By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
While 2020 is a year few will forget, many hoped this new year would provide a brighter and more hopeful panorama to explore.
However, from a Concord perspective, the first few days of 2021 look a great deal like dirgeful 2020 days.
The Legislature has yet to meet in 2021, but the opening days of the upcoming term have already been weird with the death of newly elected House Speaker Dick Hinch from COVID-19, and highly partisan fights over rules and the opening day of the session Wednesday.
Democrats objected to speaker-elect Sherman Packard’s plan for an outdoor drive-in-theatre session, claiming it would disenfranchise disabled and health-compromised members, including House Minority Leader Renny Cushing.
A legal challenge under the Americans with Disabilities Act is likely as Democrats seek remote access instead of drive-in voting and debating from their cars.
In the House Calendar issued Friday, Packard explains the House lacks rules to allow remote sessions, although the state Supreme Court has said the House would still have a quorum if it meets remotely.
However, that is not likely to be the end of the debate leading up to Wednesday’s scheduled 10 a.m. session.
The Senate will be meeting remotely Wednesday, and lawmakers of both bodies will be participating remotely the next day for the governor’s inauguration.
However, for the first time in memory, there will not be a gubernatorial inauguration ceremony open to the public.
Late last week Gov. Chris Sununu, who will be sworn in for his third term as the state’s chief executive, cancelled the event planned for outside in State House Plaza to better protect people from the spread of COVID-19, which upended everyone’s plans for 2020 and has infected lawmakers and staff.
Citing armed protesters at his private residence in Newfields, the governor said for the sake of his family and the state’s citizens he cancelled Thursday’s ceremony.
A good argument can be made that it is not a good idea to picket the house of a public figure like the governor, especially when young children are involved and you show up with bullhorns so you can express your feelings about the governor and the actions he has taken.
The protests began after Sununu finally issued a mask mandate for people in public places, the final New England governor to do so.
Organizers of the protests, which include several groups such as NH Committee of Safety and Absolute Defiance, said the mask mandate was the last straw as they have objected to executive orders declaring an emergency, restricting business operations etc.
Several members of the groups claim Sununu overreacted, that no one was in his backyard armed and carrying ammunition etc.
In a statement to InDepthNH.org, Brennan Christen, an organizer of Absolute Defiance, said Sununu made several misleading statements about the protest noting the person arrested was on the town sidewalk and was carrying a concealed weapon allowed under state law.
Sununu signed the law repealing the state’s requirement for a permit to carry a concealed weapon issued by the local police department in his first term as governor.
Christen also said “Absolute Defiance has not only heavily discouraged protestors from bringing firearms, but also has full length videos and news articles with photos of previous protests and gatherings that refute Governor’s claim that participants were ‘armed,’ because no person openly carried a handgun or firearm at any of these protests.”
He said the real reason for cancelling the inauguration ceremony is because a large protest by the same groups was planned.
Participants were encouraged to bring bullhorns and pots and pans to bang to make noise during the ceremony.
The NH Committee of Safety with a half dozen elected state Representatives and about 80 citizens gathered Dec. 21 on the State House steps to support a Declaration of Independence from New Hampshire calling for the “Termination of office and Termination of the ‘state.’”
The governor’s mask mandate, Sununu’s executive orders shutting down the state due to the coronavirus and expanding his emergency powers, as well as the expansion of absentee voting were given as the reasons for the declaration, according to Daniel Richard of Auburn, who organized the NH Committee of Safety.
Several of the lawmakers were also sponsors of a House resolution to begin an impeachment investigation against Sununu, but it was withdrawn.
Inauguration ceremonies have occasionally drawn protests such as when long-time anti-Seabrook Station activist Stephen Comley was arrested just before former Gov. John H. Sununu was about to begin his third inaugural address in 1987.
Now Chris Sununu’s third Inauguration Ceremony will be done remotely with the five-member Executive Council and a few House and Senate members in attendance and others watching remotely.
Sununu will give his inaugural address at 7 p.m. Thursday evening, again not a public event.
And this is just the beginning of the two-year term.
There are two elements involved: the pandemic, which state officials hope is brought under control enough by late spring to hold in-person sessions again and the changing tone of New Hampshire and national politics.
The pandemic upended the 2020 legislative session bringing activity to a halt for several months and then a mad scramble at the end to pass essential or priority legislation, which was made more difficult by House Republicans refusing to agree to change bill deadlines.
The pandemic ended most legislative work in the State House and instead the House met in Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus.
A similar arrangement was planned for Organization Day but a nearly maskless GOP House caucus in Manchester resulted in four members contracting COVID-19 and the event was moved outdoors, but then Hinch’s death brought more change.
The Senate has already grouped most of its bills by topic and will have more omnibus bills like those at the end of last session to reduce the number of public hearings and to make its work more efficient as its 24 members work their way through these challenging times.
The House with 400 has many more difficult decisions to make in how best to preserve members, staff and the public’s health and safety but right now things are off to a very rocky start.
While Republicans gained control of the House in the November election, it is a divided caucus, which was evident as about 80 members refused to wear masks during Organization Day and some members tried to end Sununu’s state of emergency orders which give him enhanced gubernatorial powers under a 2002 law.
Four years ago, the House failed to pass its version of the two-year operating budget because of the divide in the Republican caucus and a similar situation appears to be on the horizon this two-year term.
With only a 13-vote majority, Sununu and Packard will have to find a way to unite the Republican caucus if they are to be successful.
With Sununu potentially eyeing a U.S. Senate run against incumbent Maggie Hassan, he can ill afford “a great divide” in the Republican ranks in the House.
The House leadership has the month of January to determine how best to move forward this session.
But somehow the legislature always finds a way to complete its work. The question this year is how efficiently and comprehensively lawmakers do the people’s business.
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.