Democrats Balk at Sununu’s Bid for Unilateral Control of Virus Spending

MANCHESTER, N.H. (CN) — New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu drew a lawsuit Monday after the two-term Republican asserted he can spend $1.25 billion in federal Covid-19 relief funds without legislative oversight.

Calling it “unambiguous[] … that the Legislature never delegated its core constitutional function of approving government spending during an emergency,” four Democrats on state’s Joint Fiscal Committee brought the suit in Superior Court for the Northern District of Hillsborough County.

From left, former New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu poses for a picture with White House adviser Ivanka Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a town hall style-event on April 17, 2018. (Pamela Baker, Courthouse News Service)

Sununu had announced his plans for the money a week earlier, saying he would form a bipartisan advisory board within the newly created Governor’s Office of Emergency Relief and Recovery, in lieu of putting any decisions before the Joint Fiscal Committee.

“Unlike the 2009 stimulus investment process that used the budget to ensure legislative input, the urgency and timing of this crisis does not allow for that course of action,” Sununu said on April 7.

Though all four Democrats who sued the governor would be on the board, along with four Republicans, their recommendations would be nonbinding.

New Hampshire is unique in putting state contracts and other fiscal decisions up for approval by the state’s Executive Council, whose members are elected.

“We have a long-standing tradition of binding the governor’s hands,” Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, said in an interview Monday.

An associate professor of political science, Smith opined that the large amount of money coming into the state made the dispute with Democratic lawmakers inevitable.

“This is something that the parties have been sparring on for a while,” SMith said. “Frankly, it’s a separation-of-powers issue.”

Expected to arrive in late April, New Hampshire’s slice of the federal CARES Act represents one of the largest federal grants in the history of the state, which has a $13 billion operating budget for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. 

“No one’s first choice — or even second choice — was to go to court,” Senate President Donna Soucy said in a statement Monday. “We reached out to the governor on multiple occasions to settle this amicably. But Governor Sununu refused, and he left us no other choice. The governor’s assertion that he can bypass the Fiscal Committee and be the sole arbiter of $1.25 billion and more in taxpayer money is not what’s best for the people of New Hampshire, and it would set a dangerous precedent that could allow any governor to violate the separation of powers clause.”

Professor Smith said that he expects the legislature and the governor to come to a compromise to end the dispute.

Along with Soucy, the complaint is led by House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, state Senator Lou D’Allesandro and Representative Mary Jane Wallner.

“Right now, the Legislature’s most important job is to get federal funds to combat coronavirus into the hands of New Hampshire families, communities, businesses, and nonprofits that have been impacted,” Wallner said in a statement. “The swiftest means of doing that effectively, equitably, and constitutionally is the bipartisan Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. Unfortunately, Governor Sununu has chosen to disregard the legislative branch, which represents the voice of the people.”

The governor’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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