By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu alone holds the purse strings on all distribution of federal COVID-19 relief money, and he does not need the oversight of the Democratically-controlled Legislative Fiscal Committee, a Hillsborough County North Superior Court judge has ruled.
In his 18-page ruling, Judge David A. Anderson wrote on Oct. 12 that had the legislature wanted the Legislative Fiscal Committee to have blanket oversight on expenditures above a certain amount during a state of emergency, it would have written it into the statutes which were revised in 2002 following the terrorist attacks of 9-11.
“Instead, the Fiscal Committee’s authority remains scattered through a variety of statutes,” Anderson wrote in denying Democratic leaders in the legislature their injunction to stop from dispersing $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act emergency relief, much of which has already been awarded.
A copy of the ruling is here.https://www.courts.state.nh.us/caseinfo/pdf/civil/Sununu-Wallner/101220Sununu-Wallner-Order.pdf. A copy of the docket, which details the steps taken in the case prior to the order can be found here https://www.courts.state.nh.us/caseinfo/pdf/civil/Sununu-Wallner/index.htm
The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit against Sununu are listed as state Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, chair of the Fiscal Committee; Stephen Shurtleff, Democratic Speaker of the House; state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, and state Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester.
A joint press release issued by Wallner and D’Allesandro, on Tuesday read, “We respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling. Today’s ruling is a blow to our Constitution’s promise of balanced government which guarantees that the Legislature, as the people’s representatives, transparently decides how taxpayer dollars are spent.
“It is unfortunate that Granite Staters will continue to have no voice or oversight over how state and federal coronavirus relief funds are allocated and spent. New Hampshire is stronger when we all work together; that’s why it is disappointing that Governor Sununu continues to cut the Legislature out of New Hampshire’s recovery efforts. Regardless, as legislative leaders, we will continue to do all we can to ensure the remaining funds provide effective and efficient relief for Granite Staters.”
The Republican governor responded with his own statement, calling it a “lawsuit filed by a small group of Democrat legislators that sought to slow down and halt Governor Chris Sununu’s CAREs Act expenditures.”
“Had the Democrats won this case six months ago, our COVID relief efforts would have stalled, negatively impacting every citizen of our state,” said Sununu. “I am thankful for the Superior Court’s ruling in this case, but it is unfortunate so many state resources were wasted defending this failed lawsuit by Democrat leadership. In this unprecedented public health emergency, it is paramount we get relief out to New Hampshire families fast, and I am proud that NH stands as our Country’s gold standard for rapid relief.”
Judge Anderson wrote in his ruling, “It bears emphasizing that the Governor is acting pursuant to authority granted to him by the legislature. By enacting RSA 21-P:43, the legislature deliberately authorized the Governor to accept and spend federal funds made available for purposes of emergency management. Therefore, the Governor’s spending of CARES Act funds is done pursuant to an act of the legislature and is agreeable to the acts and resolves of the general court. Should the legislature wish to remove this authority, it may do so by changing the law.”
Sununu has argued that he created an advisory board and a new office to help him figure out what organizations, businesses, and other entities should receive the funds.
He created the Governor’s Office For Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) and a bipartisan Legislative Advisory Board that includes the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Judge Anderson’s ruling cites a number of statutes written by the legislature, including one that formed the basis of state’s emergency powers, the 1949 Civil Defense Act.
RSA 4:45 grants the governor emergency management authority when a “natural, technological or man-made disaster of major proportions is imminent or has occurred….so extremely hazardous or dangerous to life or property that it is necessary to invoke….procedures to lessen or mitigate the possible harm.”
So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed 456 residents as of Oct. 12, sickened 8,014 in the state and there are 738 active cases in New Hampshire and so far no vaccine to protect citizens.
On March 13, exactly seven months ago today, Sununu invoked a state of emergency giving him broad powers and on March 27, the U.S. Congress gave the state $1.25 billion to address losses due to the public health emergency.
About $200 million remains unallocated but must be spent between March 1 and Dec. 30, according to the federal language.