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Our Turn: Now is not the time to abandon legislation

Published: 5/21/2020 6:20:13 AM
Modified: 5/21/2020 6:20:03 AM

Every year our Legislature convenes to consider and vote on hundreds of bills, the topics of which range across every facet of our lives. Civil rights. Health. Education. The environment. This is why we vote for our state legislators. So they will do just this. Specifically this. Exclusively this. Every year prior, our legislators have fulfilled their half of this bargain: We elect them and they legislate. Until, perhaps, this year.

This year we have seen obstacles and challenges unlike any we have seen before. Confronted with an emerging pandemic, the Legislature rightly suspended its activities while they considered how best to meet safely, securely and accessibly. Before doing so, however, the House endured a 19-hour marathon session to ensure that critically important bills would remain alive for consideration.

Now we are deeply alarmed to hear that the Legislature, particularly our state Senate, is considering abandoning hundreds of these very bills, refusing to take up anything that is not specifically COVID-19 related. (Put aside the fact that every single bill was drafted pre-COVID-19, meaning no bill is specifically COVID-19 related.)

This pandemic is unprecedented, we know. We know this because we are practicing social distancing, staying at home, avoiding our loved ones for their own sake. We understand we are living in a new normal and certain things must change as a result. We just don’t think that includes the New Hampshire Senate abandoning legislation.

The only reason to abandon legislation is the assumption that this year is unique and the Legislature will be able to return to its “normal” methods of operating next year, presumably taking up all the bills cast by the wayside this year. Except this is an assumption we do not share. Nobody knows what next year will look like.

Experts are working day and night just to predict what the next couple of weeks will be like, or few months. Many are predicting a second wave this fall, which could presumably go through the winter and the 2021 legislative session. We cannot assume any kind of normal until there is a vaccine, which is likely a year or more off. We are not comfortable seeing hundreds of bills cast aside or the Legislature hang up its hat until then.

While this pandemic has changed many things, more is unchanged. We still need to improve our schools, reform our criminal legal system, expand access to health care, protect our environment, and much more. The serious problems that our Legislature set about to fix when this session started are still problems in need of fixing. If anything, the pandemic has revealed how many issues impact our public health.

Ending mass incarceration is about public health, with social distancing an impossibility inside jails and prisons meant to warehouse large numbers in small spaces. Protecting privacy should be a priority during an emergency when governments are prone to violating it. Education reform is critical as disparities in education widen during virtual learning. Voting rights must be protected as we prepare for elections in the world of social distancing.

Speaking of voting rights, let us not forget that there is an election in a few months. No legislator can actually promise to reintroduce a bill that is abandoned this year because no legislator knows if they will be re-elected in November. Nobody knows what the Legislature will look like next session, so nobody can promise us that sidelining a bill this year means only a one-year delay in its passage and enactment.

We know very little about what this next year will bring. What we do know is that the Legislature is still in session. Bills are available right now to be passed and that would make a difference in our collective lives. The New Hampshire Senate cannot develop a vaccine, but it can pass education policy, criminal justice reform, privacy rights and electoral laws.

The New Hampshire House of Representatives has its committees meeting virtually. We urge the Senate to similarly convene its committees and continue its work on the array of important bills. There are still hundreds of bills that are relevant, important and available to be passed now. As voters, we will be watching very carefully to see how our Legislature fulfills its half of the electoral bargain during the remainder of this year’s session.

(Jeanne Hruska is the political director of ACLU-NH. Liz Tentarelli is president of the League of Women Voters New Hampshire.)

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