By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The contrast between the Senate and House was apparent last week, although only the Senate was in session.
But at the same time they share a trait that ought to cause the state’s citizens to question who their elected representatives are serving
The shadow of COVID-19 has hung over the last three sessions, sometimes as a dark, dark cloud and at others only thinly blocking the sun.
From the beginning of the two-year session, the House and the Senate have handled the pandemic very differently.
The House has refused to release the names of members who have contracted the virus, telling only those thought —- and the key word is thought — to be close contacts.
The available information to other House members and the public who would like to know before venturing to the State House to testify or observe, has come from members of the House or through social media postings.
The House leadership has said it is to protect the privacy of members, but it also has to do with the bad publicity a GOP caucus received before the session began where at least four — if not more and likely late Speaker Dick Hinch — were infected with COVID-91.
Also the House’s Republican leadership has used the virus to its advantage, as a political strategy to keep a dozen or more at-risk Democratic House members at home to have a more comfortable margin with a nearly evenly split House among Republicans and Democrats.
The leadership has fought repeatedly to squash a lawsuit filed by disabled Democrats to have remote access to committee meetings and sessions.
The lawsuit has taken a number of twists and turns and is now back in the US District Court in Concord where it will not be resolved by the time the session ends at the end of May.
House Speaker Sherman Packard claims a change in House rules is necessary to allow remote sessions although the state Supreme Court gave the go-ahead two years ago.
And the Republicans have voted down at least four Democratic proposals to change the rules during this term.
On the other side of the wall, the Senate has been open about its members with COVID-19 and has allowed one member Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, to participate remotely while he was recovering from surgery.
This week D’Allesandro and Sen. William Gannon, R-Sandown, both participated remotely appearing on screens next to the Senate rostrum because they had COVID-19.
Their constituents were not disenfranchised because their elected representatives could not vote or debate the bills, like they are in the House.
To be fair, remote access is much easier for the 24-member Senate than the 400-member House.
There were two Senators that needed to be hooked up, not 30 House members and the Senate votes by individual roll call while the House takes votes electronically.
But the Senate has shown remote participation can be done and it is used in much larger legislative bodies than the Senate in other states.
The real reason to deny remote access to ill or at-risk House members is to suppress the number of Democrats voting so the Republicans have a cushion they might not have if all the Democrats could participate.
But don’t expect any member of leadership to say that out loud.
For many sessions now, the House has passed bills legalizing the recreational use of cannabis by adults only to see them — to use a cliche — go up in smoke in the Senate.
Although there were expectations this year would be different, it was not.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee spent double digit hours on House Bill 1598, which sponsors said was a compromise that legalized recreational use and would sell it through the Liquor Commission creating tens of millions of dollars in new state revenue.
The bill was not backed by many longtime legalization advocates because it also would have had an impact on the state’s medical marijuana service providers and growers for other states said the arrangement in the bill was impossible to achieve.
The bill initially passed the House on a 235-119 vote, and on a final vote after review by the Ways and Means Committee, 169-156. Its mojo was in decline.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee voted 5-0 to kill the bill and the Senate did on a voice vote.
The other bill, House Bill 629 would have legalized the recreational use of a small amount of cannabis and allowed people to grow a limited number of plants.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 to pass the bill.
The bill had passed the House on a 241-113 vote, or enough to override a promised veto from Gov. Chris Sununu.
Before the Senate debated the bill, some of the state’s police chiefs were introduced sitting in the Senate Gallery.
If there has been a constant in all the cannabis bills, from medical marijuana to decriminalization to legalization, it has been the police chiefs’ opposition to legalization and allowing home grow.
The debate was interesting as several Republican senators said despite the polls showing two-thirds of the state residents support legalizing marijuana use for adults, as their elected leaders they know best or something like that.
When the vote came, it was a bipartisan 15-9 to kill the bill.
And now advocates will have to wait another year with a new legislature to make their case once again.
The marijuana bill is an example of what has been going on this term more frequently than in the past.
There will be a massive display of support of opposition to a bill on an issue like the Education Freedom Accounts, or prohibiting mask or vaccine mandates or abortion bans, and the legislature votes against the wishes of the people they represent.
The Senate had the cannabis bills last week and the House had the latest Congressional redistricting maps.
The latest version from the GOP would group one congressional district along the I-93 corridor including all of Merrimack and Belknap counties and a little of Rockingham and Hillsborough counties as District 1.
It also would put the two Democratic incumbents in the same district but move all but one of the potential Republican challengers into the other district, District Two, which would be the rest of the state from Hinsdale to Pittsburg to Portsmouth.
The one GOP candidate who would be in District One with incumbents Ann McLane Kuster and Chris Pappas would be Matt Mower.
This map looks and feels like it was drawn by frat boys under the influence of alcohol who view politics as a game, but as representative government with a purpose.
This GOP map is no more popular than any of the others they have proposed for the Congressional districts or any closer to being a fair representation of the state’s partisan split than the House, Senate or Executive Council maps that have been approved.
But the Republicans on the House Special Redistricting Committee stuck together and the map was approved on an 8-7 party line vote last week.
The latest partisan gerrymandered map will come before the House this week.
Gov. Chris Sununu has already said he does not like the map but not that he would veto it like he did their first plan passed by the House and Senate.
It looks like the Congressional maps may be drawn by a special counsel hired by the state Supreme Court to have definitive districts for the filing period beginning June 1.
You have to wonder if this legislature can continue thumbing its nose at the majority of state citizens on key issues without people deciding they have had enough.
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. 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.