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Sununu Weighs In On Pandemic Policies, Legislative Debates, & Possible Senate Run

Governor Sununu
Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Gov. Chris Sununu says although the state has seen some promising trends when it comes to COVID-19, now is not the time to relax. He likens it to mile 23 of a marathon – three or so miles shy of the finish line.

“What that really means is staying disciplined with masks, maintaining our social distancing, doing all of these things. It could be just a few weeks or even a month or a couple of months more,” Sununu said on The Exchange.  “We really are close; we're about 80, 90 percent of the way there. Things are going so well; don't let up now and pat yourselves on the back and say, ‘We're all set.’”

Still, Sununu did not commit to extending the mask mandate he renewed in January, which is due to expire March 26. Sununu issued the order on Nov. 20, 2020. He was the last governor in New England to issue a mask mandate. 

“We don't pick dates preliminarily. We don't just say we're going to pick that date and then we'll be good, because that wouldn't be based on anything, right? That would be emotional. We based everything on data, science and trends, whether it be hospitalizations, fatalities, the vaccine distribution.”   

Several governors have lifted restrictions entirely in recent weeks, prompting concern from federal public health officials. The New York Times reports: Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has implored states not to relax their restrictions yet. A new CDC report found that counties that allowed in-person dining had a rise in daily infections weeks after. The study also said that counties with mask mandates reported a decrease in virus cases and deaths within weeks.

Although Sununu says the end is nearing, he acknowledged that variants, including those originating in the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa, have introduced uncertainty -- while adding a sense of urgency around vaccinations.

“Everyone wants the mandate to go away. But it has to be done at the right time. It has to be done in a safe and responsible way,” he said.

Sununu addressed vaccine issues, education and voting policies, and speculation on whether he plans to run for U.S. Senate. See below for excerpts from the interview. Visit here to listen to the interview.

Question: When will vaccines be available at some of local pharmacies, local doctors, not just Walgreens or CVS?

Sununu: "I think we're going to start transitioning to that as we go into what we're calling group 2b, which is 50 and older. We're going to start transitioning more to hospitals, local pharmacies and your local doctors. So hopefully over the next couple of months, that's where the transition goes. And then you'll have more options. Right now we don't even have enough vaccine.

But as more Johnson & Johnson becomes available, as we transition into these larger demographics in populations, we are making an active transition to get the state out of doing all the vaccine management and actually putting it where it belongs, which is pharmacies and doctors."

Question: We’ve heard from many teachers upset they weren’t put earlier in the vaccination process. 30 states did put teachers earlier in the queue than New Hampshire. What is your response?

"Let me be frank: distribution of vaccine is not about sending a message and appeasing voters. It's about saving lives. And so you have to put the most vulnerable first. How could I stand up there and tell an 85-year-old grandmother, sorry, you have to wait because a young 30-year-old teacher has to come first? That makes no logical sense. There's no data or science that says that that's the right thing to do. You have to protect the most vulnerable. I know it's not an easy decision for a lot of people to accept, but my job is to put kind of pride and prejudice aside and say we just have to put the most vulnerable first. And that's exactly what we did."

Question: You’ve said you’re open to a run for U.S. Senate, challenging Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan. Have you decided yet?

"No, not at all. I'm not thinking of my next steps because that's way down the road. And that would be a disservice to the job that we have to do. I’ve got a big job here. We’ve got a great team. I need the team engaged in and focused on the priorities. And politics is just not a priority for us right now at all. At some point, maybe in the summer we'll get through the legislative session, I'll probably, you know, take a step back, take a breath and figure out what my next step might be. Maybe run for a fourth term, maybe go into the private sector, maybe run for Senate, maybe run for president. I mean, who knows? No, I'm just kidding. I don't know. I have no idea what's going to happen."

Question: Who or what is going to help you make that decision?

When you're talking about running for office – it’s service. How does my skillset fit the service? And if I can find where there might be a need there, if I can find where my skill set fits, where it might fit my family dynamics and in kind of long-term planning and vision.  I'm only 46. I know I seem like an old man at this point because I get a little long winded at the press conferences. But you know, there's a lot of opportunity ahead of me and all that has to be put on the table. So you never know.

Question: You’ve proposed combining the University System of New Hampshire with the community college system.  Why?

Sununu: "There are over 100 different agreements between different community colleges and different classes at the university system. They're all done with these hundreds of different agreements, not even like a single seamless system. That's one of the things on the backend that's incredibly confusing and inefficient. Not every credit transfers.  If you do want to just transfer your credits, you still have to apply, leave a system, apply, reapply, get admitted, and they transfer the whole thing. So it's not as seamless as people think. And that's just a barrier. Why have a barrier if you don't need it? Why would we have two competing online courses, systems that are both part of the public system, effectively competing against each other? Why should two systems come to the legislature and fight over legislative dollars instead of having one system where everyone is treated the same?  So it's just it's a better path. It's more efficient. There's no doubt you could save money if you just reduce the needless competition between all these 11 disparate organizations."

