Wheeling and Dealing? NH Plans Drive-in Legislative Session Amid Pandemic

Lawmakers will park in front of a large screen at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and will remain in their cars for the duration of the Jan. 6 session

Mike Ross/UNH Photography

There will be only one House speaker, but up to 400 New Hampshire lawmakers will be in the driver's seat next month for a legislative session modeled on a drive-in movie theater.

The House released plans Tuesday for what acting Speaker Sherm Packard called "the most risk-mitigated session of the House yet during this pandemic."

Lawmakers in one of the world's largest legislative bodies will park in front of a large screen at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and will remain in their cars for the duration of the Jan. 6 session.

"It is our belief that the extra precautions of members voting and debating from the comfort of their own vehicles, spread apart across the largest parking lot on UNH's campus, will allow us to do our business effectively and efficiently," Packard said in a letter to lawmakers.

Since the pandemic began, the House has met indoors in a UNH arena and outside on an athletic field. House Speaker Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 9, a week after being sworn in during the outdoor gathering, and Democrats have pushed for fully remote sessions.

"It's absurd in the height of the pandemic that the leader of the republican majority is doing everything possible except the most logical thing to do, which is to allow us to meet remotely," House Minority Leader Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said Tuesday. "Why in the middle of a pandemic we're spending all these resources to circumvent a logical solution to a problem is beyond me."

But the House has not adopted rules to allow remote sessions, and doing so would cost $300,000, Packard said.

"Such an expense cannot be justified at the present time, nor is it possible to resolve the significant logistical requirements of a remote session given the short timeframe and the unique challenges of the 400-member House," he said.

Instead, the Jan. 6 session will include cars parked in alternating spots in staggered rows facing a large movie screen. The House clerk and speaker will conduct the session from a heated platform, and members can watch and listen via the screen or through their car radios. Microphones will be brought to their windows for questions and debate, and voting will be conducted via electronic devices similar to those used during the indoor arena session.

The Durham Fire Department will conduct air monitoring throughout the day given the large number of idling vehicles, but officials said there shouldn't be a problem given the wind and wide-open area.

More than 41,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, with 861 cases announced Monday that included partial results from four days. Seven new deaths were announced, bringing the total to 715.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has decreased over the past two weeks from 884 on Dec. 13 to 610 on Dec. 27.

Medical officials say that New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch died of coronavirus.
Copyright AP - Associated Press
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