By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The legislative session — as you might expect — began slowly this year as the House particularly has grappled with how to meet safely in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The only official session day for the 2021 House was held in a parking lot at the University of New Hampshire.
The day began with a traffic jam that held up the session for more than an hour-and-a-half and then technical problems delayed the session another 30 minutes.
In the time it took the House to begin its business, mostly fighting over rules for the next two years, the Senate met remotely on Zoom and went home having approved its rules and a bill giving towns and school districts flexibility to delay annual meetings due to the pandemic.
The House has not acted on the bill so Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order — we’ve been hearing those words a lot lately — to grant municipalities the flexibility they need this COVID-19 winter.
The House was slow to begin public hearings on bills, which the Senate began in earnest last month. The House employs hybrid public hearings with some members socially distanced and mostly wearing masks, in double rooms of the Legislative Office Building, with mostly Democrats staying home and connecting remotely.
All testimony is remote and anyone observing the action must also connect remotely.
The arrangement is obviously done to protect the health of members and the public but does take a little longer and often technical issues can disrupt things. And that darn unmute button is not always clicked when someone talks.
However, the House is struggling through and meeting most five days a week to “catch up” to meet its deadlines.
Those pesky deadlines are going to make things very interesting for the House before this month is over.
The House deadline for committees to decide on bills going to another committee — bills containing appropriations have to go to Finance — is less than two weeks away, Feb. 18.
The deadline to act on those bills is a week later Feb. 25.
The full House has yet to take action on any bill while the Senate held one session day last week and has another scheduled this week with at least two controversial bills: an independent redistricting commission and right-to-work.
In this week’s House Calendar, House Speaker Sherman Packard of Londonderry announced the House would be meeting Feb. 24 and 25.
He also said leadership found a facility twice as large as the Whittemore Center hockey rink which served as the House’s home at the end of the 2020 session. That much room was needed to provide enough room for social distancing and other safety precautions.
He notes, “The venue is heated, and is equipped with contagion reducing HVAC equipment. We expect to produce a similar health and safety protocol plan for this event as we have for other events.”
Good luck with that as about 70 to 80 members have refused to wear masks at official gatherings this session.
In the two days at the end of the month, the House will have more than 100 bills to act on, if not 200.
Representatives have to hope this Speaker will splurge for more comfortable chairs than those at the Whittemore Center.
And now that Republicans are in control, some Democrats may remember how some GOP members lengthened the two-day sprint before Cross Over last year ending the last session in the morning hours of the next day. Since that day, the House has not met in Representatives Hall and may not meet there this year unless the pandemic subsides substantially.
The amount of work facing House members at the end of the month makes it ripe for mischief if that is what some want to do.
In the past many bills were pulled off the Consent Calendar, which is used to pass “non-controversial bills with nearly unanimous committee support” with a voice vote. Dozens or even a hundred bills can be passed this way at the beginning of a session day.
There are usually several bills removed from Consent, often by the sponsor to be heard separately at the end of the regular calendar, but if half or more are removed, it will indeed be a very long two days.
The other technique is to “debate bills” that normally would not have any debate or ask questions of committee members to elongate the day.
The Senate has a different deadline for the first action on its bills, and a lot fewer bills to go through the process especially with the omnibus packages developed last session and carried over into this year as leaders try to limit the number of public hearings and session days needed with the pandemic still raging.
The Senate’s deadline for first action is March 11 with Cross Over — when all Senate bills must be acted on and either tabled, killed, turned into a study committee, or passed and sent to the House — is April 1, an appropriate day.
The week the House meets, the Senate will be on its traditional mid-winter break.
The House Cross Over deadline is also April 1, with the exception of the budget package, but the House will have no vacation.
Crafting the budget will complicate things for the House.
Sununu will give his budget address Thursday Feb. 11 at noon remotely.
Eleven months ago the state’s budget prospects looked bleak, but the state’s current financial picture is not as dire as feared.
The big question is not what Sununu proposes in the next two years, but how he plans to address the $81.5 million deficit from the 2020 fiscal year.
Revenues this fiscal year are above what budget writers anticipated before the pandemic, with enough to cover the $81.5 million entirely, sort of because that is not the state’s entire financial picture.
On a cash basis, revenues are $114.9 million above estimates, but $30.8 million has to be deducted. While the money was collected this fiscal year, it has to be credited to fiscal year 2020 which ended June 30.
The revenues are only half the picture, spending or appropriations are the other half.
Some agencies may spend more money than budgeted due to state or federal laws that require certain services like Medicaid, and others may overspend to take advantage of federal funds like the Federal Emergency Management Agency money that needs a 25 percent match, which is usually split between the state and municipalities 12.5 percent each.
But the state has been able to use part of the $1.25 billion federal CARES Act money to cover the match for the FEMA money.
And all agencies are expected to produce savings or money appropriated that budget writers count on not to be spent —about 3 percent — although it was higher in 2020 due to hiring, travel, and new spending freezes imposed by the governor.
The governor and Republican leaders have made cutting tax rates a priority for business taxes, the rooms and meals tax and the interest and dividends tax.
That will mean less revenue next fiscal year to spend.
The state does have $115 million in the rainy-day fund, which could be tapped if necessary, but lawmakers will be reluctant to do that initially because everyone’s bond rating from the state to school districts would be affected.
Once work begins on the two-year budget, it overshadows everything else, and legislative leaders use that to reduce the light on controversial issues.
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.