Question: We received a lot of questions about redistricting. Here’s one from Anne: Will you insist that the legislature's redistricting committee uses a fair and transparent process for drawing the maps and also says, will you reject their work if it turns out to be gerrymandered and or has not allowed for sufficient public comment?

Sununu: "The answer is yes and yes. It has to be transparent. In our entire state, I think there are a couple of districts you could point out that are really funky. Everyone could point to Executive Council district two. And I agree. That's got to be fixed. It's a weird one. It's like a snake lying across the middle of the state. Very bizarre. But I think for the most part -- the House and the Senate districts -- I can't think of any that are really out of whack. We'll look at the population. The House has their process and they put this committee together and it has to be done in a bipartisan way and be transparent I always say with redistricting, it's got to pass the smell test. You’ve got to be able to look at the map and say, OK, at first blush, this makes general sense. We're not, like, twisting around here and there. Whatever we do, it has to be fair, it has to be balanced."

Question: Given the success of the last election, which allowed voters to vote using absentee ballots due to COVID-19 concerns, should “no-excuse” absentee ballot voting be adopted permanently in New Hampshire?

Sununu: "When it comes to voting in the state, we do it really, really well.  And even through COVID, we made the right adjustments in a bipartisan way. We found balance. We made the right adjustments, allowed it to take place. And that’s not just from a government point of view, but from the citizen’s point of view. People have a lot of faith in our process. We do it really well. I just I don't see any need to start making major changes to a system that has integrity and is seen as the gold standard for the rest of the country."

Question: Several listeners have asked about HB 544, which would prevent educators from teaching about systemic racism and sexism in public schools and state funded programs.  Molly in North Conway asks: Governor, if this bill passes the House and Senate, will you veto it?

Sununu: "Probably, yeah. I don't support it. Look, that bill, as I've read it to date, it really limits free speech. We might not like, you know, agree with certain things that may be said in a public setting or school or whatever it is. But that's the beauty of local control, that's working with your teachers, your school administrators, as a parent, on what's going on in the classroom, having that connectivity. But you don't control that by having a big government law that says you can't say certain things. I'm shocked.  I hate that concept. So, yeah, my guess is if it didn't change, I'd probably very likely veto it."

Question: Another bill concerning school policy would expand school choice in the form of an education savings account. Parents would be able to use a share of state aid so taxpayer dollars to pay for an educational program of their choice, including private schools, homes schools. These proposals come up before governor, as you know, in different iterations and always raise concerns about public money going to private schools. And I wonder what your take is on that.

Sununu: "Well, first, my budget, for the third budget in a row, puts more dollars per child in public schools than any administration in history. And we're very proud of that. We're not shortchanging anyone here -- more dollars per child in public school than any administration in history. It's a combination of the property tax dollars that come in and that helps the both the local share and the state share. And then you have the federal dollars that come in on top of that for additional programs, including special ed. Those are federal dollars that that would come into play. But the vast majority of education funding is local and state money. So we've put more dollars in than ever before. Now, with that, conceptually, you're always going to get a better outcome for a child if you provide more options.

No child has ever been offered more options and had a worse outcome because of it. And that's what this all has to be about. Are we about the system that has been run the same way in the same style for the last 50 years? That's, I think, frankly, a bit out of date? Or are we about getting better outcomes for kids? For me, that's all that matters. I don't care what the system looks like. I don't care who's running it. I just want better outcomes for kids. And more options can provide those outcomes, especially for students that are dealing with additional challenges, that need extra help, or whatever it might be. You know, for 98 percent of the kids, the four walls of the traditional public school are just fine. It was for me.  I went to North Salem Elementary School and Woodberry Junior High in Salem, New Hampshire. It was great. But for some kids, it's not always the best fit. So giving those students options, I don't see anything wrong with that."

Question: There's always concern when public dollars go to private schools. That's the fundamental concern there.

Sununu: "Well, I understand. But my job is to make sure every child has a great education in the state, has a great opportunity at education and an opportunity that fits their needs. And that's what I'm looking at. I don't look at the systems per se as much as I look at the outcomes. That's really what this is about."

Question: We have gotten some questions about when state guidelines for summer day camps and sleep away camps might be coming out so families can start planning.

Sununu: "There are some recommendations that have been made. I'm working with public health on it. It will be very soon. I can promise you that we're trying to avoid just doing little incremental steps every week with every different industry. We're getting out of this really fast, which is great. I think there's an opportunity to create a lot of flexibility for all of these different opportunities. But I'd say this, if you're involved in a camp or summer program, think big. It's going to be an awesome summer. Think big. Think flexibility. It is going to be there, because the state is doing so well with vaccinations, so well with managing. I can't thank the citizens enough. They deserve the credit."

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