October 22, 2020

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Lawmakers recommend COVID relief for snowmobile associations; school funding gap still looms

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A legislative committee recommended that Gov. Chris Sununu allocate $154,000 to the New Hampshire Snowmobile...

A legislative committee recommended that Gov. Chris Sununu allocate $154,000 to the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association to help recover lost fundraising Tuesday – part of the $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid given to New Hampshire earlier this year.

But the committee has not yet tackled some of the biggest spending issues that continue to loom as the pandemic creeps into fall. At its monthly meeting Tuesday, members opted for an additional meeting Oct. 6 to hear from schools concerned about a reversal by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s on school assistance this month.

Now, with priorities piling up, some lawmakers have expressed concerns that the state could have difficulty disbursing the rest of the money by Dec. 31 – the deadline before anything unspent is taken back by Washington.

“There are still a number of areas that we haven’t made any decisions about, the hospitals being one of them,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat.

So far, New Hampshire’s Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) has allocated about $1 billion of the $1.25 billion, according to Taylor Caswell, the commissioner of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs. That money can be spent by the executive branch without formal legislative input, but the Legislative Advisory Board, staffed by top House and Senate lawmakers, makes recommendations to GOFERR on a monthly basis.

That monthly meeting basis means the committee only has a handful of new opportunities to continue making spending recommendations, Wallner said. She urged for the body to set up more meetings to handle the load.

“I know how long it has taken once we have made a decision to allocate funds to a certain area,” Wallner added. “I know it has taken several weeks then to get the providers of those services in contract and to get the money out to them.”

On Tuesday, the committee voted, 6-2, to support the Snowmobile Association, which said that the restrictions under COVID-19 had interfered with the fundraising events that help it maintain tracks and trails.

Rep. Erin Henessey, a Littleton Republican, pointed to testimony from the Association at a prior meeting that a majority of the state’s 101 snowmobile clubs had applied for relief money from the New Hampshire General Assistance and Preservation Fund – set up to help for-profit and nonprofit businesses – and been denied.

“My hope is we can give initial funding done to get the grooming done,” she said Tuesday.

But the committee put off a decision to recommend additional assistance to schools. In early September, FEMA notified schools that it would not be helping them pay for personal protective equipment and other COVID-19 expenses, reversing months of earlier indications that it would do so. Some schools have expressed concerns that their budgets took into account that assistance, and that they aren’t receiving the funds.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, agreed with other participants that he had heard concerns from Salem School District about the budget impacts.

“When they went through budget process, they were using what they expected from FEMA. …They made a new budget, they directed money back to the taxpayers, and they basically were spending. They have told me they have a shortfall and are going to ahve to back to rearrange the deck.”

The committee decided not to move forward on a vote on a proposal by Manchester Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro to use unspent federal dollars for broadband expansion to help schools plug the holes.

“The one fund that seems to be available is the $50 million that was set aside,” D’Allesandro said.

Morse countered that more should be done to pressure FEMA to continue providing the assistance before state funds are allocated.

The board will instead hear from schools at its meeting Oct. 6.

D’Allesandro and Morse also raised concern about the financial situation of a Canaan health care provider: the Mascoma Community Health Center. That facility, which provides COVID-19 testing, dental care, pediatrics, primary care and women’s health services to low-income residents, has been struggling ever since its application for pandemic assistance was mostly denied earlier this year.

The facility asked for around $200,000, and received just $6,500, House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, a Pencaook Democrat, said on the call. Without additional aid, the facility has told lawmakers it would need to close its doors on Nov. 1, Shurtleff said.

The committee moved to allow D’Allesandro and Morse to work on their own to find a financial solution for the facility.

D’Allesandro and other members of the committee also pressed the new executive director of GOFERR, Caswell, to provide detailed information on how much money has gone out to applicants and how much remain. That, said D’Allesandro, is a necessary factor as the advisory board continues to make spending decision.

“That’s a key ingredient as Dec. 30 is coming a lot faster than we realize,” D’Allesandro said. “Days pass very, very quickly.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, [email protected], or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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