Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed state budget includes a plan to steer roughly $168 million in surplus state money to dozens of one-time projects, ranging from new traffic lights to park upgrades to grants for a handful of nonprofits.
The fate of such projects hinges on the Legislature’s willingness to keep that money in its budget proposal. While House and Senate budgetwriters are just getting started hammering out the details of their spending plans, Sununu’s team rallied a roster of municipal and nonprofit leaders who stand to benefit from the surplus earmarks for a press conference on Thursday afternoon, where they defended the need for such spending.
“The manner in which the governor’s proposed the funding be distributed greatly recognizes local control and that a municipality knows its needs better than anyone else,” said Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, whose city would receive $300,000 toward a local paving project under Sununu's proposal. ”Many funding programs come with so many requirements that they are more costly or impractical to use. In this case, the governor asked us directly what we need and is trying to meet the needs in the most responsive and efficient manner possible.”
The proposed recipients of the money — and Sununu himself — acknowledged that there was no formal criteria for determining how to allocate this surplus money.
Grenier, for example, said he got a personal call from Sununu asking him to identify a “shovel ready” project worthy of state investment. From there, Grenier said he called Berlin's engineer and said, “Give me a half a million dollar project that I can put together, shovel ready, engineered, ready to go — and I need it in two days.”
Emails obtained by NHPR through public records requests show that Sununu’s team coordinated the rollout of their surplus spending plan with state lawmakers and local officials. In some cases, those emails show that local leaders were given just a few days to respond to the governor’s office with ideas for how they hoped to spend the money.
Sununu said his office tried to ensure geographic representation and an assortment of different kinds of local projects.
“It wasn’t just roads, it wasn’t just dams, it wasn’t just economic development, it wasn’t just schools, it wasn’t just renewable energy," Sununu said. "We wanted to make sure that all these types of projects had a seat at the table and had an opportunity to move forward. Those that were more shovel-ready than others got a bit of a preferential treatment, those that had been languishing longer than others had gotten a bit more of a preferential treatment.”
Beyond patching up would-be holes in a handful of municipal budgets, the governor's office also proposed one-time grants to a handful of charities. That includes $100,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salem and $500,000 for City Year New Hampshire.
As with the municipal grants, Sununu said these choices were not made using any formal criteria or application process. Instead, he said his office tried to “spread the opportunity out to nonprofits that otherwise wouldn’t or have never been able to participate with state funds, opening those doors up on programs that they’ve talked about but never been able to achieve.”
“Some of these folks dedicate years and sometimes their lives to long-term service for their communities,” Sununu said of the nonprofits in line to benefit from his spending plan. “It’s only appropriate that the state, when we can, help make an investment, put a little marketing effort in, let other people know what other opportunities there are in their communities, so they can step forward and be part of those programs as well.”
Earmarks that would benefit individual municipalities and nonprofits represent just a fraction of the surplus money set aside for state relief in the governor’s proposed budget. Specific local projects account for about $15 million of Sununu’s surplus spending plan and nonprofit grants account for about $1.9 million, compared to about $150 million directed to other state initiatives that have long been on the priority list of both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The largest earmarks in Sununu’s surplus plan would go toward a new 60-bed forensic psychiatric hospital (at a cost of about $26 million); a plan for restitution for victims of the FRM Ponzi scheme; funding for the state's developmental disability waitlist (about $10 million); and the cost of lining up a new Medicaid management information system (roughly $10 million).
House and Senate budget writers will unveil their own spending plans in the months ahead. Whether they choose to keep the earmarks identified by Sununu remains an open question. One signal that they might not be eager to do so came from Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, in a statement sent to the media just moments after Sununu's press conference wrapped on Thursday.
“While I respect the mayors who are advocating for their cities, New Hampshire needs to craft a budget that works for all communities – not just special projects for the politically well-connected,” Feltes said, adding that he would prefer to see the state’s money spent on “real support for local property taxpayers, including increased state education funding and increased revenue sharing.”