The legislative leadership in Concord has dug in its heels in refusing to adopt the full range of safety measure public health officials urge to protect members and the public as the Legislature conducts its business during the ongoing pandemic. That, sadly, is to be expected at a time of extreme polarization that has precautions intended to protect people being too readily viewed solely through a lens of distrust and personal liberty. The result, however, is that an opportunity is being missed to meaningfully improve the quality of work the Legislature does on behalf of the New Hampshire residents it represents.

As the next legislative session looms in the new year, the House and Senate are sticking to rules requiring in-person attendance by its members at all committee meetings as well as at full sessions. Earlier during the pandemic, while the formal state of emergency had been declared, those rules were suspended for committee meetings, and they were held remotely. Though suspension of those rules was certainly justified for public health reasons, it proved a fortuitous learning opportunity.

Committee member attendance improved as remote participation eased distance obstacles for those not near Concord. It became easier for experts and members of the public to testify on legislation, particularly in the case of those who would otherwise travel considerable distance or whose work commitments or other life issues would have prevented their testifying in person. And public transparency was enhanced as streamed meetings became widely viewed and, in some cases, could be watched at later times convenient to the viewer. In short, the remotely held committee meetings were a triple win — enhanced member attendance, greater public input to better inform committee work and more transparency.

That came to an end this year. In the House, Speaker Sherman Packard made clear his strong feeling that legislators more effectively conduct the people’s business in person and has shown no stomach for leading his Republican majority in changing the rules requiring in-person committee attendance, which were reinstated once the governor ended the state of emergency. That and his unwillingness to require masking and implement certain other safety precautions at full House sessions, has proved divisive and are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit brought by House Democratic leaders.

Even leaving aside the public health considerations, however, the Legislature is squandering an important lesson from last year’s remote committee meetings. True, streaming of meetings will continue, and Packard and leadership deserve credit for assuring greater capability for the public to witness committees in action.

But they’ve failed to continue to allow remote testimony at committee hearings, and that’s a missed opportunity to improve the democratic process. Even if members continue to be required to attend in person, the committees will lose valuable input and perspective from state residents and from experts here in New Hampshire and elsewhere that would only better inform their work. Yes, those individuals can register their position on pending legislation online or send an email to committee members. But there’s little reason to think legislators will pay those communications as much heed as live testimony. The chance of having a real effect on state lawmaking ought not to correspond directly to one’s proximity to the Statehouse.

It is an article of faith in New Hampshire that the Legislature’s large, 424-member size makes it more responsive to the concerns and needs of its citizens. It’s a shame that its leadership is not taking advantage of lessons learned during the pandemic that would make it even more so.

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