CONCORD — The state Senate next week will vote on a package of bills that would spend $180 million in federal grants in support of housing, unemployment, broadband access, child care and nursing home programs.
Senate Democrats unveiled more than 200 pages of amendments to pending bills they hope to be able to complete with the resumption of the 2020 legislative session.
As they resume, both House and Senate will be meeting in alternate locations to accommodate social distancing.
The 24-member Senate will meet next Tuesday in Representatives Hall, the home of the 400-member House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, the House will hold its first business session in two months on Thursday — at the Whittemore Center Arena on the campus of the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Later this week, Senate committees will take testimony on amendments to three House-passed bills to spend some of the $1.25 billion federal grant New Hampshire received under the coronavirus relief bill.
Democratic legislative leaders have gone to court to challenge the authority of Gov. Chris Sununu to spend this money during the pandemic without their approval.
Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said Senate Democrats outlined some of these reforms last month as part of their Granite Promise initiative.
“As we look towards New Hampshire’s future, we must address the needs of those who have been most affected by the impacts of the coronavirus, including working families, long-term care facilities, and people experiencing homelessness,” Soucy said.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, a primary candidate for governor, said he’s optimistic the Legislature will find common ground with Sununu on these issues.
“The Granite Promise Plan addresses both the immediate needs of New Hampshire workers, families, and communities, as well as the long-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic,” Feltes said.
“The measures include permanent increases to New Hampshire’s weekly unemployment insurance benefits, funds to shore up our unemployment trust fund, advances worker safety, supports family businesses, and improves computer systems and protections for homeowners and renters,” Feltes said.
The Sununu administration has already signaled its support for some but not all of these plans.
On Thursday morning, the Senate Commerce Committee will consider an amendment Soucy and Feltes are offering to spend $50 million to upgrade the Department of Employment Security’s computer system.
Feltes has been an outspoken critic of Sununu, contending the state’s antiquated technology has prevented some from getting their requests for jobless benefits completed.
State officials said New Hampshire is among a leading group of states in processing jobless claims and that the outstanding ones are complex matters that often include those who have worked in both New Hampshire and neighboring states.
The bill would also increase the average weekly benefit for state unemployment by $100.
Feltes said another provision would ensure those collecting extra benefits during this pandemic do not have to pay them back to the state in the future.
These jobless workers could be liable for repayment without this change, Feltes said, because the increase came as the result of an emergency executive order and not a change in state law.
The measure also would close a legal loophole that denies unemployment benefits for those who have gone out on unpaid family and medical leave. The Union Leader reported last month about a Nashua mother who failed to qualify for the federal $600-per-week enhancement in jobless benefits due to the leave time she took to have her baby.
Housing, internet access
On Thursday afternoon, the Senate Election Laws and Municipal Affairs Committee will take comment on a House bill rewrite that would include $10 million for homeless grants, $50 million to assist landlords and renters, $5 million to support affordable housing and $40 million to bring high-speed broadband access to pockets of the state that lack it.
Sen. Jon Morgan, D-Brentwood, is authoring this plan.
Soucy said this amendment also includes waivers to assist officials in communities that were unable to complete their town and school district meeting sessions at the time of the pandemic.
This plan would permit towns to hold “virtual town meetings” to take public comment on local spending items and to schedule a vote on the annual budget by Sept. 1.
A third bill to be heard on Wednesday would set aside $25 million of federal grant assistance for nursing homes along with $10 million to expand the number of working families eligible to receive a “scholarship” that covers child care costs for their children.