By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Prohibiting the state or municipalities from using $1.25 billion CARES Act funds to help offset revenue shortfalls due to the coronavirus crisis concerned legislative leaders Friday as Gov. Chris Sununu extended the state of emergency for another 21 days.
The federal guidance was unexpected by state officials who had hoped to help cities and towns with lower than planned revenues, but the federal guidelines would reduce that help only to the expenses cities and towns incurred due to the epidemic like overtime and equipment.
The Legislative Advisory Committee to the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) Friday asked the office’s director Jerry Little for a legal opinion on the federal guidance released Wednesday evening.
Committee member state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said there is talk about less restrictive revisions that may be released soon and suggested some of the state funds be reserved to see if there are changes.
Little said the staff’s analysis from the “scant guidance” is the money “is not going to cover a lot of scenarios you are curious about.”
He said a presentation is scheduled for Monday’s committee meeting. Little asked the committee members to begin thinking in broad terms about the areas that need immediate help.
“As we’ve come to hear the past two weeks, $1.25 billion is an awful lot of money, but it is not enough to meet the requests we’ve heard just this week,” Little said. “Where can we get the biggest bang for the buck.”
House Finance Committee Chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, said it would be helpful to have a list of what Gov. Sununu has already approved in spending on the crisis.
“Knowing how much has already been committed would be helpful to me,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said some funds various groups requested are for help going forward and he suggested the committee concentrate on losses and expenses that have already occurred for groups like hospitals.
“When every organization is asking for $700 million or $500 million, that money does not exist,” Morse said. “We need to know what happened to date. I love long-term thinking, but there is not enough (money) to do that.”
The committee also heard from representatives of the non-profit sector and the devastating effects the crisis has had, particularly those providing health and social services, and from higher education officials, and two state finance authorities that providing that provide grants, loans and tax credits to businesses, non-profits and other organizations.
Along with the executive order extending the state of emergency for the second time, Sununu also issued several other executive orders extending other orders: requiring insurance companies to cover COVID-19 costs, waiving the 28-day waiting period before a retired public employee may return as a part-time worker, and ensuring workers compensation coverage for first responders exposed to COVID-19.
He also extended executive branch deadlines for utility rate increases filed with the Public Utilities Commission during the state of emergency. The extension does not affect the stay-at-home order. Sununu said he will decide next week whether that will be extended.
Kathleen Reardon, the CEO of the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, told the committee that nonprofits provide many different services from arts and culture and education to humans services and environmental protection.
They all have different revenue streams including government grants, philanthropy, foundations, and fundraisers, but all have seen their revenue streams negatively disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, she said.
Across the state, nonprofits employ 83,000 and have revenues of $11 billion a year, she told the committee.
While their revenues have gone down, the requests for services have increased, Reardon said. “They need support now more than ever.”
Dick Ober, president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, proposed a two-tiered plan with $400 million to help with immediate, short-term needs, and longer-term help for arts centers, museums and concert halls.
He noted during the last recession in 2008, giving to the foundation dropped by 25 percent or $100 million.
“This time it will be much deeper and last much longer,” Ober said.
Higher education officials told the committee their institutions lost tens of millions of dollars when they refunded board and room payments to students when they closed campuses and turned to remote learning. The University System of New Hampshire lost $41.6 million, the committee was told.
Colleges also expect reduced enrollments this fall and the big question, said University System of New Hampshire Chancellor Todd Leach is whether colleges and universities will be able to reopen campuses this fall.
He said if not, the university system schools would lose $84 million in room and board revenue with a possible tuition loss of $20 million to $100 million.
He said direct costs associated with the COVID-19 epidemic would be testing for all students, faculty and staff if campuses open this fall.
“Absent a vaccine, that is the only way we will get students back on campus,” Leach said, adding the costs for the testing program would be $6 million.
He said another one-time item would be expanding remote learning technology in about 50 percent of the classrooms, both for students not comfortable returning to campus and to continue remote learning for everyone in the fall if needed. Leach estimated that cost at about $6 million.
“It is really important to ensure students, faculty and staff’s safety,” he said, “when we come back.”
Michele Perkins, New England College president and chair of the NH College and University Council, told the committee estimated loss for the state’s private and public colleges and universities is $185 million this year, which she called a conservative estimate.
She said colleges are being told to expect a 15 percent decrease in enrollment and a 25 percent drop for international students.
“The only certainty regarding this pandemic,” Perkins said, “is uncertainty.”
BFA and CDFA
The committee also heard Business Finance Authority Executive Director James Key-Wallace and Community Development Finance Authority Executive Director Katherine Easterly explain how their agencies could help with the distribution of federal money.
The group also heard from representatives of local physical and mental health-care centers and the impact they have felt from the COVID-19 epidemic.
The committee is one of two advisory boards working with the GOFERR to determine how the $1.25 billion in federal funds should be distributed.
The other is a stakeholder group of representatives from various industries in New Hampshire.
The Legislative Advisory Committee meets again by phone Monday at 1 p.m.
MONDAY, APRIL 27
GOFERR Meeting of the Bipartisan Legislative Advisory Board
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com