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Option to testify remotely on bills was popular in N.H. – and push is on to keep it

A photo of the empty house chamber.
Dan Tuohy
25 health providers and advocacy organizations sent a letter to legislative leaders in October urging them to continue allowing remote testimony.

As a COVID-19 survivor, Laurie Warnock was grateful to be able to testify remotely and safely last year on legislation related to her work as an EMT, Hampstead selectwoman, and state educator for the New England Poison Control Center.

This story was first published in New Hampshire Bulletin.

Carla Smith of Fremont, a professor of nursing at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Services, testified from her office on bills related to public and emergency health without having to find someone to cover her day’s courses. And Tiffany Dodier of New Hampshire Hunger Solutions saw remote access overcome the transportation and child care barriers that often keep their community members from showing lawmakers why easy access to food matters.

Each wants that option of testifying remotely to remain for the upcoming session for safety reasons and to expand public access to the legislative process. It doesn’t appear it will.

The House and Senate will stream meetings but allow only in-person testimony when lawmakers reconvene in January. Members too must attend sessions and committee meetings in person following a rejection this week of an effort to allow virtual attendance.

House spokeswoman Jennifer Tramp said once the state of emergency and emergency orders expired, so did the suspension of House rules that require a quorum of committee members to be present. Since June, the House has required all members to be present to vote. Mindful of COVID-19 risks, she said the Legislature has implemented safety protocols including updating air filtration systems and making masks and other personal safety measures available.

As for public testimony, Tramp said people can register their position on a bill online at the General Court’s website, and send an email to a lawmaker individually or to the full committee.

That is not assurance enough to those who want to continue testifying remotely.

With over 30 vaccine bills and several pieces of proposed health-related legislation, Smith is concerned the people lawmakers need to hear from most – a short-staffed health care workforce battling a pandemic – cannot afford the hours needed to travel to Concord and testify.

“It just boggles my mind that people don’t want that to happen,” she said.

Twenty-five health providers and advocacy organizations sent a letterto legislative leaders in October urging them to continue allowing remote testimony. And New Futures, which was among the 25, has collected more than 850 signatures on a petition urging lawmakers to do the same. When the agency asked people to share personal stories showing why remote testimony mattered to them, it got 160 submissions, 10 times what they typically see.

Jake Berry, the group’s vice president of policy, said he was glad to hear House Speaker Sherman Packard announce that the House will reconvene for its first three days off-site, at a 30,000-square-foot exposition center in Manchester, to give lawmakers room to socially distance.

But that is not enough, he said, for the members of the public who have safety concerns or cannot attend in person for other reasons.

“We saw firsthand the impact that (remote testimony can have),” he said. “There were dozens and hundreds of people who had been able to engage in the legislative process who hadn’t before and offer testimony on bills that are so impactful on their lives. They want to continue to have a voice in the legislative process. They want to have a say on the laws that impact their lives.”

Kristine Stoddard, director of New Hampshire public policy for the Bi-State Primary Care Association, works with the state’s community health centers, which serve about 120,000 people. It’s always hard for health center directors to get to a legislative hearing in Concord, she said, but they also want to ensure lawmakers get accurate information and have a chance to ask questions. That became both harder and easier once the pandemic hit: They were able to provide that information in the little time they had to spare.

“You’d never go into a court case and need experts but not bring them,” Stoddard said. “(Lawmakers) are passing legislation that affects everyone, and they need to hear from everybody.”

Warnock often provides lawmakers information on vaping, cannabis, and opioids. In her role as a selectwoman she advocates for her community, and she’d like to do that remotely when lawmakers take up a school voucher bill she believes will increase the burden on Hampstead taxpayers. Without that option, Warnock’s fear of contracting COVID-19 again or transmitting it may leave her with only two choices, neither of which she believes is effective: writing or calling lawmakers.

“If you want to make a truly accessible and transparent form of government, (remote testimony) should not be discarded,” she said.

Dodier agrees. Advocating for social services like access to food is most successful when lawmakers can hear the frustration in a client’s voice or see the struggle they are having accessing a program. She recalled one woman who held her baby while testifying remotely in favor of access to healthy and nutritious food for her family.

That visual is impossible in an email, she said, especially when that email never reaches a lawmaker.

“Go ahead and tell me that all the legislators read all the letters. That just doesn’t happen,” Dodier said. “There is too much legislation, too many bills. I’m not going to say none of them do, but they’d be hard-pressed to do it. There are not enough hours in the day.”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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