CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The lawmakers were spread far apart but the bills were clumped together Tuesday when the New Hampshire Senate met for its first session since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Statehouse.
Hundreds of bills were left in limbo when the building closed in March, prompting senators to take an unusual approach to making up for lost time. Technically, there were only 26 bills listed on Tuesday’s calendar, but senators actually were taking up close to 200 after combining them into omnibus measures grouped by subject matter, such as health care, education and criminal justice.
While the trailer bill that accompanies the state budget every two years typically becomes a “Christmas tree” with an assortment of unrelated measures hung on it, the pandemic prompted 20 bills that combined in some cases more than 20 other measures. The bills now go back to the House, which can vote only to accept or reject them when it meets June 30.
Senators met in the 400-seat Representatives Hall instead of their own chamber to allow for social distancing, and were set up with handmade wooden desks to hold iPads, their 347-page agendas, snacks, hand sanitizer and extra masks. Though normally required to stand while speaking, they remained seated to use microphones installed at their seats.
Democrats hold a 14-10 majority, and many of the bills passed along party lines. But there was bipartisan support for multiple measures, including one that would permanently allow all health care providers to offer services remotely and require insurers to cover them. Such provisions have been allowed on a temporary basis during the pandemic, and have been “transformative,” said Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, a gastroenterologist.
“It has been really important to have that continuity of care with our patients,” he said.
Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, offered a spinoff of the Bob Seger song “Against the Wind,” saying the pandemic has highlighted the importance of telehealth parity now and into the future.
“There are silver linings, and we have to learn from what befalls us,” he said. “Once in a while, and this bill is emblematic of it, you can run with the wind.”
The Senate voted unanimously for a package of bills related to prescription medication, including measures that would create a program to import generic drugs from Canada, limit copayments on insulin and require insurance coverage of epinephrine pens. And five Republicans crossed party lines to help pass a package of bills related to sexual assault. That grouping included lifting the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault, requiring colleges to adopt policies on sexual misconduct and removing the exception for married minors from the definition of sexual assault.
They were less united on several other bills related to the pandemic, however.
Two Democrats joined the 10 Republicans to oppose an effort to permanently increase unemployment benefits by $100 a week. But Democrats came back together to pass the rest of that bill, which among other things calls for upgrading the computer system at the Department of Employment Security and providing personal protective equipment to workers. Democrats also pushed through a bill that would spend $25 million of the state’s federal virus relief aid on nursing home, where a majority of the state’s deaths from the virus have occurred. Republicans argued the bill was unnecessary because money already has been allocated to nursing homes. The bill also would create an independent review of nursing homes, said Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord.
“Everybody talks about a second wave, why not do an independent review and figure out what’s going on?” He said. “This is the least we can do.”
___ This story has been corrected to show the correct spelling of Bob Seger, not Bob Segar.