House Democrats want funding for remote access to hearings included in budget

    BRIEF

    State House dome blocks out the sun
    The committee attached the proposal, known as the “education freedom account” program, to House Bill 2. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

    This story was updated on May 10, 2021 at 5 p.m. to correct the legislative expenses related to COVID-19.

    In a press conference Friday, House Democrats called on Speaker Sherman Packard to include funding for ongoing remote access to legislative hearings in the next state budget. Their federal lawsuit seeking a court order requiring remote accommodations during full House sessions is temporarily on hold and unlikely to be resolved before a budget is passed.

    “I think it’s incumbent upon us that we continue this in the name of democracy,” said House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, who sponsored legislation four years ago for remote access. “In the name of transparency, in the name of accountability, sunshine is good for everybody. And it’s particularly good for the process of government itself.”

    In a Joint Legislative Facilities Committee hearing later in the day, Rep. Karen Ebel, a New London Democrat, reiterated the request to Packard. If remote access for public testimony isn’t continued, she asked that at least livestreaming of the committee meetings remain. Ebel said her constituents with disabilities and transportation issues have been able to participate only because of the remote access. “I think from a public access standpoint it’s been a great revelation to us how well all of it worked,” she said.

    Packard, a Londonderry Republican, was noncommittal. “I’m not, I haven’t made any decisions whatsoever, one way or the other,” he said.

    A group of House lawmakers, including Cushing, sued Packard in federal court in February after Packard denied a request that members with serious medical issues be allowed to attend House sessions remotely to avoid pandemic health risks. 

    Packard said at the time there were no rules allowing for remote access on session days, although the Senate has been meeting remotely without specific rules. Packard instead has held in-person House sessions in large spaces that have allowed social distancing, including a hockey rink, parking lot, an athletic field at the University of New Hampshire, and the Sportsplex in Bedford. 

    In December, Packard said the cost of going remote, which he estimated at $300,000, was too expensive.

    Legislative staff said Friday that the House and Senate have submitted requests for reimbursement for about $350,000 in costs related to COVID-19. Expenses date from September and include Zoom licenses, AV equipment for hybrid meetings, portable air filtration units, PPE, and off-site meeting locations.

    Packard said the body should prepare to return to the State House grounds as soon as possible.

    “We have to come back into the chamber,” Packard said. “This is the people’s building; it’s not our building. And it’s time we started letting them back in.”