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Democrats appear to take both Georgia Senate seats, clearing path for $2,000 stimulus checks as Democrats eye unified control of Washington

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden will face pressure to send millions of Americans $2,000 stimulus checks and deliver on an aggressive economic agenda as Democrats closed in on unified control of Washington with likely Senate wins in Georgia.

Democrats, whose ambitions have been strangled by a GOP Senate and president for the past two years, were eyeing a new world with major opportunities for change on Wednesday — even as the coronavirus rages and the economy teeters on the brink.

Democrat Raphael Warnock won his race against Republican Kelly Loeffler in Tuesday’s Senate runoff in Georgia, and Democrat Jon Ossoff held a lead over Republican David Perdue. Winning those races would give Democrats control of the Senate, which along with their House majority and Biden’s presidency would give them a stranglehold on power in the nation’s capital for the first time since Barack Obama’s first term.

It’s unclear how quickly the Democratic wins in Georgia might be certified, especially since Republicans could challenge the outcomes. Nevertheless Democrats were celebrating.

“It feels like a brand new day. For the first time in six years, Democrats will operate a majority in the United States Senate — and that will be very good for the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who would become majority leader if the Democratic wins in Georgia hold.

“America is experiencing one of the greatest crises we have ever faced, and the Senate Democratic majority is committed to delivering the bold change and help Americans need and demand. Senate Democrats know America is hurting — help is on the way,” Schumer said.

The first two years of Obama’s presidency brought the nation the Affordable Care Act. Biden, then vice president, will now have the opportunity to enact an ambitious agenda of his own. First up could be his promise that winning Georgia would bring $2,000 checks to Americans right away.

“Their election will put an end to the block in Washington — that $2000 stimulus check — that money would go out the door immediately, to help people who are in real trouble,” Biden said in Georgia in the closing days of the race. “Think about what it will mean to your lives — putting food on the table, paying rent.”

The $2,000 stimulus payments have gained surprising bipartisan support after President Donald Trump seized on the idea, first floated by liberal lawmakers in Congress in the spring. Biden has over the last several months shifted his position on the stimulus payments, but specifically pledged a $2,000 stimulus payment for voters if Democrats won in Georgia.

Biden’s promise to enact $2,000 checks comes despite a fierce debate among Democratic economists and lawmakers about the merits of the payments, which some critics argue sends too much money to Americans who do not need it. Ossoff and Warnock both pledged while on the campaign trail to enact $2,000 stimulus payments if elected.

“It has been incredible to see the tremendous rush of momentum for $2,000 cash relief,” said Andrew Yang, a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and early supporter of direct cash assistance. “People need help, and we have woken up to the fact that our government can deliver real relief if it chooses to do so.”

The $2,000 checks would likely be just the beginning of an ambitious agenda that was already provoking furious debate Wednesday morning as Washington woke to a new realignment of power — presuming Ossoff’s victory holds. Democrats may seek to include the stimulus checks in a broader package with other priorities, such as additional funding for state and local governments and a more substantial expansion in federal unemployment benefits.

Infrastructure spending, climate change legislation, expanding health care benefits, student debt forgiveness and more may also be on the table — although congressional aides cautioned that discussions with the Biden team were in the very early stages. With control of both chambers, Democrats can use special budget rules to push through massive legislation with a simple majority in the Senate, instead of the 60 votes usually required for major bills. That’s how Republicans enacted their $1.5 trillion tax cut bill in the first year of Trump’s presidency with no Democratic votes.

But Democrats’ slim majorities will limit their ambitions and likely exacerbate infighting between liberals and centrists about how far to go. Their 222-211 House majority is the smallest margin of control either party has had for years. The Georgia wins would produce a Senate divided 50-50 between the parties, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote for Democrats.

Liberals wasted no time Wednesday demanding quick action on their priorities.

“Joe Biden and the entire Democratic Party were incredibly clear of the stakes here, starting with the $2,000 checks and massive economic relief policies that put money and resources in the hands of the people,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a liberal advocacy group. “They’re now going to have to deliver that, starting with the checks on day one.”

