As budget season approaches, rift between Sununu and House Republicans grows
Lawmakers gather for Organization Day in the State House on Dec. 7. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)
A year after resigning amid controversy, Rep. Ken Weyler is back at the helm of the House Finance Committee, the House Speaker’s Office announced this week. But not everyone in the State House is pleased about it.
“It’s a terrible move,” said Gov. Chris Sununu, calling the decision “tone deaf” on the “New Hampshire Today” morning radio show Wednesday. “… We drove him off the committee a year ago. And I’m kind of curious as to what nonsense could come out of Ken Weyler’s mouth next.”
Sununu and Weyler are both Republicans, and the governor’s harsh comments against a member of his own party were unusual.
Weyler stepped down from his role as House Finance chairman in October 2021 after sharing a document that contained misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines, and after Sununu joined Democrats in calling for his removal as committee chairman.
But the spat also underscores growing frustration between the governor’s office and House Republicans, which flared over COVID-19 policies in recent years and could complicate legislation next year amid a near-evenly divided House.
In an interview from his home in Kingston Wednesday, Weyler showed little interest in burying the hatchet.
“He is an unreasonable egotist,” Weyler said of Sununu. “Everything has to be his way. But it does not reflect well upon him when he attacks the people he’s supposed to be working with who are members of his same party, and have been members of his party before he ever became a member.”
Weyler argued he was forced to step down in 2021 because of “the Democratic smear machine,” and said he stands by his opposition to vaccines. “I was badly maligned by the governor and the other sleazebags from the Democrat Party,” he said.
And Weyler denounced what he said was a years-long effort by Sununu to ignore Republican lawmakers and shun him personally.
“He’s called us all idiots,” he said. “He obviously thinks he is superior to the Legislature. He doesn’t realize that we have a leading role, especially in the budget. He doesn’t admit it.”
The bitter back and forth comes ahead of the next budget cycle, in which the governor will need to work toward a compromise with the Legislature. Sununu will present his proposed budget in February and pass it to the House to modify it. As head of the House Finance Committee, Weyler will lead that process.
A reversal of fortune
Weyler stepped down from the House Finance chairmanship a year ago after a tumultuous week. In early October, he emailed a document to fellow committee members that made a number of false allegations against vaccines. The document contained conspiracy theories, including that the COVID-19 vaccines contained tiny tentacled creatures; that vaccinated parents gave birth to babies with “pitch black” eyes; and that the Roman Catholic Church was led by “satanists” and “luciferans” who were pushing the vaccines.
Weyler shared the document as the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee – which he also chaired – was considering whether to approve $27 million in contracts for vaccination outreach that were requested by Sununu’s Department of Health and Human Services.
After Democrats made Weyler’s email public, Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard initially resisted calls for Weyler’s resignation, arguing that “it is not uncommon” for committee chairpeople “to share constituent information with committee members.” Weyler later disavowed the outlandish claims regarding tentacles and children, saying he shared the document for its other claims about the risks of vaccines.
But after pressure and national headlines, Packard announced days later that Weyler would resign as chairman, saying Weyler had “compromised” his ability to lead “both now and moving forward.”
“Considering the recent controversy surrounding an email that I sent, and the side circus this has created, I wish to remove myself as chairman so as not to further distract from the true issue at hand,” Weyler said in a letter declaring his resignation.
The resignation as chairman appeared to be a fall from grace for Weyler, a longtime House representative who helmed the House Finance Committee in 2011 under Speaker Bill O’Brien and made his name by crafting a budget that slashed spending by 10 percent during the Great Recession.
But today, Weyler says he resigned only because of a coordinated campaign against him, led by Democrats and Sununu. He resigned only after Packard told him that the Speaker’s Office phone lines were being flooded with complaints, he said.
Moving forward, Weyler says he is sticking to his opposition to COVID-19 vaccines. And he said as chairman of the Fiscal Committee, he will continue to oppose state programs or contacts that promote vaccines.
Democrats condemned the decision to restore Weyler to his position, pointing to the document he shared.
But in a statement Thursday afternoon, Packard said Weyler was reinstated due to his experience crafting budgets.
