It is not easy to get shoutouts from both the free market Americans for Prosperity and the SEIU labor union, but Gov. Chris Sununu managed to pull it off with his 2023 budget speech.
The popular four-term governor offered a grab bag of policy goodies to satisfy the political sweet tooth of interest groups on both sides of the aisle.
While his plan would increase spending from $13 billion in the last biennium to $14.9 billion, Sununu said his budget plan is very different from “the fiscal confusion in Washington, D.C.”
“This budget is fiscally responsible and balanced; ensures a surplus with additional savings for our Rainy Day Fund; has no new taxes of any kind; provides relief to property taxpayers; sends more cash to schools, cities, and towns; [and] invests in our workers.”
And, he reminded the legislators gathered in the State House, “without a sales tax, without an income tax, without an estate tax, and without a ‘Millionaires’ Tax.’
“Good luck to Massachusetts on that one,” Sununu added, “We’ll see how that turns out.” (Massachusetts’ new nine percent tax on income over $1 million took effect January 1.)
If, as expected, Sununu enters the 2024 GOP presidential primary, this budget plan would burnish his bona fides as a fiscal hawk who loves tax cuts but who also supports record education funding. Notably absent were any references to cultural issues like parental control of education, “woke” politics, ESG investing of state funds, etc. — the sort of issues Gov. Ron DeSantis is currently using in Tallahassee to raise his profile nationwide.
And there were no signature policy initiatives like making EFAs universal, for example, which would likely have garnered national attention.
“Lots of singles, but no home runs,” one New Hampshire GOP insider said afterward.
In part, Sununu is a victim of his own success. He has already signed a phase-out of the interest and dividends tax into law. His biggest tax proposal was “the complete elimination of the seven percent Consumer Communications Services Tax,” which represents a tiny percentage of state revenue and is already the 39th lowest in the nation. There just aren’t that many taxes left to cut, Sununu supporters say.
On the specifics, Democrats demanding more state funding of K-12 education were delighted to hear Sununu call for “an additional $200 million” in education spending in this two-year budget, “and an additional $1 billion over the next 10 years – all with a priority towards school districts that need this aid the most.”
Republicans, on the other hand, were happy Sununu noted the money will “flow directly to local schools, [helping] cities and towns lower their property taxes.” And his plan includes “increasing funding to charter schools and doubling the opportunity to our very successful Education Freedom Accounts.”
The governor’s budget increases funding from just over $14 million in FY23 to over $29.8 million in FY24 and $29.8 million in FY25, according to his office.
Sununu had a similar two-pronged approach to what he called investing in the state’s workforce.
On the one hand, he wants to make it easier for would-be employees to get to work by rolling back state licensing requirements.
“This budget includes landmark legislation to grant universal license recognition for the professions in New Hampshire that require a license. If you have a substantially similar license and are in good standing in another state, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have a license on day one in New Hampshire,” Sununu said. He also proposed fully removing “34 different outdated licenses from state government, eliminating 14 underutilized regulatory boards, and almost 700 unnecessary statutory provisions.
“The state doesn’t license the contractor who frames your house – but for some reason, we license the person who plants a rosebush in your front yard. Not anymore,” Sununu said.
It was music to the ears of the folks at AFP-New Hampshire, a longtime advocate of licensing reform.
“We applaud Gov. Sununu for breaking barriers to employment in the Granite State,” said AFP-NH’s Ross Connolly. “New Hampshire is suffering from a labor shortage and this policy is a commonsense step to take to relieve that burden from employers.”
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R-Auburn), who has had a rocky relationship with Sununu in the past, was also pleased.
“Universal license recognition is a game-changer for businesses looking to attract top talent to our state. The notion that someone loses the ability to practice their vocation after crossing state lines is absurd, and it’s time for our laws to reflect that. With this new plan, new residents will no longer face the hurdles that once kept them from getting back to work,” Osborne said.
But union groups were just as happy about Sununu’s announcement that “an agreement between state and union representatives for an across-the-board 10 percent pay increase for our state workforce – the single largest increase in state worker salaries in nearly 50 years – followed by another 2 percent raise next year.”
“Governor Sununu’s Budget a Win for New Hampshire’s Workforce,” tweeted SEA/SEIU Local 1984.
“We are looking forward to supporting the historic and meaningful raise for state employees in Governor Sununu’s budget every step of the way,” said union President Rich Gulla.
When NHJournal noted the rare praise from the labor union for the Republican governor, SEIU political director Cullen Tiernan replied, “Credit where credit is due.”
Sununu delivered his remarks with his trademark optimism and can-do spirit. “Our citizens demand excellence, accountability, and transparency — and that’s what we are going to deliver for them with this budget,” Sununu pledged.
The question for national political observers is how the politics of centrist bipartisanship will play in a Republican presidential primary. Sununu supporters say he help himself by delivering a competent, conservative budget. And political strategist Tom Rath says Sununu is right to keep his political powder dry.
“What he is doing is trying to create a frame within which he wants to be judged. To that end, today helped,” Rath said. “He has something he can point to that shows how he governs. He did what he needed to do today.”
Not everyone agrees.
“Maybe double-digit pay hikes for state workers and lots of big spending on schools isn’t the best strategy to get conservatives to stop calling you a ‘RINO squish,'” one pro-Sununu Republican told NHJournal. “If he is running for president, how did this help?”