Renewed signs of economic deterioration will amplify pressure on Democrats to act. Private payrolls shed about 123,000 jobs in December, a startling drop that marked the worst report by the ADP Research Institute in months. The same report showed the number of jobs increasing by more than 300,000 in November. Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG, warned in a note to investors that the “dark days of the labor market” from the spring have returned.

“America’s great jobs machine ran into a wall of rising coronavirus cases and state lockdowns which puts the entire economic recovery from recession at risk,” Rupkey said. “The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression isn’t over yet. Bet on it.”

Biden will also have to focus on reining in the rampaging coronavirus pandemic, including more money for vaccines and ensuring they go out more quickly.

Congress in March approved more than $2 trillion in emergency economic aid in response to the pandemic and another $900 billion in December. Those aid package have funneled hundreds of billions to small businesses, jobless Americans, and others hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. The first round of stimulus payments included $1,200 per adult, as well as $500 per child, and were within months disbursed to more than 100 million American households.

In late December Trump almost overnight helped generate sizable Republican support for the $2,000 checks even though they stand in stark contrast to long-standing conservative skepticism of government spending and direct cash transfer programs.

The president nearly upended negotiations on economic relief when he ridiculed Congress, as well as his own treasury secretary, for proposing stimulus payments worth $600 per person. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., raced to demonstrate Democratic support for $2,000 payments as well, aiming to show the bipartisan support for the idea.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to put legislation for the $2,000 checks on the Senate floor, preventing the measure from advancing. But McConnell was undermined by a coalition of about a half-dozen Republican Senators who said they supported the large payments, including both Georgia Republicans up for reelection and possible 2024 GOP presidential candidates including Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The bill passed by the House for $2,000 payments was supported by more than two dozen Republicans as well.

Keene resident Brian Reilly says this young bobcat, in a field behind Reilly’s home on West Surry Road last week, was more focused on hunting mice than on the human in its midst as it walked within 25 feet of where Reilly was standing.

Bobcat at the ready

NH officials offer more details on state's vaccine timeline
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State officials detailed New Hampshire’s long-term COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan on Tuesday, which includes three two-part phases spread out over several months, with shots anticipated to become broadly available in late spring or in the summer.

The process prioritizes high-risk individuals. This includes those with an increased chance of being exposed to COVID-19, such as health-care workers and people with an elevated risk of developing complications from the disease due to underlying medical conditions. The vaccine will become more widely available based on age and other factors as time goes on.

“Our philosophy is actually very simple, very straightforward,” Gov. Chris Sununu said at a news conference Tuesday. “Those at the highest risk get the vaccine first.”

NH vaccine timetable

Beth Daly, chief of the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, explained that the state is currently in the first part of phase one, which is focused on health-care workers, first responders and residents of long-term care facilities. She said the state hopes to have the vaccine available to all people in phase 1A before the end of January, at which point New Hampshire can move to phase 1B, which is expected to run through March.

Phase 1B will include people 75 and older, those at a significantly increased risk of developing severe symptoms due to underlying conditions and staff and residents at facilities that serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It will also include officers and staff working in correctional facilities.

Phase 2A, which is expected to run from March through May, will include people ages 65 to 74 and staff at K-12 schools and child-care facilities. Phase 2B, which is set to run during the same time frame, will add people 50 and older to the eligibility list.

Phases 3A and 3B will include people who are younger than 50 and at a moderate medical risk, and the remainder of the population, respectively.

“We expect to start vaccinating those broader groups under the age of 50 several months from now,” Daly said. “Late in May or into the summer months.”

Daly also discussed the state’s vaccination efforts so far, saying that New Hampshire continues to receive new doses. As of Tuesday afternoon, she said the state had distributed 53,675 doses and 30,035 people had received their first shot. She also noted that the first shots in New Hampshire were delivered three weeks ago, meaning recipients are coming due for their second doses.

Several state-run vaccination sites, including one in Keene, have been up and running for the past week, she said, and to date, 20,000 Granite Staters have made an appointment to get their vaccination at one of those sites.

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Rindge planning board backs eliminating affordable-housing incentive

RINDGE — Town voters will decide whether to eliminate an affordable-housing incentive, among other zoning changes, at town meeting this year after the planning board endorsed the measures Tuesday night.

