CONCORD — Some of the federal money for battling COVID-19 should be used to create a fund for front-line workers and make direct payments to citizens to help with expenses, Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes said.
A Democratic candidate for governor, Feltes said besides these “immediate steps,” other programs should be created with the $1.25 billion federal grant contained in the COVID-19 CARES Act President Donald Trump signed last week.
“No one party or one person has a monopoly over good ideas, and most good ideas, especially in a time of crisis, come from the ground up, not the top down,” Feltes wrote in a letter to Fiscal Committee Chairman and state Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord.
“I hope this will not only provide you with input to consider, but serve as an opportunity to begin this critical public discussion.”
The House-Senate fiscal committee has scheduled a meeting April 10 for the main purpose of accepting the federal money.
Arrangements are being made for members to take part in the session remotely as the State House remains closed to legislators, staff and the media. All regular legislative activity has been suspended until May 4.
Gov. Chris Sununu said he has begun working with top staff on how to divvy up the grant. He said he plans to consult with Democratic legislative leadership.
Backfilling state budget
Feltes, who also is chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said some of the money should be used to reinforce the two-year state budget Sununu signed last fall.
“I closely monitor state revenues and it is clear that revenues will come in under plan for this fiscal year ending June 30 and the next fiscal year as well,” Feltes said. “In the coming weeks and months, we should work together to create new estimates and hopefully use the latest stimulus monies to backfill and hold harmless our state’s biennial budget.”
Sununu said it’s too early to know how big a hit the outbreak will inflict on the spending plan, but state managers should expect they’ll have to recommend some budget cuts.
The governor’s office and Andru Volinsky, Feltes’ Democratic primary opponent for governor, did not have immediate responses to his proposals.
Feltes said he would use at least $50 million to create a Frontline Worker Fund, making payments to workers in lump sums or monthly stipends while the crisis is ongoing.
“As the rest of the state stays home, our firefighters, law enforcement, first responders, public employees, grocery store workers and front-line health care workers are all going to work each and every day for all of us, putting their very health on the line for all of us,’’ Feltes said.
The move is in keeping with a federal law increasing unemployed benefits by $600 a week, he said.
“In addition to helping show gratitude, the Frontline Worker Fund may help to attract and retain some of the needed workers in this crisis,” Feltes said.
Community grants on per-person basis
A second Feltes initiative would send $100 million to cities and towns on a “per person” basis to help support citizens facing additional expenses. Feltes said this would translate to community grants equal to $77 per person statewide.
Feltes said he would follow that payment with no-interest loans or grants to help cities and towns cope with a lag in property tax payments.
“Our communities are taking on additional costs in their schools, emergency services, and other public services, and our property taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear these costs,” Feltes said.
Another program would help New Hampshire companies that shut down because of COVID-19 and supplement the nearly $400 billion of support for small business contained in the federal relief bill.
“We know that while many small businesses in New Hampshire have already closed, they have a proven business model and customer base,” Feltes said.
“We should set aside funds to establish a Fast Start grant program that allows previously established businesses that closed because of COVID-19 to erase debt and fund start-up costs.”