By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
This has been a challenging session for the New Hampshire legislature for many reasons.
COVID-19 has meant virtual or hybrid committee meetings, virtual sessions for the Senate, and in-person sessions held on athletic fields and parking lots in Durham and a sportsplex in Bedford for the House.
The Senate has returned to the State House for recent sessions, but has met in Representatives Hall to allow for social distancing.
Disabled Democrats filed a federal lawsuit at the beginning of the year seeking to access House sessions remotely, but House Speaker Sherman Packard refused saying it would require a change in House rules although the state Supreme Court ruled last year the House could meet remotely and still satisfy its constitutional requirements.
House Republicans voted down the rule change several times. Voting the change down helps the GOP maintain its slim majority as Democrats with compromised immune systems, disabilities or other health restrictions cannot vote if they are not physically at the session.
The House Speaker initially won the lawsuit with the federal judge citing legislative immunity, but the ruling was overturned on appeal.
A rehearing is scheduled after the House finishes its business at the end of the month making the issue moot with the majority enjoying a nice cushion this year.
The lawsuit was the beginning and since then there has been little collaboration between the two House parties, except to agree to hold the sessions in the Bedford sportsplex.
The COVID-19 pall over the session continues and has intensified the politicalization of the pandemic.
The politicalization extends to vaccinations and private and public rights to determine who is or is not vaccinated and what restrictions may be placed on those who refuse.
These kinds of polemics have extended to potential constitutional issues as the House and Senate approved bills challenging federal authority on gun restrictions and voting.
And COVID-19 also sparked foundational discussions of executive branch overreach and what constraints need to be placed on the next governor who tries to lead during a state of emergency.
The political unrest and upheaval prompted Gov. Chris Sununu to cancel his inauguration ceremony and instead broadcast it virtually from the State House with only a few present to witness his swearing in for a third term.
A protest was planned by those opposed to his executive orders restricting activities in the interest of public health and to his recent mask mandate during the outdoor inauguration ceremony.
And people also picketed his Newfields home.
But the new infections topping 1,000 a day began to decrease after a trying few weeks after the holidays.
Soon the vaccination of state residents picked up speed in February, and Sununu was quicker to relax restrictions than other New England governors citing the state’s impressive vaccination rate, which was recently found to be inflated due to double counting.
But with more than half the state with at least one shot, the rate of infections, hospitalizations and deaths has dropped noticeably.
And last week the governor ended the state of emergency he has kept in place since March 2020, setting the state on the road to “normalization” just in time for the summer tourist season.
Lifting the emergency declaration allows the public to return to the State House and Legislative Office Building beginning Monday just in time for the committee of conferences to negotiate Senate and House differences on 44 bills including the state’s two-year operating and capital budgets, as well as other issues like landfill buffers, gubernatorial authority during a pandemic, the state’s primary date, several education bills, and voting restrictions.
If all goes well, June 24 will be the last day the House and Senate meet until this fall when lawmakers return for veto day.
But going from organization day to June 24 has been a bumpy road.
Republicans regained control of the House, Senate and Executive Council in the last election and as the session progressed you would think the 2020 campaign never stopped.
But after gaining control and electing Dick Hinch House Speaker, he died from COVID-19.
Packard was eventually elected Speaker, but inherited the leadership team Hinch put in place.
The vast political divide was apparent from the beginning in the House and after two years out of power, the GOP was ready to flex its political muscles and not interested in playing nice with Democrats.
In an early session day, Democrats attempted to block an anti-choice bill by walking out so the House would not have a quorum and could not continue to act on bills.
But not enough Democrats left to accomplish their goal, unlike what their Texas counterparts did earlier this month to block voter restrictions.
But when it became apparent Democrats in New Hampshire were not successful, many members sought to reenter the building but were blocked.
Another incident killed dozens of Democrat-sponsored bills without a vote.
As the deadline for acting on House bills neared, the calendar was divided into three sections, with the third containing the bills mostly sponsored by Democrats that were killed when the House ran out of time and had to leave the sportsplex.
And the GOP wasted no time pushing through bills long aligned with the national party’s agenda, like public education changes, voting restrictions and expanding gun rights.
Problems surfaced in committee meetings as well with what once was unacceptable behavior by some members, and highly partisan statements by others.
It was not a pretty picture at times and far more people were watching electronically than could ever fit in a committee hearing room.
Packard at one point, noting the animosity, said he believes more face-to-face interaction on House committees would create camaraderie between members and lessen the friction, although that might be wishful thinking.
The Senate has always been a more congenial and bipartisan body, and that was mostly true this year as there were no arguments over remote access.
But there were several open microphone incidents that raised eyebrows.
The Senate traditionally puts the brake on immoderate legislation from the House, but not this session.
The Senate passed bills this session it would have killed or sent to interim study in the past, although it did make changes to lighten the effects.
A House-passed bill requiring the Attorney General to represent any school that displayed the nation’s motto of “In God We Trust” was on the Senate consent calendar, meaning it had a unanimous committee recommendation, and voted on in a block of similar bills at the beginning of the day’s session.
The committee’s recommendation was to kill the bill, but it was pulled off consent and approved with an amendment that included the state motto “Live Free or Die.”
Similarly, a House-passed bill prohibiting municipalities from regulating lemonade stands run by those under 18 years old was recommended to be killed on a 4-1 committee vote but was passed and did lower the age to 14 years old and requires the stand be on the person’s property.
Other major legislation on voting rights, public education and labor laws sailed through the Senate this session on mostly partisan votes.
Conservative Republicans have to believe they’ve accomplished a great deal this session, and they have.
But most long-time observers of the legislature will be relieved when this session comes to an end.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Rayno recently won an award for Distant Dome from the New England Newspaper and Press Association and was a lifetime award winner for the New Hampshire Press Association among many accolades over his career. 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.