Valley News – Ability to testify remotely on bills before NH’s legislature is popular – and efforts are made to keep it
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on New Hampshire Bulletin.
CONCORD – As a COVID-19 survivor, Laurie Warnock was grateful to be able to testify remotely and safely last year on legislation related to her work as an EMT, Hampstead Selection Committee member and educator of State for the New England Poison Control Center.
Carla Smith of Fremont, NH, a professor of nursing at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Services, testified from her office about public health and emergency-related bills without having to find someone to cover her lessons for the day . And Tiffany Dodier of New Hampshire Hunger Solutions has seen remote access overcome transportation and child care barriers that often prevent members of their community from showing lawmakers why easy access to food is important.
Everyone wants the ability to testify remotely to remain for the next session for security reasons and to expand public access to the legislative process. It does not appear to be the case.
The House and Senate will broadcast the meetings but will only allow in-person testimony when lawmakers meet again in January. Members are also required to attend sessions and committee meetings in person following this week’s rejection of an effort to allow virtual participation.
House spokeswoman Jennifer Tramp said that once the state of emergency and emergency orders expire, the suspension of House rules which requires the presence of a quorum of committee members did the same. Since June, the House has demanded that all Members be present to vote. Aware of the risks associated with COVID-19, she said the Legislature has put in place safety protocols, including updating air filtration systems and making masks and other personal security measures.
Regarding public testimony, Tramp said people can register their position on a bill online at the General Court’s website and email an individual lawmaker or the entire committee.
This is not sufficient assurance for those who want to continue to testify from a distance.
With more than 30 vaccine bills and several health-related bills, Smith fears the people lawmakers need most – understaffed healthcare workers battling a pandemic – could not afford the hours it takes to get to Concord and testify.
âIt puzzles me that people don’t want this to happen,â she said.
Twenty-five healthcare providers and advocacy organizations sent a letter to legislative leaders in October urging them to continue to allow remote testimony. And New Futures, which was among the 25, collected more than 850 signatures on a petition urging lawmakers to do the same. When the agency asked people to share personal stories showing why remote testimonials were important to them, it received 160 submissions, 10 times what they typically see.
Jake Berry, the group’s vice chairman of policy, said he was pleased to hear House Speaker Sherman Packard announce the House will meet for its first three days off-site, at an exhibition center of 30,000 square feet in Manchester, to give lawmakers room for social distancing.
But that’s not enough, he said, for members of the public who have safety concerns or who can’t attend in person for other reasons.
âWe have seen first-hand the impact that (remote testimony can have),â he said. âThere were dozens and hundreds of people who were able to engage in the legislative process who had not done so before and who testified on bills that have such an impact on their lives. They want to continue to have a say in the legislative process. They want to have a say in the laws that impact their lives.
Kristine Stoddard, New Hampshire director of public policy for the Bi-State Primary Care Association, works with community health centers across the state, which serve approximately 120,000 people. It’s always difficult for health center directors to get to a legislative hearing in Concord, she said, but they also want to make sure lawmakers get accurate information and have the opportunity to ask questions. . It got both harder and easier once the pandemic hit: they were able to provide this information in the short time they had.
âYou would never go into a court case and need experts without bringing them in,â Stoddard said. “(Lawmakers) pass laws that affect everyone, and they need to hear from everyone.”
Warnock often provides lawmakers with information on vaping, cannabis, and opioids. In her role as a member of the jury, she stands up for her community, and she would like to do so from a distance when lawmakers pass a school voucher bill that she says will increase the burden on Hampstead taxpayers. Without this option, Warnock’s fear of contracting COVID-19 again or passing it on may leave her with only two choices, which she doesn’t think are effective: write or call lawmakers.
âIf you want to create a form of government that is truly accessible and transparent, (remote testimony) should not be ruled out,â she said.
Dodier agrees. Advocacy for social services such as access to food is most effective when lawmakers can hear the frustration in a client’s voice or see how difficult it is to access a program. She remembers a woman holding her baby while testifying from a distance in support of access to healthy and nutritious food for her family.
That visual is impossible in an email, she said, especially when that email never reaches a lawmaker.
âGo ahead and tell me that all the lawmakers have read all the letters. It just doesn’t happen, âDodier said. âThere are too many laws, too many bills. I’m not going to say that none of them do, but they would have a hard time doing it. There are not enough hours in the day.