Lawmakers grapple with safety, logistics following NH House speaker’s death from COVID-19

  • New Hampshire House of Representatives meet for Organization Day on the field in front of the Whittemore Center on the campuse of UNH on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

  • There were state representatives missing during the Organization Day held at the athletic field in front of the Whittemore Center on the campus of UNH on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

  • In this Dec. 2, 2020 photo, New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch speaks during an outdoor legislative session at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. Hinch died, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, just a week after he was sworn in as leader of the state's newly Republican-led Legislature. He was 71. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Valley News
Published: 12/16/2020 2:44:16 PM

The risks that come with in-person committee meetings and floor votes attended by hundreds of people has some New Hampshire lawmakers predicting a rocky start to the upcoming legislative session, particularly following the speaker of the House’s death last week from COVID-19.

Without rules allowing for virtual participation, some Upper Valley lawmakers say they’re not comfortable tending to business in Concord or in Durham — where the House has been meeting temporarily — as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

And without enough lawmakers present, key committees might not have the quorum needed to advance the hundreds of new bills on this year’s docket.

“This is going to be a nightmare of a year,” said state Rep. Skip Rollins, R-Newport. “Look at last (session), all of the bills that didn’t get done.”

Rollins, 67, lamented how the Legislature was forced earlier this year to jettison many bills and combine others into packages in an attempt to salvage a session cut short by the pandemic.

Rollins, like many of his colleagues, doesn’t want a similar situation to take place once the House reconvenes next month. But, he said, the logistics of corralling 400 citizen legislators as they navigate a new normal will likely prove difficult.

While legislative committees are currently working remotely through Zoom, Republican leaders of the House and Senate haven’t yet put forward plans for future committee and floor meetings.

The official start of the session — scheduled for Jan. 6 — is still slated to take place at the University of New Hampshire. House leaders have said the gathering may take the form of a drive-in style meeting where lawmakers would vote from their cars.

Still, Rep. Sue Almy, D-Lebanon, predicted there will be some accommodation for the lawmakers who are either at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus or who decline to participate in person.

She said that’s because the death of House Speaker Dick Hinch — who died from COVID-19 on Dec. 9, a week after being sworn in during an outdoor session at UNH — brought forward a renewed awareness of the virus’s lethality.

“The very unfortunate death of the speaker may have made it easier to get them to go to remote meetings,” Almy said of the Republican caucus. “If they don’t, they’re probably going to lose a lot of staff and probably a lot of quorums.”

Almy, 75, was one of about 130 lawmakers who declined to attend the organization day ceremonies on Dec. 3 and was sworn in virtually the following day.

“I had already heard something about the antics going on,” she said, referring to a group of Republican lawmakers who refused to wear face masks or socially distance at the event.

Another Statehouse leader, Rep, Kimberly Rice, R-Hudson, disclosed her COVID-19 diagnosis in a Facebook post Saturday in which she described feeling horrible and said she was struggling to breathe.

Rep. Denny Ruprecht, D-Landaff, chose to attend the Dec. 3 House meeting and took additional precautions, such as wearing a medical-grade mask and staying away from others.

“But I think after what’s happened, a lot of the recent events since then, I’m feeling very uncomfortable attending any further sessions in person at this time until we can really get this situation under control,” said Ruprecht, whose district includes Orford and Piermont.

Ruprecht, 21, said he’d like to see the Legislature move forward with a hybrid model, allowing those who still want to gather to do so while other lawmakers can be remote.

The state Supreme Court in a 4-0 ruling last month said that it’s constitutional for the House to meet virtually so long as a quorum can be confirmed. However, the logistics required to make such a meeting possible are “not going to be easy,” according to Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill.

Ladd, who chairs the House Education Committee, pointed out that there are roughly 900 bills that will each require a public hearing and committee vote before moving on to either the House or Senate floor.

That means each committee could be charged with reviewing possibly more than 60 bills virtually, some of which will be contentious and, in normal times, would have led to committee rooms packed with those wanting to testify.

“I’m very concerned that we have some bills like education funding or the budget ... all that is going to have to be discussed and it’s very difficult to do it day in and day out,” Ladd said.

Lawmakers also would lose that face-to-face connection of talking that comes with discussing issues with constituents and experts in person, he said.

Still, the 75-year-old Ladd believes that remote meetings will likely be implemented at least until COVID-19 cases start to decrease.

“It’s going to be a very, very difficult process and we want to maintain transparency,” he said. “We want to maintain everybody having access to contribute.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.


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