Jun 29, 2016 12:14 PM
NH1 News Political Director
CONCORD – Once again Executive Councilor Chris Sununu was the swing vote.
New Hampshire’s five-member Executive Council voted Wednesday three to two in favor of restoring state funding for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
Sununu, the Republican from District 3, joined the two Democrats on the council, Colin Van Ostern and Chris Pappas, in voting for the contract, with GOP councilors Joe Kenney and David Wheeler opposing the state funding.
There were protests on both sides outside the State House prior to the meeting and the council chamber was packed with scores of demonstrators supporting and opposing the funding for Planned Parenthood, which is the nation’s largest provider nationwide of women's reproductive health services, including abortions.
At stake was a nearly $550,000 contract for PPNNE that was rejected last summer by the council. Sununu, who had previously voted in favor of the funding in 2014 (it was approved 4-0), was the swing vote last year, joining Kenney and Wheeler in voting against the contract.
PPNNE said that since the state defunding of the program last summer, there’s been a cut back in services but that that the agency’s Manchester, Derry, Exeter, and Keene facilities remain open. The group added that the state funding represented about one-third of the public funds PPNNE uses to subsidize services for people without health insurance.
Van Ostern and Sununu are now both running for governor. On Friday, minutes after word that the Executive Council would vote on Wednesday, Van Ostern put out a statement urging Sununu to vote in favor of the contract. And Van Ostern and Pappas, both abortion rights supporters and strong backers of Planned Parenthood, set up an on-line petition.
Sununu’s three rivals for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, state Sen. Jeanie Forrester and state Rep. Frank Edelblut, all urged Sununu to vote no and criticized him for what they termed flip-flopping on the issue, and for not declaring in advance how we would vote.
Sununu, who supports abortion rights, explained last August that he changed his vote on funding Planned Parenthood because he was waiting for the results of an investigation into undercover video from conservative activists that alleged the sale of fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood officials.
“Most of us saw those videos on-line and the vast majority, it’s disgusting, it’s disturbing, and it’s an absolute point for us again to take that step back,” Sununu told NH1 News at the time.
The videos caused a firestorm and prompted conservative lawmakers in Congress to try and repeal federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The heavily edited videos were later discredited.
Sununu explains vote
In a statement following his vote on Wednesday, Sununu said “last year, I voted against this contract after hearing concerns from my constituents regarding the legality of practices Planned Parenthood had allegedly engaged in. I stand by my principal that this state should not conduct business with groups under any investigation or that are embroiled in serious controversy. As has been widely reported, charges against Planned Parenthood for these alleged practices were dismissed by court order. As this group is no longer under investigation, they should be treated like any other organization that comes before the council.”
“I have always supported women’s health initiatives and will continue to do so,” Sununu added.
Speaking with reporters following the Executive Council session, Sununu said "the investigations at the time were still ongoing. They’ve been debunked."
Asked by NH1 News when he made his decision, Sununu said "in the last couple of days I started mulling over what the repercussions were and again, the constituent concerns were coming in on both sides of this issue, up until this morning, and I took that all into account."
Asked by NH1 News about criticism from rivals for the Corner Office over not announcing his decision until the council meeting, Sununu responded "look, I read contracts. I listen to my constituents. That’s exactly the job that I’m up here to do. Again, those who don’t want to read contracts, and we’ve had issues like that in the council, those who feel like they’re going to put their own emotions and politics first, I don’t believe in that. We have a responsibility in this state. I have a constitutional obligation to uphold. There’s a public trust involved."
"I’m not going to let politics stand between the importance of funds that go to low income women. I’ve been a strong supporter of these types of programs and these types of funds since the day I became an executive councilor and I’m going to maintain my consistency with that support. I listen to my constituents. I have principles. I have a philosophy that I stand by. And I think this money is going to go and help some folks today," he added.
Sununu admitted that his vote "very well cold make the political road more difficult."
But he added that "this is not about politics. Other folks are clearly putting politics first. I won’t do it. It would have been very politically convenient for me to cast a no vote today. That is not why the people of this state elected me as executive councilor. They expect me to uphold the constitution."
Last summer, when he voted no, Sununu decried the lack of other women's reproductive health services providers receiving state funding.
"I think we would all agree, more options are better to have access to the public money. Because my contention has been and still remains that we make it very difficult for folks to do business with the state," Sununu told the council on Wednesday.
"I spoken with a lot of providers, many in my district, again they just believe the way the state does business is too onerous, is too difficult. We have a very bureaucratic, a very difficult process, that really does limit our options," he added.
Later, talking to reporters, Sununu added "I’ve talked to a lot of organizations that would have loved to have partake in these public funds."
"The process actually needs to be streamlined. We have to do it much easier, much simpler. And I’m going to keep working with the commissioner to make sure we provide the process going forward. So we can provide more choice. We can provide better services to the constituents and people of the state regardless of politics, regardless of emotional whims," he added.
GOP rivals slam Sununu’s vote
Edelblut, who was in the audience at the council chamber, in an interview with NH1 News blasted Sununu’s vote.
"I am shocked. And I am somewhat outraged. We need a governor who knows what his principals are," Edelblut said.
And he charged that Sununu "has been basically been playing politics with this thing."
Edleblut argued that the state's Department of Health and Human Services "is already $16 million over their budget. And we just appropriated them another $600,000 which is fiscally irresponsible."
Gatsas put out a statement minutes after the vote, saying “I have consistently opposed public funding for Planned Parenthood and believe that there are many community health organizations that can provide alternate, high quality health care options for women. As governor, I will ensure that Planned Parenthood does not receive tax dollars.”
"By casting the deciding vote to retroactively fund Planned Parenthood while the Department of Health and Human Services faces a $16 million shortfall in the Medicaid Enhancement Tax revenue, Executive Councilor Chris Sununu has betrayed New Hampshire taxpayers and has also turned his back on conservative grassroots activists. Councilor Sununu has clearly demonstrated that he lacks the required knowledge of budgeting and finances required to lead our state,” Gatsas charged.
Forrester wrote that “I am pro-life. I oppose taxpayer funds going to the largest abortion provider in the nation. Chris Sununu is a pro-choice politician, but he ought to respect the taxpayers enough to be a better steward of public resources. Instead, he took the easy political path. He made clear today that his previous vote against funding Planned Parenthood was little more than political posturing. Conservatives cannot trust Chris Sununu. He just doesn’t get it.”
But fellow Republican councilors Kenney and Wheeler, speaking with NH1 News,disagreed that Sununu took "the easy political path." Both suspected that Sununu’s decision could hurt him politically in the September 13 GOP gubernatorial primary.
"Chris is going to vote his conscience. He did what he thought was right. You know obviously I strongly disagree with that conclusion," Wheeler said. "In a Republican primary it certainly hurts him. He has voted against the Republican base."
And Kenney told NH1 News that Sununu's vote will be damaging "in a Republican primary. Our Republican platform is a pro-life platform. So he’s now going to have to answer to a Republican constituency out there why he voted the way he did today."
Van Ostern, who held a brief news conference on the steps of the State House prior the council meeting to urge passage of the PPNNE contract, said in a statement to supporters that “thanks to your public pressure, Chris Sununu flipped once again, just like last summer -- which means now the vote passed 3-2. Funding is restored.”
Later, Van Ostern told NH1 News that "I don’t think that basic family planning services for women hinge on the whim of how a man happens to be feeling any given day in Concord. But I’m glad that this funding is restored."
Pappas, speaking with NH1 News, also praised the vote and said that he had no heads up from Sununu about how the councilor would vote on the contract.
"It’s consistent with how he’s voted in the past. Twice before he voted to approve a contract for Planned Parenthood. I’m hopeful that we can put the fights of the past behind us and get to a point where family planning has bipartisan support at the state house," Pappas said.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who chairs the bi-weekly council meetings, engaged in some back and forth conversations with councilors Kenney and Wheeler over the Planned Parenthood funding.
Hassan, who's running for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte rather than bid for a third term in the Corner Office, said in a statement that “today’s vote is a critically important step forward for the health and economic well-being of thousands of Granite Staters."
“It's troubling that women's access to reproductive health care is still the subject of ideological and political attacks, and we must not let up in our fight to ensure that women and families have access to the important health services that are essential to the economic security and vitality of our families," she added.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Connolly, a former state representative who served nearly a decade as the state’s top financial watchdog, said in a statement that “I’m grateful to the members of the Executive Council who today voted to restore funding to New Hampshire's Planned Parenthood clinics.”
Former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, who’s also running for the Democratic nomination, praised the vote but criticized Sununu for “playing politics.”
"There seems to be a pattern with Chris Sununu: vote for Planned Parenthood funding in election years and vote against funding in non-election years," said Marchand. "Well, women and their families need access to cancer screenings, contraception and other critical health care services every year. The next Governor needs to understand this basic fact."
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