By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Fall will soon arrive at the State House and this is normally a time in the two-year process when lawmakers roll up their sleeves and work on committees of conference to see if they can come up with solutions to various issues.
This year they range from what to do about closing the Sununu Youth Services Center to revisions to the Site Evaluation Committee. And some are old issues that persist.
But this year is different.
In addition to being on different sides of various issues, lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, are seriously divided over COVID-19 matters.
Republican-controlled House and Senate leaders are refusing to allow remote attendance to committee hearings and are not requiring masks to be worn.
There are no rules about masks right now at either the State House or the Legislative Office Building. Many Democrats are concerned that requiring in-person meetings can be dangerous to one’s health.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Legislative Office Building was almost empty, although a number of committees of conference had met earlier in the day.
The only people in the LOB were a group of unmasked Republicans who were caucusing on the second floor.
A U.S. District Court judge previously denied the request of seven disabled House members who were seeking remote access. But the Federal First Circuit is expected to hear it Friday to determine if disabilities rights are being violated.
The seven Democrats who brought the suit included House Minority Leader Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, and was filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act saying they were entitled to accommodations in order to avoid contracting COVID-19 at the sessions, which could be deadly for them.
Attorney Paul Twomey, speaking for himself, said the hearing can be viewed at 10 a.m. Friday here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiq_Kg0zEPrjMFK_s-KP5_g/
“Refusing remote access in midst of a pandemic with cases skyrocketing shows an appalling lack of concern for the lives and health of their fellow representatives of both parties,” Twomey said.
But there may be other concerns.
State Sen. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye, a physician, noted two of his study committees could not be held for lack of quorum recently.
Sherman said without remote access, and the growth of the Delta variant of COVID-19 “we can’t get the work of the people done. We have the technology and we should be able to continue the work of the people.”
House Speaker Sherman Packard, who was elected by the Republicans upon the death of Speaker Dick Hinch, (who died of COVID-19 following the first in-person session of the new legislature in January) wrote in the Aug. 20 House Calendar, that the House needed to resume following rules requiring in-person meetings now that there is no longer a state of emergency.
While the House and Senate allowed for remote meetings to go forward during the height of the pandemic, when the governor had a State of Emergency in place, things changed on June 11 when he declined to reissue the emergency decree.
Packard said that meant the old rules related to in-person only and quorum requirements are back.
A copy of his remarks is here.
Gov. Chris Sununu has also refused to allow the continuance of remote access to Executive Council meetings since the emergency decree is ended. Sununu claims it sends a message to others to not be vaccinated.
Sen. Sherman said he does not buy it.
“You have to wonder why we would ever act to limit access, transparency. We have this remarkable tool to expand that capacity,” Sherman said.
He said he has a bit of an issue with remote access only as it relates to providing testimony.
“I think we need to start with rules,” he said, noting that out-of-state testimony in the past has limited time for in-state testimony.
“Anyone from anywhere can come and testify on a New Hampshire bill,” Sherman said. At a hearing this past year on a bill, he noted a doctor who had lost his license in Maryland came to testify against vaccines in New Hampshire and when it came time for doctors in New Hampshire to testify, time was more limited.
“It does make me concerned only on the testimony side. But being able to tune in and listen to what’s happening, I think we should embrace that as access and I can’t think of a single reason why we would not have them available remotely. There is just no downside. Unless they are afraid of something. That may be the public will catch on to what they are doing. I don’t know. I see no other reason not to do it,” Sherman said.