Gov. Sununu and local officials on infrastructure fund

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier speaks while local officials join Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday to press for legislative passage of the governor’s Infrastructure Revitalization Fund.

CONCORD — Municipal officials from across the state surrounded Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday and showered him with praise for recommending millions of dollars in state surplus for local projects through what he’s calling the Governor’s Capital Infrastructure Revitalization Fund.

Democrats, however, are putting that infrastructure fund on hold so that each project can be considered individually as part of the traditional state budgeting process.

“We removed all the sections of the infrastructure fund and we’re working on what we’ll add back,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, chair of the powerful House Finance Committee.

Certain items are likely to be revived, such as the $26 million allocation for construction of a 60-bed forensic psychiatric hospital that is needed to close the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the state prison. But the fate of other items on the $168 million wish list for fiscal years 2019, 2020 and 2021 is uncertain.

Against that backdrop, Sununu’s media event seemed targeted directly at Democratic lawmakers who control the House and Senate.

“We’re nervous that these projects could be taken out, and we want to make sure people understand this is a big part of the budget and we want to make sure we help cities and towns advance the work they’ve done,” Sununu said as he prepared to introduce the mayors of Berlin, Lebanon and Claremont, among others.

Also on hand were representatives of the university and community college systems, which are also in line for significant one-time funding.

“This isn’t pork barrel. These are real needs,” said Sununu.

He has stressed repeatedly that the large state budget surplus has created a one-time opportunity to fund much needed projects while not adding to the state’s ongoing expenses.

So rather than use the money to increase Medicaid rates or hire more social workers, which would commit the state to additional spending for years to come, Sununu chooses to “spend one-time money on one-time projects.”

Those projects include $9 million for state and local dam repair, $8 million to the community college system for industry partnerships and IT investments to improve online learning options, and $9 million to UNH to add various high-demand programs in health care.

Keene State University is in line for $9 million and Plymouth State $6 million.

Municipal projects include a $1.5 million parking garage project in Laconia, $570,000 for demolition of old state-owned buildings in Lebanon, $300,000 to Berlin for improvements to a main thoroughfare, and $120,000 to Claremont for sidewalk and drainage work, to name a few.

There were no public hearings, committees or formal review processes to arrive at these decisions, just the governor travelling around the state, asking for ideas and putting them in his budget.

“As the governor traveled the state, stakeholders approached him with funding requests to help revitalize their local communities, and this list of projects reflects that,” said Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt.

“Local stakeholders from across New Hampshire traveled to Concord today to advocate directly on behalf of projects in their local communities. It is Gov. Sununu’s hope that members of the Legislature hear this overwhelming support for these community-driven projects and include them all in their budget negotiations.”

It’s not likely to go that smoothly.

“I think it’s the most politicized budget proposal a governor has ever produced,” said Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord.

“Political pet projects are not real property tax relief to hard-working Granite State families and small businesses throughout all our communities.”

Feltes commended Wallner for her “reasonable and thoughtful approach” in subjecting the proposals to public review.

“Her approach will allow each project to stand on its own merits one way or another,” he said. “The governor should be more concerned about child safety than pet projects to the politically well-connected. It’s an end-run around the capital budget process.”