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Seeking Third Term, Sununu Says N.H.'s COVID-19 Impacted Economy Is On The Rebound

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Granite Staters are heading to the polls Sept. 8 for New Hampshire's state primary election, and there's also still time to drop off an absentee ballot with your local town or city clerk. 

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley is talking with the gubernatorial candidates this week about their plans for the state's economy, given the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican from Newfields who is seeking his third term:

COVID-19 Voting Guide: How To Vote in N.H.'s Elections During the Pandemic  

Rick Ganley: How have the past five months or so changed your priorities when it comes to managing the state's economy? How have you adapted your economic plan?

Chris Sununu: Well, obviously, I think we're in a whole different world than we were in February. Back in February, we had one of the lowest unemployment numbers in the country, the lowest poverty rate, some of the highest wages. Our economy was absolutely cooking and we had to make some tough decisions early on. And the strategy was, look, we know we're going to take the hit to the economy in the short term, but we had to play for the long game. And so we were a little extra slow, and careful and cautious when we open the economy up and we flexed things open. We wanted to do it the right way. We didn't want to be in the position that other states had put themselves in in a negative way and see the numbers rise. So we had to make sure the culture of making sure that whether it's masks, or social distancing or whatever it was, the guidance documents were all in place the right way, stakeholder input, working with public health.

And in doing that, we really, I think, allowed ourselves not just to survive, but even some businesses just to frankly thrive a little bit in 2020, but really be there for 2021. We put hundreds of millions of dollars, more than any other state dollar for dollar, more than any other state into our businesses to make sure that they can pay their bills, they can hire their employees, they can pay their taxes and utilities, whatever they need to survive. I think, given that our unemployment rate is dropping now twice as fast as the national average, we're now below 6 percent as of today in terms of unemployment, which typically wouldn't be a good number, but relatively speaking, it's a great number. We're in a much better place now than we thought we would be back in March and April.

Rick Ganley: Some 400 businesses in the state, that we know of, have closed down. I'm wondering if you feel the aid has been enough. Has it been targeted in the right place?

Chris Sununu: It's been more than any other state and it's been all over the place, right? Everybody got a piece. So health care got lots of money. Farmers got their own fund. The Main Street relief fund allowed every business to come in. Anyone that was eligible got their pro-rata share, right? [They] got their fair share up to a certain amount, up to about $350,000, which is a lot of money, for some of the larger businesses. But it was really designed for small and mid-sized businesses.

And there's no state in the country that put more money to self-employment, private businesses and nonprofits -- not Texas, not California, not Florida. We're the ones that put over $500 million into those systems. Those states but nothing in. So we're really making sure that we're here for the long-term. Go talk to counterparts, restaurants and businesses in downtown Boston, or Vermont. I mean, Vermont has done a great job with COVID-19, but their unemployment rate is still about 10 percent. And same with Maine. So, you know, we've put ourselves in a very strong position here to be successful for the long run. And the fact that we've put more than 49 other states, I think says a lot to our commitment to the economy.

Rick Ganley: I know there are different estimates, but the state is expected to face huge deficits, tens of millions of dollars. What are your plans to balance the state budget going forward?

Rick Ganley: We can do it. We can manage and without a single new tax in a single new fee, and that's the most important part. Because the worst thing you can do to families or businesses when they're down is, frankly, kick sand in their face by increasing their taxes, right? They are more important than the big government system.

Rick Ganley: How do you balance the budget then? I mean, where do you trim? Where are your priorities?

Chris Sununu: So we've gone to all the different agencies. We've given them kind of markers to hit, some zero to 5 percent, from 5 to 10 percent in terms of reduction. We don't think we need to wholesale cut massive programs. Remember, our economy was so strong that we basically increased our spending with a balanced budget, more than a half a billion dollars to, close to a billion dollars, just in the last two or three years. So if we have to take a step back to 2019 spending levels on a few programs, we can do that and we can manage. We can find efficiencies.

And that's why I was so adamant with the legislature when they said they were going to raise business taxes, 13, 12.5 percent on businesses. Because those triggers we're going to be hit and the Democrats in the legislature said, no, those taxes are going up no matter what. And I said, please, just suspend them. You can't be raising taxes on businesses. They said, nope, the business taxes are going up. Now we managed. This is back in May and June. We managed. We got things open and we made sure the revenues were where they needed to be so the tax triggers did not come into play. But that's the real difference in philosophy and strategy as we go forward. You're going to want folks in the Senate and the House, and frankly, the governor's office that understand the economy, business and balancing budgets.

Rick Ganley: The pandemic has highlighted the ongoing economic and social inequities within the state and in the country in general. What are some of the immediate steps that you'd take to address the economic inequality in the state?

Chris Sununu: Well, I think economic and social inequalities kind of come hand in hand. They're different enough to take a different path, but you really have one without the other. In this state, we're on a very good path, but there is definitely issues that we can address. We don't have systematic crises across the board, but that doesn't mean you don't pay attention to the individual communities or the individual programs.

So a couple of examples, first, health care, right? We recognized very quickly that there was, and has been, a discrepancy in health care with minority populations. So we put our task force together to get a great report with some real ideas on the table. That report and those recommendations, I always kind of demand recommendations. The study is fine, but at the end of the day, you've got to get results, right? So we're trying to put that report now in the hands of the commission I created on diversity and inclusion that's already integrated with the public sphere and out in the different communities. And they'll now kind of work forward in starting to implement some of those ideas. Some will be legislative. Some we can just do with some regulatory reform in the short term.

Rick Ganley: What's your take on the debate to divest funds from police agencies into social programs?

Chris Sununu: The idea of defunding police agencies and divesting funds away from law enforcement is a really bad idea. Because this is why, it's so obvious, if you really feel like something is broken, and again, I don't think we have a systematic breakdown of law enforcement, I think we can always challenge ourselves to do better. But I'm very proud of the law enforcement that we have in our state and our communities. But when you have a problem with anything, you don't pull resources away from it and say, we're going to make you weaker, if you will. We're going to put less resources there and less accountability there. You put more resources to it and you get them involved as part of the changes you want to see.

And because I think this police accountability group that we put together was so positive, it had law enforcement involved, it had prosecutors involved, everybody really had a voice there, I think the solution really is going to those law enforcement agencies and saying, okay, here's where some of the gaps are in the system. It isn't it's fundamentally broken, but the gaps. So here's some of the resources that we're going to invest so that, again, you get to the point where you get that more integrated policing, the community policing that we'd like to see. But you don't do it by removing funds. That sounds like a nice talking point for the radical left, but at the end of the day it can have disastrous repercussions. You want to empower them to be part of their own solutions, working with them laterally within government, setting accountability, metrics, goals, all of those management pieces that have to be in place to ensure that you're not just talking, but you're actually getting the results that you want to see.


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If you have election-related questions or observations, please email them to elections@nhpr.org

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR. She manages the station's news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can email her at mmcintyre@nhpr.org.

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