Editor’s note: Paula Tracy and intern Catherine McLaughlin covered behind the scenes and Garry Rayno will report on the Senate action in separate story.
By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – In hopes “getting some good work done,” members of the Senate returned to the State House for the first time in three months Tuesday to hold their first session since March.
Senators tackled issues ranging from expanding internet broadband to rural corners, permanently establishing telemedicine, election law reform to allow for no-excuse absentee ballots, importing drugs from Canada, ensuring abortion is covered by insurance, increasing the minimum wage to $10 and $12 by 2023, and banning police from using choke-holds, among others.
But they began by remembering, with a moment of silence, the 320 residents of New Hampshire who have died from COVID-19 since they last met.
The rules focused less on Roberts Rules of Order and more on keeping people separated at a distance to prevent further spread of the highly contagious virus. Senators were asked to stay in their seats at all times, rather than rising as usual and spoke through masks into microphones at makeshift desks among the chairs on the floor of Representatives Hall.
For the first time since the Civil War, the 24-member Senate met outside its historic and recently renovated chambers. Also historic was the lack of public access to the people’s house.
The public was not allowed in the building. There were no lobbyists.
Supporters of bills to increase the minimum wage, like Faith Sillars of Pittsfield, representing the Concord Friends group, and Eileen Brady of Nashua, representing Voices of Faith, stood with cloth masks on and handmade signs near the steps of the State House, greeting senators as they arrived.
While the public was kept out to protect their health and that of the Senate, public access to the session was made available through live streaming video on the internet through the state’s website. The state’s press corps numbering about a dozen were the only non-senate members or staff allowed in the building and they were spaced apart in the 120-seat House balcony in designated chairs.
“Keep SIX FEET APART!” the sergeant at arms barked as we stood about five feet from each other, with our masks on, having both tested negative this past week for COVID-19. Still, those were the rules.
To get to everyone’s designated seats, senators and the media needed to enter the building at staggered times through a secure entrance off Park Street where they were screened for their health. It included touchless temperature readings, distribution of face masks and shields with their names on them, instructions to ride the elevator alone, and that they would only be able to access washrooms on the second floor, with a matron located outside the washroom restricting access to one person at a time.
It became a great meeting space and the only interviewing spot for reporters to access members of the Senate.
While the House met as well for the first time outside their chamber of Representatives Hall at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham last week and dispensed of most of their business along party lines, this too seemed cavernous and virtually empty to have only 24 people sprinkled among the fan of 400 seats.
Standing at the lectern below the portrait of President George Washington, where normally Speaker of the House Steve Shurtleff presides, Senate President Donna Soucy welcomed the Senate back saying she was “pleased to see each and every one of you,” though she noted the extraordinary circumstances.
The Senate will take up an extremely large body of legislative work in only a few weeks, in many cases focusing on a bipartisan basis to get bills passed, as the last session of the two-year term will be on June 30. At about noon, the State House was surrounded by sounds of honking horns outside.
Members of the State Employees Association, with balloons, flags, and signs reading “350” drove in circles around the State House. They called attention to a lack of a contract for thousands of workers for the past year and called on Gov. Chris Sununu to come to an agreement.
The “350” signifies the number of days without a contract, one of the drivers said. Members of the senate on both sides noted it was familiar to them to be in Representatives Halls as they once were state representatives, but still strange in these circumstances to be resuming work in a different chamber.
State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he was hopeful that some good work would be able to be completed.
Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry said there has been hard work done in the past few weeks to put things together.
“We have really narrowed things down,” she said, “there is a lot of work to be done but we are up to the chore.”
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, said she too expects there to be some progress, and she noted it was good to be back doing the work of her constituents and complimented the staff with producing an organized session.
And Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, noted there is a large body of bipartisan work that has occurred in committee over the past few weeks using Zoom or remote means to communicate and that it is “by in large the work of the people,” that he said, he thought would be signed into law by the governor.
“I feel very good,” he said.
InDepthNH.org intern Catherine McLaughlin contributed to this story.