By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The storm this week made it look like Christmas blanketing the hills of New Hampshire with anywhere from a foot to 4 feet of white, fluffy powder.
Outdoor enthusiasts celebrated the mega storm, public works departments packed in the overtime, and others dug out over days, not hours.
As the mega snow slowly pulled out of the Gulf of Maine Thursday afternoon, Gov. Chris Sununu held his weekly news conference to bring the media and the public up to date on the COVID-19 pandemic that has the state in a vice gripe with soaring new cases, emergency rooms and Intensive Care Units filing with patients and record numbers of deaths.
Much of the southern area of the state is a red or hot zone with significant community transmission and new infection rates equal to other hotspots in the country, but not our neighboring states to the west or east.
As the governor talked about the vaccinations that began last week with front-line, healthcare workers, he had to be asked about lower than anticipated doses the state will receive and was vague about the vaccine allocated to long-term care facilities which will be distributed through two national pharmacy chains.
And as he had done since the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money arrived this spring, the governor got to play Santa Claus and announced more distributions to run out the pot before the end of the year and the unspent money has to be returned to the federal government.
The amount of money announced last Thursday — about $23 million in three areas: $4 million for the University of New Hampshire for its helps with COVID-19 testing, $7 million for hospitals and $12 million to non-profits, including hospitals, with much of the money allocated to pay their unemployment compensation tax — was a surprise to members of the Legislative Advisory Committee to the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, which distributes the funds.
The members were told earlier this month there was little to no money left in the till.
The four Democratic members of the advisory committee called for greater transparency as have some Republican House members sponsoring a bill requiring an audit of CARES Act spending.
The Democrats on the advisory committee noted the governor’s office has said the remaining CAREs Act funds ranged from $1 million to $30 million over the last month, and the latest on-line report shows nearly $200 million unspent.
The four Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy and state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, both of Manchester, and former House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, and Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, both of Concord, said Thursday commissioner Taylor Caswell, who heads GOFERR, said earlier this month there was nearly no money left to be allocated as the resources were being put into a “few, final high-priority investments,” which have not been made public.
“To say that this process has lacked transparency is an understatement,” the four Democrats said. “The people of New Hampshire deserved to know how much of their money was left, where it was being spent, and how decisions were made.”
The four Democrats sued unsuccessfully earlier this year to stop Sununu from spending the money unilaterally, claiming state law requires lawmakers have a say through the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee.
However, a superior court judge ruled the governor could accept and spend the money as he saw fit under a 2002 law giving governors enhanced powers in a state of emergency.
And he has. He created two advisory committees, the legislative one and another of “stakeholders,” and they were advisory.
He did follow the lawmakers’ advice on where to spend the money, but not how much putting much more money into business relief and recovery than lawmakers had advocated and less into other areas like nonprofits and health-care providers, particularly hospitals significantly impacted by the early days of the pandemic when large southern tier facilities were filled with COVID-19 patients.
There were some missteps such as allocating $50 million for broadband expansion, the need highlighted after months of remote learning for students last spring and with health-care providers using telemedicine to avoid face-to-face visits.
Much of the money was unspent and reallocated for other uses.
Another was leaving self-employed workers out of the Main Street Relief Program, relying instead on unemployment compensation, when it is extremely difficult to meet the state guidelines to collect.
Changes were made, and most problems rectified, but some successful programs like the long-term care subsidy for workers ended in July causing nursing homes and other long-term care managers to beg to restart the program, which he did late this fall.
A lot of the money recently has gone into the unemployment compensation trust fund to offset tax increases necessary to fill the fund again.
While that helps mostly small businesses, it does not help the unemployed who are at risk of running out of benefits and long ago lost the $600 a week federal subsidy that helped prop up the state’s economy by allowing them to continue paying their rents and utilities, and buying groceries.
Now those still collecting unemployment receive only the state’s benefit level, one of the lowest in the country.
State House Infections
And the CARES Act money is not the only problem with transparency.
At last week’s news conference, InDepthNH.org’s Nancy West asked the governor how many legislators and State House staff have contracted COVID-19 in light of House Speaker Dick Hinch’s death and the infection of House Speaker Pro Tem Kimberly Rice, along with at least four members of the Republican caucus after an indoor gathering last month in Manchester, and several State House staff.
Sununu said that information is confidential.
“I don’t get a running tally,” Sununu said, “I know a couple of staffers because I know them personally,” but he said he had no tally, and it is private information.
West asked for the number of people affiliated with the legislature and who work in the State House not their names.
The state routinely reports the number of people infected with COVID-19 at long-term care facilities, both patients and staff, as well as jails, both county and state, the number of healthcare workers, and students and staff infected at schools from kindergarten to colleges.
The state also reports the number of deaths among those groups as well.
If that information is readily available, the number of legislators and staff as well as the number of state and municipal workers infected should be public too.
Another area of the pandemic needing greater transparency is those infected who are hospitalized.
Andrew Cline, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in The Broadside Friday, meticulously explains how the state significantly under reports the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19.
“People who are ‘hospitalized after their case was initially reported’ are included in the daily hospitalization updates but are not added to the cumulative total for all hospitalizations, according to the Joint Information Center,” Cline writes. “This results in a serious undercounting of the actual number of people who were hospitalized for COVID-19. In the first 17 days of December alone, the count is off by more than 100.”
He notes that from Nov. 30 to Dec. 17 shows an increase of 38 hospitalizations, while the number of people hospitalized on each of those days showed an increase of 124.
“The state should fix this discrepancy as soon as possible so the public has an accurate picture of the disease’s impact,” Cline said. ”Not counting people admitted after their initial positive test result misses a potentially very large portion of COVID-19 hospitalizations.”
A Little Light
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus bringing light to the world, so may there be a little more light shined on state government and its handling of the pandemic for this holiday season.
It is the least we should ask for.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.