FREE-MARKET conservatives in New Hampshire had good reason to be optimistic about their chances to pass right-to-work legislation in 2021.

Following the 2020 elections, the Republicans were back in charge, Gov. Chris Sununu (a philosophical supporter of the cause) was back after a blowout reelection win, and the right-of-center bloc was clearly holding court in the House of Representatives, where this bill traditionally has gone to die.

Kevin Landrigan Dome

But Thursday still brought that familiar refrain, with right to work going down to defeat thanks to a small band of House GOP veterans and newcomers who refused to budge.

The key vote was on whether to pass the bill as it cleared the state Senate, and that failed, 199-175.

Roll call records revealed that 21 GOP House members strayed from the majority to oppose the bill.

House Democrats were against right to work, 178-1. Only Rep. Catt Sandler, D-Somersworth, supported it.

Both parties often deploy at least one member to vote the “wrong” way the first time around, so that person can then move to reconsider the question.

Right-to-work foes in the House GOP caucus included several longtime members, including 18-term Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston; 19-term Rep. Betsy McKinney, R-Londonderry; 18-term Rep. Phyllis Katsiakores, R-Derry; nine-term Rep. Gary Hopper, R-Weare; and 10-term Rep. Robert Theberge, R-Berlin.

Among the new House members to vote no was Rep. Paul Ayer, R-Raymond, who worked for a decade at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

New math for vaccines

A month ago, the number of vaccinated people in New Hampshire reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control was dramatically higher than the state’s own estimates.

A major reason for this discrepancy was double-reporting of numbers by CVS and Walgreens, the two pharmacy chains that carried out vaccine delivery in long-term care settings.

Dr. Beth Daly, director of the state’s infectious disease control bureau, said the pharmacies supplied the vaccine numbers to the state and then separately gave them to the CDC, which ended up inflating the state’s total.

“We reached out to the folks at CDC and resolved that problem,” Daly said.

Gov. Chris Sununu said the anomaly didn’t surprise him.

“Our numbers and the CDC numbers have never lined up exactly since this pandemic began,” Sununu said. “I’ve told my team, keep your heads down, make sure our numbers are right, because that’s what we can control.”

The state recently published on its dashboard an age breakdown on vaccinations.

Daly said about 30% of those in the 16-to-29 age group have been vaccinated while 90% of those over 60 have gotten a shot.

“We expected to see this spread since we’ve been vaccinating the older cohort for months while those under 18 were only eligible to get vaccinated in April and the process for those over 12 years old just started in May,” Daly said.

House can’t nix vax rules

The leadership team of House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, has had a pretty good record of winning floor fights this year.

But along with right to work, another notable exception last week was a controversial move to prevent all public and private employers from requiring their employees to be vaccinated.

State Rep. Terry Roy, R-Deerfield, had proposed the ban, from which health care providers would have been exempted.

“The bottom line is our citizens are asking for this protection. They are begging for it,” Roy said during the House debate on the amendment (SB 155).

“This isn’t about medicine. This is about freedom.”

Rep. William Marsh, R-Wolfeboro, led the floor fight against the proposal, noting that Sununu’s Economic Reopening Task Force always allowed firms to impose restrictions that went beyond state recommendations.

“We felt each private business knew their business better than we did, so why would we interfere in the right of businesses to protect themselves and their employees,” Marsh said.

Opponents also objected that the plan would apply not only to COVID-19, which remains experimental, but to all vaccines.

The House rejected Roy’s amendment, 193-182, with 18 Republicans joining Democrats in opposition to it.

Foes included House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead, and House Election Laws Committee Chairwoman Barbara Griffin, R-Goffstown.

Reading the tea leaves, House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee Chairman Will Infantine, R-Manchester, decided to bail on a similar-but-less-comprehensive change (SB 123) his panel had endorsed.

This idea would have prevented any business from making proof of vaccination for COVID-19 a condition of employment.

Infantine asked — and the House agreed — to table that bill, effectively killing it for 2021.

Sununu campaign surplus

If Sununu does run for the Senate, he’s going to have to find some uses for a healthy surplus from his 2020 campaign.

