Editorial: Sununu takes a wrong turn on relief funds

Published: 4/16/2020 8:00:13 AM

In the name of efficiency, Gov. Chris Sununu is seeking to substitute autocracy for democracy and accord to himself sole power to determine how and to whom $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 emergency relief funds will be distributed.

The state’s judicial system, which referees disputes between the other two branches of government, should reject as unconstitutional the governor’s attempted power grab.

Sununu has done a truly admirable job of leading New Hampshire as it battles the coronavirus pandemic. His decisions, in consultation with state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan and others, have been sound, his communications with citizens clear and concise. And we applaud his choice to join with his fellow governors in saying that decisions of when to allow non-essential businesses to reopen and people to gather will be made by the states, not the president.

Unfortunately, the governor’s contention that emergency powers allow him to relegate the Legislature, whose duty it is to raise, accept and spend money, to an advisory role is needlessly divisive and comes at a time when unity is called for.

For decades, it has been the responsibility of the bipartisan Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee to rule on whether to accept, and whether to spend, funds that come to the state outside the normal budget process. The committee is willing to meet daily to do so if necessary. Nothing in law or history suggests that the committee cedes that authority to the governor during an emergency. In fact, the state’s civil emergencies law says just the opposite. The governor can spend money only in such cases “with the advice and consent of the Fiscal Committee.”

Sununu claims that another law, enacted in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, trumps the law that requires Fiscal Committee consent. That is a wishful reading of the statute, one that ignores the constitutional requirement that the powers of the respective branches of government be kept as separate as possible.

Rather than seek advice from the Fiscal Committee, the governor has opted to create, in the name of expediency, an eight-member advisory board, five of whose members are current members of the Fiscal Committee. The newly constituted committee is unnecessary and redundant.

The Joint Fiscal Committee exists to perform precisely the task of overseeing incoming funds and spending. Its members are experienced at doing so. The courts should reject the governor’s attempt to use the pandemic to increase his own power.

At times, as in the governor’s decision to spend to secure personal protection equipment for those on the front lines, speed is essential. The committee could, for example, give advance approval that would permit the governor to spend say $5 million or $10 million in an emergency without legislative consent; $100 million or $1 billion is a different story.

New Hampshire has the most representative legislature on the planet. It is the voice of the people, not the governor, that should decide how the relief money is spent.

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