By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The year 2020 has been and continues to be a historic year for the New Hampshire Legislature.
The second year of a legislative session — an election year — is always more charged than the first.
And every two terms, a presidential election adds a little more electricity to the legislative circuits.
Presidential years intensify the partisan divide as parties fight over who will have the power of the presidency and that has certainly been true this year.
The second year of legislative sessions are more volatile and focus on divisive issues as one side puts the other on record from abortion to welfare.
This year the partisan wrangling began early and continued until the last session day in the House March 12 that went into the morning of March 13 when Republicans vented through a slowdown of the proceedings after seven GOP members were reprimanded for not attending or failing to provide documentation they attended sexual harassment prevention training.
But all legislative action ended soon after as Senate President Donna Soucy and House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff shut down the legislature and closed the State House and Legislative Office Building to all but the governor and his staff and the Secretary of State and his staff.
Lawmakers went home to wait out the coronavirus that had begun infecting people across the state and today has infected at least 4,500, hospitalized 440 and killed 242 as of Saturday.
Despite those numbers state political and health officials believe it is safe for the Legislature to resume sessions the second week of June, one week later than the scheduled last day of the 2020 session.
But prior to resuming session days, House — and last week Senate — committees have been meeting remotely to hold executive sessions, take testimony from state officials and hold public hearings.
The sessions have been available to the public either via telephone, Zoom or some other format, all requiring herculean efforts by key lawmakers and staff.
There was an early glitch with the Education Funding Commission when its meeting was “Zoom bombed” but since then security has tightened and no other incidents have occurred.
While not a full slate of committee meetings, the key committees are doing what they need to do to continue the 2020 session.
For the first time since the Civil War, the House and Senate will not meet in their respective chambers.
The House will meet at Whittemore Center on the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus, and the Senate will meet in Representatives Hall to allow space for social distancing.
Representatives and Senators will be screened for COVID-19 before they enter their sessions as will staff and reporters who decide to venture to Concord or Durham.
Face masks are likely to be required and several other guidelines will be announced this week.
The general public will not be allowed in the State House or Whittemore Center, but both sessions will be live streamed as they usually are.
Whatever the outcome, it is clear the coronavirus has dramatically changed how lawmakers conduct their business and a return to the normal “legislative routine” is remote if not a year or two away.
The normal legislative process draws crowds: people to testify, others to observe, and the ever-present media and lobbyists.
It is not unusual for the most controversial bills to entice several hundred people to journey to Concord to witness government in action.
Even with less controversial bills, 40 or 50 people fill small hearing rooms, a much larger crowd than the current 10-people limit under Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive order.
And more importantly the crowded hearing rooms, halls, lobbies and cafeteria do not allow for proper social distancing or anything resembling the recommended six-foot circle.
And due to today’s political environment, protections against the coronavirus have been politicized: some do not believe in social distancing or wearing a face mask while others do.
What better place to make your political statement than on a live stream of the House or Senate.
The situation is difficult at best and has the potential to be ugly, and there is reason to believe it will be.
After Shurtleff and Senate President Donna Soucy announced sessions would resume, House Minority Leader Dick Hinch criticized spending $200,000 on a voting system. With 400 members — actually a few less — taking a roll call vote without a voting system requires the House clerk to read down the rooster and each representative to vote yea or nay.
That process takes anywhere from half an hour to 45 minutes.
The number of roll call requests has increased substantially over the years, mostly requested by Republicans seeking to put their Democratic colleagues or members of their own party on record for any number of controversial issues.
If the usual number of roll calls are called without a voting system, the House may only be able to act on a dozen bills when it meets June 11.
And last week, Hinch announced the GOP caucus would not support a rule change to alter the deadline for crossover when the House has to send all its approved bills to the Senate and vice versa.
Other deadlines would need to be changed as well, or any action by the House would need a two-thirds majority.
He said the reason was a lack of communication, which Shurtleff said is a “preposterous and an outright lie.”
While Democrats control the House, they would need some Republican support to achieve a two-thirds majority.
Without the rule change, the only action the House can take on a simple majority vote is agree or not with Senate changes to House bills.
That is hardly worth the trip to Durham.
The GOP’s position would block any legislative action for the remainder of the year.
All the proposed legislation waiting for action in both the Senate and House would die including bills planned to address aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, or any adjustments lawmakers might want to make in the two-year operating budget with revenue shortfalls of several hundred million dollars due to the economic shutdown.
If you believe government does no good, you could not ask for a better scenario, or if you believe lawmakers made a mistake when they began holding sessions every year instead of every two years.
But maybe more to the point, with the legislature unable to act, the governor can make whatever adjustments he wants to the two-year operating budget to bring it into balance.
There is little the legislature could do after the Superior Court judge’s ruling last month that legislative leaders do not have standing to ask the court to block the governor from using the $1.25 billion federal CARES Act money as he sees fit, without legislative approval or even a vote of the Executive Council on specific COVID-19 related contracts.
There is one small alleyway to compromise.
The GOP House members and the governor want to block an almost certain increase in business tax rates. The budget compromise between Democrats and Sununu after he vetoed their budget last year, included a provision to raise business tax rates if those revenues were 6 percent or more below projections, which is likely by the end of the fiscal year June 30.
To change the budget law would also require a two-thirds majority without the rule change.
Republicans and Democrats may have to work together if the GOP and the governor want to block the rate increases.
If nothing happens legislatively, business tax rates will increase at a time many small businesses are closing or barely surviving the economic downturn. That is not going to look good for either party coronavirus pandemic or not.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.