At a public hearing plagued by audio issues, the seven-member board recommended that voters adopt six amendments to the municipal zoning ordinance. They also approved a controversial 59-unit development.

As an official-ballot community, Rindge residents will review this year’s warrant articles at a deliberative session scheduled for Jan. 31 before voting on them at the polls in March. Zoning changes cannot be revised during the deliberative session, however, since their language is settled at the final planning board meeting, according to Planning Director Kirk Stenersen.

Stenersen opened Tuesday’s hearing — held in a room of masked and unmasked residents at the Rindge Recreation Department — with a presentation of the draft zoning measures.

Perhaps the most significant amendment backed by the planning board Tuesday would restrict housing density on tracts of land with multiple residences — formally known as proposed unit residential developments, or PURDs.

The town’s existing PURD regulation states that it’s intended to “promote the most efficient use of land” by “encouraging a less sprawling form of development.”

Rindge already restricts PURDs to tracts with at least 10 acres, authorizing one residence for every 2 acres or for every 1.5 acres of “developable” land. However, the town also allows developments with workforce housing — units with an affordable monthly rent, based on the median income in Cheshire County — to exceed those density restrictions by up to 30 percent.

That exception would be eliminated by the proposed amendment, which would also limit PURDs to four zoning districts: Residential, Residential-Agricultural, Village and College. (Currently, they are not explicitly prohibited in any districts.)

The density bonus for workforce-housing projects, which Rindge adopted in 2009 to comply with a state law requiring municipalities to offer “reasonable and realistic opportunities” for affordable developments, has been criticized frequently by residents in recent years. A 2020 report by the independent state agency N.H. Housing found that just 23 percent of two-bedroom rental units statewide were available at affordable rates, though that figure was 49 percent in Cheshire County.

Earlier this year, the Rindge planning board convened a subcommittee with two of its members, a selectboard member and multiple residents to review the town’s PURD regulations. At the subcommittee’s preliminary meeting in September, residents called the workforce-housing exception unnecessary, given the town’s distance from large urban employers and said it is inviting “suburban sprawl,” according to reporting by the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Planning Board Chairman Jonah Ketola said Tuesday afternoon he was “on the fence” about that measure because it could impose financial burdens on developers by dispersing construction efforts. In an interview after the hearing, he argued that Rindge already offers many affordable units, noting that workforce housing is often falsely conflated with publicly subsidized units.

“We have a lot of entry-level workforce housing already,” he said.

Municipal staff were notified multiple times Tuesday night that the nearly 20 people attending via Zoom could not hear the discussion. Still, they did not require speakers to stand near the microphone, making the proceedings functionally inaccessible and, according to one frustrated resident, a “public non-hearing.”

Ketola said the planning board has never had audio issues at past meetings and attributed the issue to a new computer and standalone microphone that he said the town purchased recently. It previously used another computer and the built-in microphone, he explained.

“We tried to do our best,” he said of the technical issues.

The planning board also recommended several other housing-related amendments for adoption — all of which, Ketola said, were products of the planning board subcommittee’s proposed regulatory changes.

One measure would allow only one residence per property in the Residential and Residential-Agricultural districts, effectively prohibiting multi-unit developments there. They are not currently listed under permitted uses in the Residential district and can be approved in the Residential-Agricultural district only by special exception from the town.

The board also backed provisions capping multi-unit dwellings as well as moderate and high-density housing — defined as buildings with more than two and three units, respectively — at six units.

And it endorsed allowing accessory dwelling units, which are “secondary and subordinate” residences on the same property as a single-family home, in the College zoning district and detached from the primary residence. They are currently permitted by special exception in the Residential, Residential-Agricultural and Village districts.

All six proposed amendments, plus a slight revision of the town’s zoning map concerning a property currently bisected by different districts, will bear the planning board’s endorsement when they go before voters for final approval.

Lori Rautiola, executive assistant to the selectboard, said Wednesday morning that board members have not yet finalized COVID-related protocols for the Jan. 30 deliberative session. As of now, she said, residents will be able to watch the proceedings virtually but must attend in-person to vote.

Rindge town meeting is scheduled for March 9.

Also on Tuesday, the planning board approved a controversial 59-unit development to be built on 110 acres off of Route 119. The project would include 23 single-family homes and 36 multi-family residences — eight of which are proposed as workforce housing, according to a Dec. 30 memorandum from Stenersen, the planning director.

