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Distant Dome: Virtual Access Needed As COVID-19 Cases Rise In New Hampshire

CONCORD, NH – Many years ago a frequently heard phrase was ‘participatory democracy’ and how that would be the ideal way to govern.

We are not a participatory democracy, we are a democratic republic, which means that we elect people to represent us in our government. Federal and state governments work the same, people elect others to represent their interests in the legislature and in New Hampshire, on the Executive Council as well. The only participatory democracy today is at a city or school district meeting, when people have a say on mandate articles and can petition to place mandate articles in front of voters.

Other states have binding referendums to allow for greater public participation, but New Hampshire does not.

At the state level, the only direct participation of New Hampshire voters is in the proposed constitutional amendments and these have a very high bar of a two-thirds majority to be placed in the constitution.

In the legislature, representatives and senators make decisions for the people who send them to Concord.

In theory, voters can also influence decisions by testifying in public hearings or writing letters or calling their senators and representatives.

Senators and Representatives must always make their own decisions – and often do – following their own path rather than following the comments of their constituents.

If they do it enough, you should vote against them.

But to know if they followed your stated wishes, you need to know what they did.

Knowing how your representative or senator voted on the floor or in committee has been much easier over the past 18 months than it has ever been.

One of the good things about the pandemic was – and I mean “was” in the past – were virtual and remote audiences that allowed hundreds of voters to participate at times, and allowed anyone interested to watch. more easily their representatives or senators in action.

But the live broadcast of the hearings came to a screeching halt, with a few exceptions.

For example, last week the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules met to decide whether the provisional rules for the new “education freedom accounts” or what were previously called vouchers, would go forward, allowing the program to start this school year was broadcast live, but the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, which voted on tens of millions if not more than $ 100 million in activity, did not. summer.

Yes, Governor Chris Sununu has ended the state of emergency, and Legislature leaders have voted to reopen the State House and Legislative Office Building to the public, but that doesn’t mean the live streaming of the committees and activities must also come to an end.

In the House calendar this week, House Speaker Sherman Packard explains that since the emergency order has ended, and with it the House rule allowing remote meetings, committees must now meet in person in accordance with House Rules 104 and 106 which require the presence of a quorum. to conduct committee business.

This tends to ignore the Supreme Court’s advisory opinion issued over a year ago that a quorum could include distant members.

The house rules cited have nothing to do with remote public access to these meetings.

It is a conscious decision by the leadership of the House and Senate to end public access to people’s affairs at a distance.

They say if you want to participate in any legislative activity, you have to be at the State House or the Legislative Office Building or wherever a committee, commission or advisory board meets.

The state of emergency may be over, but not the pandemic.

In the timeline, Sherman notes that the legislature has purchased high-tech portable air purification units that exceed CDC guidelines.

The LOB has always had air quality issues and an inefficient air circulation system which may be more than portable air purification systems can change.

Courtrooms in the State House and Legislative Office Building are small and often crowded when there is something least controversial.

The legislative branch decided to lift the mask mandate in buildings after Sununu ended the state mask mandate.

Sherman notes that while masks are optional they are encouraged and personal protective equipment will be provided, which is okay but not the whole story.

The other problem is that there are around 90 House members and some senators who refuse to wear masks and have had their own section or “freedom seats” in House sessions this year and last year. .

All anti-masks sit on committees.

And no one has to prove they are vaccinated to enter the State House or the Legislative Office Building, as they do to enter bars and restaurants in many places or to fly or use transportation. in common.

The other concern is the explosion of COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire from low double digits to triple digits in less than a month, substantial transmission rates, positive test rate above 6% and hospitalizations approaching 100 when there were less than 10 six weeks ago.

The highly contagious Delta variant is increasingly taking hold in New Hampshire, and revolutionary cases continue to increase for those vaccinated.

The governor warned earlier this month that the situation is likely to be much worse as fall approaches, when people will be more indoors.

Schools and colleges are reopening with less than solid guidelines or with disabilities built into protective actions through the legislature, which is sure to increase transmission.

And if you’ve been to legislative hearings before, you know that many people present are elderly and at greater risk if infected with COVID-19.

In this atmosphere, legislative leaders are asking people to sit in courtrooms crowded with anti-masks and an unknown number of unvaccinated people if you want to participate in the legislative process.

Just two months ago, there was virtual access to every Senate and House committee meeting, not just the session days that have been available for years.

The cost of virtual access for the general public cannot be that high and there is ample federal money to cover all costs incurred by the General Court to provide anyone who wishes the opportunity to observe at distance their representatives and senators, and executive advisers. and governor.

It might appear that the GOP leadership does not want the public to have unrestricted access to the activities of their elected representatives, as with redistribution committees, for example.

But beyond that, no matter how much it costs to broadcast live, the cost of bad publicity for a super-broadcaster legislative event is minimal.

A glance at the surrounding states’ webpages indicates that they are still hosting virtual committee meetings and live events.

Virtual access to your government these days is not too much to ask. It should be the least that legislative leadership can do.

Garry Rayno can be reached at [email protected].

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on State House and state events for During his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for Union leader New Hampshire and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage has spanned the spectrum of news, from local planning, schools and boards of directors, to national issues such as deregulation of the electrical industry and presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

This story was originally posted by NH in depth.

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