Three Republican councilors change votes, support $22.5 million for vaccine efforts

By: - November 10, 2021 2:46 pm
Door with words reading "Executive Council Office"

A public hearing on the proposed maps – including for the Executive Council – is scheduled for Jan. 10. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Three of the Executive Council’s Republicans who helped defeat $27 million in federal contracts for vaccine distribution last month – a move condemned by Gov. Chris Sununu and health care providers – reversed course Wednesday.

Councilors Joe Kenney, Janet Stevens, and David Wheeler joined Councilor Cinde Warmingon, the council’s lone Democrat and only member to support the contracts from the start, to approve $22.5 million of that spending. Republican Councilor Ted Gatsas abstained without saying why prior to the vote. Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette has found alternative federal funds for the remaining $4.7 million.

The $22.5 million contract was introduced as a late item and not on the agenda or the Executive Council’s website prior to the meeting. 

The Republicans’ reversal appeared to hinge on a last-minute nonbinding resolution from Kenney that stated the Governor and Executive Council supports the attorney general’s legal challenges to federal vaccine mandates and endorses efforts to make the state’s vaccine registry opt-in, not opt-out, as it is now. The resolution, which has no legal authority, also cited the attorney general’s conclusion that language within the contract does not bind the state to enforce all federal COVID-19 orders, contrary to arguments from vaccine and mandate opponents. 

“The Governor and Executive Council (has) determined it is necessary to make a clear statement as to important issues relating to federal mandates that involve isolation and quarantine enforcement, immunization registry, and the maintenance of the state’s workforce,” Kenney’s resolution said. 

Warmington, who first saw Kenney’s resolution minutes before the meeting, objected. “I am going to vote for this late item despite my vigorous objections based on the fact that … it is a meaningless legal document that is here for political cover only,” she said. “I would put public health before politics every single time.”

Absent from Wednesday’s meeting were the dozens of anti-vaccine and anti-mandate activists who shut down a September council meeting with protests, preventing a vote on the contracts, and packed an October meeting to pressure councilors to reject the contracts. When the contracts failed at last month’s meeting, they cheered.

Rebuild NH, which has led the effort to oppose the contracts, was unaware the council was revisiting the contracts. 

“New Hampshire government is no longer setting a good example for transparency,” said J.R. Hoell, treasurer of Rebuild NH. “A late item to the Executive Council agenda that was never made public before it was voted on was passed today. This happened without citizens being made aware the item was even going to be on the agenda. This is deceitful. We can do better.” 

Sununu issued a statement following Wednesday’s vote. “Thanks to a bipartisan majority of the Executive Council for working with my administration to revisit and craft a solution to accept these critical public health federal funds,” he said. “We are moving full steam ahead.”

The $22.5 million contract still needs approval of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. That’s not a guarantee; that committee tabled the contract at its September meeting after members cited objections to federal vaccine mandates and one cited unfounded claims about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Shibinette later withdrew the contract, meaning she will have to bring it back before the council. 

Shibinette has said losing the $27 million in federal funding would mean delays for adults seeking booster shots and parents eager to vaccinate their children who were not eligible until this month. 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]