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Sununu a No-Show as House Kills Wayfair Anti-Sales Tax Bill

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

By all accounts yesterday was an embarrassing day for political leaders in Concord. The bill they crafted, at Gov. Chris Sununu’s direction, aimed to blunt a U.S. Supreme court ruling that could force local business to collect taxes for other states. It was rejected by the New Hampshire House. NHPR’s Josh Rogers and Peter Biello talked about the political ramifications of the bill's failure, particularly for Sununu.

Below is a rough transcript of Josh and Peter's conversation.

So before we get to the ramifications of yesterday’s action. Remind us what happened.

Well, the bill basically sought to create procedural hurdles for any taxing jurisdiction that attempted to make local businesses collect their sales tax. The Supreme Court ruling, known as the Wayfair ruling, says that is permissible. The ruling came down early this month and was decried by pretty much every politician in New Hampshire. Which is understandable, when you consider that New Hampshire doesn’t have a general sales tax. So, that means business here could have the burden of collecting taxes for other jurisdictions.

So as soon as this ruling came down, Governor Sununu basically declares war.

Absolutely. He immediately laid out a plan to call lawmakers back to Concord to enact policies he hoped would protect New Hampshire. He stood behind a podium with a big "Live Free or Die" sign on it, and loudly promised action, a performance his office quickly fashioned into a campaign-style ad.

“To every out of state taxing jurisdiction, and authority, ‘if you try to come into our state, force our businesses to collect a sales tax you are going to have the fight of your life.”

That was a video released by the governor's office earlier this month.

Yes, and the governor said he expected quick action and to be signing a law to protect New Hampshire fast. A commission crafted a bill. The bill earned the full support of the state Senate, but things came unglued, as they can, in the New Hampshire House.


Well leadership in both parties were behind the bill, but rank-and-file members weren’t. Many conservatives didn’t think the bill went far enough in asserting what they see as the state’s sovereignty. Plenty of liberal Democrats also rejected it, some feared bogging the state down in legal fights, others cited constitutional concerns. Democrats mostly deny it, but this is election season, and Sununu – with his video ad – had already showed he planned to make this a campaign issue. That didn’t sit well.  

So House conservatives and liberals team up for their own reasons to defy the will of leadership. I feel we’ve seen this before.

You could look back the budget in 2017. That’s what happened there as well.

So, should people have seen this coming?

Conservatives in the House would say absolutely. They said they brought their concerns to the governor’s office well in advance of this bill hitting the floor, and to GOP leaders, and that no one truly listened.

Did the governor himself get involved?

Well, he surely fronted this early on. But it’s pretty clear his outreach was spotty. Democrats say he never talked to them, and the conservatives who helped sink this thing, like Rep. J.R. Hoell of Dunbarton, say  the governor didn’t directly engage them either. Here's what Hoell told me today:

"I can only speak for myself now, but I did not hear from him. I don’t know of anybody who did either. I know their staff reached out to some people. Apparently the governor was out of town, or out of the state."

So where was the governor when this bill hit the rocks?

Well, it wasn’t well known at the time of the vote, but the governor was in Colorado until the middle of the day yesterday (Wednesday), at a Republican Governors Association meeting.  So: out of state, at a partisan event, as your bill - on an issue where you are threatening other states with the fight of their lives - gets tossed. Not ideal. If the bill passed, no one would care that much, but it certainly opens the governor up - fairly - to the charge that he can be AWOL or hamfisted when it comes to dealing with lawmakers.

You can look back at his record on priority issues – like Right to Work, like a school voucher plan, like the victim rights constitutional amendment, known as Marsy’s law. He loudly championed all, and when each one failed – and all in the House – he blamed others. Both of his Democratic challengers were making the case he’s not there when the going gets tough. Here’s one of them, former state Senator Molly Kelly:

"If I had a piece of legislation that was in the best interest of New Hampshire and it was my priority, then I would show up. I would be there. And I would make it happen.

That was Demcorat Molly Kelly. OK, so then what is the governor saying? I noticed he made himself pretty scarce today. One public event, at 7 a.m., in Rindge?

Yes, out of the way. Ringe was likely long-scheduled. But the governor did surface this afternoon. He denied his office hadn’t worked this issue, and insisted he remained in close contact with key lawmakers during his RGA trip. And as for the Wayfair bill, he says he wants it done, but also seemed to indicate he may no longer see the issue as one he can make happen. Here's what he told me this afternoon:

“Look, the point is they had a good bill in front of them. They’ve got to close the deal and get it done for the citizens of the state. So I hope they come back, and I hope they take it up again. It’s too important an issue to sit on the sidelines and hope for the best.”

Did the governor have any timetable for further action?

No. But stay tuned.

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