- Associated Press - Thursday, November 26, 2020

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - The coronavirus pandemic won’t just affect how New Hampshire lawmakers meet next year, but the legislation they will consider, as well.

Lawmakers will gather at the University of New Hampshire on Wednesday to be sworn in, choose leaders and elect a secretary of state and state treasurer.

They are meeting in Durham to allow room for social distancing, and officials are still figuring out how to handle committee meetings and other business that typically takes place in crowded rooms in the Statehouse and Legislative Office Building in Concord.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have begun drafting hundreds of bills for the upcoming session. More than 700 requests for legislation have been filed by House lawmakers, and while only the titles are currently public, at least a dozen appear to have been inspired by the pandemic. Senators have until Dec. 15 to put in their drafting requests.

Rep. William Marsh, R-Brookfield, is proposing three coronavirus-related bills. One seeks to expand broadband access in his county, where progress has been slow because of disagreement over who should bear the cost of upgrading utility poles.

“Little towns like mine get caught in the middle and we don’t get broadband,” he said. “We need broadband in the rural communities so the kids can do distance learning, and people need access to medical care via telemedicine, and we’ve hit this roadblock.”

Marsh, a retired physician, also is drafting two bills related to public health.

One would clarify the state Department of Health and Human Services commissioner’s authority to issue emergency orders. Marsh also objected to an order Commissioner Lori Shibinette issued in April prohibiting the prescribing of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine - two drugs promoted by President Donald Trump - to prevent COVID-19. Marsh said the commissioner should be allowed to limit the amount of drugs prescribed during a shortage but should not be able to prohibit such prescriptions altogether.

His third bill was born out of his frustration as both a town health officer and as town moderator. The day after the election, the state’s COVID-19 data showed 10 infections in his town, but Marsh said he couldn’t get any further information.

“I gave them a list of my election officials; I wanted to know if we had just exposed the entire town of Brookfield to COVID-19,” he said. “I got zero information from public health, and that is not a way of containing an epidemic,” he said.

The bill would allow confidential information to be conveyed to health officers, while also requiring greater training for those holding the position.

“They say health officers are the boots on the ground, but they gave us no data,” he said. “We had no enforcement authority until the governor recently gave it to health officers with one of his emergency orders, and these are all issues that need to be addressed so going forward we will be ready for the next pandemic.”

On the Democratic side, Rep. Donovan Fenton is proposing a committee to study appointing an inspector general for nursing homes, where more than 80% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred.

Fenton and others argue the state’s nursing homes have been unfairly penalized when it comes to federal funding because the federal formula rewarded facilities that kept infection and mortality rates among residents lower than the communities they serve. That penalizes states that have low per capita infection rates, like New Hampshire, he said.

“Nursing homes are the epicenter of COVID in New Hampshire,” he said. “This is something we can get our arms around. It’s really about accountability and review of our current system for regulation and inspection, for the patients and employees.”

Republicans regained majorities in both the House and Senate in this month’s elections, but the pandemic has revealed divisions within the party. While Republican Gov. Chris Sununu was easily reelected, some Republicans believe the restrictions he has enacted went too far. Several of the proposed bills appear aimed at limiting the governor’s power in future emergencies.

Incoming Rep. Anne Copp, R-Derry, and Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, filed requests for at least four bills each related to the emergency powers of the governor. Neither responded to requests for comment, but Prout is among a small group of lawmakers who also want to impeach Sununu over his handling of the virus.

Rep. Michael Sylvia, R-Belmont, told the Concord Monitor the group is drafting a resolution to call for an impeachment inquiry.

“Simply, we are violating the rights of our people,” he said. “This is not something that we can tolerate now or in the future.”

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