By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu announced Tuesday he will set up a committee in his office to oversee the distribution of $1.25 billion in federal relief and stimulus money.
However, legislative leaders believe the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee needs to approve any expenditures and acceptance of federal funds.
Instead, Sununu has proposed legislative leaders comprise a bipartisan advisory committee to make suggestions in how the funds are spent, but the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) would oversee the distribution and determine where the money goes.
Sununu’s plan would also bypass oversight by the Executive Council which approves all state contracts.
Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said Sununu has not talked to the council about the new office, which he learned about in the press.
“There is no consultation or collaboration” Volinsky said Wednesday, “and he is flirting with constitutional violations.”
The $1.25 billion the state is slated to receive later this month as part of the $2.2 trillion federal package is equivalent to half of the $2.6 billion in state general fund revenue raised this fiscal year.
In announcing the office, Sununu said it would be similar to New Hampshire Office of Economic Stimulus created by former Gov. John Lynch, but implied using the fiscal committee process would be too cumbersome when quick action is needed to put the money into the hands of state residents, businesses and governing bodies.
Sununu cites a 2002 law he says gives him the authority to accept the money and distribute it immediately. “That is the way the legislature framed it,” he said. “That is why we have been able to take aggressive action, why we are in better shape than other states.”
He said the fiscal committee meets once a month, is a legislative body with a very different purpose.
The fiscal committee cannot move as rapidly as his office, he said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
“To ask the Fiscal Committee to meet in open session is not possible” Sununu said, “it is not feasible and it is not going to happen.”
The minute a log jam happens, and help is slowed down, he said, he would have to answer to the people of the state.
During Wednesday’s Executive Council meeting, Sununu said he asked legislative leaders for quick action on the money, but they refused to go along.
“I asked to bring the item to draw down
the fund, put on their agenda for this Friday,” Sununu said. “They rejected
that. They don’t want to do that. So. we have to move forward and draw down
this fund quickly.”
But Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, and House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord, objected to Sununu’s characterization.
“The governor’s remarks today do not
accurately reflect the actions taken by the Joint Fiscal Committee,” they said.
“The only thing standing between Granite Staters’ quick access to
these critical coronavirus stimulus funds is Gov. Sununu’s refusal thus far to
resubmit his incorrect request so that Fiscal can add the late item to the
agenda and act on these critical funds in a manner consistent with New
Hampshire state law and our constitution.”
They said the fiscal committee is able and willing to meet as needed to approve federal funds and spending and by law has to approve accepting the federal money and how it is dispersed.
Legislative leaders cite RSA 9:13-d which requires the governor seek “the advice and consent” of the fiscal committee to spend unappropriated funds during a civil emergency.
“We are pleased that the advisory committee you have
outlined would complement an already established legislative process,” Soucy
and Shurtleff wrote to Sununu after he announced the new office. “The swiftest
means of effectively and constitutionally spending federal stimulus funds is
through the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. As you know, the Fiscal
Committee is a bipartisan joint legislative committee which is designed
especially to accept and expend federal funds and plays a crucial role during times
of crisis like this.”
Sununu claims his GOFERR is similar to a commission established by former Gov. John Lynch to oversee and determine what projects would be funded by the federal stimulus package in 2009 after the banking system’s near collapse.
“Unlike the 2009 stimulus investment process that used the budget to ensure legislative input, the urgency and timing of this crisis does not allow for that course of action,” Sununu said in a letter to Soucy and Shurtleff, saying later the situation is changing not only day-to-day but hour-to-hour and he needs flexibility.
The fiscal committee approved spending projects under the 2009 stimulus program.
Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, was the chair of the Fiscal Committee when the last federal stimulus package was distributed through the state.
“We had in place, as we do today, accounting, auditing, and legal systems, peopled by well-trained and experienced professionals who are non-partisan. The Legislative Budget Analyst’s office, and the State Treasurer worked with the New Hampshire Office of Economic Stimulus and every department of state government to efficiently and responsibly deploy resources in a timely way,” Smith said. “The fiscal committee of the legislature met regularly to approve those expenditures, as did the executive council. The net result was that every expenditure was reported publicly so that the people of New Hampshire, on whose behalf the government was created, could track those expenditures and, appropriately, hold the government accountable.”
She said she believes the governor’s action are in violation of the state constitution.
“This unprecedented pandemic has necessitated this course of action,” said Ben Vihstadt, Sununu’s communications director. “The Legislature’s 2002 law was intentionally designed to give any governor the ability to provide relief for citizens immediately due to the speed and critical nature in which these funds must be disbursed.”
Under Sununu’s plan, the new office would manage the accounting, auditing, legal, and IT requirements for dispersing the funds, and will ensure transparency and accountability for the relief and stimulus efforts, according to the governor.
He said the advisory group would consist of Soucy, Shurtleff, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, House Minority Leader Richard Hinch, R-Merrimack, Senate Finance Committee Chair Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, and ranking Republican John Reagan, R-Deerfield, and House Finance Committee Chair MaryJane Wallner, D-Concord, and ranking Republican committee member Ken Weyler, R-Kingston.
“It is my expectation that this advisory group have a voice in investment activities and will meet on a consistent basis with the leadership and staff within GOFERR,” Sununu wrote to legislative leaders. “It is important to ensure that this process has as much accountability, transparency and integrity as possible.”
But legislative leaders said the current process will allow input from citizens across the state.
“We share your commitment to ensuring that these federal stimulus funds are put into the hands of our citizens and communities as quickly as possible in an effort to curb the impact of COVID-19 in New Hampshire,” Soucy and Shurtleff said.
“That’s why during this process we will continue to solicit the input of our constituents and those who have been greatly impacted by this pandemic. While New Hampshire awaits additional federal guidance and disbursement of these funds, Granite Staters will have an opportunity to share directly with elected officials and state agencies how these critical funds could be used to best fulfill their needs.”
The federal stimulus and relief money is not expected to arrive in New Hampshire until the end of the month.
Last year when Sununu proposed his two-year operating budget, he included the Capital Infrastructure Revitalization Fund which included tens of millions of dollars of budget surplus funds for projects around the state. Sununu said he determined the projects based on his travels and what local officials said they needed.
The House removed the Capital Infrastructure Revitalization Fund from its proposed budget saying the projects should be done through the capital budget process, not solely determined by the governor.
The Fiscal Committee meets via telephone Friday at 10 a.m. One of the items on the agenda is accepting $1.2 million in federal money from the first federal coronavirus relief package passed last month.
The money will be used to increase the meals on wheels congregate meals program.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org