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N.H. House Reconvenes for First Session Since COVID-19, But Advances Few Bills

Josh Rogers, NHPR
The venue where the New Hampshire House gathered for its socially distanced legislative session normally hosts athletic events and concerts at UNH.

The New Hampshire House met at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center Thursday, its first full session since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the state and the first outside of the State House in Concord since the Civil War.

“Up until a few months ago I never thought I’d see the day that we, members of the New Hampshire House, would not be able to meet in our historic chamber,” House Speaker Steve Shurtleff said. 

Inside the venue, which usually hosts the university's hockey team, lawmakers sported ace masks and shields — and practiced social distancing, for the most part. Despite the change in setting and added protective measures, in most other respects it was business as usual, as House Clerk Paul Smith reminded lawmakers.

“This is a House chamber,” Smith said. “The same rules apply that apply during the session. Gentlemen are not supposed to wear hats. There are not political campaign buttons or messages on masks and the speaker will act accordingly.”

But the session didn’t accomplish much. Partisan differences scuttled Democrats’ hope of amending House rules to allow lawmakers to take up bills after normal deadlines.

“By adopting such a schedule, we are abdicating our duty to do the people’s business,” said Rep. Carole McGuire, an Epsom Republican. Democrats, meanwhile said the focus should be on completing work on bills that have been vetted by committees.

“I believe that rather than saying, ‘Because it is difficult, we will do no work,’ it is better to say, ‘Because it is difficult, we will do as much as we can as well as we can,’” said Rep. Lucy Weber, a Democrat from Walpole.

Democrats also blocked Republican efforts to preemptively roll back business tax increases that could take effect next year. One bill did pass, with ease: a measure allowing restaurants to sell take-out beer in glass containers known as growlers.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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