House Dems seek letting some attend Jan. 6 session remotely

House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton urged Acting Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, to reconsider and let lawmakers attend remotely the first 2021 session of the House Jan. 6.  Packard has unveiled a plan for all to attend in person, inside their cars, at a parking lot on the University of New Hampshire campus in Durham.

CONCORD — With three disabled colleagues backing him up, House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton urged acting House Speaker Sherman Packard to allow any lawmaker to remotely attend a “drive-in” session Jan. 6 at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Cushing, 68, said the “in-your-car meeting” spelled out in a Sunday letter from Packard would violate a lawmaker’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He wouldn’t rule out suing House leaders if they refuse to make an accommodation.

“The leader of the Republican majority is doing everything possible except that which is most obvious and that is to allow us to meet remotely,” said Cushing, an eight-term representative, during a Tuesday news conference on Zoom.

“Why we are spending all these resources to circumvent an obvious solution is beyond me.”

House members are expected on Jan. 6 to elect Packard, R-Londonderry, as speaker to replace Rep. Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, who died eight days after he was given the gavel.

An autopsy confirmed Hinch, 71, had contracted COVID-19.

Packard, 71, said for weeks he has worked with UNH officials on this session, set to take place in the largest parking lot on campus near the Hamel Recreation Center.

“I take the health and safety of all our members and staff very seriously, which is why we plan to host what we believe to be the most risk-mitigated session of the House yet during this pandemic, in a socially distanced, inside your-own-vehicle manner, on Jan. 6,” Packard wrote.

“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.”

House rules require a new speaker be selected as soon as possible, and no provision exists for doing that remotely, Packard said.

“We believe that every reasonable accommodation has and will be made to allow all members to participate,” said Packard, now in his 16th term.

“Ultimately, every member must determine for themselves, based upon their own circumstances, as they have at previous sessions, whether they will attend.”

Remote sessions OK

Cushing noted the state Supreme Court last fall advised former Speaker Stephen Shurtleff, D-Penacook, that the House could hold remote sessions as long as virtual attendance could be confirmed.

“We should be setting an example, not making ourselves a laughingstock by having this drive-in movie theater,” Cushing said.

Rep. Kendall Snow, D-Manchester, said he spent three months in the hospital, including eight days on a ventilator, after he came down with Guillain-Barre Syndrome in 2017.

Snow, 81, and his wife, 79 and also disabled, sold their home of 50 years and moved into the Birch Hill assisted-living complex in Manchester.

“I don’t want to be the Typhoid Mary that brings COVID-19 back to the 100 residents in the complex where I live,” said Snow, a four-term representative and retired mental health center executive.

Rep. David Cote, D-Nashua, can’t drive because of cerebral palsy. In 2018, he had four stents implanted after a heart attack.

“This is the New Hampshire Republican Party saying that they are unable to do what the government has required individuals and businesses to do since the pandemic began,” said Cote, 60, in his 20th term.

“Over the past nine months, businesses throughout the state and most of New Hampshire’s state government have adapted to working remotely to protect public health. For some reason, House Republicans are unable or unwilling to adapt like the rest of society.”Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, has a degenerative joint disease that would not allow her to exit a car to use the restroom.

Rogers, who is in her eighth term, said the medication she takes for pain is an opiate, which means she can’t operate a vehicle after taking it.

“What am I going to do — have somebody tow my car back to my home after the session?” asked Rogers, 60, a former county attorney.

Cushing said he has had Stage 4 prostate cancer and did not attend the December Organization Day out of concern about contracting COVID-19.

Packard: $300K for remote

Packard said the cost of allowing all to go remote is prohibitive.

“Additionally, in researching how to stand up a remote session, the anticipated cost in establishing a secure voting mechanism would be in excess of $300,000,” Packard said.

Cushing said both House Democrats and Republicans hosted all-remote caucus sessions over the past month.

“I was quite floored when I saw that number,” Cushing said.

“It doesn’t cost $300,000 to have that remote session, and it’s ironic we are wasting more money creating this new exercise at UNH.”