Veto Day Showcases Partisan Gridlock, Animus at N.H. State House

Sep 19, 2019

Lou D'Allesandro, chair of the N.H. Senate Finance Committee, rises to speak Sept. 19 as the Senate takes up the governor's vetoes.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

The New Hampshire House and Senate are wrapping up their mostly-failed efforts to override dozens of vetoes handed down by Governor Chris Sununu. The record number of vetoes is one byproduct of having divided government in the state.

But there’s also an almost election-year atmosphere at the State House right now. That's not making it easier for lawmakers and the governor to reach agreement on a big job that’s still incomplete – passing a state budget.

When Sununu was inaugurated earlier this year he told lawmakers that in picking divided government – reelecting a Republican to the corner office, but putting the House and Senate under Democratic control -- voters were telling leaders to cooperate:

“We can’t lose sight of why we are here. In public service it’s just as important how you get there as the goals that you achieve. In New Hampshire, we know we are best when we work together and that’s obviously what we must do.”

That spirit of working together across party lines was notably absent in Concord this week. Rep. Tim Lang, a Republican from Farmington, had it about right when he took to the House floor to consider Sununu’s veto of a Democrat-backed election law bill.

His parliamentary inquiry: “I know that nothing I say at this microphone will change a darn vote in this chamber. Would I shut up, sit down, and push the red button.”

A different party line vote blocked the House from taking up a budget bill proposed by Democrats. Sununu had earlier rejected it. He derided the Democrats’ plan as a “stunt.” 

'You got the ultra-left, the ultra-right, and how do you get to the middle?'

And all week, Sununu aides have kept his social media feeds – his official gubernatorial one, and that of his reelection effort – full of veto-related content, some with a taunting tone.

When the House on Wednesday failed to override all but one of the governor’s vetoes, his office issued a press release that treated it like a box score. Its headline read: “23-1.”

Meanwhile, the state GOP put out a music video to a song with the faces of Sununu and GOP leaders Chuck Morse and Dick Hinch superimposed on the bodies of the dancing performers. “All I do is win,” went the tune.

In the state Senate, the atmosphere was more measured. And Senate Chaplain Jon Hopkins may have been out to set a tone with the opening prayer:  “Remember today George Washington’s final words to our country, that in order for our government to be efficient and permanent, we need unity.”

But unity remained mostly elusive in the Senate, too, where 14-10 party line votes were the norm. There were some rare exceptions, including on a bill to loosen prescribing standards for medical marijuana. That’s the only bill this week where Sununu’s veto was overturned. 

But electoral politics, inevitably perhaps, also leached into these votes. Concord Democrat Dan Feltes, who has already launched a bid to challenge Sununu, wedged a campaign slogan into his floor remarks.

"Working families can’t wait, addressing our opioid epidemic can’t wait … dealing with the issues between small business and big business can't wait," he said.

And the clock ticks on the state budget. The temporary spending plan passed in the wake of Sununu’s budget veto expires at the end of the month.

Lou D’Allesandro chairs the Senate Finance Committee. He says he’s working to reach a budget deal, but says friction between the parties is getting in the way. “I think it’s harder to work here, because ideology has taken such a permanent hold. You got the ultra-left, the ultra-right, and how do you get to the middle? And it’s campaign 24/7. And we’ve got to get away from that.” 

Sixteen months out from an election is supposed to be a time when that’s at least somewhat possible. Not this year.