Gov. Chris Sununu, giving a press conference regarding COVID-19 on Wednesday, was livid that the Executive Council turned down a $27 million grant from the federal government (PAULA TRACY PHOTO)

CONCORD — At a heavily attended meeting that saw the arrest of eight anti-vax mandate protesters, the Executive Council voted 4-1 to reject two controversial federal contracts to build out the state’s vaccine program and get more people vaccinated against COVID-19 through regional health networks. It makes New Hampshire the only state in the nation to reject such funding.

The lone vote in support of the contracts, which totaled $27 million, was Executive Councilors Cinde Warmington (D-Concord) who said by not supporting the money, the state would be turning its back on those who want to get the vaccine.

Republicans Janet Stevens of Rye, Ted Gatsas of Manchester, David Wheeler of Milford and Joe Kenney of Wakefield all voted to oppose the contracts. The crowd shouted: “We won” and “thank you.”

The matter now goes to the legislative Fiscal Committee for a vote Friday.

Warmington said that turning down the contracts would deny access to people who want to be vaccinated and delay the state’s efforts and its businesses to get back to normal from the pandemic. She stressed it would not require anyone to get a vaccine.

Gov. Chris Sununu agreed with her and supported the contracts, which had been tabled a month ago and stayed on the table after protesters disrupted a previous meeting.

Wheeler said accepting the money would allow the federal government to access personal data rather than an opt-in provision. When asked by Wheeler, the governor said he could look to discuss in the future with the Legislature an opt-in rather than an opt-out vaccine registry.

Gatsas said earlier in the meeting the council approved $13 million more for a mobile vaccine van for COVID-19 and that this would just be adding another $27 million. He said that new money is not necessary.

Kenney said there is something about this particular vaccine that concerns people and most want to be able to conduct their lives in the way they want to. “They look at New Hampshire, one of thirteen original colonies the Live Free or Die state. I still have reservations about the overarching authority of government on New Hampshire,” Kenney said, despite the attorney general’s opinion that the language would not impinge on that sovereignty.

Sununu asked, of the billions in dollars the state has taken from the federal government for COVID-19 has the state ever capitulated?

“No?” Kenney.

“Never. We have never done it. We will never do it. To say there is some precedence here is totally false,” Sununu said.

Kenney said he was concerned about restrictions on employees losing their jobs but Sununu said the state government is not doing that.

“Hospital employees are not ‘our’ employees,” referring to state employees who are not being required to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. Private businesses have that right to make that condition, he said but New Hampshire is not doing that.

Warmington said this funding has nothing to do with that. “You are taking away vaccinations from the people who want it,” she said. “Most have chosen to be vaccinated.”

Warmington said Kenney was “listening to a very small misinformed minority,” and that if he wanted to get back to a booming economy in his district he should support the contracts.

Stevens said language within the terms or conditions is not fully supported by all council members and the state could do without the money.

Following the vote, Sununu released the following statement:

“The people of New Hampshire know I call the balls and strikes as I see them, and today’s vote by members of my own party on the Executive Council was a total disservice to the constituents we serve.

“The Attorney General and Department of Health and Human Services addressed all of the Councilors’ concerns, and still they voted to send $27 million of our taxpayer dollars back to Washington instead of spending it here to help get our state out of this pandemic. The vote showed a reckless disregard for the lives we are losing while they turn away the tools our state needs to fight and win this battle against COVID,” Sununu said.

Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) said, “There was absolutely no logical reason to reject these funds. Rather than listening to the Attorney General and the Governor, the Republican members of the Executive Council instead chose to listen to the same reckless protestors who shut down their last meeting and threatened the safety of our state employees. I am extremely disappointed that Gov. Sununu made no effort prior to today’s meeting to dispel the misinformation that has rooted itself within his party and that New Hampshire’s vaccination and recovery efforts are once again delayed in the name of fantastical extremism.”

House Democratic Leader Rep. Renny Cushing (D-Hampton) said: “Once again, Republicans have let extremist anti-vaxxers prevent the government from doing its job. ... By rejecting tax dollars that Granite Staters already paid to the federal government, Republicans are allowing the people of New Hampshire to subsidize vaccination efforts in other states.”

At a 3 p.m. press conference, Sununu said the nine people arrested after being disruptive at the Executive Council meeting earlier Wednesday showed the line of civility has moved in the state as people debate vaccine mandates and federal funding to help with COVID-19 vaccinations.

“The line for appropriate behavior has been crossed,” Sununu said. “From a personal level, it is very discouraging.”

According to Sununu, the impact of a group of “unruly” protesters is there will be much more pressure being put on the state’s health care system to respond to COVID-19 now that the Republicans on the Executive Council voted down $27 million in federal funds. “It’s a domino effect and a chain reaction,” he said, “and it will have a significant impact on the state’s response.”

He noted that it makes New Hampshire the only state to reject those funds, and he said he was disappointed with his fellow Republicans who voted to reject the funds.

He said the state has accepted billions with similar language — which opponents claimed would challenge state sovereignty — and future contracts will contain similar language, which concerns him. “Our state (COVID-19) response really depends on this money,” Sununu said, adding that the 4-1 partisan vote “is a disservice of all who we are elected to serve.”

He said Republican councilors “sent our tax dollars back” due to “conspiracy theories” and “mass false information” by those who opposed the contracts.

Even without the $27 million, anyone can still get vaccinated for free, he said, but it does reduce the avenues and ease of access which he said has been part of the state’s success.

Approximately 71 percent of New Hampshire’s population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and about 61 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

Sununu said he and his staff will look at other funding avenues for this and that “we can usually find a way to get something done.”

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