In a busy and socially distanced session, the full New Hampshire Senate returned to Concord Tuesday for the first time since COVID-19 closed the State House in March.
While the subject matter of the legislation at hand may have seemed familiar – environmental policy, a proposed minimum wage increase, and health care bills – the setting and procedure were far from normal.
The session was held in the 400-member Representatives Hall, where the New Hampshire House usually meets. The 24 senators, each wearing a mask, sat spaced several rows apart from each other in the cavernous chamber, at wooden desks specially placed for the occasion.
From the outset, Senate President Donna Soucy stressed the need to protect public health.
"I'd ask all of you, if you haven't already, to please remove the bags from the microphones,” she told her colleagues. “They were sanitized."
Health concerns addressed, senators worked to move fast though a heavy agenda. Bills aiming to lower the cost of prescription drugs and expand telehealth cleared the Senate with near universal support. A sweeping bill that would outlaw the use of chokeholds by police in New Hampshire and require officers to report misconduct by fellow officers also passed with near unanimous support.
But some bills, including a plan to increase New Hampshire's minimum wage and a bill to permit online voter registration, passed along strict party lines.
Many of the bills have been key election year priorities for the Legislature’s Democratic majority. That includes proposals to allow people to register to vote online, to require insurance companies that provide maternity coverage to also cover abortions, and a bill to raise the state's minimum wage to $12 per hour. Those all passed along partisan lines.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Dietsch of Peterborough told colleagues a higher minimum wage would boost the economy.
“Giving money to those who would spend it immediately increases spending everywhere, which raises all boats much faster than letting companies save a bit by cutting expenses,” Dietsch said.
Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the last Democrat-backed plan to lift the minimum wage and is likely to veto the bill approved Tuesday if it reaches his desk.
Among the bipartisan bills was one clarifying state policies dealing with PFAS chemicals. Among other things, the bill would re-authorize the state's tight new limits on four kinds of PFAS, industrial chemicals linked to health problems.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse said the PFAS measure involved a lot of work from a lot of people.
“I think it’s very important to get this legislation done, so our communities have confidence in us, and we’ve accomplished a lot and I thank everyone for coming together,” he said.
The bill also includes $50 million for a loan fund to help towns and businesses comply with the new PFAS rules. Lawmakers expect future legal settlements with chemical-makers to boost that fund.
Measures that cleared the Senate will now head back to the House. But because of missed deadlines in the lower chamber and partisan differences over rules, actions there will be limited to accepting or rejecting the Senate-passed bills as is.