By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – A legislative advisory board that worked to help Gov. Chris Sununu distribute $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act pandemic relief funds is expecting to have a special $25 million fund to help pay for gaps in relief going forward into 2021.
Top lawmakers who are members of Legislative Advisory Board met briefly Friday to discuss its next moves and decided to wait until everything shakes out in Washington, D.C., with a new stimulus package and what is left following federal accounting by April 15.
Taylor Caswell, director of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, said the department is awaiting results of the reporting process for what money was spent and how on funds created as the Main Street program for businesses. That will be complete on or after April 15, tax day.
But Caswell said he believes at least $25 million will be available for a special fund to be recommended for use by the GOFERR Legislative Advisory Board.
The board is also awaiting what will happen in Washington, D.C., with a new COVID-19 relief package being debated in the U.S. Senate, though Caswell said it appears most of that money will likely be going directly to state departments and organizations. It won’t need the same level of advisory decision-making the board was involved in during the last year.
The board had to get money out to various needy aspects of the state’s economy by a Dec. 30, 2020, CARES Act deadline.
On Dec. 27, 2020, a new federal aid package was approved for vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing, childcare assistance, substance abuse, and mental health care programming, transportation and infrastructure, education, housing and rental relief.
“In most of these programs, GOFERR has not taken a role, using existing pathways to other state agencies,” Caswell said.
The exception, he said, is to the New Hampshire emergency rental assistance program which is going to be administered through the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority in collaboration with GOFERR.
The NHHFA will work with the state’s five community action partnerships that will accept applications and make payments to landlords. The full application process will be available March 15 at nhhfa.org.
“Beyond that, our major work has been to our own reporting back to the U.S. Treasury as well as reports from grantees across the state,” Caswell said.
He noted that that will provide a picture of how the money was spent and what remains available and is unspent.
“Essentially what we are working through is like any transaction. We have paid a certain amount for a program to be administered and now we are seeing the change that comes back to us. At this point we are comfortable that we will have a new $25 million fund to hold in reserve to allow us to cover unforeseen needs in the coming months,” he said.
With the deadline for spending the money pushed out now through to December of this year, it will allow GOFERR to address gaps that may emerge after the new federal aid package is passed in Washington, D.C., Caswell said.
Caswell said it is important to note the financial life-saving efforts the CARES Act program provided which has helped the state reach an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, a major improvement from the height of the pandemic when the unemployment rate in the state was at 16 percent.
It, he said, has put the state in an exceptionally strong financial position going forward as the state sees COVID-19 cases decreasing and vaccine numbers increasing.
He noted a separate board, the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force, also worked hard to find a balance between public health concerns and economic concerns to recommend guidance, often adopted by the governor to allow for some reopening of businesses and the guardrails for that reopening.
Caswell said there is an increasing likelihood that this summer will look “a heck of a lot more normal” than last summer.
The board did welcome two new members to the virtual table, House Minority Leader Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, and House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry.