The first public comment session was so well-attended that it busted the online portal, sending state officials scurrying to move all the calls to a backup line.
Positive COVID-19 cases are spiking in more than 35 states now, but New Hampshire isn’t one of them.
That explains why last Thursday’s public comment session lasted only 15 minutes, with fewer than five people participating.
The volume of calls on the sessions has dropped steadily for the past few weeks.
With its workload reduced, the task force has completed all its recommendations for Phase 2 of resuming activities.
Final items wrapped up last week included day camps, which still are open only to New Hampshire residents or to out-of-staters who quarantined here first for 14 days.
Representatives of the performing arts industry made a final plea to Sununu and the state’s public health experts.
They want to increase capacity beyond 50% because everyone attending their events already is required to wear a mask.
The task force plans to reduce its schedule from three meetings a week to one session, with the business agenda and any public comment rolled together.
Aide: NH moved fast
D.J. Bettencourt, Sununu’s policy director and staff liaison to the reopening task force, last week posted an update on Facebook addressing some of the attacks by right-wing conservatives that appeared here last month.
“In the current circumstance, our work has been scrutinized by those on the left and right. I never thought I would see the day when the nastiness invective leveled at me would come from conservatives because I was supporting and defending a Republican governor,” Bettencourt wrote. “Alas, we live in unique times; but the facts stand proud and tall.”
He said no state in the Northeast moved as early to return to normal as the Granite State.
“Overall, New Hampshire has opened at a faster pace than any state in the region (MA, VT, ME, RI, CT, NY, and NJ). We were the first in the region to open outdoor dining, retail, personal services, amusement parks, race tracks with spectators, amateur sports, gyms, and indoor movies,” Bettencourt said.
He maintained public health data drove those decisions.
“That said, we weren’t the first in those areas just for the sake of being first. Instead, our numbers show that we have opened in a smart, thoughtful, and safe way that saved both lives and livelihoods,” he wrote.
Bettencourt said there will always be critics.
“Emotions and passions will continue to flow as we move forward. We do have guidance and some limitations in place for businesses to follow, and I still hear people who tell me that ‘none of this makes any sense.’ But in the end, New Hampshire’s good numbers and trends speak for themselves, and significant credit goes to Granite Staters and our business community,” Bettencourt said.
Most on social media responded with praise for the work of Bettencourt and the task force, including Londonderry Town Administrator Kevin Smith.
State Rep. Kevin Verville, R-Deerfield, didn’t share their point of view. “Ignore the oppressive Executive mandates on private businesses…,” he posted.
State layoffs possible
Sununu’s forecast of a $540 million revenue shortfall has many concerned about the prospect of layoffs being needed to close such a gap.
Such a revenue hole has no precedent.
During the great recession of 2008-2009, lawmakers needed to make an $800 million “correction,” but that number represented both lost revenue and increased expenses from the economic downturn.
To fill the hole, then-Democratic Gov. John Lynch and the Legislature made budget cuts that included about 200 layoffs.
Sununu, however, has reason to be hopeful that help from Capitol Hill could be on the way.
The so-called Heroes Act that the Democratic-controlled, U.S. House passed in May would give a staggering, $3.5 billion more to New Hampshire state government, along with $1.5 million in grants to cities and towns.
For example, Manchester would receive $128 million, Nashua would get $85 million, Londonderry would get $13 million and Conway would get $5.1 million.
Republicans controlling the U.S. Senate have yet to get behind sending communities and states “no strings attached” grants that officials can take and use to backfill their budgets.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in April that communities and states might be better off declaring bankruptcy.
President Donald Trump has continued to promote the idea of another COVID-19 relief act.
Last week Trump revealed he had proposed benefits that were “even greater” than what Democratic leaders in Congress were touting.
When it came to spending money to fight COVID-19, Sununu took control, rejecting any suggestion he required legislative permission to make those decisions.
That money was meant to address a pandemic. The governor clearly would be on less sound legal footing if he tried to make cuts to an existing state budget to deal with revenue losses.
Politically speaking, in a reelection year, Sununu also could use some political cover for any tough spending cut decisions that will need to be made if Congress doesn’t come to the rescue.
Fed from NH exits
Late last week, the U.S. Commerce Department confirmed that Rich Ashooh of Bedford was stepping down as assistant secretary of export administration.
Ashooh had been the longest serving, Senate-confirmed appointee in that office besides U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
During his tenure, Ashooh was widely seen as a moderating voice in the Trump administration’s crackdown on exports by Huawei and other Chinese companies.
Ashooh signed a rule last month allowing U.S. companies to share information and technology with Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to develop industry standards, despite its “entity listing,” which restricted U.S. suppliers from doing business with the company.
He also helped General Electric secure permission to continue supplying engines for a new Chinese passenger airplane.
In 2014, Ashooh lost a GOP primary to then-Congressman Frank Guinta.
Ashooh, 56, clearly has a political future back in New Hampshire if he wants one.
NH now 2nd for kids
New Hampshire lost bragging rights to neighboring Massachusetts as the No. 1 state for child well-being, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2020 Kids Count.
“New Hampshire is frequently ranked among the best states in the nation to raise a family, but many children across our state still struggle to access the support they need to thrive,” said Rebecca Woitkowski, Kids Count policy coordinator for New Futures.
“This is true now more than ever as COVID-19 has overwhelmed our communities and threatened the stability of our children and families, especially among people of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by this public health crisis.”
The data is from 2018, the latest year for information from all the states.
New Hampshire slipped in child health from second-best in the 2019 report to sixth in the latest version. The report showed that while the state was fifth in education, 62% of fourth grade students were not proficient in reading.
State election lessons
Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s staff has been hosting Zoom meetings with local officials to hear concerns about upcoming elections and update them on changes made necessary by COVID-19.
Last week they met with city and town clerks and moderators. A similar session is scheduled for Wednesday with the local supervisors of the voter checklists.
Although Sununu clearly plans to veto some of the Legislature’s handiwork in these final, frenzied weeks of the 2020 session, one bill he will sign will make election law changes for this election only.
Those changes include recognizing voters’ concern over COVID-19 as a reason to cast an absentee ballot, as well as allowing voters to make one absentee ballot request for both the primary and general elections.
Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, carried this consensus bill to the finish line, making sure he got buy-in from all Senate Republicans after serving on the six-person, select committee that produced these and other recommendations.
Sununu campaign staffs up
Although the governor has said he has given little thought to campaigning for a third term while he deals with COVID-19, his political organization is gearing up.
Communications Director Benjamin Vihstadt, Deputy Communications Director Brandon Pratt and Senior Adviser Paul Collins are moving to the campaign full-time after the holiday weekend.
In past elections, governors dispatched at least one staffer to the campaign a few months before now.