Virtual access needed as COVID-19 cases surge in 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 we elect people to represent us in our government.
Federal and state governments operate the same way, people elect other people to represent their interests in the Legislature and in New Hampshire, the Executive Council as well.
The only participatory democracy today is at a town or school district meeting, when people have a direct say on warrant articles and can petition to place warrant articles before voters.
Other states have binding referendums to allow greater public participation, but New Hampshire does not.
At the state level, the only direct participation by New Hampshire voters is for proposed constitutional amendments and those have a very high bar of a two-thirds majority to be placed in the constitution.
In the legislature, the Representatives and Senators make the decisions for the people who send them to Concord.
In theory, voters may also influence decisions by testifying at public hearings or writing letters or calling their senators and representatives.
The Senators and Representatives still have to make their own decisions — and often do — going their own way instead of following input from their constituents.
If they do that enough, you should vote them out of office.
But in order to know if they followed your stated wishes, you have to know what they did.
Knowing how your representative or senator voted on the floor or in committee was much easier the last 18 months than it ever was before.
One of the positive things from the pandemic was — and I do mean “was” in the past tense — were virtual, remote hearings that allowed hundreds of voters to participate at times, and made it easier for anyone interested to watch their representatives or senators in action.
But the live streaming of hearings has come to an abrupt halt with a few exceptions.
For example last week, the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules had a meeting to decide whether interim rules for the new “education freedom accounts” or what used to be called vouchers, would go forward allowing the program to begin this school year was live streamed, but the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, which voted on tens of millions if not more than 100 million dollars of activity, was not.
Yes, Gov. Chris Sununu ended the state of emergency and the legislature leadership voted to open the State House and Legislative Office Building to the public again, but that does not mean the live streaming of committees and activities has to end as well.
In the House calendar this week, House Speaker Sherman Packard explains that because the emergency order has ended, and with it the House Rule allowing remote meetings, committees now have to meet in person according to House Rules 104 and 106 which require a quorum be present to conduct committee business.
That does tend to ignore the Supreme Court advisory opinion issued over a year ago that a quorum could include remote members.
The House Rules quoted have nothing to do with remote public access to those meetings.
It is a conscious decision of the House and Senate leadership to end the public’s access to the people’s business remotely.
They are saying if you want to participate in legislative activity you have to be in the State House or the Legislative Office Building or wherever a committee or commission or advisory council is meeting.
The state of emergency may have ended, but the pandemic has not.
In the calendar, Packard notes the legislature has purchased high tech, portable air purification units that exceed CDC guidelines.
The LOB has always had air quality problems and an inefficient air circulating system that may be more than portable air purification systems can change.
The hearings rooms in both the State House and Legislative Office Building are small and often crowded when there is anything the least bit controversial.
The legislative leadership decided to lift the mask mandate in the buildings after Sununu ended the state mask mandate.
Packard notes while masks are optional, they are encouraged and personal protection equipment will be provided, that is fine but not the whole story.
The other problem is there are about 90 members of the House and some senators who refuse to wear masks and had their own section or “freedom seats” at House sessions this and last year.
All of the anti-maskers serve on committees.
And no one has to prove they are vaccinated to enter the State House or Legislative Office Building, like they do to enter bars and restaurants in many places or to fly or use public transportation.
The other concern is the exploding cases of COVID-19 in New Hampshire going from low double digits to triple digits in less than a month, substantial transmission rates, a positive test rate over 6 percent, and hospitalizations approaching 100 when there were fewer than 10 six weeks ago.
The highly contagious Delta variant is becoming more established in New Hampshire and breakthrough cases continue to rise for the vaccinated.
The governor warned earlier this month the situation is likely to be much worse heading into the fall when people are indoors more.
Schools and colleges are reopening with less than solid guidelines or with built-in handicaps to protective actions thanks to the legislature, which is bound to increase transmission.
And if you have ever attended legislative hearings, you know many people attending are elderly and more at risk if they do become infected with COVID-19.
In this atmosphere, legislative leadership is asking people to sit in crowded hearing rooms with anti-maskers and an unknown number of the unvaccinated if you want to participate in the legislative process.
Just two months ago, there was virtual access to every committee meeting of the Senate and House, not just the session days that have been available for years.
The cost of virtual access for the general public cannot be that great and there is ample federal money to cover whatever costs are incurred by the General Court to provide an opportunity for everyone who wants to, to observe remotely their representatives and senators, and executive councilors and governor.
It might appear the GOP leadership does not want the public to have unfettered access to the goings on of their elected representatives like for the redistricting committees for instance.
But beyond that, whatever it costs to provide live streaming, is minimal to the cost of the bad publicity of a super-spreader legislative event.
A look at the webpages of surrounding states indicate they are still holding virtual committee meetings and live streaming events.
Virtual access to your government in this day and age is not asking too much. It should be the least legislative leadership could do.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.