As the New Hampshire House prepares a transition in control from Democrats to Republicans, one major logistical question looms: Where do 400 lawmakers meet during a pandemic?
For now, that’s still being decided.
The incoming Republican leadership — a caucus that took power after the GOP flipped dozens of Democratic-held seats Nov. 3 — is sifting through options, looking at venues both inside state buildings and beyond. On the list of potentials is Representatives Hall itself, whose tightly packed seats hold all 400 members, but at close quarters.
Lawmakers are exploring alternative venues to the traditional House chambers. But they haven’t ruled anything out.
“Relative to the use of Representatives Hall, the prospective leadership team is reviewing data and reports developed by staff over the last few months in order to make the best decisions on use of Reps Hall for sessions, or off-site venues if necessary,” the House Republican Office said in a statement to the Monitor.
But as the state weathers a new wave of the coronavirus, driving up case counts and hospitalization numbers, opposition to the use of “Reps Hall” has swiftly grown.
The New Hampshire Legislature, a volunteer body, is largely comprised of retirees, and some members serve in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
“That would be a really bad idea, to have 400 representatives in the Statehouse with what, the average age in their 60s?” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said at a press conference Thursday. “That is exactly what we don’t want to have happen.”
Democratic leadership is also strongly opposed.
“You’re talking a very dangerous situation,” said Rep. Doug Ley, a Jaffrey Democrat and the present Majority Leader. “Particularly exacerbated … by the fact that the House is generally not composed of youngsters.”
Ley said that House Clerk Paul Smith and Director of House Committee Services Ann Fitzgerald have already looked into how many people could sit in Representatives Hall if members adhered to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended six feet of distance indoors.
The answer: 125 to 130 representatives total, and only if the upper gallery was used for lawmakers.
Ley said he had already heard from some Democratic members who said they would not show up to voting sessions if they were held in Reps Hall, citing personal health concerns.
“We’ve got people with significant health issues who serve,” Ley said. “You cannot be asking people to put their health and potentially their lives at risk. I don’t think anybody’s constituents demand that. That’s a price far too high to pay.”
Favored by Democrats: remote session meetings. On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-0 that it is not a violation of the state Constitution to hold its session using video conferencing technology, responding to a question sent by the House. But many Republican representatives have rejected the idea of not meeting in person, and several former Republican lawmakers had argued against the proposal in court.
Then there remains the question of committee meetings. With nearly a thousand bills considered by the New Hampshire House annually, and the task of crafting the next two-year budget waiting around the corner, committees are as important as ever.
But the principal building in which those meetings take place — the Legislative Office Building on State Street — is a poorly ventilated health hazard. Only in the summer, when air conditioning units turn on, does the building get proper circulation, according to Ley.
An official with the House Republican Office confirmed that the LOB, as it stands, is not up to par with CDC ventilation standards.
That means three options for the House: upgrading the building’s HVAC circulation system, an expensive and likely time-consuming alternative; finding different meeting spaces throughout the city; or investing in the technology to make the meetings virtual.
The House Republican Office is considering all three.
“While we are still working out the specific details, options we are considering consist of updating the outdated HVAC system in the Legislative Office Building, the use of double rooms, the use of Reps’ Hall for hearings, and having committee meetings occur 5 days a week to ensure all of our bills get a fair hearing; something that did not happen after March during the previous administration,” said Rep. Dick Hinch, the current Republican Leader running to be House Speaker, in a statement to the Monitor.
Hinch pledged to ensure the arrangement is responsible.
“The last thing I want to do is put members and staff in harm’s way,” he said. “I believe this approach will allow members to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, but will still allow us to get our work done on time.”
At the moment, Penacook Democrat Steve Shurtleff remains House Speaker until Organization Day, on Dec. 2, when the newly-elected Republican-dominated body will vote on a successor. Hinch was unanimously voted as nominee by his caucus, but until he or someone else is sworn in, the hard choices about future venues will likely not be made, the House Republican Office said.
The House’s calendar also lends some flexibility. Aside from a constitutionally-mandated meeting on Jan. 6, there is generally little business for the first month of the new two-year biennium. That could give House leadership some time to find a more long-term arrangement that could last into the spring.
That meeting is happening at a sports venue at the University of New Hampshire in Durham in order to allow for proper spacing of desks, just as three sessions were this summer.
One thing will be different, however. Where this summer’s session took place at the Whittemore Center Arena, a hockey rink and stadium, the next month’s Organization Day will take place at the basketball court in the Hamel Recreation Center at UNH.
House leaders and officials decided it would be somewhat warmer.