Granite Staters are heading to the polls next week 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 Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, a Democrat who is vying with Sen. Dan Feltes for their party's nomination Sept. 8.
Rick Ganley: Looking at the immediate crisis, estimates vary, but the state is going to face huge budget deficits, tens of millions of dollars with this pandemic. What would your plans be to balance the state budget? What would your top priorities be?
Andru Volinsky: We can't balance the state budget by downshifting all of the state's responsibilities onto the backs of the local property tax payer. That's what Sununu's been doing the last few years. So I would stop that from happening. The state needs to meet its own responsibilities. We're going to need federal help. I will be the strongest advocate pushing Mitch McConnell and the others to release the federal relief money that all states will need. We're going to depend on that going forward.
And then we need to make smart investments. One of the problems in  was that no one distinguished between costs which you should minimize and investments which you should nurture. There's no more important investment than the kinds that we make around our most vulnerable populations, our children, our seniors, our small business people. We have a small business based economy. We can't have them competing with the largest businesses in our state for scarce resources.
We need to have a property tax system that allows businesses to grow broadly across our state and create jobs. That doesn't happen now. And we need to call out the shortcomings of that system. And we need to be creative. Last week, I released a plan to legalize the adult use of marijuana. That's both a social and racial justice issue and it's a revenue stream. And we need to be thinking outside the box to create new revenue streams for a state.
Rick Ganley: Where would you be willing to trim spending?
Andru Volinsky: Well, I think there are some areas where we don't spend smartly. I'll give you an example. We have portions of our prison that were built in the 1850s. They're almost uninhabitable. But if you put someone in prison, it costs you $37,000 a year to maintain them. But if you release them in the community where you can do it safely, I'm not suggesting we release unsafe people, it costs you $15,000. So if you focus more on community supervision, you can save $15,000 or $20,000 per person. That's the kind of smart investment we need to make.
We also need to allow our solar industry to grow in New Hampshire. Sununu has stopped that almost single handedly. If we allow utility scale solar to grow, we would create revenues for the state, and we would create jobs in a new green economy. We need to do both now more than ever. New Hampshire only gets one percent of its power from solar. Vermont, by contrast, gets 12 percent. That's all on Sununu, and we need to replace him so we can fix that.
Rick Ganley: You know, the pandemic has highlighted ongoing economic and social inequity. What do you make of Sununu's COVID-19 equity task force and its recommendations?
Andru Volinsky: Well, look, I tend to focus on those three most vulnerable groups: children, seniors and small businesses. And with respect to those three groups, Sununu has failed. Sununu has completely abdicated leadership when it comes to school reopening. Schools are all over the place. Some of that is driven by resources. Sununu still has CARES Act relief money that could help defray expenses, make schools safer. I've asked Sununu to adopt an emergency order that creates a presumption in favor of teachers and other school personnel. If they get sick from COVID-19 while they're working, they're entitled to workers comp and, God forbid, death benefits. Sununu has refused to do that.
Our worst population, as far as COVID-19 is concerned, has been seniors in nursing homes. They did not have the eye on the ball when we were thinking about who to protect. Small businesses I've already mentioned. But Sununu lumped in typical mom and pop businesses on Main Street with businesses that get $20 million a year in revenues. They have fully fleshed out accounting and CFO departments. The mom and pop businesses are being asked to compete when they have to write their business plans on their kitchen table. That's not fair. That's not appropriate, and I think Sununu has done a poor job in those three areas.
And let me not forget, in April, I confronted him and asked him to issue a mask order in public places. He said public health data did not support it. He'd just been talking to Mike Pence. I think Sununu needs to listen to the experts and not Trump and Pence.
Rick Ganley: I want to talk to you a little bit about New Hampshire law enforcement. Sununu's state commission on police accountability and transparency has recommended more training, which would be costly. Sununu has said all training would be covered through the general fund. Is that something that you'd support?
Andru Volinsky: Yeah, I'm not sure I agree more training is more costly. I think effective training is worth the investment. And so I think we need to focus on demilitarizing our police forces. We have the advantage of having a single police training academy. So that's a point where all the new officers, police and correctional, go through. I think we can bring in implicit bias training there. I think we can bring in more conflict, deescalation training there, more mediation training. And I think ultimately, not only does that make our police officers better at their jobs, it's less costly in the long run to avoid the problems of police who fall victim to their own biases.
I think we also need to think about moving police functions away from the police and to mental health professionals so that police officers can focus better on their jobs. That's both training and a coordination effort. So I would shift some funding. I don't believe in in ending police departments and completely defunding them. But I do believe that we can shift funding so that law enforcement can focus on what they do well and mental health professionals can focus on what they do well.
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