Several residents voiced opposition to the development, which was initially proposed for 66 units, at a July 7 planning board meeting, saying it would be too big for Rindge, according to reporting by the Ledger-Transcript. The board approved it Tuesday by a 4–3 vote.

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Monadnock school board approves plan for hybrid deliberative session

Monadnock Regional School District voters who attend the Jan. 30 deliberative session will get a taste of what students and teachers are experiencing this year after the school board decided that the event will consist of a mix of in-person and virtual elements.

As students returned from winter break Monday, the district resumed its hybrid model, in which kids attend school in person two days per week and do remote learning the rest of the week. (Families also have the option for their children to learn fully remotely.) At a meeting Tuesday night, the board approved a plan to host an in-person deliberative session in four different schools, all connected by a Zoom video meeting.

“It will be a virtual event, sort of,” Superintendent Lisa Witte said. “It will still be an in-person event, as well — sort of a hybrid. We’re getting good at hybrid.”

Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center will be the meeting’s “home base,” Witte said. The Zoom meeting will be broadcast from the school auditorium, where voters from Swanzey and Richmond will gather.

Voters in other towns will be able to participate in the Zoom meeting from designated locations: Fitzwilliam voters at Emerson Elementary School, Troy voters at Troy Elementary and Gilsum and Roxbury voters at Gilsum STEAM Academy. The Zoom meeting will be available for anyone to watch online, Witte added, but in order to participate and vote at the deliberative session, voters must report to their designated meeting site.

Voters who want to participate in the deliberative session are required attend their designated in-person meeting sites because they must check in with their respective Supervisor of the Checklist and receive a set of colored cards that they will use to vote, Witte said.

In an official-ballot school district like Monadnock, the annual deliberative session gives voters an opportunity to discuss and amend warrant articles before later voting them up or down at the polls.

Witte said she’s confident this format will work. “There’s a lot of pieces in place already. There’s a lot that we’re working through, but I’m confident.”

Monadnock’s decision Tuesday comes as communities and school districts across the state grapple with an approaching town-meeting season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Monadnock board also approved two more plans Tuesday dealing with the schools’ role in the democratic process.

The board narrowly voted to allow the town of Swanzey to use the high school as its polling place for the March 9 elections, a move the town’s Board of Selectmen requested. Last September, the board denied the selectmen’s request to hold voting at the school for the November general election but on Tuesday approved the plan for March by a weighted vote of 6.606 to 6.394.

Eric Stanley of Swanzey was the only town representative on the school board to vote against the plan, which calls for election officials to leave the school after polls close on election day and count votes elsewhere to give school staff time to clean and disinfect before students and teachers return the next day.

Now that the school board has approved the Swanzey selectmen’s request, the board will make the final decision on where to hold voting for the March elections.

The school board also approved the town of Troy’s request to host its town meeting on March 10 in the Troy Elementary School gym by a weighted vote of 7.721 to 4.068. Similar to the decision to allow Swanzey to use Monadnock Regional Middle/High School as a polling place, the board approved Troy’s request with certain stipulations, including that the town provide seating for the meeting and vacate the building by 10 p.m. to allow time for school staff to disinfect the space.

Though the Monadnock board previously considered switching to fully remote instruction due to rising COVID-19 cases in the region, the issue did not come to a vote at Tuesday’s meeting. Board member Karen Wheeler of Gilsum requested that the board discuss potentially transitioning to remote learning at its next meeting on Jan. 19.

Monadnock was the only area school district to return from winter break Monday under a hybrid model. Schools in SAU 29 — which covers Keene and six nearby towns — were originally scheduled to resume its hybrid model Monday, but delayed that move until Jan. 19 due to the heightened potential for coronavirus transmission if families and school staff traveled or gathered with people outside their homes for the holidays.

The ConVal School District, Fall Mountain Regional School District, Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District and Hinsdale School District also are scheduled to resume some in-person instruction on Jan. 19.

The Winchester School Board plans to consider whether to switch back to a hybrid model at its meeting on Thursday. Winchester School has been operating remotely since Nov. 16 due to the spike in coronavirus cases locally.