On first glance, the latest attendance data for some area state representatives were rather eye-popping. According to an analysis by The Sentinel’s Mia Summerson of voting records for this year’s legislative sessions, seven of the 32 representatives serving the area’s 31 communities missed over a quarter of the roll-call votes in the House of Representatives. In other years, the temptation would be to note that, with legislators earning only $100 per year for their services (plus mileage), the people of New Hampshire are getting what they pay for.
But her reporting also indicates that, at least for this pandemic year, the no-show representatives should be cut some slack. And with the spread of the delta variant making it clear that COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon — Gov. Chris Sununu last week stated COVID will not “be gone by Christmas ... by any means” — House leaders need to take steps now to assure better attendance by the people’s representatives in an uncertain public health environment.
Of the seven area House members who missed over a quarter of the votes, all but one cited health reasons, and in particular COVID-related concerns, as a factor in their absences. This comes as no surprise. New Hampshire prides itself on its citizen legislature, but two distinguishing features of the House — its unwieldy 400-member size and its almost nonexistent pay for service that makes its membership skew toward retirees and others who don’t need jobs — have made it especially vulnerable during the pandemic. Putting those 400 people, many of whom are older, in close proximity risks turning a House session into a super-spreader event.
The House’s Republican leaders adopted a series of measures to address the public-health concerns. These included convening in the UNH hockey rink, holding a drive-in type session in a parking lot and eventually meeting in Bedford’s NH Sportsplex fieldhouse. Their members, however, include a least some — and perhaps many — who pooh-pooh social distancing, masking and other precautions. Not surprisingly, that can deter attendance by those who, for sound personal health reasons, need them to be taken seriously. Paul Berch, a fifth-term Westmoreland Democrat who says his attendance in prior terms exceeded 90 percent, recounted that at one session this year he was assigned a seat next to some non-mask wearing members and did not attend based on medical advice.
Tellingly, Berch also says his attendance at committee meetings, which were held remotely, was perfect. Despite remote attendance of committee meetings, in some case by numbers into the hundreds, Speaker Sherman Packard has resolutely opposed allowing remote participation in House sessions, citing the unwieldiness of doing so for such a large body. Some House Democrats, including Berch, have taken Packard to court over the matter, alleging failing to allow remote participation violates federal law. A lower court ruling in Packard’s favor was overturned earlier this year by a federal appellate court, and the matter remains on appeal. Packard’s resistance to accommodating those with good-faith health concerns over in-person attendance is mystifying — especially since he gained the speakership only because his predecessor, Dick Hinch, died from COVID after in-person GOP caucusing last session — and with COVID concerns sure to carry over into future sessions, he should show some flexibility.
A separate factor which contributes to missed votes is one that House leaders cannot be expected to solve: work-related absenteeism, at least when it might be traced to the parsimonious service stipend, which has been enshrined in the Constitution since 1889. Winchester Republican Ben Kilanski cited taking a new job as the principal cause of his absences. As the very active chairman of the Winchester Selectboard and a member of several town committees, Kilanski clearly is highly dedicated to public service. There’s no lack of sympathy for those who try to serve in Concord while holding down a job, and Kilanski says he’s working to keep his job commitments from interfering with serving in the Legislature. His constituents do indeed need him to remedy the situation so they can have the representation in Concord they deserve. If he’s unable to and has to step down, it will be one more instance where the structure of New Hampshire’s cherished citizen legislature fails to hang on to a dedicated citizen.