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N.H. House Prepares To Meet 'Drive-In' Style, But Democrats Question Safety

N.H. House members meeting outside in December, 2020.
Todd Bookman / NHPR
Members of the N.H. House of Representatives meeting outside at the University of New Hampshire on Dec. 2, 2020.

Republican leaders in the New Hampshire House say they're confident that a drive-in style meeting at the University of New Hampshire will provide a safe place for lawmakers to gather next week. But the proposal has elicited criticism from Democrats, who say it doesn’t provide for the health needs of lawmakers with disabilities or underlying health problems that make then susceptible to COVID-19 infection.

In a letter to House members Monday, Acting House Speaker Sherm Packard said by using the largest parking lot on the UNH campus, and spreading their cars from each other, lawmakers can meet safely in order to open the new session on Jan. 6 and elect a permanent House Speaker. House Speaker Dick Hinch died from COVID-19 a week after being elected to that post earlier this month.

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Lawmakers would be required to wear facemasks when outside of their cars, and they could follow the session’s proceedings through an FM transmission on their car radios. It was unclear how the plan would accommodate members of the public or the press.

Packard called the proposal, which he said had been reviewed by UNH and Durham police as well as the state Department of Public Health, “the most risk-mitigated session of the House yet during this pandemic.”

But Democrats say the proposal is still risky and overly-complicated and doesn’t do enough to accommodate lawmakers with disabilities. House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing said the House should consider a virtual option to allow lawmakers to participate from home.

"It's absurd in the height of the pandemic that the leader of the Republican majority is doing everything possible except the most logical thing to do... which is to allow us to meet remotely,” Cushing said.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has determined that remote legislative sessions are permitted under the constitution. The state Senate will meet remotely when it convenes next week.

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