The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to change the way we do things that we’ve long taken for granted, including sending kids to school, going out to eat, even grocery shopping. The Legislature is no different. As we prepare to start the 2021 session, the New Hampshire Senate is changing the way it operates in order to conduct the people’s business safely.
We return this week for Convening Day, set by the New Hampshire Constitution for the First Wednesday in January. While the House will be holding a Drive-In session, the Senate will be meeting remotely. And on Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu will take the oath for his third term.
This new way of doing things will continue for the time being. The Senate and all of our committees will meet remotely. We could find a way for five-member committees to meet within social distancing guidelines, but public hearings are for the public. Hearings on high-profile bills sometimes draw hundreds of people. Rather than force people who wish to testify on legislation to cram into a crowded conference room, we will let them watch and testify at public hearings through video conference. We’ve all gained a lot of experience with this technology of the past nine months, and I’m confident remote hearings and sessions are the best way to keep the public connected with the Senate’s work.
Remote hearings bring a new set of logistical and scheduling challenges. All 24 Senators have worked to consolidate the number of bills we are filing this session. By combining several bills into a consolidated package, we will be able to hold one public hearing to address many related issues. It is important to note that this consolidation will in no way short-circuit the legislative process. Issues likely to be controversial have been maintained as stand-alone bills. And, every piece of the consolidated bills will be addressed in a public hearing. The Senate may also divide any question to provide a full and fair debate on each provision before passing them to the House. We will certainly have our disagreements over the next year, but I am glad that the Senate can start the session with bipartisan cooperation in setting up this process.
The Senate will quickly take up a package of bills to address the challenges posed by COVID-19. One such change would give towns greater flexibility in holding Town Meeting safely, much as local officials conducted the September and November elections.
Over the past year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given states broad waivers over its school nutrition programs, including the authority to provide free meals to all New Hampshire families. This flexibility has been crucial in helping schools and community organizations provide millions of meal to New Hampshire students learning remotely. But, it has also meant that families that have had to sign up for Free and Reduced Lunch Programs may not have signed up this year. The Free and Reduced Lunch rolls help set state and federal education funding formulas.
If families do not sign up, local school districts could see reduced state and federal aid next year. The New Hampshire Department of Education is working with schools to get families signed up. We will keep an eye on these efforts throughout the first couple months of 2021. If the Legislature has to step in to make sure schools receive the proper level of education aid, we are ready to do so.
This promises to be a legislative session unlike any other. We may have to adapt how we operate, but rest assured that the New Hampshire Senate remains dedicated to doing the people’s business. I urge my constituents to contact me if I may be of assistance at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (603) 271-4151.
Happy New Year! Here’s to a safe and prosperous 2021.
Sen. Erin Hennessey, R-Littleton, represents Senate District 1, which includes all of Coos County.