrastructure, which is wonderful, but it's kind of pent up potential, and we just need to release that potential, drive the workforce back in here retain them and drive business in here to again put all those pieces together.



Q: Your budget did increase the community college system budget but no increase for the university system. How come the difference?


SUNUNU: In the case of the community college system, there's some dynamics there where they're having some tremendous outcomes....The amount of money that the state puts into the community college system has a much much bigger effect on the operational effectiveness of that system than the university system does, because it's a much larger system. I think the money the state puts into the university system accounts for about 8 or 9 % of the operational budget.  On the community college system, it's a much, much higher percentage and has a much bigger impact and you have to look at the outcomes and what you're getting. So again in terms of the dynamics at the community college system, it really made sense. They have some great programs and are trying to strengthen that system. The university system is much more robust; we've made some great investments over there.


We're going to keep moving forward. We have a scholarship program that we're investing millions of dollars into to incentivize kids into the path of their choice. It's really about flexibility in the workforce and making sure that our citizens can design their path forward.


Q: Chancellor Todd Leach said keeping our public four-year colleges and universities affordable is not only critical for hardworking New Hampshire families but also for the many businesses that depend on highly skilled talent to grow, thrive, and succeed. So, Chancellor Leach seems to be saying you're on the wrong track in terms of workforce development – that this clearly wasn't the choice that he feels New Hampshire needs.


SUNUNU: Oh, I think we're on more than the right track. Contrary to what the university system wanted to do; they were looking, for example, at a scholarship to take care of 46 or 50 of our valedictorians of the state. Well, that sounds great. So they could go to the university system. My approach is very different. I'm putting $5 million into a fund that a minimum of 1,000 students every year can now participate in – not just for the university system, but for the community college or the university system or professional schools or whatever it might be, in New Hampshire. Whatever path they deem best to get the skills they need to enter the workforce – that's the flexibility we're now providing. We've never done it before. But this is the way to go in the 21st century...The university system does a great job. There's no doubt. But it's not the path for everyone, and we need to recognize that and create programs that really can fit everybody's needs.



Q: They seemed to hint after the budget that they would now not be able to freeze tuition.


SUNUNU: That might be, but again that's them operating their budget; we don't control their budget.


Listener question, Evie, from Concord: We have a horrible, miserable, unfair property tax. I have a humble three- bedroom home. I pay over $600 a month in property taxes. That is not attractive to anyone considering coming here to New Hampshire. 


SUNUNU: So she brings up a great point. We have high property taxes in the state there's no doubt about it. The state cannot just artificially lower property taxes. It doesn't work that way. It's about local control. But what the state can do is provide some resources to provide more financial flexibility to individuals in their towns.


So traditionally for example we put out about $30 million or so in what we call betterment funds -- infrastructure funds to all the towns and municipalities. It's very fair; it's based on population. And we hand the check to those municipalities. In my budget this year I'm proposing to double that. Roads bridges, schools -- when you can provide the locals a big check to give them more financial flexibility to take care of their projects there, that gives them the opportunity to then say, OK what can we do on our property tax level.


We're looking at a state with high health care costs, incredibly high energy costs. We have a lot of folks on fixed incomes. We have an elderly population here that really has a hard time dealing with the high property taxes. I think traditionally at the state level we say well there's nothing we can do about that. I'm taking a much more aggressive approach. I say we at least double the money that goes to those individual communities, provide that financial relief. And again that will give us some more time and some more ability to create our own path within those communities and keep those property taxes where they need to be.





Q: We received a lot of questions on social media from our listeners about the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion. Michelle wrote in and says low-income New Hampshire adults and communities benefit greatly from Medicaid expansion. Healthy adults, healthy economy. Michelle says: Will you continue Medicaid expansion?


SUNUNU: The big issue with Medicaid expansion right now is, What's Washington going to do. We don't know. We really don't. I'm hearing a lot out of Washington that they're looking at block grants, which would be wonderful -- essentially the money that comes to the state without all the bells whistles and mandates that are not necessarily in our interest.


So, Washington, I think, will dictate a lot of our ability to maintain the Medicaid Expansion program. I think it's had great results for our people. There's no doubt about that. As the costs increase we have to make sure that we don't carry that cost burden to our taxpayers. But that will all be part of the equation that we will look at next year.


Q: In terms of block grants, the criticism is that these are inflexible in terms of meeting new needs, whether there's a sudden increase in the number of people needing the program because of an economic situation or there's a new illness. We spoke to a longtime health policy attorney just last week who said you know, Don't kid yourself, block grants always mean less money for people who need the program because the block doesn't change even if the need in the state suddenly changes.


SUNUNU Right. So we don't know what, if it comes in block grants, the amount will be necessarily. That will be a big factor that we have to look at. There is no doubt that we have to spend tens of millions of dollars that we receive from the federal government on things that are not in our interest, that we don't need.


Q: Such as?


