Session To Kick Off Amid Lots of Unknowns as COVID-19 Cases Spike

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Nancy West photo

Garry Rayno is's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.


Optimism and endless possibilities usually greet Organization Day when the new legislature is sworn in and determines its leaders and constitutional officers.

The newly elected House and Senate members will meet at 10 a.m. Dec. 2 and after each body has elected its leaders, they will meet in a joint session to decide who will be Secretary of State and State Treasurer.

Organization Day will kick off the 167th Session of the New Hampshire General Court. That is the usual sequence of events for opening the 2021 session, but what is unusual this year is it will not be held in the State House.

What lies ahead for the 167th Session is unknown with the coronavirus running rampant throughout the state with about 1,000 new cases every two days, but what is known is this will not be a normal session.

While the expected House Speaker, Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, would like to have in-person public hearings on major bills and return to State House sessions as soon as possible, the health and safety of lawmakers, not to mention staff and the public may prevent that.

Already several older, at high-risk Democratic House members have said they will not be attending Organization Day or any other in-person meetings due to the virus’s potential threat to their health. And more may not be willing to risk infection as the session progresses.

If you spend time at the State House, you soon learn the place revolves around relationships and how lawmakers interact.

To be an effective lawmaker you need to be able to work with other people. You need to be a person who keeps his or her word, is straightforward, honest and willing to compromise to achieve at least movement toward a goal.

Those relationships are not developed overnight and take time and effort.

The old, old timers speak of the change in the State House atmosphere once the old Highway Hotel closed and lawmakers did not eat dinner or hoist a few adult beverages together after a long day of committee hearings or a contentious session.

Legislators came to know others they have disagreed with on the floor, as friends at night when they could talk about their children, the Red Sox or skiing Tuckerman’s Ravine in the spring.

After the Highway Hotel closed, lawmakers developed relationships in committees, in caucuses beyond Republican and Democrat, and over lunch across the street or a quick dinner break, or in the State House cafeteria.

Unless a lawmaker has been at the State House for a while with working relationships, developing relationships through remote hearings or sessions will take a herculean effort.

Without solid relationships, it is much easier to fall into blind partisanship or ideology and the nuances and mechanisms of what makes effective legislation will be lost.

Any new legislation creates winners and losers and understanding the political implications takes years to understand.

Without in-person committee meetings and sessions, the work of lawmakers will be significantly different than it has been.

While a vaccine sits on the horizon, it may be summer or next fall before enough people are vaccinated to “return to normal” if that is possible given the many changes COVID-19 has wrought.

The state Supreme Court recently issued its opinion the current legislature sought on meeting electronically or remotely. The court said meeting outside the State House in various electronically connected locations would not violate the constitution’s quorum requirements.

It declined to answer other questions posed by lawmakers and others about other constitutional requirements around legislative sessions.

After Organization Day, the first test in the new COVID-19 reality would be the governor’s Inauguration Day, but Gov. Chris Sununu already took the question off the table saying the ceremony will be held outside in State House Plaza where social distancing is possible.

And the issue of public hearings and session days will not be an immediate concern as House and Senate members often use much of January to bring new members and those with new committee assignments up to speed with their content areas.

The early weeks are also often used by the majority party to outline its priorities for the next two years and highlight major policy initiatives.

And the minority party does much the same but with the understanding most of its priorities are doomed to failure.

However, before any of that happens this year, the Republican majority already shows signs of division and as you might expect it is over restrictions and guidelines issued due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost four years ago, when Republican controlled the House and Senate, there was a major divide in the Republican Caucus as former Speaker Bill O’Brien sought to return to the podium while just under a majority of the GOP members backed former Speaker Gene Chandler.

The end result was Shawn Jasper was elected Speaker by Democrats and a significant number of Republicans. Later the split in the GOP was at the heart of the House’s failure to pass a two-year budget and the Senate essentially wrote the budget it sought.

The intra-party divide can also be seen in some bill requests filed by members that would reduce the governor’s authority over emergency orders and powers.

And at least seven Republican lawmakers have signed on to a resolution — with Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, the prime sponsor — directing the House Judiciary Committee to investigate if Sununu should be impeached.

That brought out the Republican hierarchy to knock down the suggestion but like all bills, unless it is withdrawn, the impeachment inquiry resolution will have a hearing before the House.

The House’s more libertarian leanings are also evident in a number of bill requests by returning and new lawmakers including one by Rep. Susan DeLemus, R-Rochester, urging the President to pardon her husband Gerald DeLemus, who is in federal prison for his involvement with Bundy Ranch standoff with federal agents in Nevada.

Other bills would limit the number of consecutive emergency declarations a governor could issue and would change the law Sununu cited to bypass lawmakers in accepting and spending $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money.

Another bill would require an audit of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery that oversaw the distribution of the money with the governor’s approval and another would prohibit evictions and foreclosures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there are not yet any sweeping proposals like the Democrats envisioned two years ago, there are lots of familiar issues like paid family and medical leave and increasing the minimum wage, and newer ones like encouraging big box stores and companies to pay their workers more so they are not eligible for Medicaid, which the state and federal government have to pay for.

While Organization Day is traditionally a new beginning holding hope and promise, this year the atmosphere may be a bit like the Twilight Zone due to the pandemic that continues to surge across the state with several thousand new cases a week and the highest number of hospitalizations since it began.

The next year for the legislature may be one of simple survival rather than sweeping changes.

Garry Rayno may be reached at

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for 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. is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.

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