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Against Pandemic Backdrop, N.H. Lawmakers Return To Business This Week

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Things are getting busy again at the New Hampshire State House with the start of the new year. This week, both the Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu begin new terms against the backdrop of a worsening COVID-19 pandemic. NHPR Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers discussed this with All Things Considered Host Peter Biello.

Peter Biello: So the Legislature is going to meet on Wednesday, for its first formal session day of the year, but it'll look quite a bit different than it has in the past, right?

Josh Rogers: It certainly will be. The Legislature is going to be meeting in a big parking lot at the University of New Hampshire, in a “drive-in movie” style. The session is going to be broadcast on a frequency, so lawmakers will be able to tune in from their cars. And if they want to talk, they're going to have to get out of their cars and speak into microphones held on long boom poles. Messages will be conveyed by staffers driving golf carts in between the socially-distanced parked cars; there are going to be open air vehicles on hand to shuffle lawmakers to bathrooms. It's going to be quite a scene, you know, but the goal, according to acting House Speaker Sherm Packard, who is also expected to win election as House speaker on Wednesday, is safety.

The question of health and safety really can't help be in the air, with several lawmakers having been diagnosed with COVID-19 in recent weeks, most seriously, of course House Speaker Dick Hinch, who died last month from the illness.

Peter Biello: Democrats have raised several complaints about this plan. What are they saying?

Josh Rogers: Well, they're saying right now that this meeting really doesn't need to take place this way, that it could be done remotely, and that it's too dangerous given the scope of the pandemic right now. And they point to the fact that the state Supreme Court ruled last year that remote legislative meetings are permitted by the New Hampshire Constitution and that, you know, basically doing this puts people at risk. And some Republicans are adamant, meanwhile, that the House should always meet in person. Republican leaders haven't ruled out going remote in the future. But until the House sets formal rules on the matter, they say it can't happen.

It's worth noting that the state Senate, which is also controlled by the GOP, is holding its first meeting remotely, also this week. But the New Hampshire House is always its own animal. And the reluctance of House leaders to go remote might change if Sherm Packard wins election as speaker. Certainly, he's got to make sure he has the votes needed to win, including Republicans, of whom there are definitely more than a few who believe that the House really has a duty to meet in person, pandemic or not.

Peter Biello: Governor Sununu also will be formally inaugurated this week. That's on Thursday. But that, too, is going to be very different than it has been in years past. Can you tell us about that?

Josh Rogers: Well, it stems from demonstrations that have been taking place outside his private home, which have really been going on for weeks, the point of which is to protest COVID-19 restrictions. Some of those demonstrations have included people who are armed. Because of all that, the governor said last week that it was prudent to pull the plug on a public inauguration. He says it's for safety reasons and to avoid disruption. So instead of a morning or midday ceremony and speech, the governor is going to be offering an address that the public can watch via live stream; NHPR will be broadcasting it as well.

The governor's office tends to keep the content of these speeches pretty close to the vest beforehand, but it’s certainly hard to imagine that the pandemic and the state's response to the pandemic won't be a major topic.

Peter Biello: So the pandemic is disrupting both the way legislators are meeting and the way the governor's addressing the public this week. Does this foreshadow further significant changes for the State House this year?

Josh Rogers: Well, we'll see. The logistics of lawmakers getting back to the State House remain pretty murky. I mean, before he died of COVID, then-Speaker Hinch spoke of, quote, “reoccupying the Legislative Office Building.” That's where the Legislature gets the bulk of its work done, holds hearings, and so on. That seems very far off at this point. Last spring, the House and Senate obviously moved some of its business to Zoom and the like. That's when Democrats were in the majority at the Legislature, of course.

The governor, meanwhile, due to emergency powers, was able to bypass a lot of the oversight lawmakers traditionally have over the executive branch. No one expects the governor to end the state of emergency anytime soon. Republicans, though, are eager to play an active role in setting state policy. And while you won't hear a lot of them say it publicly, I think it's fair to say that some are concerned they could be sidelined. Not likely to be as much as Democrats were last year when it came to doling out federal COVID aid, but Sununu will really be expecting to call the shots perhaps a bit more than they'd like.

Peter Biello: And when they do finally get to work, what are some of the biggest challenges facing the governor and lawmakers this year?

Josh Rogers: Well, this is a state budget year in the state, and the budget's always a challenge - a big one, potentially, especially due to COVID. Revenue loss due to the pandemic has so far been a bit less than what had been anticipated. But crafting a budget that meets needs while adhering to political imperatives, it could be a challenge. Remember that the governor and GOP leaders have said tax cuts are coming. In addition, we have the public health issues that arise from COVID. We have segments of the economy struggling due to the pandemic.

And we've got perennial issues, as well. We have a school funding lawsuit outstanding, for instance. And while Republicans have the majority, their majority in the House is really pretty slim. If we can put the pandemic aside, it's certainly worth remembering that controlling everything in Concord, as Republicans now do, can end up being easier said than done.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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