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Democrats, Sununu spar over help for federal workers

January 25, 2019

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Democrats urged Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to take immediate action Friday to help workers affected by the government shutdown, but the governor said the state already is providing some of the aid they demanded.

The exchange came several hours before President Donald Trump agreed Friday to fund the government through Feb. 15 while negotiations continue on his demand for a wall at the border with Mexico.

Senate President Donna Soucy and House Speaker Steve Shurtleff said that while they had explored emergency legislation, that would take several weeks.

“Gov. Sununu has the authority to act today to help Granite Staters suffering the most during this government shutdown,” said Soucy, D-Manchester.

Democrats urged Sununu to take several steps, including allowing roughly 1,600 people who are working without pay to collect unemployment benefits from the state. Multiple states already are doing that, despite warnings from the federal Department of Labor that only workers who have been sent home are eligible for such pay.

Soucy called that a “cruel threat” that defies the longstanding purpose of unemployment insurance, and urged Sununu to push back against the federal agency even after the announcement of the short-term deal to reopen the government.

Sununu, however, countered that immediately issuing unemployment benefits would require congressional approval and said instead of holding “politically charged press conferences,” Democrats should work with the state’s Democratic delegation to get a waiver.

“While Democratic leaders in New Hampshire appear to have just woken up to this months-long situation, Governor Sununu’s administration has been working nonstop since December to mitigate the effects of the shutdown on New Hampshire families,” his office said in a statement. “Solutions that may sound easy could come with dire long-term financial consequences for state programs.”

Democrats also called on the governor to direct the state Department of Health and Human Services to use reserve funds to ensure that participants in federal food stamps, school lunch and other programs continue to receive benefits and to provide heating assistance to any of the 2,400 federal workers who need it. Sununu’s office said that food stamps, school lunch and other critical federally funded programs have been protected through February, and that the state already is providing heating assistance to eligible federal employees.

Speaking to reporters this week, Sununu was blunt in blaming Congress for the 35-day shutdown, saying the House and Senate should do their job.

“If not, fire them all,” he said. “It’s just shameful the fact that they won’t bring things forward; they won’t even discuss certain things.”

Democrats declined to say whether they were frustrated with Congress and instead tried to keep the focus local.

“I think it’s the equivalent of throwing a pebble in a pond. We’re all looking at that big splash inside the Beltway in D.C., and what’s happening between the White House and Capitol Hill, but we’re sometimes missing the ripple effect as it affects our federal employees in the state of New Hampshire,” said Shurtleff, D-Concord.

Democrats were joined by Sandy Smith, who has been working for the Transportation Security Administration at the Manchester airport without pay. She said she is struggling with paying her mortgage, heating her home and dealing with an unexpected car repair bill.

“So this is pretty tough for employees who are working and not getting paid. We all feel that it’s very difficult,” she said. “All of us.”

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