As concerns over coronavirus upend daily routines around the country, in New Hampshire it’s been mostly business as usual for state and local governments.
That’s the case in the State House, where legislative deadlines mean lawmakers have so far kept their normal schedule in a busy time of year. On the local level, towns across the state prepare for town meetings this weekend.
NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Rick Lehmann, a Concord attorney and former counsel to the New Hampshire Senate, about why state and local government may be more resistant to sudden changes in procedure than other state institutions.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Rick Ganley: There are lots of possible reasons why quick changes to state and local government could be difficult here in the Granite State. However, the House did agree last night on a new rule to give the speaker flexibility in the future to amend legislative deadlines because of COVID-19. The Senate has not taken a similar action. What does it take for lawmakers to essentially hit pause on their duties in this busy time of year?
Rick Lehmann: All it takes is the agreement of 2/3 of the members of each body to do that. I believe late last night, the Senate did take an action similar to what the House did to authorize the Senate president to change the deadlines after consulting with the minority leader.
Rick Ganley: March [is a] super busy time of year. Deadlines mean bills are piling up and they need action from lawmakers. So how is that going to affect that?
Rick Lehmann: Well, they're going to have to make a decision about whether or not they're going to continue to plow forward with all the ordinary business, whether they're going to prioritize some bills and decide that other things can wait, or whether they're simply going to push the deadlines out and suspend everything until they have a better sense of where we stand with this virus.
Rick Ganley: It's also a campaign year. How do you think that affects things?
Rick Lehmann: Well, in the second year of every legislative session, there are a lot of bills sponsored by both sides that are intended to sharpen the issues for the campaign. My sense is that the first year budget is really the main piece of business the legislature has to do, and the campaign oriented bills in the second year might be able to wait. That's a decision for legislative leadership to make, though.
Rick Ganley: You've been around the State House and know its demographics. The legislature is older than the general population. The House session brings together hundreds of people into a single room. Given that the CDC recommends avoiding crowds and notes that the elderly are susceptible to this virus, why don't you think this is more of an issue for lawmakers?
Rick Lehmann: Well, I think that in the past 48 hours or so, we've seen a lot of mass events canceled. And the fact that the NCAA basketball tournament and all the professional sports leagues have suspended operations, I think may catch the attention of folks in the State House and effectively create an environment where it easier for them to suspend operations in the House and Senate as well.
Rick Ganley: This is also a busy time for local governments, Rick. Town meetings are scheduled this weekend across the state. We've seen in recent years how weather emergencies have caused postponements. This seems different. How big a deal is it for a town to try to put off an election or town meeting?
Rick Lehmann: It's a very difficult thing for a town. It's a lot harder for the towns than it is for the state legislature. The towns have only the authority that they've already been granted by the state, and they don't have a mechanism that authorizes them to put off their elections in the event of something like this coronavirus. So they're in a much stickier situation than the state legislature is.
Rick Ganley: Are you hearing anything from municipalities or towns about what they're planning to do or what they'd like to do?
Rick Lehmann: I haven't heard anything about it. What sometimes has happened in the past is that towns have had to take a chance and do an act that specifically authorized by law, and then go back to the legislature and ask the legislature to ratify that action after the fact. But that's a dicey proposition because there's no guarantee that the legislature will do that.
Rick Ganley: What would be the penalty if they didn't?
Rick Lehmann: Well, I'm not sure you could characterize it as a penalty, but any action that they take would not have legal effect if it's an affirmative act. If they simply fail to act, they run the risk of having budget issues, having budgets expire and run into trouble setting their tax rate, which is something that happens on a fairly tight schedule based upon the spending and degree of taxation that's approved at town meeting. That's a difficult situation for people responsible for running the town.
Rick Ganley: What would you advise a municipality?
Rick Lehmann: To call their state [representatives] and senators and try and ask them to rush through some sort of a mechanism to give them more flexibility, to at least postpone taking actions and town meetings and to extend existing budgets.
Rick Ganley: Yeah, I mean, there's a question of participation here [and] how many people are going to show up.
Rick Lehmann: There is a question. And then in every town, there are people who are motivated to see some things pass and other things fail. And it would be a shame to have the people who are most willing to risk getting sick be the ones who get what they want out of the democratic process and town meeting.