By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The federal state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic is expected to be extended for the remainder of the 2021 fiscal year, state lawmakers were told Friday.
And several lawmakers expect the state’s declaration to also be extended at least through that time as well.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has extended the state of emergency declaration 14 times since his first executive order was issued in March 2020. The latest governor’s executive order extending the state of emergency was issued Jan. 1 and extends the designation for another 21 days.
Sununu did issue two executive orders Friday extending the state’s mask mandate and travel quarantine requirements until March 26.
“With high case rates, hospitalizations, and fatalities, our healthcare system is still under an immense amount of pressure,” Sununu said. “To loosen or eliminate the tools we have utilized with success so far is the wrong approach to fighting this pandemic.”
By extending New Hampshire’s state of emergency, the governor does not need Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approval to accept federal funds or to expend those funds under a law passed in 2002 after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
Democrats unsuccessfully sued Sununu claiming another state law required Fiscal Committee approval to accept or expend federal funds as a superior court judge sided with the governor. The suit was filed as the state received $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funds to help offset the costs of the pandemic and to aid the state’s economy.
The coronavirus has also had an impact on the state’s Turnpike Fund or revenues from tolls collected on the Everett and Spaulding Turnpikes as well as I-93 in Hooksett and I-95 in Hampton.
The Fiscal Committee on Friday reviewed the fund’s annual financial report, which showed toll collections were down 10.2 percent for the 2020 fiscal year.
The revenue from E-ZPass users totaled $98.5 million, which was $8.5 million less than the previous year, an 8 percent decrease and cash users paid $20.9 million, down $5.1 million or 20 percent.
Turnpike officials said they stopped staffing cash toll booths at night because the money collected was less than it cost to pay the workers. During the early days of the pandemic, people with 10 or more violations were still able to register their vehicles, the committee was told, but that is no longer the case, and the agency hired additional part-time workers to begin collecting from frequent violators.
Transportation officials said they have been able to maintain the current advertising schedule for turnpike construction contracts, and to cover operating costs and debt service.
“Currently, capital projects scheduled in the ten-year capital improvement program for fiscal year 2021 are expected to move forward,” according to the report. “If revenue losses continue into the future, there would be a delay in commencement of certain future capital projects for a year or two.”
Liquor Stores Closed
The Fiscal Committee also approved transferring Liquor Commission money to account for the closing of seven liquor stores around the state. The location of the closed liquor stores are:
Manchester, East Side Plaza and 1 Airport Road;
Stratham, Kings Highway Plaza;
Newport, Sugar River Shopping Plaza;
Jaffrey, Monadnock Plaza;
Swanzey, Wilbur’s Market Place.
And Whitefield, 100 Lancaster Road.
Liquor Commission chair Joseph Mollica said the stores were “extremely underperforming and really not representative of the brand we have today.”
He did say the commission will open its first store in Epsom at the end of the month.
He said at the end of December sales were up 3.4 percent representing $15.1 million of which $4 million would be profits or revenue for the state.
The Fiscal Committee approved using $4.5 million in Highway Surplus Funds to augment the Department of Transportation’s Winter Maintenance program. The money will bring the winter maintenance budget to $30.9 million.
Commissioner Victoria Sheehan said the additional money is needed to cover the cost of overtime and related personnel expenses, additional salt and sand, and rented equipment.
The committee also approved the transfer of $4 million to cover the cost of overtime. Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks said her agency has been able to recruit more corrections officers during the last two years than they have in the past, but retention is the problem.
She said her department’s pay is below what other law enforcement officers receive such as state or community police, which also have wellness programs to help officers deal with the trauma of the job. The committee also approved $16.4 million of transfers within the Department of Health and Human Services to cover program shortfalls.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org