Jan 19, 2021
The New Hampshire Legislature in the COVID era
New Hampshire Republicans have control of the state Senate, House and Executive Council after the November election—following Democratic majorities in all three arenas the last two years. Gov. Chris Sununu was re-elected for his third term after defeating state Sen. Dan Feltes, D-15. The governor received more votes than any other candidate to run for office in the state. Additionally, Sununu approved the nomination of his former policy director, D.J. Bettencourt, to serve as the next deputy commissioner for the New Hampshire Insurance Department.
Legislative leaders are planning to address higher-priority issues this session, with as few extraneous bills as possible. However, the state’s two-year budget needs to be adopted before Wednesday, June 30, 2021, when the current budget is set to expire. Sununu will be presenting his version of the budget in mid-February. The state’s coffers are not as depleted as expected last May, since several revenue streams performed better than expected. But the state most likely will face a deficit at the end of the current budget, which will be a pivotal part of this year’s budget negotiations. With Republicans in control of the process, do not expect to see tax increases and anticipate a reduction in the business-profit and enterprise-tax rates. Sununu has indicated he will propose a reduction in the Meals and Rooms tax rate in an effort to help the hospitality industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic also will dominate the agenda. Handling this pandemic brings new challenges to the legislative process and procedures for conducting business. At the end of last year’s session—when the pandemic first hit—the state Legislature shifted to the use of omnibus bills. Omnibus bills are larger bills that group together—this allows for fewer public hearings. It appears that, again, omnibus bills will be part of the solution this session—at least in the Senate as senators have started grouping bills together. However, there still were more than 800 bills filed for the 2021 session. The Senate started its committee work this week, during which it plans to meet via video conference..
The House has been slower to embrace remote hearings and sessions. It met drive-in style at the University of New Hampshire. The members arrived in their cars, parked and stayed in their cars for several hours while the session was live-streamed over the radio and members casted votes via a hand-held, remote voting device.
In addressing the pandemic, legislators are discussing paid medical leave for employees who contract COVID-19. They also are discussing safe harbor liability protection for employers. The safe harbor legislation would provide safeguards that would protect employers from employees suing as a result of COVID-19 exposure at work.
Additionally, the redistricting of the congressional, executive council and legislative districts will be addressed this session. Redistricting is the responsibility of the state Legislature, and it takes place every 10 years. This process tends to be political, but it is a crucial process, since it will shape the political landscape of New Hampshire for the next decade. Also, there were several bills filed to curtail the governor’s executive authority during a state of emergency. The state has been operating under a state of emergency for months, which has provided Sununu with additional power and authority to govern.