Councilors, Sununu Spar Over Control of $1.25B in COVID-19 Relief Spending

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Paula Tracy file photo

Members of the Executive Council and Gov. Chris Sununu take a break after meeting at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye last October. From left are councilors Russell Prescott, Gov. Sununu, Debora Pignatelli and from left standing are Councilors Mike Cryans, Andru Volinsky and Ted Gatsas.

By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org

CONCORD
– The Executive Council voted to table $950 million, including $450 million in federal CARES Act funding for municipalities and raises for first responders, with some councilors concerned that Gov. Chris Sununu is keeping them and state legislators out of the spending loop in violation of the state Constitution.

The 4-1 vote, with Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, casting the lone dissenting vote, means councilors will take up the funding issue for disbursement at their meeting in two weeks. Because the money is for disbursement in June, it will not as yet delay those checks, said Charlie Arlinghaus, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services.

The warrant included almost $32 million for hospitals and healthcare, $24 million for stipends for first responders, $75 million for the long-term care stabilization fund, $20 million for municipality and county COVID-19 cost reimbursements, $25 million for state agency COVID-19 response funds, $43 million in CARES Act Education grants that will be decided solely by Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, $47 million for Cares Act Grant funds and $176 million in contingency funds which are undisclosed.

An attempt to separate $508 million in non-COVID-19 funds from the total $950 million warrant (which allows for checks to be cut) was not possible, Sununu said. So the whole item was tabled.

Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, said she was disappointed that Sununu is going around the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee with his own Governor’s Office For Emergency Relief and Recovery to spend $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief, and challenged the constitutionality of him appropriating federal monies without legislative or Executive Council authorization.

“It’s way too much power,” for one person, Pignatelli said. “No one is trying to delay the process to get it where it is needed but we are elected,” unlike the governor’s committee members who are recommending appropriations to the governor.

“We are accountable to New Hampshire citizens,” not members of an advisory committee, Pignatelli said.

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, a gubernatorial candidate, voiced similar concerns.

“I appreciate disclosures made,” Volinsky said, “but I disagree with the governor’s characterization that this is transparent.”

He said 20 percent of the money in contingency is undefined and Wednesday was the first time he had heard Edleblut’s plans to spend $42 million on education grants.

“I think we deserve better explanations and I would move to table this item to the next meeting,” Volinsky said.

Democratic legislative leaders took Sununu to court last month to try to block him from spending the funds without their approval, but a Superior Court judge ruled they had no standing. A request for reconsideration is now underway.

Sununu said the transparency in spending the funds is unprecedented and the vote on the item was on the agenda and every dollar spent will be public.

“I don’t see it as transparent,” said Pignatelli, asking Sununu for a list of the names of all the companies asking for money and information on potential conflicts of interest.

Sununu said the council has been provided a breakdown of where that money is going. “It’s all there,” Sununu said.

Earlier in the meeting, Volinsky asked about the relief fund for hospitals and health care providers.

“You failed to include the rationale for each of the loans,” Volinsky said, and perhaps for reasons of confidentiality, it is not being shared with the council.

He said in the past, bailouts such as for Serenity Place have allowed for a waiver of confidentiality among the councilors.
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“It’s important for us to understand who is getting these low-interest loans and why are they justified,” Volinsky said.

Sununu said there is a scoring system being used “but we are not going to be sharing the applications because there is a confidentiality issue” and “this process is not part of the decision-making of the Executive Council,” Sununu said.

Volinsky argued that Sununu can change loans to grants for hospitals and others that do not need to be paid back, and he has “taken this particular decision away from us.”

He implored Sununu to answer why he does not feel that the five members of the council are capable of keeping information confidential.

Pignatelli said she would have a lot more questions before she was able to support the $950 million warrant on May 20.

Nursing Home Tests

Lori Shibinette, the commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, briefed the council on COVID-19 with 50 new cases and six additional deaths in the state as of Tuesday, bringing to 2,636 cases and 86 deaths, with perhaps the nation’s highest rate of deaths in nursing homes as a part of the total number of fatalities. At the afternoon press conference, Shibinette updated the numbers again and said there were 19 additional deaths, all in nursing homes.

More than three-quarters of the deaths in New Hampshire due to the new coronavirus are among individuals who in nursing homes or extended-care facilities. Shibinette said the state will be increasing nursing home testing.

The state has tested 28,000 and that number has gone up dramatically in the past week, she said, as testing capacity and supplies have expanded.

Access to personal protective equipment remains challenging, she said. Right now, the issue is access to protective gowns. The hope is that supplies will continue to come in, she said.

 The fact that hospitals are not being overwhelmed because of stay-at-home orders allows capacity in hospitals for surgeries and care that is becoming more urgent over time, Shibinette said.

Over the next week or two, hospital facilities will ramp up elective surgeries and procedures, she said.

Volinsky asked Shibinette about the different models she is watching and believes are reliable and predictable.

“We are looking at multiple models,” Shibinette said, noting Harvard, MIT, Johns Hopkins, and the CDC are being watched especially with a focus on areas of the world that had early outbreaks and how it progressed so we can prevent that from happening here.

GOFERR Update

Jerry Little, the executive director of the Governor’s Office for Economic Recovery and Relief, explained how it works and efforts to help the governor decide who gets the $1.25 billion federal CARES Act money for COVID-19 relief.

Little said it is backward from the way government usually handles things, which is traditionally identifying a problem and finding a way to fund a solution.

“In this case, the money arrived and we have to find a way to spend it,” Little said. “It’s 180 degrees from the normal functioning of government.”

The mission of the GOFERR – and its advisory committee – is to mitigate impacts to society from the pandemic.

GOFERR includes House and Senate leaders both Democrats and Republicans, which began meeting by public conference call in March and has held 10 meetings with  more than 50 entities on impacts of the virus.

It meets each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and the public can access those meetings by phone. GOFERR also has a stakeholder advisory board that meets Tuesday and Thursday and it has heard from 11 business entities, Little said.

The federal money has to be disbursed during this calendar year and GOFERR has to create mechanisms to spend the funds, Little said.

Little created an office in Eagle Square in Concord at the state Department of Business and Economic affairs and hired staff, all reassigned state employees.

GOFERR has a new website with advisory presentations available at www.goferr.nh.gov

The focus initially has been on collecting the data and working on a plan to distribute the federal resources in an equitable manner.

He said the goal is to keep the administrative costs down to maximize the output and it is now at .5 percent with over 99 percent going out to the entities.

“We are now at that important point where we have listened very, very carefully,” and the hard task now is how do we distribute the money as right now there are more requests than money, Little said.

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