CONCORD — New Hampshire’s Democratic legislative leadership sued Republican Gov. Chris Sununu Monday, asking a judge to force him to obtain Fiscal Committee approval before spending any COVID-19 relief dollars.
The top two presiding officers and two budget writers filed an emergency motion in Hillsborough County Superior Court North hoping to get a judge’s ruling on what they called a “constitutional crisis” before the $1.25 billion COVID-19 federal grant could be spent near the end of this month.
“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. The swiftest means of doing that effectively, equitably, and constitutionally is the bipartisan Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee,” said State Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, who chairs the committee.
“Unfortunately, Governor Sununu has chosen to disregard the legislative branch, which represents the voice of the people. His refusal to compromise led us to the judicial branch today, where we are seeking an expedited court ruling to resolve this constitutional crisis.”
The suit came on the first business day after the Fiscal Committee held its most recent meeting last Friday and members heard Sununu assert that the state’s emergency powers law gives him the sound legal footing to make these spending decisions without approval of the Democratic-controlled fiscal panel.
Sununu has created a bipartisan advisory board of eight legislators to consult with before divvying up the federal aid.
“We are in very unique times. There is a state of emergency that was declared and will likely be in place for a long period of time. The Legislature did a very good job crafting the emergency declaration act after 911,” Sununu said during his briefing last Friday. “This has allowed our state to be in a much better posture than other states around us find themselves. It’s not political; it has nothing to do with party, that doesn’t come into the equation at all.”
Advisory board ‘not window dressing’
Sununu pointed out many on the advisory board also sit on the Fiscal Committee, including Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, and Wallner.
“There is going to be nothing done in closed doors. It is not window dressing by any means,” Sununu said.
House Speaker Steven Shurtleff, D-Penacook, said the public wants the Legislature to have its role over spending taxpayer dollars and that’s what this lawsuit seeks to enforce.
“The executive branch does not have unconstrained power to budget and spend money without legislative branch involvement. No governor can unilaterally spend $1.25 billion in taxpayer money on their own,” Shurtleff said. “Our Constitution demands co-equal branches of government to ensure a thriving republic and we will do everything we can to maintain that balance of power for the good of the people.”
The lawsuit contends state law maintains the legislature’s oversight role even in times of crisis.
The 19-page motion also claims Sununu’s actions would violate the state Constitution because it recognizes “supreme legislative power” over spending money from the state treasury and runs counter to the separation of powers clause.
Fiscal panel approval in past emergencies
Senate President Soucy said former Republican Gov. Craig Benson sought Fiscal Committee approval before spending money to cope with floods in 2003 and ex-Democratic Gov. John Lynch did the same with more than $600 million of federal stimulus grants to deal with the great recession of 2008-9.
“No one’s first choice — or even second choice — was to go to court,” Soucy said. “We reached out to the governor on multiple occasions to settle this amicably, but Governor Sununu refused, and he left us no other choice.”
Sununu said this COVID-19 dilemma is a different challenge that requires a quicker response than did the spending of stimulus dollars.
The Fiscal Committee is set to meet next Monday to get a briefing on how the $1.25 billion federal grant can be spent.
The governor’s spokesman said the lawsuit won’t affect his good working relationship with lawmakers.
“Our office will continue to follow the law as was passed in 2002 granting the governor authority to take immediate action during this statewide crisis,” Benjamin Vihstadt said in a statement. “It is the Legislature’s prerogative to check in with the courts, and we will always maintain a collaborative relationship with them. Ensuring New Hampshire families receive immediate emergency relief is paramount and the governor remains committed to that goal.”
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