NH returns to legislative oversight of COVID, other spending

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Jun. 7—It's time to talk about big money again, and this time lawmakers have a VIP seat at the table.

The full financial clout of the Legislative Fiscal Committee returns today[ Tuesday] to the State House for the first time since the pandemic began 15 months ago.

Gov. Chris Sununu is proposing how to spend the first $150 million round of grants to the state of New Hampshire under the federal American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed in March.

New Hampshire is in line to get roughly $1 billion under the law, while city and county governments will get another $450 million.

"They call it the Rescue Plan, but it's really a lot of infrastructure money and revenue-lost dollars," Sununu said at his COVID-19 briefing last week.

On a related front, Sununu increased the incentive for legislative leaders to come together on a compromise $13.5 billion state budget in the coming weeks. The governor confirmed his willingness to end the COVID-19 state of emergency if agreement is reached on the two-year spending blueprint.

The competing versions of the budget offer different visions of the state's response to future emergencies.

In April, Sununu said he would veto the House version of the plan because it proposed to terminate every emergency after 21 days and then force a future governor to ask permission from the Legislature to renew it.

Sununu instead supports the language the Senate adopted, which would lengthen all emergencies from 21 to 30 days and allow a governor to renew them as Sununu has done nearly 20 times due to COVID.

The Senate language does permit the Legislature, by majority vote, to repeal any executive order a governor signs.

"We want to be able to codify these flexibilities, and that is in the budget process. If that happens, then the state of emergency can go away," Sununu said.

Last spring, Sununu was critical of the federal American Rescue Plan, maintaining that only about 10% of the aid was directed to dealing with COVID-19. Sununu also said a new aid formula in the law gave additional money to high-unemployment states such as California, New York and New Jersey.

In response to the pandemic, the legislative leadership shut down the State House in March 2020.

Sununu then created a Governor's Office of Emergency Relief and Recovery, which quickly mobilized to spend more than $1.2 billion in federal aid.

The Legislature, then led by Democrats, sued Sununu in court, maintaining the governor should have to get lawmakers' permission to spend that money.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, concluding that a state law the Legislature adopted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 gave New Hampshire's governor extraordinary powers during a state of emergency.

Back to normal

Sununu did create an advisory board of legislators to consult him about spending priorities.

But today's meeting returns the process back to its pre-pandemic model with the 10-person joint fiscal committee of House and Senate members approving all amendments to an existing state budget, including how unexpected grant money is to be spent.

Sununu said he was surprised to learn the Rescue Plan allowed the state to spend $22 million to upgrade state parks.

"They really highlighted and specified state parks as being an area that the federal government wanted targeted, so (this is) a huge opportunity for New Hampshire, given we have this wonderful state park infrastructure," Sununu said. "We want to be able to invest and enhance that infrastructure for all our travel and tourism business."

Other discretionary grant programs before the fiscal panel include:

* Mental health infrastructure; $13 million;

* Heating, ventilation, air conditioning upgrades: $25 million;

* Information technology modernization: $30 million;

* Water infrastructure improvements: $50 million;

* Energy technology innovation: $2.5 million for Nashua Community College.

Once the budget deal is done, Sununu said the state of emergency can end as the state has dropped its mask mandate, lifted all mandatory restrictions on public or private gatherings and on June 19 will end the federal extended unemployment benefits of $300 per week.

New Hampshire is one of 25 states with Republican governors that are dropping the extra federal jobless benefit.

In turn, Sununu has created a "summer stipend" of $1,000 to unemployed workers who get a job that pays up to $25 an hour and stay on for at least eight weeks. Part-time workers will receive a one-time $500 check in this program, which will distribute $10 million.

klandrigan@unionleader.com

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