“We have moved on from Representative Weyler’s missteps last year, for which he admitted fault, and paid a price for that,” Packard said.
He added: “We need knowledgeable people, who have put in the work needed to keep committees running on time and to ensure House deadlines are met. His vast experience in the state budget process will be of great value to the House this coming term, and New Hampshire citizens will be the better for it.”
To Weyler, Sununu’s public comments denouncing his return were not surprising. The two have grown increasingly frustrated with each other, a dynamic that first emerged during the 2021 budget cycle, Weyler said.
“We once worked together,” Weyler said. “I once, when he was an executive councilor, said to him, ‘You oughta run for governor.’ And I supported him and put out his signs.”
The relationship soured in March 2021, when the House was crafting the two-year budget. Sununu had released a proposed budget that contained a voluntary paid family leave program. The House, with Weyler as Finance chairman, passed a budget that stripped out that program.
And the House had added in an early version of “divisive concepts” legislation that banned teachers from advocating for certain topics, something Sununu initially opposed.
That month, Sununu lashed out at House Republicans, arguing that their budget process had “gone off the rails” and blasting the final product as “not fiscally balanced.” Weyler pushed back, arguing that the items added to the budget had been necessary to obtain the full support of the Republican caucus.
Weyler says he was shunned after speaking up.
“Subsequent to me standing up to him on the budget, he wouldn’t give me the time of day,” Weyler said of Sununu. “If I called him up, he wasn’t available. If I went to his office and said ‘I’d like to talk to the governor for two minutes,’ he wasn’t available. He doesn’t like anybody standing up to him.”
And he argues the governor’s behavior toward him is part of an overall attitude toward the House.
“He doesn’t realize that we are a separate branch. I don’t work for him. I work for the people. But he treats all of the Legislature, all the legislative members, as if we are beneath him,” Weyler said.
The tension extends beyond Weyler; Republican House Majority Leader Jason Osborne has voiced his own criticisms. “I’ll even work with someone who stabbed me in the back and vetoed my bills,” he told the New Hampshire Journal Wednesday, referring to Sununu.
The remarks reflect hardening views between the House and the corner office: Some House Republicans view Sununu as uncooperative, while Sununu views some House Republicans as overly extreme and a bad representation of the Republican Party.
“Are you really that shocked that the House of Representatives is doing something kind of wacky and unexplainable?” he said Wednesday. “Maybe I’m more jaded in my fourth term here, but I’ve seen a lot.”
He added: “We don’t want extremists. We don’t want to put people like that into leadership.”
To Greg Moore, who served as Republican House chief of staff when Weyler wrote the 2011 budget, the governor’s criticisms of the House are driven in part by a desire for decorum from legislators, something he says House representatives do not historically excel at.
And Weyler’s frustration stems from his role in crafting two of the most conservative budgets in recent history – in 2011 and 2021 – and desiring more appreciation from the Republican governor, argued Moore, who now serves as state director for Americans for Prosperity. That experience in the House is going to be handy, Moore says: Due to departures after the last election, none of the Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee next year have any prior experience on that committee.
“He has the hides on the wall – he has the trophies to show for his work,” Moore said of Weyler. “And I think that he feels that he should be due some respect for that.”
But with the 201-198 divided House, both branches are going to need to find ways to set aside disagreements and craft a budget that has enough Republican priorities to bring the House Republican caucus on board, Moore argued.
Weyler, for his part, says he will consult with moderate Democrats and try to peel away stray votes to pass the House budget. In a statement Thursday, House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm said Democrats will not support a budget that has conservative policy items they oppose.
“Two years ago, Gov. Sununu and Republicans used the state budget process as a backdoor battleground for partisan policy issues that had little public support,” Wilhelm said. “… That is an unacceptable way to enact new laws in New Hampshire, and House Democrats will fight any attempts to misuse the budget process to advance an ideological policy agenda.”
Sununu argued Wednesday he will work with the Legislature despite his disagreements with Weyler. And Weyler did point to one piece of common ground with the governor.
“We’re both MIT grads,” he said. “… So I have respect for him for that.”
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