SUNUNU: Well, let's look at what we do need. We have a more elderly population than most – not a negative thing but a dynamic we have to address. We have a substance abuse crisis here that other states don't have that we do need to address. That's where our focus and our monies need to go. Right now, the way the federal government does it, it's a one-size-fits-all out of Washington D.C. And the state has to constantly apply for these waivers that are onerous, cumbersome, and sometimes we get them and sometimes we don't. So by breaking down that process of having to constantly apply for waivers, constantly apply for exemptions... and just giving us the ability to design the system that best meets our needs, that's always going to be a better solution.



Q: One of the most passionate supporters of Medicaid Expansion was state senator Jeb Bradley who was an architect of this bipartisan approach; he really feels like this program has helped New Hampshire a lot, in terms of substance abuse, in terms of making workers healthy; the Business and Industry Association supported Medicaid expansion. Do you think it's been helpful?


SUNUNU: Without a doubt. There's no doubt it's been helpful. It has a price tag of somewhere between 400 and 500 million dollars. We've been able to do it today without a single New Hampshire taxpayer dollar. No state taxes go into it, which is great. The difference between what the federal government pays and what we would otherwise pay is right now being made up by the private sector. That's wonderful. As that number goes up, will the private sector still be there and still be willing to keep paying that bill? I hope so, but we don't know. Again, this is going to be part of the debate as we enter next year to find out what the dynamics are. What is the block grant going to be? Is it going to be as much as it is now – 90 percent, 80 percent? Will that meet our needs? All these pieces of the puzzle are really going to come together over the next six to nine months, and we're going to have a good healthy debate about the next steps forward sometime in early 2018.



Q: Many Republicans on Capitol Hill and even the President recently have seemed to go from Repeal and Replace – that was the mantra during the election, too – to, let's take our time, tap on the brakes, retain pieces. How do you feel about that?


SUNUNU: You need a runway term, you really do. Look, you have so many people on the system. You can't just send a shockwave into the system and expect there not to be negative outcomes. I think we had that when the ACA first came into being. Remember, we had this thousand page bill  or whatever and we had to pass it before we could understand what's in it – you know, that kind of nonsense you hear out of Washington. So, again, I think what we're saying now is let's understand what we're going to do, before we do it right. Let's read our bill and write the bill and make sure everyone in Congress knows what the impacts are before we just jump into something too quickly that can just have negative impacts on everybody. So I think it's a smart approach. They keep using that term, we're going to build the runway, before we take off, and that's always a smart thing.





Listener question, Norma in Nashua: Who in your administration will be responsible to implement the ten-year plan and make the improvements called for under the Federal class-action suit?


SUNUNU: I've talked about it as the the next unspoken crisis. She is absolutely right. We have a real crisis when you look at what goes on and what the roles and responsibilities are between our local mental health agencies, the state, the managed care organizations. We haven't fully implemented long-term assistance in mental health with our managed care organizations. We've kind of done it halfway. So it's a broken system; we just haven't gotten our hands dirty, to say, how do we fix it... We're going to put everybody in the room together and find out where we can agree and get something done. The state has really, over the past three or four years, fallen flat in terms of their responsibility of handling those with mental health issues... We did put some new money, about $3 million, into directly helping people with mental health issues.




SUNUNU: We have a crisis there. And it's all of our faults. We're putting real money there. We're going to address the staffing levels, address the statutorial inequities we have in the system. It's just all about those kids. We have kids in very tough situations, abusive homes and situations. The fact that we're not doing 110 % of our job to take care of that immediately, then we're failing them. And I'm just not going to let it happen.



Q:You called it a moral obligation in your budget address. We need a new approach you said. What does that look like?


SUNUNU: Making them a true priority and not just a line item in the budget. I think it's been a line item in the budget for too long. So, putting it to the forefront, talking about it openly, breaking down the political barriers.


You know I went in and spoke to some of these case workers at DCYF on the very ground level – not the management. It's always best to walk in the front door and just start talking to people about what's going on there. I think it's getting better, but there's no doubt a couple of months ago, morale was very low, caseloads were incredibly high. These folks didn't have time to get out into the field to see these kids, to talk about their cases. Cases that they thought were severe were getting thrown out at the court level, not because the courts are doing anything wrong but because statutorily there's an inequity there. The way we assess things is not the same way the court is assessing and defining the law. So we've got to make those things match, legislatively. By putting all of this on the table, making it a forefront priority, not letting politics get in the way, I really feel that we are going to see a significant positive change – and just get better outcomes for those kids.



Listener question,  Karen in Concord: Your budget Governor Sununu spends millions of dollars on the effects of domestic and sexual violence yet it cuts funding for domestic violence crisis centers and appropriates zero general fund dollars for sexual assault intervention and prevention. Wouldn't it make more sense to invest in programs that assist victims rather than to pay for the very costly effects of domestic and sexual violence later in life?



SUNUNU: Thank you for the call...Not a bad call at all. But again our focus right now is dealing with the crises that we have within our system. For the first time ever, we put a quarter million dollars into the Internet predator program here....The predatory issues we have over the Internet with children right now are at an all-time high. We only have three or four groups throughout the state that currently monitor those activities....For the first time we're putting real money into those programs.





Q: UNH research showed that without foreign immigration, New Hampshire would have had more people leaving the state than moving in over a recent five-year period, that foreign immigration is really the only reason our population increased that little bit, also that 40 % of these foreign-born residents are highly educated, amounting for a disproportionate percentage of residents with graduate or professional degrees – filling positions like doctors and nurses and dentists and so forth. What's your role Governor, in addressing the part that these foreign workers are playing in building this workforce that we need especially when it comes to health care?


SUNUNU: The data's there. I think they're absolutely right. Foreign-born workers that come into our state have been a huge part of our success in maintaining a vital and vibrant economy here. There's still more we can do without a doubt. But we just need to keep promoting it, and I think as we promote ourselves as a state, we become a better destination to bring in some of these – whether they are domestic folks or foreign workers.


I think this really leads into the immigration debate. And like I've always said we need a strong vetting process. There's no doubt about it....Send us the refugees, of course, but give us the information. How are they being vetted? What's the process? It's kind of a black box down there in Washington D.C.


We can be a real destination for foreign-born workers, international trade. I met with the Consulate General from Israel. I met with some folks from Mexico, met with some folks from Canada, all looking for opportunities to increase trade with New Hampshire, bring businesses right here not just into the United States but into New Hampshire. We have to take advantage of all those opportunities.




SUNUNU: I believe in school choice. And by school choice it isn't just public school versus charter, or public versus private or home school, or whatever it might be. It's really opening the doors. It goes back to the work force we talked about in the 21st century; it's about designing systems that have flexibility and pathways for everybody. The pathway for myself and my children might be very different than the pathway for you and your kids and that's fine. Public schools are the backbone of our school system. There's no doubt about it, and charter schools are a part of that.


Please remember I'm the first governor in about 25 years that actually grew up in the New Hampshire public schools. I understand how great they are. My kids went to public schools here. So you know it isn't an anti-public school thing when you strengthen what charter schools can do. You have to remember charter schools get a fraction of the dollars that traditional public schools have... The other issue I want to bring up when we talk about school choice is that it's also the choices and the pathways we're providing for our students currently in our traditional public schools.


Q: We've got a lot of comments on social media from our listeners about Frank Edelblut as Education Commissioner. One person says we require our teachers to be fully qualified. Why did you nominate someone with no experience as Commissioner of Education? Another person said, why is it OK to appoint a Commissioner of Education who has no qualifications for the job while holding teachers to the highest standards?


SUNUNU: Frank Edelblut knows more about how our education system runs than just about anybody else in the state. He really does. And I've sat down with him time and time again...He understands the pushes and pulls and dynamics of our education system like very, very few in the state do. And he said to me, look, we don't need to blow up the education system here. We need to unleash its potential, and he's come up with a lot of these innovative ideas, of allowing kids to have more choice within the public schools to drive their own solutions, to drive their own pathways. I think it's great. I think he's going to be a tremendous Commissioner. And again it's all about finding a Commissioner that really has the experience for the 21st century.




SUNUNU: Every time we turn on our faucets at home, we're really trusting that the local and state governments have done their job to make sure the water coming out of that faucet is clean and it's safe for us and our kids. We've seen what happened recently in Detroit; we've seen what's happened in other parts of the country. We can't let that happen here.


We have a few different groups out there that are really trying to address this issue. I think we need to take a statewide approach. I've asked Senator Morse to lead the efforts and not just put a million dollars or two million dollars out but really unleash the power of the 300 million dollar fund and start addressing this issue not tomorrow, not with more studies and blue ribbon commissions, but start unleashing this money today to look at how we address our public-water system, address the contaminated wells that we have, and really put significant dollars out there so that a slight problem of today doesn't become a crisis of tomorrow.


Listener question: I'm a little worried about the anti-regulatory rhetoric that's coming from the State House and the White House; in some instances regulations keep people safe from cancer.


SUNUNU: There's no doubt about that. Look, I'm an environmental engineer. I spent my career making sure that people were drinking safe water. I mean that's the foundation of what I did out of MIT, and and what I did in the sector for many many years. It's of utmost concern. When we talk about the regulatory burdens, we're talking about the burdens that businesses face and issues like that – not so much with the drinking-water issues that we have.


We're constantly looking to making sure we're being smart, understanding what the risks are, and it's still a bit unknown with these new chemicals that we're looking at. So we have to take very careful precautions when we talk about breaking down regulations – that's more in the business sector. We're going to be very vigilant about making sure that we're protecting drinking water. We're going to unleash some funds and get people the services they need.



For the full interview, listen here.

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