COVID-19 loomed over Wednesday’s meeting of the New Hampshire House.
Lawmakers met in Bedford at the 50,000 square foot NH Sportsplex, to keep social distance.
The session opened with Merrimack Republican Jeanine Notter offering a teary recollection of former Speaker Dick Hinch, who died of the coronavirus in December, a week after winning the speaker’s gavel.
“May his memory be eternal,” Notter told colleagues.
But Hinch’s successor, Speaker Sherman Packard, was in the spotlight all day long.
The House’s voluntary mask policy ignores Governor Chris Sununu’s executive order of a statewide mask mandate. The Attorney General says that is permissible due to the legislature being a coequal branch of government, but it was the first order of business.
“This is a masked section, that is a masked section, there is a section over there that is unmasked,” Packard explained at the session’s start. “The section that is unmasked, I’m requesting when you are out of your seat, please put your mask on,” Packard said.
Among the bills the House passed -- along party lines -- were GOP proposals that would allow lawmakers to overturn emergency orders by the state’s top health official and to forgive businesses sanctioned for flouting state coronavirus guidance.
“The people and the businesses of New Hampshire have suffered enough. And we must stop adding to their pain. And adding to their financial losses,” said Chris True, a Republican from Sandown.
The Attorney General’s office says the state has cited eight businesses for violating COVID-19 guidance tied to Sununu’s executive orders, with fines totaling $10,000.
Democrats said the bill sends the wrong message to businesses and individuals who have worked to keep their neighbors safe.
“What HB 63 would do is send a clear and unmistakable message to every person or business who has followed the rules to ensure the safety of others: your state has chosen to reward people who chose not to follow the rules during the worst public health crisis of the last 100 years,” said Portsmouth Democrat David Meuse.
Sununu criticized House Republicans along similar lines.
“We can’t claim to support law and order, then incentivize law breaking and reward those who do not follow the rules,” he said after the vote.
But on this day most tensions were partisan, and Republicans -- at least those in the House -- stayed united all day long.
Democrats repeatedly complained they were being ignored when they tried to get the speaker’s attention in the indoor sports complex.
“This is the fourth time I’m standing up to get an answer, and every time it has not been recognized,” Democrat Latha Mangipudi of Nashua complained. “Do I have a right to ask a question, when I am here, against medical advice to participate?’
Later, most Democrats left the building in protest. When a quorum was threatened, Speaker Packard ordered the doors locked. Packard was then challenged for not letting a lawmaker return.
“I understand your ability to lock people in, I’ve never heard of your ability to deny a member entrance to the chamber,” Democrat Mary Beth Walz of Bow said.
“I’ve tried to be as patient as possible,” Packard replied.
Republicans used their enhanced advantage to push through a bill that would criminalize withholding medical care for any baby born alive, regardless of circumstances. Earlier, they passed a proposal that would prohibit abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy unless the mother’s health was threatened. Neither of the bills had been recommended for passage in committee.
“At 24 weeks the unborn are considered viable and this bill allows them to have the same right to life as any other human,” said House Majority Leader Jason Osborne.
The session continues tomorrow. Bills slated for votes include proposals to expand the permissible use of deadly force, and a plan to bar police from using rubber bullets and tear gas.