By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted along party lines Monday to reverse $26 million the Department of Health and Human Services had transferred from various programs in the state budget to a special account for emergency COVID-19-related spending.
What was supposed to be a brief remote meeting because the U.S. Treasury hasn’t yet released guidance on spending the emergency funds went longer than expected when Democrats and Republicans clashed over the transfer motion.
Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, accused the committee of becoming partisan after decades of working across the aisles.
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, who made the motion, said since the state has received half of the $1.25 billion it expects from the federal government and the rest is expected Friday, the emergency fund transfer should be reversed, and the money returned to programs originally budgeted.
The transfer was made to create a cash flow to pay emergency COVID-19 expenses until the federal funds arrived. The Fiscal Committee voted 7 to 3 to reverse the transfer, angering Ober, one of three Republicans on the committee.
Ober complained that Rosenwald’s motion wasn’t on the agenda and she hadn’t received a written copy of it, nor had she been asked whether she supported suing Republican Gov. Chris Sununu over who had spending authority for the federal COVID-19 funds.
“Never in my years on the committee have we been asked to vote on an item of this significance without prior notice or proper documentation,” Ober said.
“The Legislative Budget Assistant wasn’t even sure the committee had the authority to take the action it did today. This was an ill-advised political plan Democrats worked out behind closed doors, completely lacked transparency, and turned the committee into a partisan tool.”
Rosenwald said she had already run the motion by legal counsel.
Ober said, “In addition to a surprise lawsuit I knew nothing about. We now have what appears to be a surprise motion.”
Ober said the committee, chaired by Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, could have recessed the meeting, circulated the documentation, and met as soon as tomorrow.
The meeting was called to order shortly after a hearing in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester – also held remotely – in which Judge David Anderson heard arguments in the lawsuit filed by four Democratic legislative leaders against Sununu over who has the authority to accept and expend the federal funds.
Senate President Donna Soucy, House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff, Rep. Wallner and Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, all Democrats, filed the lawsuit after Sununu said that during a state of emergency, he didn’t need the Fiscal Committee’s approval to spend the funds.
At the Fiscal Committee meeting April 10, Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette told the committee about the budget transfers as “informational items.”
D’Allesandro denied any partisanship in reversing the transfer. “There is no partisanship in this motion,” D’Allesandro said.
All of the $26 million transfers were in the state budget, passed by the House and Senate, he said.
What Sen. Rosenwald was doing was what was in the best interest of the people, D’Allesandro said.
“I think we’re doing the right thing,” D’Allesandro said. “We’re all here for the public good.”
The state funds had been budgeted for programs including $8 million for substance misuse; $4 million from the state loan repayment program for health-care workers; $1.7 million from homeless shelters and rehousing; $9.25 million connected to a new Secure Psychiatric Unit; $2 million for a low-income senior prescription drug program; $750,000 for congregate housing and $100,000 from a foster-grandparent program.
Now, it’s time for the funds to revert to the state budget where they can help the people of New Hampshire, D’Allesandro said.
Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, was also critical that there had been no notice to the committee or the public of Rosenwald’s motion.
“I think it’s inappropriate,” Morse said of the vote.