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In final State of State address, Sununu seeks to frame his tenure on his own terms

Gov. Chris Sununu addresses lawmakers in his final State of the State speech, Feb. 15, 2024.
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
Gov. Chris Sununu addresses lawmakers in his final State of the State speech, Feb. 15, 2024.

Gov. Chris Sununu used his final State of the State address Thursday to frame his time in office as a period of sustained prosperity and freedom, and urged lawmakers to stick with the approach he says has worked.

“We must constantly challenge ourselves to put individuals before the system, strive to be even better stewards of your taxpayer dollars, and more accountable to the people of this state,” Sununu said before a joint session of the Legislature in the State House’s Representatives Hall.

Sununu laced his 30-minute speech with a litany of rankings in which he said New Hampshire outpaces other states. Sununu said New Hampshire scored first in areas ranging from economic freedom, to child well being, to the quality of state roads. Sununu touted these “proud data points,” and suggested they were the fruit of his leadership.

"Being the best is earned, it is not given, and that is what has guided us this last seven years, and that is what will take us into more success in the future,” Sununu said,

According to information provided by his office, the sources behind the rankings Sununu cited included several established data sets, including the U.S. Census Bureau and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But they also included several less frequently cited sources, such as the websites MoneyGeek.com and Lifehealth.com, and “online education platform” Guru 99.

Citing positive state rankings is standard fare for New Hampshire governors in speeches like these, but an eagerness to revel in the state’s purported exceptionalism and celebrate his own governance style has typified Sununu’s tenure.

So has an arms-length approach to dealing with lawmakers. No New Hampshire governor has vetoed as many bills as Sununu has. But in Thursday’s speech, he worked to frame his relationship with the Legislature as a partnership that has produced lower taxes, fostered school choice, and brokered a historic state budget.

“One of the greatest achievements we had in Concord was the passage of a bipartisan, balanced budget, in an evenly divided Legislature on a voice vote,” Sununu said. “You all did an incredible job with that one and showed Washington that regardless of political divide, a fiscally conservative budget — without gimmicks or empty promises — can always be achieved with hard work.”

Sununu asked the Republican-led Legislature to continue its push to expand eligibility for the state’s voucher-like school choice program.

The governor also asked them to support a recent request he made to spend $850,000 to send 15 New Hampshire National Guard members to Texas, to help that state’s National Guard contain illegal activity at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This is not a Texas problem: It is a national crisis and New Hampshire has the chance to provide specialized support, follow the laws of the land, and keep our citizens safe,” Sununu said. “Let’s do this.”

Immigration wasn’t the only national topic Sununu stressed in his address. He also invoked a recent rise in campus anti-semitism, and praised how Dartmouth College’s President Sian Beilock has addressed it.

“I personally think the actions of many of the Ivy League schools in America as it pertains to this crisis has been terrible,” Sununu said. “In just her first year, [Beilock] has really set Dartmouth apart and led as an example of ensuring free speech and respect on her campus.”

Throughout his remarks, Sununu — who is not seeking reelection — also alluded to the fact that his time in office is growing short. For much of the last year, he’s worked to raise his national profile, first by exploring a presidential run, then by spending weeks as a cable TV political ally and campaign trail sidekick for former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley in her bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

With that duty effectively over, the roughly 10 months remaining in Sununu’s term will be filled with more prosaic aspects of being a New Hampshire governor. Sununu alluded to those, when he cited pressing issues the state still faces: issues of housing and workforce shortages, the opioid epidemic, and the strains faced by the state’s mental health system.

The state has expanded mental health access on Sununu’ watch, but is still under federal court order to end the practice known as ER boarding.

Federal money helped the state boost treatment options; purchase the former Hampstead Hospital to serve as a residential treatment facility; and break ground on a new psychiatric facility adjacent to New Hampshire Hospital in Concord.

“We have turned the tide,” Sununu said.

But in this speech, Sununu also seemed reluctant to acknowledge that his time in the state’s political spotlight is winding down. He made frequent allusions to this being his last speech of its kind, and joked that he could even change his mind on whether to seek reelection.

“The filing period to run again isn’t until June, so you never know,” he said to laughter from lawmakers. “Just kidding.”

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Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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