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 will all the gubernatorial candidates this week about their plans for the state's economy, given the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's state Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat who is facing off with Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky for their party's nomination on Sept. 8.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
Rick Ganley: I know that you support raising the minimum wage. I know you've talked about instituting a paid family leave program, of course. What else is needed to address the economic fallout of the pandemic?
Dan Feltes: We put forward housing protections for renters and homeowners, including from Wall Street banks, the same kind of banks I fought against on behalf of homeowners during the last economic crisis, the Great Recession. That landed that on Chris Sununu's desk. He vetoed it. Nursing home support, PPE and testing, and an independent audit of what went wrong in our nursing homes so we can plan moving forward, Chris Sununu vetoed it. PPE for small businesses [was] vetoed by Chris Sununu. COVID-19 health insurance for treatment and testing [was] vetoed by Chris Sununu. So we've laid out, in the legislature and what we passed, exactly how we can help get out of this mess.
In addition to that, we need a real school reopening plan with actual public health standards, and guidance and additional financial support to our schools and our communities. Chris Sununu threw up his hands, punted it all down to the local level. And now you're seeing basically chaos and uncertainty at the local level. And it's not fair to folks on the ground who serve as a school board member. They're not epidemiologists. They're serving their community. And these debates are happening locally without any leadership and any clear guidance, support, standards or financial support from Chris Sununu. He threw up his hands, punted it down to the local level, just like Trump punted it to the state level. And it's no surprise Chris Sununu calls himself, in his own words, a Trump guy through and through. Those are Chris Sununu's own words.
Rick Ganley: I want to talk a little bit more about some of the economic fallout here from the pandemic. I know that estimates vary, but the state is expected to be facing a huge budget deficit heading into next year. We're likely looking at tens of millions of dollars. What are your plans to balance the state budget? What would be the top priorities for funding right now, and how would you fund any initiatives, given the deficit?
Dan Feltes: Well, first and foremost, as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, I can tell you that in this fiscal year, the deficit's about $143 million. It's going to be audited. It's going to be ballpark $143 million, give or take. That can be covered right now, Rick, by the CARES Act money that's in the state treasury. If Chris Sununu wanted to do it, literally he could shore up that budget in the short term right now.
Rick Ganley: How can you do that? Isn't there federal parameters on that that it cannot be spent on state budgets?
Dan Feltes: And under the revised guidance of the U.S. treasury secretary, there is a maximum flexibility. So if you can manage it, you should be able to take care of it. And he has shown fundamentally incapable of managing the state budget. Not only that Rick, he has cut substance use disorder treatment services. He has cut housing and homelessness services. He cut a prescription drug relief program for low income seniors out of the budget already.
And now he's using that CARES Act money he could use to support the budget. And instead he's using it to go out to a consultant to identify additional cuts, presumably so he can hide behind those cuts when he cuts the state budget. On day one, I would respectfully submit to the voters who are listening. I think you want someone who has dealt with the budget as the chair of the Ways and Means [Committee], vice chair of the Finance Committee, majority leader of the state Senate, in the state Senate for six years and working on the state budget, who knows the state budget, knows how to put together a state budget and knows what impacts each and every program have on ordinary folks that are falling behind right now.
Rick Ganley: The pandemic has highlighted the ongoing economic and social inequities within New Hampshire. What are some of the immediate steps that you'd take to address those inequities?
Dan Feltes: Well, first, we have to stabilize our health care system across the continuum of care and behavioral health. A lot of that was funded in the last budget and needs to be stood up right away. And Chris Sununu has failed to stand up a lot of those services for our families and our communities. Second, paid family medical leave insurance is critical, especially in a pandemic. Chris Sununu has vetoed it twice. We need to move forward with it immediately. Third, got to stabilize the housing market. We had a bit of a housing crisis prior to COVID-19. It's only worse now. The vacancy rate nationwide for rental housing is about 5 percent. In New Hampshire, it's less than 2 percent. It's only getting worse. We need to advance workforce and affordable housing. In addition to that, we need to move forward with common sense protections for renters and homeowners facing foreclosure, the kind of folks that I represented as a legal aid lawyer.
Rick Ganley: Well, what did you make of Sununu's COVID-19 equity task force and its recommendations? Would you adopt those recommendations, take a different approach? What else needs to be done?
Dan Feltes: Well, first and foremost, I think we need to establish the office of racial equity within the governor's office. And the director of the office should be a person of color, and that office should take on responsibilities and duties similar to what Vermont has done, created an office of racial equity. That will take care of a few things.
Number one, identifying systemic practices and policies within state government that have a disparate negative impact on communities of color. And then number two, work to eradicate those policies and work to provide solutions to those policies that have a negative impact on communities of color. Number three, work to include more folks in our state government in key decision making that are from communities of color. And number four, reach out to communities of color to involve them in key states of decision making. That is central to this. You know, it's one thing to form a committee. It's another thing to form an actual office that does the work.
Rick Ganley: Do you support the movement to defund law enforcement in New Hampshire?
Dan Feltes: No, I think we need police reform, and I think we need criminal justice reform, and I think we need behavioral health services across the board. That's good for everybody. And right now, you're seeing what's happening at the local level where police in some cases are doing the jobs of social workers. And that leads to, in some cases, the criminalization of mental health. We need to decriminalize mental health. We need to make sure that we treat mental health as it is: a health care issue.
And there's so many people right now, Rick, even today, that are waiting in emergency rooms across the state of New Hampshire for needed, timely, and necessary and appropriate mental health treatment, waiting in emergency rooms for mental health treatment. If you break your leg, you get service. If you have a mental health situation, you don't. You're waiting. And the saddest thing about it, Rick, is that we passed legislation, my bill, SB 14 and then funded it in the budget to deal with this, provide the community services that relieve the pressure on everybody -- on our schools, police, our families, and get needed, timely and appropriate mental health care. That's what we need to do. We funded that. It's just not been stood up by Chris Sununu.
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