My Turn: We must find a way for our Legislature to reconvene

For the Monitor
Published: 3/26/2020 3:41:58 AM

Perhaps for the first time, the New Hampshire State House has had to shutter its doors and suspend the work of the people mid-session due to a national emergency.

The decision to temporarily cease normal operations was the right one in the face of an unprecedented epidemic. Now, we must find a way forward so that the Legislature can resume its constitutional functions and provide the legislative oversight and authority that will enable us to weather this crisis and build toward recovery.

We are grateful to Speaker Steve Shurtleff for taking so seriously the responsibilities invested in the Legislature by our constitution and for his foresight and wisdom in acting decisively in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. He led a 17-hour marathon session earlier this month so that the House could advance important legislation that otherwise would have died for lack of action.

These bills are not just words on a page. They express hours and hours of well-considered efforts by representatives acting in good faith to address the needs and concerns of constituents and New Hampshire residents as a whole.

House members on both sides of the aisle stayed the course and participated in what must have seemed like an endless series of votes. Senators, too, remained hard at work to ensure that they could meet the all-important “crossover” deadline necessary for keeping important bills alive.

We are grateful to them all. Legislators in both chambers, through their dedication, demonstrated what it means to be true servants of the people.

Many of the bills rescued by these extraordinary efforts covered a broad range of issues vitally important to real people in their day-to-day lives. Some indeed are lifesaving measures for many Granite Staters.

A small sampling includes ensuring that families of first responders have access to essential survivor benefits, expanding renewable energy capacity, protecting women’s health, defending tenants against sudden and unfair rent increases, and ensuring affordable access to insulin.

A number of bills will also enable us to navigate the unfolding epidemic. Paid family and medical leave is a critical component of any emergency response plan. The Senate passed the House bill that would enable this important benefit to be available to all working Granite Staters. No-excuse absentee voting, online and automatic voter registration, and other election-reform bills moved forward and provide vehicles for ensuring safe, secure and accessible elections in this time of sweeping pandemic.

With state primaries in September and the general election in November, this need is even more imperative.

Over the last three years, the Kent Street Coalition has had a constant presence in the halls of the State House and the corridors of the Legislative Office Building. We are there week in and week out. We see what happens behind the scenes. We have come to deeply appreciate how seriously our elected officials take the responsibilities of their office. We know how hard they work, essentially volunteering their time. On top of countless hours spent in hearings and in session, our legislators field constituent inquiries, attend meetings and training, serve on commissions, host in-district meetings and generally make themselves available in service to the people.

To us, this looks like the exact opposite of tyranny. It looks exactly like the sort of representative government Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots were seeking when they listed their grievances and signed the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the first eight of the Declaration’s indictments related specifically to the fact that the colonists were unable to form their own legislatures, write their own laws and govern themselves. Ultimately, the right to representation is what they fought for. We are fortunate to be the inheritors of their wisdom and their sacrifice.

Rather than declaring a right to separate, these times call for a renewed commitment to participate and engage. We believe that governance by executive order is rarely preferable to governance by the duly elected representatives of the people. As our state constitution clearly intends, we look to our legislators to decide issues critical to the lives of our residents, families and communities.

We hope that there exists a path forward for our Legislature to reconvene during this crisis so that the will and the voice of the people can best be heard.

(Louise Spencer of Concord is a co-founder of the Kent Street Coalition.)

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