By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – With $1.25 billion in federal money to fight COVID-19, the controversial new office Gov. Chris Sununu created to distribute those funds held its first organizational meeting Monday, the same day lawmakers filed an emergency motion to block it.
Legislators claim in court that the Governor’s Office For Emergency Relief and Recovery, or GOFERR, is illegally bypassing the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. They filed their brief in court hours before the new office members met by phone at 1 p.m.
The same four lawmakers who filed the emergency motion were also appointed to the governor’s new office.
The official order creating the office is expected to be released on Tuesday so the meeting Monday was a planning session.
Jerry Little, who Sununu appointed to head the Governor’s Office For Emergency Relief and Recovery, said the call-in phone meetings will be open to the public and follow the state’s open meeting law.
“Transparency is going to be paramount,” said Little/
Sununu and the eight-member bipartisan group agreed to meet each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at least by phone starting at 1 p.m. to distribute the COVID-19 funds.
Little, the state’s banking commissioner, 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.
The new office includes Little, Senate President Donna Soucy, House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, House Republican Leader Dick Hinch, Joint Fiscal Committee Chair Rep. Mary Jane Wallner of Concord, Co-chair Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield, and State Rep. Erin Hennessey of Littleton.
Wallner, D’Allesandro, Soucy and Shurtleff, all Democrats, filed the emergency order to block the group on Monday.
Sununu said it is his hope the group can meet on a regular basis and get as much input and information as possible before the U.S. Treasury Department announces its guidelines for distribution of the emergency relief funds.
Sununu cautioned that this would not necessarily be money that the state could use to fill state budget line items, but for COVID-19 relief for businesses, non-profits and other entities.
The virus has killed at least 23 citizens and sickened close to a thousand in New Hampshire.
Federal guidance on the $1.25 billion in CARES Act flex funds is expected on or about April 24, Sununu said.
The goal is to get as much information as possible to find the best ways to disburse the funds, the governor added.
One of the first things the group had to decide on was who to hear from first.
They agreed to hear from state agency heads dealing with the crisis first and will expect to hear from commissioners of safety and health and human services first on Wednesday.
On Friday, the meeting will focus on municipal impacts, county and city impacts with an invitation going out specifically to Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess, both of whom have health departments on the front line of the crisis.
recommended a plan to meet each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 1 p.m. by
conference call system and more meetings as needed. Morse said it might
need to be every day.
D’Allesandro suggested the office meet more frequently as it gets guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Sununu agreed that the office of Employment Security could give an overview of the types of unemployment claims out there by sector.
Wallner said she would like to hear directly from service providers who are directly working with citizens, particularly the disabilities community and agencies serving home-bound seniors. Morse agreed he would like to hear from state agencies “just so we know what we are up against.”
He said he would like an overview of the picture. Going forward, he said he wants to hear from hospitals.
Sununu stressed that money cannot be used to replace government revenue.
“The vast majority is to be put out to the private and nonprofit centers that need relief. It all has to be COVID-related,” Sununu added.
He said tourism is one of the biggest sectors impacted. Healthcare is another. It has already seen some relief with the $50 million funds used on a “keep doors open” basis.
“We have to create a streamlined process for people to access the funds,” he said.
Reagan suggested the use of banks to review applications, noting they are receiving the loan request information.
The office for GOFERR will be set up in Eagle Square in Concord.
Sununu said he anticipated most of the hires will be re-purposed state employees for the most part, and it will likely be staffed until next year with the distribution of the funds required by the end of the calendar year.
Sununu suggested that the nonprofit sector would need to be approached and their concerns addressed. He suggested the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation could be helpful.
Sununu said it is a bit unknown what help the money can be for municipalities although there may be ways, like help with free and reduced lunch “to provide some one-time cash flow.”
Sununu said he has told municipalities to keep track of invoices related to COVID-19 “so no cost fell through the cracks.”
D’Allesandro agreed on the need for municipalities to “keep an accurate accounting on the money spent on the virus.”
Wallner said she wants to hear early on from the counties as they run long-term care facilities and corrections departments which are heavily impacted by COVID-19.
Morse suggested that the New Hampshire Municipal Association be asked to get summaries of the impacts from their members in order to bring that to the upcoming meeting. Soucy agreed it would be good to hear from the executive director, one town and the two city perspectives of Nashua and Manchester, who also have the issues of homelessness to address.
“I think we have a good start,” said D’Allesandro adding it would be good at the end of each session to “regroup and decide who do we need to hear from” next.
Little said he is working on various mechanisms to make all of the information publicly accessible and he was “hoping everyone in the state is able to access that information.”