Judge Clears New Hampshire Governor to Spend Relief Aid

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)

MANCHESTER, N.H. (CN) — A New Hampshire judge handed Governor Chris Sununu a win Wednesday afternoon, blocking an effort from Democratic legislators to hinder his ability to unilaterally disburse $1.25 billion in federal Covid-19 funds.

The lawsuit, filed April 13 by the Democratic state Senate President, Speaker of the House and the chair and vice chair of the joint finance committee, challenged the governor’s right to dictate the federal fund disbursements.

The judge found that the plaintiffs, who filed on behalf of the state Legislature, failed to show that they had any standing in court beyond their status as taxpayers.

As taxpayers, they failed to show that they had any standing to oppose the governor’s discretion in disbursing federal funds.

“Although plaintiffs are all members of the legislature, for purposes of taxpayer standing they are no different than any taxpaying resident of New Hampshire,” wrote Judge David Anderson in a 16-page ruling.

“Being mindful of the extraordinary nature of preliminary injunctive relief, even in an ordinary case, the court must be cautious in granting a request from any individual or group of individuals to stop the governor from acting, as it presents a scenario rife with complications that directly impacts the orderly operation of the government,” he added.

Considering the Democratic legislators as taxpayers did not surprise Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center.

“The issue of standing as a taxpayer to challenge state or local laws has come up a bit in recent years and is addressed in the courts decision,” Smith said. “It is an elegant way for the court to avoid the question of who has decision making authority over expenditure of CARES funds, denying standing to the plaintiffs.”

“It will be interesting to see if plaintiffs pursue an appeal on this question as any U.S. Court decision would have significant implications across the country, as hinted at in the cases cited by the court,” he said.

In a released statement, Sununu praised the work of the judge.

“I would like to thank Judge Anderson for issuing this order under immense time constraints, Sununu said. “Solicitor General Dan Will and the team at the Department of Justice did a fantastic job arguing this case. In this unprecedented public health emergency, it is paramount that we get relief out to New Hampshire families fast, and that is what I am determined to do.”

Sununu had announced his plans for the money two weeks ago, 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.

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.

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.

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

The Democratic plaintiffs lamented their loss, but did not say they planned to appeal the ruling.

“We respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling. The legislature constitutionally holds the ‘power of the purse’ and the Joint Fiscal Committee is the body that legally approves proposed spending requests by the executive branch during an emergency,” the legislators said in a released statement.

They added, “This lawsuit is ultimately about a dispute between two equal branches government and it is appropriate for the third coequal branch of government to settle this disagreement in a timely manner so critical relief to Granite Staters is not delayed.”

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