By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Until last week, the state’s elected leaders projected a unified front to fight the coronavirus pandemic in New Hampshire.
On at least one occasion, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu appeared at a press conference with Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and House Minority Leader Richard Hinch, R-Merrimack.
The message was as it should be “we are all in this together and putting politics aside in this fight.”
That was not the message last week, however, as the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate objected to Sununu establishing the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) to determine how to spend $1.25 billion in federal money the state is slated to receive through the federal $2.2 trillion CARES Act approved last month.
Under the proposal, traditional fiscal oversight by the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and the Executive Council, both controlled by Democrats, is bypassed.
Sununu’s plan establishes an advisory committee of Democratic and Republican House and Senate leaders in equal numbers that the governor claims would provide more oversight than required under the 2002 bill granting governors emergency powers after the September 11 terrorists attacks.
Democrats note the same statute requires the governor seek the “advice and consent” of the fiscal committee.
Late last week, Sununu announced that Banking Commissioner Jerry Little would be the head of the new office. Little is a former state Senator who served on the fiscal committee, former president of the New Hampshire Bankers Association and former press secretary for Sununu’s father when he was governor.
Little is seen as a fair and upfront person by people in Concord, not someone Democrats would find objectionable.
Sununu said he needs flexibility to make quick decisions while the fiscal committee uses a slower legislative process that requires public hearings and longer deadlines.
The fiscal committee met Friday and chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, rebuked Sununu’s claims saying the committee could meet every day to act on COVID-19-related items and noted the committee does not hold public hearings to take citizens’ testimony.
The committee, on a bipartisan 10-0 vote, approved a traditional request from Health and Human Services to accept $1.2 million in earlier coronavirus relief money to increase funding for the Meals on Wheels and Congregate Meals programs to allow more at-risk seniors to stay home.
The department also presented two “informational items” transferring $18 million in general fund money to address the state’s COVID-19 outbreak such as testing, personal protection equipment and healthcare provider contracts.
Democratic committee members were quick to note that traditionally the committee would have been consulted about the general fund transfers.
The turf battle is on.
What’s at Stake
It is not a coincidence the bipartisan cooperation ended when it did. It is always about who controls the money.
The state has already received some federal money from the first coronavirus package that targeted unemployment, paid medical and family leave and help for small businesses to provide additional benefits.
The CARES Act helps small and large businesses impacted by the economic slowdown due to the epidemic, provides up to $1,200 per person, helps state and local governments, hospitals and non-profits and various other programs.
The state’s share of that money is expected by the end of April after the federal government tells states how the money can be spent.
The congressional delegation led by former governor, now U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, secured another $147 million for schools, public transit, health-care workers, law enforcement and other specific areas.
To put just the $1.25 billion in perspective, that is about half the state’s general fund revenue for this fiscal year ending June 30.
State general funds are projected to produce $2.63 billion, but not likely to reach that goal due to the economic downturn.
Another way to put the money in perspective is to look at total spending for the Health and Human Services Department, which is by far the largest agency in state government, accounting for a little less than half of all budget spending.
Total spending for the agency this fiscal year is $1.43 billion, comprised of $816.2 million general fund money, and $615.3 million from other sources, almost all federal money.
The CARES money is about 85 percent of the agency’s budget.
The CARES money will be significant and elected leaders hope it can be used to reimburse state and local governments for non-budgeted spending and to offset some of the revenue loss.
Checks and Balances
The founding fathers did not trust “chief executives” and placed “checks and balances” on their power.
One such check is the Executive Council which approves all state contracts over $10,000 and in some instances over $25,000, and all gubernatorial appointments, from Supreme Court justices to members of hundreds of boards most people do not know exist.
Most of the original colonies had executive councils but disbanded over time except for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. New Hampshire’s council is the only one remaining with real power.
The founding fathers also set up government so the three branches serve as brakes on each other: to keep presidents from becoming kings and lawmakers from violating the constitution.
The fiscal committee was not one of the founding fathers’ creations but was born of necessity.
As state government grew larger and larger taking on more and more responsibility due to changes such as the introduction of automobiles and airplanes, the legislature only met one year of every two-year term.
The fiscal committee was created to adjust agency budgets and deal with unexpected issues in the off years rather than calling the 424-member General Court back to Concord.
The fiscal committee has not always been a popular institution with House and Senate members, some of whom believed and still do that it concentrates too much power in the hands of a select few.
But it serves as lawmakers’ budget watchdog when governors try to make budget adjustments or change policy without their consent.
The system is set up for everyone to have a say: judges, lawmakers and governors.
Whether it is state or federal money, it is tax money raised now or in the future from the citizens of New Hampshire and the United States.
Where it comes from is irrelevant because it is our collective money and we have a right to know and be involved in the process of deciding how and where that money is spent.
Sununu argues the legislature’s 2002 bill gives governors the authority to act quickly on the state’s behalf in an emergency like the COVID-19 virus spreading across New Hampshire claiming lives and infecting nearly 1,000 Granite Staters already.
He exercised that authority to shut schools and non-essential businesses, order residents to stay home, and any number of other executive orders to address the epidemic, including creating a $50 million fund to help health-care providers.
He also used that authority to enter into contracts with testing providers and businesses and non-profits to provide emergency services.
Sununu’s argument for flexibility and immediacy is certainly valid in the early days of the epidemic, but less so four weeks into the crisis when state public health and safety officials pretty much know what needs to be done in the next few months to combat the virus.
Somewhere in the process, the people who are paying the bills, the taxpayers, have to be able to see where their money is going, and whether it is being spent wisely or padding the pocket of some politician’s donor or friend.
This may be an emergency but that does not lessen the need for a little light and transparency and the best way to accomplish that is to use the system already in place, the fiscal committee and the Executive Council.
Once the $1.25 billion is spent, it will be very difficult to recoup if it is not used in citizens’ best interest.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.