By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The rubber has not quite met the road enough to send federal money to the greatest needs created by the coronavirus crisis.
The Legislative Advisory Committee Friday grappled with the timing and best uses for a portion of the federal $1.25 billion CARES Act money without an agreement. The eight members will meet Monday and hope to agree on their initial recommendations to the governor.
The committee again focused on hospitals’ cash flows as they begin to return to providing essential services beyond treatment of COVID-19 patients, and discussed making the initial appropriation $100 million, which would go to hospitals suffering the greatest financial losses, offset by other federal funds they have received.
Advisory committee chair Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, suggested they recommend $75 million, along with the $30 million remaining from the $50 million Healthcare System Emergency Relief Fund.
But Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said it is impossible to know what has been allocated from the fund, who has applied but been denied or those still waiting for an answer.
“The $100 million needs to be a clean number,” Soucy said, noting more federal funds for hospitals were distributed that day, but only to rural hospitals not the ones with the most COVID patients in the two largest cities.
She noted Catholic Medical Center in Manchester has the most COVID-19 patients in the state but did not qualify for the distribution, but Concord Hospital did.
Having a large number of COVID-19 patients is a double hit because those hospitals cannot do other procedures for revenue, Soucy said.
Rep. Erin Hennessey, R-Littleton, said she is concerned the large hospitals receive the bulk of the $100 million leaving little or no money for small rural hospitals like those in the North Country.
She suggested the committee revisit hospitals in a month or two and see where the needs are then.
Soucy said ideally the $100 million should be distributed now and the committee will revisit hospitals in the future when there may be additional federal funding.
Some hospitals lost $40 million just for the month of April alone, she noted, and said the $100 million is a good first step.
While several members pushed for a decision on hospitals and on a $5 million allocation for agriculture to help farmers and vegetable growers, Morse said he preferred an agreement on the entire package which includes about $350 million in recommendations along with $250 million of the CARES money Gov. Chris Sununu has already allocated.
Morse said if they voted on only one or two items to recommend to the governor they would be sending a “shallow message,” when the message ought to be the urgency of the entire package.
“I’m not comfortable breaking this apart,” Morse said, “where everyone on this document has the same level of need right now.”
The package also includes funding to businesses, nonprofits, health-care facilities of all kinds, including nursing homes, long-term care, community mental and physical health centers, individual practices, daycare facilities and higher education.
The package also included $50 million for the state’s unemployment trust fund which Department of Employment Security Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers told the committee is sending out about $30 million a week in unemployment benefits, 55 percent coming from the trust fund and 45 percent from federal sources.
The trust fund had $300 million but is not down to $254 million, he said, with unprecedented claims far greater than any other draw on the fund including the 2008 recession.
Morse said he believes the trust fund will eventually need help but is not an immediate need and suggested the money be used instead for helping nonprofits.
A consortium of the Community Development Finance Authority, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Center for Nonprofits have presented the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery a proposal addressing the needs of a broad array of the thousands of nonprofits with a $125 million price tag.
The office’s executive director Jerry Little said he would share the plan with the committee.
The four Democrats on the committee suggested changes to the committee’s recommendations that included additional funding for hospitals and other health-care providers and facilities, education, childcare and state government, and new spending for additional testing, housing, and mental health services for those on the front lines fighting the epidemic.
House Minority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, said he did not believe the committee should make a recommendation to the governor to spend almost all the money as the different proposals would do. Rather he would like to see it maintained at about 45 percent of the $1.25 billion and holding the remainder in reserve to be distributed later as issues arise.
But Soucy said they should go through all the proposals one by one and then decide what the bottom line should be for the initial recommendation to the governor.
She agreed they should suggest the money be spread over a period of time as the needs may change in a month or two or in the fall.
But she said the needs ought to determine the bottom line not a certain percentage.
The legislative committee met with its GOFERR counterpart, the Stakeholders Advisory Committee Friday, updating the other on where they are and the progress they have made.
The stakeholders committee has made one recommendation to the governor, which is to use outside agencies like the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, Business Finance Authority, New Hampshire Charitable Trust and others to distribute the federal funds more efficiently and expeditiously.
“There is no single pipe in the state to get all of this out quickly and efficiently,” said the group’s chair Donnalee Lozeau, of Southern NH Services and a former state representative.
She noted her committee has been looking at the operational side of how to best use the federal money, while the legislative committee is looking at the distribution more from a public policy perspective.
Going forward her committee will review the sectors that need immediate help and the best way to do that, Lozeau said. “You first want to stop the bleeding and then look at the recovery stages and then how you come out the other side,” she said.
“If we keep working in the same direction, we’ll do a heck of a job getting this work done,” Lozeau said.
The two committees agreed to meet periodically.
The Legislative committee meets again Monday, while the stakeholders group meets Tuesday.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.