NH House speaker says drive-in session not happening again

  • 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)

Concord Monitor
Published: 1/15/2021 9:47:07 PM
Modified: 1/15/2021 9:48:30 PM

New Hampshire’s 400-member Legislature took up a pandemic-era experiment last week, meeting in a UNH parking lot in staggered spaces for a socially distanced “drive-in” session. But a week later, the House speaker says that experiment is looking more like a one-off.

“No, I’m not planning on doing it again,” said Speaker Sherman Packard in an interview with the Monitor this week. “It’s still up in the air but I’m not planning an outdoor meeting in the cars again, no.”

So how will the country’s biggest state legislative chamber continue to meet? That’s still being ironed out, Packard said.

“The Democratic administrative under Speaker (Steve) Shurtleff had an outdoor meeting in December,” he said. “Alright, we had an outdoor meeting in January. But at least we were inside our cars. He worked out of the box.”

The decision to abandon the approach comes after a day of logistical headaches for the speaker’s office and House clerk on Jan. 6. Lawmakers had to be directed to their parking spots by Durham police and UNH volunteers, a process which took an hour.

The small remote voting buttons for each lawmaker occasionally malfunctioned. At least one member’s car battery died. And moving through the usual flurry of parliamentary motions — made by both parties to either speed up or slow down proceedings — proved exceptionally slow.

Members often had to resort to honking their horns and flashing their hazard lights to get attendees to reach them in time.

The parking lot meeting venue had come under fire from Democrats long before it began; at a press conference ahead of the gathering, House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing and others blasted it for being constraining for people with disabilities who can’t sit in vehicles for long periods of time.

Democrats have been pushing for a virtual video voting session, arguing that the technology exists and that with planning, the format could work for the House.

The 24-member Senate has already begun holding its voting sessions over Zoom. But House Republicans have objected to that approach, contending that it would be costly and throwing doubts on its practicality.

“You’ve got to understand, there’s a huge difference between the Senate, which is 24 members, and 400 members of the House trying to do everything virtually with voting, with making sure that the person voting is the person who should be voting,” Packard said in a separate interview with N.H. Public Radio. “There’s a huge, huge difference. And I’ve heard from the Democrats that, ‘oh, well, this company does it and that company does it.’ You’ve got to understand that we have a very limited staff here, very limited compared to almost every other State House in the country and, you know, huge corporations and stuff.”

The Jan. 6 “Convening Day” meeting had to happen — per the state constitution, the House and Senate must meet on the first Wednesday following the first Tuesday in January.

Moving forward, the speaker’s office has more flexibility.

Plus the usual calendar deadlines are more forgiving. Now that the speaker has been elected and the year’s rules have been adopted, the House will need at least several weeks to begin processing the bills in committee hearings before they can be sent back to the House floor for a vote.

Still, little has been publicly revealed about possible alternatives.

Despite the numerous hiccups on the day, and Democrats’ continued arguments that the meeting shouldn’t have happened, Packard said the car park meeting went as well as it could have. And he thanked the staff at UNH for facilitating it.

“Was it perfect? No, it wasn’t perfect,” Packard told the Monitor. “But we got our job done.”

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




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