New location, same debate over remote access to Legislature –

New location, same debate over remote access to Legislature –

CONCORD — The New Hampshire Legislature convened Wednesday, with the 400-member House gathering in yet another new location because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The full House has not met in the Statehouse since March 2020. Since then, members have met at the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on an athletic field, from their cars in a parking lot, and at a Bedford sports complex. On Wednesday, they gathered at a Manchester hotel expo center to take up bills vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu last year and bills retained for further work over the summer.

The 24-member Senate, meanwhile, spread out in Representatives Hall at the Statehouse. There, they quickly approved changing Senate rules to allow members to participate in future sessions remotely if two-thirds of the body agree. The House, however, rejected a similar proposal on a vote of 169-186.

Democratic House members with serious medical conditions have been fighting in court for remote access since the start of the pandemic.

“This provision, if passed and implemented, would not only provide for safe access both for members and for the public, but it is a provision that increases public participation, public observation and public comment,” said Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole.

Rep. Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, argued that the months lawmakers spent conducting committee meetings and hearings online has let to more animosity and less congeniality.

“House members have come to regard each other as talking heads on a screen,” he said in opposition to the proposed rule change.

Another Republican later drew both applause and jeers when he opposed a bill to allow lawmakers to be reimbursed for mileage when driving to sessions held away from the Statehouse.

“This bill further perpetuates a pandemic that has come to an end,” said Rep. Michael Sylvia, of Belmont.

This week, Rep. Keith Ammon accused Democrats of wanting to “govern this state by Zoom, on their couch in their underwear.” He told WMUR-TV that he and other members of the House “Freedom Caucus” are respecting the decisions of House Speaker Sherm Packard — who became speaker after his predecessor died of COVID-19 — for now, but pressure is building.

“At some point this term that dam’s gonna break,” he said. “It’s not this week, but it could be a month from now.”