CONCORD — House and Senate budget writers cut $400,000 from litigation funds requested by Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, touching off a harsh exchange between Gov. Chris Sununu and one of his 2020 Democratic opponents.
The two-year state budget gave the AG’s office $350,000 to cover the cost of unanticipated expenses to defend or lodge lawsuits.
Last July, MacDonald’s office received another $562,000 from the Legislative Fiscal Committee.
On Friday, he asked the same panel for another $1.2 million, with $420,000 of that intended to deal with proposed hospital mergers and another $770,000 to deal with other lawsuits through next June 30.
The committee voted along party lines, 7-3, to cut the second request by $400,000.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, and others on the panel said the vote was meant to send a message that lawmakers are unhappy with how much the state has been spending to defend two lawsuits against voter residency laws that Democrats had vigorously opposed.
“The taxpayers should not have their dollars spent paying partisan lawyers to defend partisan litigation,” said Feltes, who has filed to run against Sununu.
The New Hampshire Democratic Party, League of Women Voters and other parties have sued over the two laws (SB 3 and HB 1264), alleging these new voter residency requirements amounted to unconstitutional denial of voting rights.
A Hillsborough County Superior Court judge has taken under advisement one of those lawsuits following a trial that ran for several weeks.
Sununu and state prosecutors said these laws advise voters of their requirements to register a car or get a driver’s license that would bring New Hampshire in line with the 49 other states that equate voting with residency.
In a statement after the meeting, Sununu attacked the committee’s action on the AG’s request.
“Once again, the Democrats in the legislature have chosen to put politics above the safety and well-being of New Hampshire’s citizens,” Sununu said. “For the first time in recent memory, the Department of Justice will not have the necessary funds to prosecute murders and other violent crimes, litigate clean water lawsuits, or comply with the state’s obligations under the community mental health agreement.
“Once again the Democrats must now explain why they are standing in the way of the administration of justice.”
New Hampshire’s 32 homicides in 2019 were the most in decades and substantially more than in 2018, which was the highest number in five years.
Feltes said the committee specifically made sure MacDonald’s office had enough money to deal with the surge in homicides as well as hospital mergers and other pressing business.
“He should be paying more attention to the recent record number of homicides in our state rather than trying to defend voter suppression laws,” Feltes said. “The governor’s statement is way out of line.”
Senate Republican Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said he could not recall this committee ever turning down an AG’s request for money and agreed with Sununu that it’s a bad sign at the onset of the 2020 legislative session.
“By taking this reckless step, the Democrats have undermined the Department of Justice’s ability to perform their constitutional duties,” Morse said.
“With the Democratic presidential primary looming, one has to wonder, have Washington-style politics finally made their way to New Hampshire?”
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, stressed the vote was not meant as a slight to MacDonald.
“I think the world of our attorney general, but we are the stewards of the purse,” D’Allesandro said. “We’ve spent an enormous amount of money defending these lawsuits, and at some point enough is enough and we have to set priorities.”
The requested item to the fiscal committee made a general reference to spending to defend these election lawsuits.
“The department also anticipates incurring expenses relating to discovery, depositions, experts and retention of counsel in the course of defending civil claims against the state,” MacDonald wrote.
In the past three years budget writers have approved $900,000 to defend the two lawsuits. The latest request was for another $497,000.
That’s why the majority on the committee trimmed the request by $400,000.
Democratic legislative leaders have said the lawsuits have required 58 depositions, many of them requested by the state.
The state has on retainer to assist in the defense of these lawsuits a private lawyer who in the past was active in the NH Republican Party and was past special counsel to then-GOP Gov. Craig Benson.
The litigation budget always starts out with a small placeholder amount. State law gives the AG express authority to come to the Fiscal Committee to request more as lawsuit expenses mount.
Fiscal Committee Chairman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, said MacDonald can return to the committee at any time if his budget to defend lawsuits runs out.
“The first thing we did today as a Fiscal Committee for the Department of Justice was ensure they had the funds to prosecute criminal cases and other cases of the utmost importance to Granite Staters,” Wallner said.
“Once that money was put forward, we then voted to cease funding for two cases which put the voting rights of Granite Staters in jeopardy.”
After the meeting, Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, rushed up to MacDonald, who lost a bid last summer to be chief justice of the NH Supreme Court when the three Democrats on the Executive Council opposed Sununu’s nomination.
“I think you need a big hug,” Ober told MacDonald.
Asked when his office could run out of money for these lawsuits, MacDonald said, “We’ll see.” He declined further comment.