It’s practically an article of faith in southwestern New Hampshire that this region doesn’t get the attention it deserves from the state government. State officials over the years have disputed that contention, and while it’s not responsive to the charge, they can argue with some basis that folks in these parts often seem to prefer that Concord stay away.
As former and longtime head of the statewide Business & Industry Association John Crozier once wryly observed, when asked during a visit here about Concord’s seeming indifference to this region, he sometimes felt as if the road from Concord to Keene is longer than the road from Keene to Concord.
Whether or not the local concern is sometimes overstated, though, it is hard not to feel concern that the Monadnock Region is not being adequately represented in the various state ad-hoc panels Gov. Chris Sununu has assembled to help guide his allocation of federal stimulus funds for COVID-19 relief and recovery and to provide recommendations on the re-opening of the state’s economy.
With at least $1.25 billion of federal funds directed to New Hampshire for coronavirus relief under the so-called CARES Act signed into law on March 27, Sununu established on April 14 the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery to oversee the use and reporting of the stimulus funds. His action led to a separation-of-powers legal dispute with leaders in the House and Senate over whether he must obtain approval of CARES Act spending from the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. The governor has thus far prevailed in court, but the dispute remains alive.
Creating additional uncertainty is the Executive Council’s role in approving the spending of the federal funds even if legislative approval is not necessary, and on Wednesday, the council put the brakes on with a bipartisan vote to await additional information from Sununu regarding some of his proposed spending. Fortunately, that spending is not scheduled for disbursement until June, so there’s time for the governor and the council to sort out the matter.
Meanwhile, the work of the emergency office in advising the governor in his spending decisions continues, and that’s where the concern about this region’s lack of a voice at the table is raised. In establishing the office, the governor also set up two advisory panels, one legislative and one a stakeholder advisory board. As its name suggests, the former is comprised of members of the House and Senate, and Sununu named as its eight members each party’s leader in the two bodies and each party’s ranking members of the respective Finance Committees. As for the stakeholders panel, Sununu described it in his press release announcing it as “bring[ing] together community and industry leaders from across the Granite State to provide key input on COVID-19 relief efforts.” Originally comprised of nine members, Sununu has expanded its membership to 14.
The governor took a further step on April 21, when he announced the formation of a task force to advise him on re-opening the state’s economy in phases, and named its members. The 20 now on the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force include eight legislators — two from each party in both the House and the Senate — and officials of several organizations representing various business, tourism and other groups.
The governor has been wise to seek advice from these panels, and we applaud his emphasis on bipartisanship and transparency in establishing them. Even so, it’s noteworthy — at least around here — that none of the 16 legislators the governor has appointed represents any part of this region and the other 26 non-elected individuals represent either wholly statewide organizations or municipalities and businesses located elsewhere. There’s no reason to doubt the goodwill of all the 42 panel members in giving their best advice to the governor for the state as a whole. Certainly, though, the governor could expand the panels to provide greater geographic diversity, adding representation from this region and other underrepresented regions such as the North Country. This point was recently made with regard to the two advisory panels by Sen. Jay Kahn and Rep. Donovan Fenton of Keene, in a column published in The Sentinel.
Lest this view seem parochial, it’s worth noting that the spread of the coronavirus differs in different parts of the state and the pace at which steps to recover from it and re-open the state’s economy may differ regionally as well. This is the approach, for example, that New York will be taking under reopening plans announced this week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Given that New Hampshire is a relatively small state, such steps may not need to differ regionally, but having someone at the table to represent this region’s needs would enhance the recommendations the governor is getting as he allocates funds and charts the way forward.