As pandemic persists, State House moves toward business as usual

By: - September 8, 2021 5:10 pm
NH state house

Without remote access, many people will not be able to participate in the legislative process. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The New Hampshire State House is beginning to operate a lot like it did before COVID-19. 

Committees are back to meeting in person. Hallways are filling with lobbyists and interest groups. And while masks are no longer required in the building, and some committee members and attendees are choosing not to wear them, Speaker Sherman Packard has recommended their use. 

“I’d like to remind everyone that while face coverings are not mandated within the State House and Legislative Office Building, you should strongly consider wearing one,” Packard said in a letter to House members published in this week’s legislative calendar. “I’d also ask all who enter our buildings to act with courtesy and respect the personal decisions individuals have made regarding mask use.”

Among the temporary COVID-19 measures that are no longer being practiced are remote meetings. Throughout 2020 and the first half of 2021, House committees ran virtual Zoom meetings in which lawmakers who chose not to appear in the committee rooms in person could participate with a video screen from afar. Members of the public could watch live via Zoom or a YouTube video link that would remain available online to watch again in the future. 

Since the Legislature concluded its session in June with the passage of the budget, that Zoom option has disappeared. Democrats have objected, arguing that COVID-19 remains a threat and that lawmakers, lobbyists, and members of the public should have the option to engage remotely. 

“It’s unfortunate that the process we had for a year and a half that allowed for remote participation – that the speaker has decided to do away with that,” House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing said in an interview with WMUR Tuesday. “We think it should be reinstated. … The idea that people are congregating in enclosed rooms not being required to wear masks – it puts politics before public health.” 

Representatives for the speaker’s office say discussions are underway to restore a live-streaming option that would allow the public to view committee meetings from afar – but would still require testimony and committee participation to be done in person.

In the meantime, Packard and other House Republicans say the Zoom meetings are not necessary due to ventilation in the State House complex, and they argue that the virtual approach has weakened the power of in-person legislating. 

“You build up relationships when you’re sitting beside someone in a committee room, when you’re going out to lunch and having lunch with them,” Packard said in his own WMUR interview. 

Now, as fall gets underway, House and Senate lawmakers are occupied with the interim work between the 2021 sessions and the 2022 session: special study committees and commissions ordered by legislation, and regular committee meetings to workshop bills that were retained to the following year. 

And the New Hampshire Executive Council, the five-member elected body that forms part of the executive branch, continues to meet every two weeks. 

Here’s how each chamber is conducting meetings and how the public can access the proceedings. 

The New Hampshire House

With the Zoom meetings gone, House committee hearings are no longer being captured and broadcast online; they’re also no longer being uploaded to YouTube for posterity. In order to observe meetings, members of the public must attend in person.

There are two exceptions. The Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules – a committee filled with both senators and representatives – recently held a meeting that was broadcast to YouTube in real time. And the House Redistricting Committee has also broadcast its meetings online. Neither committee has allowed lawmakers or members of the public to testify or contribute remotely; the broadcasts are only for viewing.

However, officials in the speaker’s office and Republican House leadership are discussing the feasibility of bringing back a live-streaming option to all House committees, House Director of Communications Jennifer Tramp said Wednesday. Those discussions are preliminary and there is no timeline presently, Tramp said. 

New Hampshire Senate

Like the House, the Senate has returned to regular operations, including in-person meetings with optional mask usage. Unlike the House, the Senate has traditionally carried out audio recordings of its regular committee meetings during the January-to-June session. Those recordings are later turned into a hearing report assembled by the legislative aide assigned to that committee. 

During the fall, when neither chamber is in session, Senate committee meetings on legislation will not be recorded. But some legislative study committees, which can comprise House and Senate members, may be recorded. The decision to do so is at the discretion of the chairperson of the committee. 

New Hampshire Executive Council

After a year of meeting over the telephone, the New Hampshire Executive Council has returned to in-person meetings in its chamber at the State House – or in venues across the state during its traditional summer series of meetings on the road.

The chamber does not offer live, remote access to its meetings. But it does provide an audio recording of the meetings, uploaded after the event. Those recordings can be accessed on the  “Meetings” page of the Executive Council website, at the link titled “Agenda, Audio of Meeting, Quick Results, Nominations, and Confirmations.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.