The 2021 Legislative Session
After a bit of a delay, the legislature is finally in full swing and things are a bit different this year. As of this writing, those of us wishing to testify are no longer required to trek up several flights of stairs. Instead, we’re merely required to trek to a room with a suitable background to Zoom-in.
Each week of the legislative session is a little busier than usual because, due to pandemic considerations, the legislature is holding committee meetings throughout the entire work week rather than the usual schedule of Tuesday through Thursday. In addition, while the House is still working on bills individually, the Senate has combined a number of related bills into omnibus packages, meaning a bit more work will be going into reconciliation this year.
Connecting to the Legislature
For those municipal officials who have not yet had the opportunity to testify or view a legislative hearing but will be this session, the process is rather straightforward. The “home page” of the legislature’s website contains informational links on the right side that inform viewers of how to sign up to testify or simply view a hearing. In short, signing up to testify involves selecting either the “House” or “Senate” electronic calendar, finding the bill in the dropdown, and inputting your information. No separate email confirmation comes to your email address, but the link to join via Zoom is provided in the calendar. Once joined, the staffer monitoring the hearing will allow you to speak (and, for some committees, appear via video) at the appropriate time. Please note that legislative hearings are also live streamed via YouTube, and the legislative staff is encouraging those who either do not wish to speak to view the hearings on YouTube rather than Zoom as some committee chairs like to check through the Zoom list to ensure that no one who wishes to speak is missed.
Priorities this Year
As always, NHMA has identified a number of priorities that it’s focusing on this year. Of course, it is a budget year, and one occurring during the economic uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, so we’re keeping a close eye on negotiations to ensure that the legislature is kept informed of municipal needs during this turbulent time. Fortunately, we’ve seen some key players acknowledge the fact that every dollar that goes to municipalities means one less dollar that municipalities must raise through property taxes.
Of course, the budget isn’t the only priority. The events of 2020 have highlighted the need for the legislature to modify a number of laws to allow local government to run smoothly during a pandemic and assist municipalities in providing relief to taxpayers. Some of this year’s priorities include:
SB 95/HB 216/HB 630 – Modifying the Right-to-Know Law to allow remote meetings. Perhaps the most requested of the bills that we’re working on this year, these three bills are all similar in that they echo Emergency Order #12’s allowance of remote meetings. We’ve heard from many municipalities that the transition to remote meetings this past year has resulted in greater public attendance and engagement at the local level.
HB 379 – Allowing municipalities to provide notice of certain meetings and hearings by publishing notice on their website rather than in a newspaper of local circulation. As many local newspapers across the state have closed, greatly reduced hours, or become entirely digital, municipalities have seen increasing costs for advertising in a medium that reaches fewer and fewer citizens.
Absentee Ballots – There are too many bills to list involving absentee ballots, but one area that has received a great deal of bipartisan support (and an area that our members have been very vocal in supporting) is enabling municipalities to preprocess absentee ballots as they were allowed to in 2020. Election night is always a long night, but preprocessing allows election officials to conduct the count more efficiently and send results to the Secretary of State’s Office sooner, helping New Hampshire continue to be first in the nation when it comes to counting ballots.
SB 72/HB 274 – Reinstating a state contribution to the municipal employer’s share of costs to participate in the New Hampshire Retirement System. As a reminder, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the state cut its contribution rate to 0%, down from the prior 35% that it had contributed since 1977.
Seeking Member Support
Even though things are different this year, some things are the same: NHMA still relies on its members to connect with their local legislators and communicate to them about our shared priorities. We also rely on our members to testify in support or opposition to bills that would affect municipal operations. You are the on-the-ground experts, and the legislature needs your expertise.
The best way to know when you need to get involved in the legislative process – besides through the connections that you’ve made with your local legislators – is to subscribe to NHMA’s Legislative Bulletin. The Bulletin runs every Friday during the legislative session (as well as containing a preview and wrap-up), and it highlights bills that we have identified as being of municipal concern.
Our Government Affairs staff are also happy to connect with you via phone or email about issues and bills that you have identified as a concern. We’re happy to work with you and key legislators to achieve a positive outcome, even as we’re still working within the challenging environment created by the pandemic.
Natch Greyes is Municipal Services Counsel with the New Hampshire Municipal Association. He may be contacted at 603.224.7447 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.