Much of what Sununu takes in for his gubernatorial campaign account cannot be transferred into a U.S. Senate campaign.

After the election, Sununu had $369,313 in the bank. Over the past month, he has spent nearly half of that, $189,701, much of it on payments to campaign staffers and vendors.

As of June 1, his campaign had $206,870 in the bank.

Since November, he has raised only $26,707, not a robust number for someone who planned to seek a fourth team in 2022.

His most recent donors include McDonald’s ($5,000), golf course owner David Friel of Hudson ($1,000) and Eversource Transmission President William Quinlan ($1,000 along with $1,000 from the Eversource PAC).

Other post-election campaign expenses have included $16,183 spent on six flights on Delta and American Airlines and $13,522 in reimbursement to Sununu for expenses he paid out of pocket.

State revenues pour in

May typically is not a significant month for state revenue, but state tax returns continue to define a strong economic recovery from the pandemic.

How strong? The best sign was in receipts from the state’s tax on hotel rooms and restaurant meals.

This hospitality-based tax had been more than 20% off target since the pandemic began.

But for the first time since March 2020, the tax essentially delivered, with $27 million coming in when $27.7 million had been expected.

Meanwhile, the state’s business taxes continue to make up most of an ever-growing revenue surplus.

With one month left in the state budget year, revenues are up $243 million — 10.3% over the forecast.

State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said the current estimate is the budget year will end with a surplus of $270 million.

He charged that money was being “spent” to support tax cuts contained in the two-year state budget plan the Senate passed Thursday night.

“It’s Robin Hood in reverse. We are taking money that could be spent to help the most vulnerable in our state and spending it on tax cuts for wealthy investors and multi-national corporations,” D’Allesandro said.

Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said the budget spends a good part of that surplus on property tax relief, including a $100 million cut in the statewide property tax in 2023 and a $50 million increase in revenue-sharing with cities and towns out of the Room and Meals Tax.

“Republicans believe the most responsible budgets are built on reliable revenues, lower taxes and fiscal discipline, which is exactly how we built this one,” Morse said.

“Our goal is always to be the very best stewards of our taxpayers’ money as possible, and this new budget strongly reflects that governing philosophy.”

Recount fees may be hiked

Now that the much-watched forensic audit of the election in Windham has wrapped up, we turn our attention to the momentum that’s building for legislation to raise the cost of those recounts.

The House and Senate have passed slightly different versions of an omnibus election bill (SB 83) that raises these fees.

Presently, there is no cost for a recount if the difference is less than 1% of the vote.

This bill would lower the no-fee recount to those in which the winner prevails by no more than one-quarter of 1%.

Any statewide office loser would have to pay $1,000 for a recount if the spread is up to 1%; $2,000 if the loss is by 1-2% and $4,000 if it’s 2-3%.

Those who lose by more than 3% would have to cover the full cost of the recount.

New terms for managers

Sununu nominated a key member of his COVID-19 response team, Business and Economic Affairs Commissioner Taylor Caswell of Hollis, to another four-year term. His salary was roughly $135,000.

Another seasoned state agency official nominated before the Executive Council last week was Administrative Services Assistant Commissioner Joe Bouchard, who earned $131,000.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette gave the nod for Sununu to nominate people for two vacant associate commissioner posts directly underneath her.

One is Christine Santaniello, who would be promoted from director of economic housing stability, and the other is Morissa Henn, a community health director for a hospital consortium in the Salt Lake City area. Both would be paid $125,000 a year.

Senator owes Speaker

Memo to Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua:

House Speaker Packard saved your bacon Friday.

The speaker cast an unusual vote from the rostrum, creating a 186-186 tie and killing a move to table an Avard bill (SB 52) addressing a Supreme Court decision that killed Nashua’s spending cap by ruling its grandfather clause was invalid.

This bill contains a grandfather clause, which would preserve all caps adopted by other cities before June 5, 2011.

A short time later, the House passed the bill, 195-177. In the coming weeks it will go to the governor’s desk for his review.

Kevin Landrigan is the State House bureau chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at klandrigan@unionleader.com.