Sununu’s Legacy of Liberty and Reform

By Charlie Arlinghaus

November 2011
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

In many ways, most of what those of us on the right are trying to achieve today is just recycling the efforts of John Sununu from thirty years ago. It is fitting that he is being honored next week as an example of the kind of public service that focuses not on winning the right office but on achieving the right policy.

Next week, my organization, the Josiah Bartlett Center, will honor former Governor Sununu with our Libertas Award. Named after the Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas is meant to serve as shorthand for a dedication to individual and economic freedom in preference to the heavy hand of the state. It is the word Jefferson used when he wrote to Madison that he preferred to the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.

Those of us with a belief in economic freedom and limited government are honoring Governor Sununu not because of an election or a title but because of what he did with those titles and those offices. His experience is a model for those who would be governor and his actions a useful roadmap for the next few years.

Sununu came to New Hampshire not by accident but as an entrepreneur with a startup business. He reached the conclusion that so many entrepreneurs in the high tech field do: New Hampshire has a more favorable business climate than their home state. Sununu experienced first hand the economic advantages of New Hampshire and tried throughout his career to preserve them up to and including last year’s fight against the LLC tax that would have reversed the flow of jobs.

He took office in 1983 during a fiscal crisis remarkably similar to the one face today. He first balanced a budget that was in crisis. Stopping the bleeding was critical before moving to adopt pro-growth policies.

Once the bleeding was stopped, the budget balanced, and the deficit paid off, Sununu focused on adopting pro-growth policies to send a signal to job creators that the jobs they would create coming out of a recession should be in New Hampshire. He made significant cuts the Business Profits Tax, the clearest sign to businesses that we wanted them here. That focus on pro-growth tax cuts is echoed in the legislative debates about how to attract jobs coming out of the most recent recession.

During the boom that followed, Sununu focused on modernization and infrastructure. Rather than build up a bureaucracy, he focused any windfall from the business and population boom on rebuilding the state’s dilapidated infrastructure – one-time spending rather than an inexorable boom in the scope of government.

Three reforms stand out. Sununu brought the state into the modern world with computerized management and a landmark integrated financial system, all leading Time magazine to write a national story on how “a computer buff is transforming New Hampshire.”

Today, we regard the internet as a revolutionary tool for making government transparent, open, and accountable. The transparency movement seems to be a recent thing but Sununu was touting the details of government as a key to efficiency more than 20 years before we even conceived of the idea of an NH OpenGov website. He channeled all spending and revenue information into the state’s computer down to “the lowest source to get intimate, unbiased data.” The need for computerized information is the obvious forefather of our current work putting every transaction of state government in a public internet database.

The level of detail available made New Hampshire a leader in privatization before that concept was commonplace. Some government functions were done more efficiently on the outside so they were contracted out. For example, psychiatric services were performed not by state employees but by professionals from Dartmouth providing better service more efficiently.

One of the most lasting reforms was one we talk about today – the ten year highway plan. Bridges and highways don’t suddenly fail, they are or ought to be managed over time. Rather than manage the major infrastructure projects of the state on a piecemeal basis like many states did, Sununu issued an executive order requiring the state to adopt a ten year plan to systematically order this long-term spending.

Perhaps the best example of the Sununu focus on policy not just election is the state’s pension system. When he left office, the state’s retirement system was fully funded and had paid off previous liabilities. That’s not the case today.

Although focused last year on elections as party chairman, Governor Sununu and I talked regularly about the state’s current unfunded liabilities and finding the right solution to them. The pensions would never be an issue in the election but they impacted the long term health of the state and so he was focused out of the public eye on the right policy.

A good lesson for would be policymakers: often things that aren’t about getting elected are still the right thing to do.