By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
During the Washington Post’s investigation into the Watergate break-in and cover-up, Deep Throat, or Mark Felt, tells reporter Bob Woodward “follow the money,” in the film All the President’s Men.
Whether Felt actually said that or if a screen writer penned the iconic quote, belies the wisdom in those three simple words.
In government, as it is in business, it is always about the money and who controls it.
From the 1970s to today, nothing has changed unlike many other things. If you follow the money, truth will be revealed.
Money in government, whether it comes through your local property tax payment, the majority of tax money raised in New Hampshire, from state business or “sin” taxes, or from the federal income or business taxes, it is your money trusted to elected politicians to decide the best use for the greater public good.
You may disagree with some of those decisions, and elections are held every two years at the state level if you want a change.
Before you can decide for yourself whether the money is spent wisely or not, you have to know how it is spent and who received it.
Following the money in New Hampshire is usually a little easier than in many states because of an archaic institution no other state vests with the same authority, the Executive Council.
The council usually approves all contracts and money transfers over $10,000 as well as major gubernatorial appointments from judges to agency commissioners and their assistants, to members of hundreds of state boards.
Another avenue to accountability is the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee which exercises its “advice and consent” to accept and spend any unappropriated money not included in the two-year operating budget approved by lawmakers and the governor or transfers within departments and agencies.
As the founders intended, the legislature, through the fiscal committee, reviews the policy issues of accepting and spending unappropriated funds, while the executive branch, through the executive council, oversees the contracts or administrative operations of state government.
The legislature decides where the money should be spent, but the executive branch decides who will do the work and everyone can trace the flow of tax dollars from your pocketbook to the business, nonprofit or state agency doing the work.
It is what makes government accountable to the people who are paying the bill.
And the process usually works pretty well if you want to trace the money and find out who is receiving state money for child care services, for example, if they are in Waterville Valley or next to the high school in Concord.
But that is not true for the state’s federal coronavirus money or moving money and personnel around state agencies to combat the COVID-19 epidemic that has sickened at least 3,000 state residents, killed more than 131 and put more than 300 in hospitals.
As most know by now, Gov. Chris Sununu cites a 2002 state law — passed after the September 11 terrorist attacks — he and his legal advisors claim gives governors authority to spend, accept and transfer federal and other money to protect the public health and safety during a state of emergency without the approval of the fiscal committee or the executive council.
The Democratic leadership in the House and Senate sued the governor seeking an immediate injunction to require fiscal committee approval. They cited the same law saying it requires the “advice and consent” of the fiscal committee.
A superior court judge ruled lawmakers lacked standing to bring the suit because a state Supreme Court decision aligned the state with the federal constitution requiring actual harm before a suit is ripe.
Judge David Anderson stopped there and did not rule on the legality of either argument.
The Democratic leadership filed a request to reconsider the decision and an amended complaint taking another approach, but the judge has yet to rule.
Last week, the Executive Council voted 4-1 to block a $1 million withdrawal warrant to pay the usual monthly governmental bills and about $300 million from the $1.25 billion the state received in federal CARES Act money, citing the New Hampshire Constitution’s requirement for the council’s “advice and consent.”
Sununu had provided a list of the general uses for the money, but the majority of the council wanted greater detail.
The council will vote again on the warrant at its next meeting May 20.
The action set off political sparks between Sununu and District 2 Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, who is gubernatorial candidate for his party’s nomination. Charges of politicizing the horrific situation flew back and forth.
Since the Democrats decided to sue over the governor’s claim of emergency authority, or executive privilege, Sununu has said he has been transparent and everything has been done in the open and for all to see.
The governor said he appointed a legislative advisory committee to his Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery which oversees the CARES Act funds, although he did not have to and a stakeholders advisory committee as well.
The legislative advisory committee is evenly split among Democrats and Republicans although Democrats control the House and Senate and the Executive Council.
All members of the advisory committee were surprised a week ago when Sununu announced at a press conference he created a $40 million fund for cities, towns and counties to use for coronavirus expenses and a new stipend for front line workers costing $25 million, both from the CARES fund. He said it was based on recommendations from the legislative committee, although the members had different ideas for distributing the money.
As of Friday, Sununu’s office has allocated about $250 million of the CARES Act money, or about 20 percent, while the two advisory committees have yet to make a specific recommendation for spending, although the legislative committee is expected to do that Monday.
Sununu has promised for several weeks to post all the COVID-19 spending on the GOFERR website to be transparent.
Last week were the first postings of daily expenditures.
The money spent through the Healthcare Systems Relief Fund has been available for awhile and lists who received about $20 million of the $50 million fund.
Six hospitals received funding: Lakes Region, $5.25 million; Exeter, $1.65 million, Androscoggin Valley, $1.17 million; Cottage, $1 million; Upper Connecticut Valley, $750,000, and Weeks $750,000. The only other loan or grant from the fund over $1 million went to Convenient MD, $1.6 million, one of the companies doing testing for the state.
The rest of the $20 million is distributed to community health centers, private practices and other health organizations.
The GOFERR site also lists authorized CARES Act expenditures to state agencies such as Employment Services Fillings, Health and Human Services, Education and potential payments to cities, towns and counties, which have to apply for the money.
The daily spending reports many have been waiting for were posted last week for May 4, 5, 6 and 7.
The reports use graphics to indicate areas of spending like emergency child protection, domestic and sexual abuse prevention, operating and administrative costs, personal protection equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, personnel costs, and the state agencies that received or spent funds to combat the epidemic.
But it does not list any company that has been hired to provide services like the contracts with Convenient MD and Clear Choice MD for testing.
Seeing where the money is going is helpful but you cannot follow the money to see who is actually receiving the federal funds except for the Healthcare relief fund.
Without knowing who receives the money, there cannot be accountability.
How is a taxpayer to know if his or her money is being spent for the best use to serve the public good?
Sununu has emphasized he needs the flexibility to act quickly when an opportunity is there. Nothing has stopped him from exercising his flexibility because the suit is in limbo and the council will in all likelihood approve the warrant at its next meeting. No one wants to appear to delay anything to do with fighting the pandemic.
Telling taxpayers who received the money has nothing to do with flexibility. It is good government accountability and it would be expected, except for the state of emergency.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.