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Sununu sued over relief money

  • Two shoppers wearing protective masks, due to the virus outbreak, walk to their vehicle during a heavy rain storm after shopping at the Walmart store in Epping, N.H., Monday, April 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • A man wears a respirator mask, due to the virus outbreak, as he walks to his vehicle during a heavy rain storm after shopping at the Walmart store in Epping, N.H., Monday, April 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Associated Press
Published: 4/13/2020 8:41:03 PM
Modified: 4/13/2020 8:40:59 PM

CONCORD — Democratic leaders of the New Hampshire Legislature went to court Monday to stop Republican Gov. Chris Sununu from spending federal COVID-19 relief funds without their permission.

House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, Senate President Donna Soucy and top Democrats on the Legislature’s joint fiscal committee filed a motion seeking an emergency order to halt Sununu’s newly created Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery.

They argue only the committee has the power to act on the $1.25 billion that the state is expected to begin receiving later this month.

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner said the committee she leads is the fastest way to distribute money to families, communities, businesses and nonprofits “effectively, equitably and constitutionally.”

“Unfortunately, Gov. Sununu has chosen to disregard the legislative branch, which represents the voice of the people,” Wallner, D-Concord, said in a statement. “His refusal to compromise led us to the judicial branch today.”

Sununu’s spokesman said the governor’s office will continue to follow the 2002 law granting the governor authority to take immediate action during a statewide crisis.

“It is the legislature’s prerogative to check in with the courts and we will always maintain a collaborative relationship with them,” Ben Vihstadt said in a statement. “Ensuring New Hampshire families receive immediate emergency relief is paramount and the Governor remains committed to that goal.”

Sununu told reporters last week that while lawmakers will have input via an advisory panel, the usual approval process is too slow.

In their motion, filed in Hillsborough County Superior Court, lawmakers disagree on both counts. They argue that the governor’s general powers under the law Sununu cites do not override a more specific law that says during an emergency, “the governor may, with the advice and consent of the fiscal committee, authorize such expenditures, by any department or agency, as may be necessary.”

And they point out that the committee can act quickly. It met on Friday and approved spending $1.2 million to bolster Meals on Wheels programs during the pandemic.

There was no mention of the lawsuit Monday, when the advisory panel met via phone conference with Sununu and Banking Commissioner Jerry Little, the head of the governor’s relief office. The panel includes the four Democrats who sued and four Republican lawmakers.

Little said he expects guidance from the U.S. Treasury around April 24. The group decided to meet three times a week to start, with more frequent meetings possible.

“We want to make good use of the time we’re given and get a lot of work done, so as soon as the funds arrive we can start putting them out there and start doing some good,” Little said.

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