New Hampshire lawmakers sat in their cars on a cold January day and listened to the first legislative session of the year - by tuning into a radio frequency. Even their vehicles were socially distanced, each separated by a parking space, in Wednesday’s "drive-in" style meeting of the New Hampshire House in a UNH parking lot intended to mitigate the risks of COVID-19.
While social-distancing is a familiar enough practice in 2021, reminders of the day’s singular strangeness were not hard to come by: As the session began, a long freight train rolled by on tracks parallel to the parking lot. Microphones were brought to car windows for questions and debate, and voting was conducted via wireless devices that proved to be a bit temperamental. Some lawmakers had to hold theirs out their windows or step outside to have their votes recorded.
“If you’re having trouble with voting, please put on your hazard lights,” said House Clerk Paul Smith, who later admonished lawmakers for excessive horn-honking.
Among the main orders of business was the choice of a new leader. Rep. Sherman Packard, a Republican from Londonderry, was elected speaker of the House. Fellow lawmakers honked their car horns when the final vote tally was announced. Packard then stepped to the microphone wearing a mask and clad in a shearling coat and hat.
“This is an honor that very few people get to have. I promise you we will move forward and do what’s good for the citizens of New Hampshire,” he said.
Packard’s election itself was a reminder of the risks of COVID-19. The previous speaker, Dick Hinch, died from the illness last month, just one week after being elected to the House’s top job. Several other lawmakers, as well as at least one House staffer, have also tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the House has met both indoors in an ice arena and outside on an athletic field at the University of New Hampshire. In addition to electing Hinch’s successor, Wednesday’s session was dedicated to the adoption of rules for the next two years, including the fundamental question of how House lawmakers will meet to conduct business.
Democrats have pushed for remote meetings, but Packard said that wasn’t possible because the House hadn’t adopted rules to allow virtual sessions. Members later voted 187-149 against doing so. Republicans said there was still more to be worked out about how such remote meetings would actually be conducted.
In his address to his fellow lawmakers, Packard predicted a “difficult” state budget-writing process but said lawmakers would work to make it as painless as possible.
(Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.)