N.H. House Speaker Sherman Packard from Londonderry says State House security is taking precautions after reports of planned protests in connection with President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. Republicans in the state legislature elected Packard last week after he served as acting speaker following the COVID-19 death of his predecessor, Dick Hinch.
Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Packard about House plans for this session.
Rick Ganley: You were officially elected on the same day that thousands of pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol. I know Governor Sununu has said President Trump is partly responsible for that violence and called those involved in the attack "domestic terrorists," though he has stopped short of calling for the president's removal. I'm wondering if you agree that the president is responsible for last week's violence.
Sherman Packard: Last week's violence was inexcusable. You know, sitting here and speculating as to who's responsible and who isn't responsible, to me, isn't as relevant as condemning what happened down there. Everybody has the right to protest. I mean, that to me, it's a freedom of speech issue. And I will stand up and defend it, you know, to my last breath in a manner of speaking.
But nobody has the right to do what happened down there, to break into the United States Capitol - which is sacred ground as far as I'm concerned - and damage it and frighten the people. And it was just absolutely inexcusable. Who's to blame? I have to say that it bothers me when we start placing blame. For the last year, groups like Antifa have been running around this country, burning down buildings, destroying buildings, taking people's jobs away from them, looting and everything else. And I don't hear anybody saying, well, who instigated them to do that?
Rick Ganley: Well, sir, I know various organizations are part of what has been called an umbrella of Antifa. But also the truth of the matter is President Trump was seen in various social media circles. He was seen on television, of course, you know, asking his supporters to fight, to go to the Capitol. And I know that you have called the violent insurrection "barbaric." I think you said a "barbaric assault." I'm wondering now if you think that President Trump should be held accountable in any way for what happened last Wednesday.
Sherman Packard: President Trump's going to be out of office in less than a week. So let's move on.
Rick Ganley: There is division within the Republican Party nationwide over his legacy. How do you see the divide applying to your job, running the House here in New Hampshire?
Sherman Packard: You know, we're focusing too much on somebody that's not going to be president in a week, okay? You know, we have strong Trump supporters in our caucus. I think most of our caucus supported the president. I'm not focusing on somebody that isn't going to be our president, that isn't going to have any influence over whatsoever. I'm focusing on what -
Rick Ganley: You don't think he'll have any influence over the Republican Party?
Sherman Packard: I'm not saying he might not have influence over the Republican Party. He's not going to have influence over what we do here in New Hampshire to pass a budget, to pass redistricting, to pass education reform, to pass election reform. That's what I concentrated on, not what's going to happen to President Trump a week from now.
Rick Ganley: Okay, well, I do want to get to some of those issues that you're addressing there. I do want to ask you of something of a more immediate concern, though. The FBI sent an alert Monday to law enforcement agencies in all 50 states warning of calls for armed protests within the next week, specifically related to the inauguration. The New Hampshire State House, you know, is one of the least guarded government buildings in the country by design. What kind of preparations have been made to ensure that security at theSstate House over the next week will be done?
Sherman Packard: I have been in contact with law enforcement, the security people in the building here, and I'm sure they are taking every precaution that they need to take to make sure that what happened in Washington doesn't happen here.
Rick Ganley: Are there any specific threats or worries that you've heard of?
Sherman Packard: Not that I specifically heard of, but, you know, this is a day-by-day thing that, you know, we get information on. So we'll make those determinations as the days go on.
Rick Ganley: We certainly pride ourselves in New Hampshire in having that open state house. Are you worried about that going forward?
Sherman Packard: I hope I never have to do what has been done in the United States Capitol. And even getting into the office buildings, you know, down in Washington where the congressmen are, where the senators are. I've been down there many, many times. It's discouraging that we have to do that. I understand it. I hope we never have to get to that point in New Hampshire, at least it's not on the table right now.
Rick Ganley: Last week, the House met for a drive-in session at UNH where Republicans voted against adopting rules to allow virtual sessions. That is something House Democrats were pushing for. You've said there's still more to be worked out about how remote meetings will be conducted. Can you describe what you expect the next gathering, the full House to look like?
Sherman Packard: At this point, we still have options on the table that we're working on. I'm not going to give any specifics right now because nothing's been determined. But you've got to understand, there's a huge difference between the Senate, which is 24 members, and 400 members of the House trying to do everything virtually with voting, with making sure that the person voting is the person who should be voting. There's a huge, huge difference. And I've heard from the Democrats that oh well this company does it and that company does it. You've got to understand that we have a very limited staff here, very limited compared to almost every other State House in the country and, you know, huge corporations and stuff.
So, it isn't as easy as just saying we're going to do virtual meetings for 400 people and making sure that, you know, the votes are secure. We've worked out how we're going to do our hearings. Those we've got pretty much set. We're going to start hearings next week with maybe one or two to make sure that we've got all the bugs worked out of the system. And then we're going to be doing hybrid hearings for the immediate future. The sessions, that's the next thing we're going to tackle.
Rick Ganley: I know that crafting a new state budget is going to be the main order of business facing lawmakers this year. You said the pandemic makes that even tougher than normal, but that you want to make it as painless as possible. Republicans say they also plan to cut taxes this year. Are further tax cuts an absolute for you at this point?
Sherman Packard: Nothing is an absolute. It is my intention of reducing some of the taxes, maybe the rooms and meals tax, maybe the business profits tax. And we're going to look at all those things. Right now, the revenues aren't as bad as they are in some other states. We'll see where we end up with the revenues and then we'll move forward. But, you know, it is our intention to try and reduce some of the taxes at this point, yes.