My Turn: Sununu’s ‘Relief and Recovery’ office can’t ignore state constitution, statutes

For the Monitor
Published: 4/8/2020 12:00:50 PM
Modified: 4/8/2020 12:00:40 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu has announced the establishment of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery. The title alone caused me concern. Why is it to be called the governor’s office and not the New Hampshire office? That concern was exacerbated when I read further in the announcement: “The office will manage the accounting, auditing, legal and IT requirements. . . . I will be creating a bipartisan Legislative Advisory Board. . . . They may make recommendations to my office.”

I submit that this action of the governor is in violation of New Hampshire’s constitution and laws. In the current emergency it is essential that we honor a governmental structure that has guided us for almost 250 years so that when we emerge from this emergency our system of government is still intact and will continue to serve the people of the state.

In 1784, the people formed themselves into the free, sovereign and independent state of New Hampshire to be governed as detailed in the constitution. Because it is a living document, the constitution has been amended over the years, but always retaining the core principles of a democracy.

On Nov. 30, 1942, amidst the crises of World War II, the following amendment was incorporated into the constitution: “[Art.] 5-a. [Continuity of Government in Case of Enemy Attack.] Notwithstanding any general or special provision of this constitution, the general court, in order to insure continuity of state and local government operations in periods of emergency resulting from disasters caused by enemy attack, shall have the power and the immediate duty to provide for prompt and temporary succession to the powers and duties of public offices, of whatever nature and whether filled by election or appointment, the incumbents of which may become unavailable for carrying on the powers and duties of such offices, and to adopt such other measures as may be necessary and proper for insuring the continuity of governmental operations including but not limited to the financing thereof. In the exercise of the powers hereby conferred the general court shall in all respects conform to the requirements of this constitution except to the extent that in the judgment of the general court so to do would be impracticable or would admit of undue delay.”

The enemy is not defined nor identified in the amendment, but I suggest, and believe that almost anyone would agree, that the coronavirus that is attacking us today is an enemy even more lethal than we imagined in 1942.

In 1978, the following section was added to New Hampshire statutes: “9:13-d Civil Emergency. – Should it be determined by the governor that a civil emergency exists, the governor may, with the advice and consent of the fiscal committee, authorize such expenditures, by any department or agency, as may be necessary to effectively deal with said civil emergency and may draw his warrants in payment for the same from any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated. In determining whether a civil emergency exists, the governor shall consider whether there is such imminent peril to the public health, safety and welfare of the inhabitants of this state so as to require immediate action to remedy the situation. This section shall not be construed to enlarge any of the powers which the governor may possess under the constitution or other statutes.”

Please note the last sentence in the previous paragraph.

In 2009 I chaired the fiscal committee that was responsibility for tracking the hundreds of millions of dollars that came to the state because of the economic stimulus necessary to combat the Great Recession. We had in place, as we do today, accounting, auditing and legal systems peopled by well-trained and experienced professionals who are nonpartisan. The Legislative Budget Analyst’s Office, and the state treasurer worked with the New Hampshire Office of Economic Stimulus and every department of state government to efficiently and responsibly deploy resources in a timely way. The fiscal committee of the Legislature met regularly to approve those expenditures, as did the executive council. The net result was that every expenditure was reported publicly so that the people of New Hampshire, on whose behalf the government was created, could track those expenditures and, appropriately, hold the government accountable.

Perhaps in his haste to act quickly the governor neglected to consult the state constitution or our laws. It is not too late to correct this unconscionable error.

(Marjorie Smith of Durham represents Strafford District 6 in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.)

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