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Even in N.H., a historic day for lawmakers

  • New Hampshire. State Representatives stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during an outdoor meeting of the New Hampshire House of Representatives in a parking lot, due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, at the University of New Hampshire Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 1/6/2021 5:30:22 PM
Modified: 1/6/2021 5:30:12 PM

The blaring car horns spoke volumes.

Moments after Rep. Sherman Packard was elected speaker of the New Hampshire House on Wednesday, supportive lawmakers in the University of New Hampshire Parking Lot A expressed their support in the best way the situation allowed: from their steering wheels.

Immediately, House Clerk Paul Smith gaveled from his dais at the front. “The House will be in order,” he said, his voice piping into nearly 400 car radios below.

The surreal moment kicked off what is likely to be one of the strangest years in New Hampshire legislative history – since the last one, at least. New Hampshire’s state representatives drove to Durham on Wednesday and parked in their own vehicles for a “drive-in” session arranged by the House Speaker’s Office as an attempt to mitigate concerns about COVID-19.

It’s a dilemma that is likely to continue. On Wednesday, the House voted down a Democratic proposal to allow it to meet remotely in the future, voting, 187-149, against a rule change that would let the speaker make that decision.

Democrats were incensed.

“This vote shows that House Republicans have absolutely no interest in working to protect the safety and well-being of representatives, staff, and Granite Staters in every corner of the state,” said Rep. Lucy Weber, the Walpole representative who proposed the amendment. “Meeting in person is a dangerous and unnecessary risk to take. For weeks, Republicans have been relying on a misleading claim that the House is not allowed to meet virtually because we do not have specific House rules authorizing us to do so.”

Rep. Steve Smith, a Charlestown Republican, countered that the motion was voted down because newly-elected Speaker Packard and Democratic leadership still needed to hash out the technological issues behind a remote meeting.

Wednesday’s event saw the election of Packard to the speakership, almost exactly a month after his predecessor, Dick Hinch, took the gavel. Hinch died of COVID-19 in early December, a week after taking the post, the state medical examiner said.

New Hampshire Republicans reclaimed the State House last November, flipping a Democratic control of the chamber to a present 212-187 Republican majority.

Upon taking the gavel, Packard, a Londonderry representative, thanked three people who have passed away: his father, who served as Senate president; his wife of 52 years; and Hinch, who he called a friend.

“We’ve got a tough two years ahead of us,” he said during an earlier speech accepting the nomination. “A very tough two years ahead of us. We’ve got a budget that we have to put out on July 1. And it’s going to be a difficult budget. And we’re gonna make it as painless as possible. But we don’t need to raise taxes at this particular point, where we have to make sure that businesses succeed, businesses get back open again, and they put people back to work.”

The challenges of in-car voting were apparent from the start. It took nearly an hour for the full House to fully arrive at its parked spots.

Lawmakers trickled in the back of the parking lot, directed by police to assigned spots. They parked one space apart, with aisles in between, populated by lawmakers heading to restrooms and talking to each other.

Each representative sat tuned to 88.1 FM, the temporary radio station where speeches were broadcast. They faced a raised staged adorned with flags and microphones for speakers. As stragglers filed in, the university blasted meandering melodies of fiddles and saxophones.

Above the cars floated the occasional drone. American flags and a few Trump flags fluttered from distant car windows.

In order to collect the votes, the Speaker’s Office and House clerk set up a series small buttons allowing “yes” and “no” votes for each lawmaker.

Early on, some of the voting buttons proved faulty. During a test run, the House clerk asked lawmakers to turn on hazard lights if they were having trouble submitting their vote.

Some Democratic representatives in the back reported being told to leave their cars and walk around and click their buttons until they could get a signal.

“While I am thankful for the hard work of the staff here to do their best, none of us should be in this situation in the first place,” Rep. Amanda Gourge, a Lee Democrat, said in a statement. “We should be meeting remotely for the health and safety of our members and constituents.”

Then, when voting began, the problems only compounded. Some lawmakers had not brought pens to vote during the vote, which was conducted by paper ballot. Others couldn’t activate their clickers because they had set up mobile hot spots. Some used hazard lights to get the attention of the front stage; others honked.

At one point, Smith gave out his cell phone number and asked for lawmakers to contact him directly with problems.

“If the member who just beeped their horn – if you could please text me so I can confirm whether your vote took or not?” Smith asked at one point.

Over four hours of idling, at least one member’s car battery gave out. Out came the jumper cables.

But not everyone was dissatisfied.

Rep. J.C. Allard, a Pittsfield Republican, complimented efforts made by the Speaker’s Office and House clerk.

“I am quite positively impressed,” he said. “I was certainly skeptical coming into this, but it’s run smoother than I imagined.”

Other than the slow start time at the beginning, caused by the traffic backup and processing, the proceedings had been as efficient as they could have been, Allard said.

And there was another perk, he added.

“I have to confess, I’m actually more comfortable in my car with my coffee more than I am in my seat in the chambers,” he said.

But even Allard said that the arrangement could not be a permanent one through the rest of the voting session, in which sometimes upwards of 90 bills can be voted on at once.

“I think we would need to make it faster,” he said. “That would be much more time-consuming.”

Well ahead of the voting session, Democrats had objected to the format. In a virtual press conference held the week beforehand, several representatives with disabilities had said the long hours in the car would not be sustainable, and argued that the House Speaker’s Office didn’t need a rule change to convene the House over Zoom.

But Republicans had said that without a rule change, that remote meeting couldn’t happen. And they’ve argued that creating a system to accommodate remote meeting would be costly, with one estimate at $300,000, and would be difficult to access for some representatives without computers.

“I take the health and safety of all our members and staff very seriously, which is why we plan to host what we believe to be the most risk-mitigated session of the House yet during this pandemic,” Packard said in a letter to members ahead of the session.

In a contrast to Wednesday’s scenes at Durham, the 24-member New Hampshire Senate chose to meet remotely over Zoom. Their session – which did not include a speaker’s election – wrapped up just after 11 a.m.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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