Bill would extend some Sununu emergency orders through 2022

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Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·4 min read
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Feb. 17—CONCORD — A bill codifying some of Gov. Chris Sununu's COVID-19 emergency orders into state law until the end of 2022 would give the Legislature the ability to curb the governor's power, its sponsor says, while several of his critics fear it gives him too much.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, agreed to sponsor the bill (SB 155), which has 23 different sections that temporarily codify and, in some cases alter, executive actions the governor has taken since the pandemic began.

"This does give the Legislature the opportunity to weigh in on the emergency powers," Bradley told the Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee on Wednesday. "I want to stress the very temporary nature of SB 155."

Kelley Potenza of Concord urged senators to take the opportunity to strike down Sununu's actions as an overreach.

"This takes so many of Gov. Sununu's unlawful and unnecessary orders and writes them permanently into law. We have had zero voice for a year," Potenza testified during a hearing on the bill. "It is unbelievable and unconstitutional. I can't believe that this is happening. It is just so ridiculous."

Republican lawmakers in the House have sponsored 14 other bills that would check or reduce emergency powers Sununu or his successors would have in dealing with future emergencies.

SB 155 is the bill Sununu referred to three weeks ago, when he revealed his office had been working on legislation to "tweak" the emergency orders and let some of them remain in place for 2022.

Sununu said many other emergency orders will be allowed to expire in the coming months as more citizens get the vaccine, assuming COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths continue to drop.

Lisa English, a special adviser to Sununu on COVID-19, said this bill charts out what should stay in place during the "recovery phase" from the COVID-19 outbreak.

"With very few exceptions, it is anticipated these powers are only needed during this recovery phase," English said.

For example, the bill would relax licensing requirements so health care employers, particularly those who care for seniors, can hire temporary providers to fill staffing needs. The same allowance would be extended for one-year teaching certificates to help shore up personnel rolls in schools through 2022.

Key issues

{span style="font-size: 16px;"}The state Division of Motor Vehicles, along with cities and towns, would be allowed to "minimize in-person contact" with the public by limiting applications to online or appointment-only visits.1/2/span}

This bill would permit pharmacy technicians to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Laura Condon of Bedford, an activist critical of the state's vaccine actions, objected that it would allow shots to be given to children as young as 3 years old.

"These would put children at serious risk of injury or death that they wouldn't possibly face if they were exposed to the virus," Condon said. "Children are not simply small adults."

Julie Tucker opposed a provision to let cities and towns hold any and all government meetings remotely through the rest of the year.

"Not everyone has computers," Tucker said. "You have to lock yourselves in bathrooms to get away from your kids. This is not public access. I call that the anti-democracy bill."

The bill would give Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, with Sununu's support, the power to grant a school district's request to switch to remote or hybrid learning.

Last summer, Sununu was criticized for giving school district leaders too much flexibility to make their own decisions about reopening public schools.

"This appears to be a big sea change for how we started from this pandemic," testified Brian Hawkins, a lobbyist with the National Education Association of New Hampshire, the state's largest teachers' union. "No one wants to be back in the classroom more than educators and their students, but it raises questions like who is the arbiter in a disagreement in this situation?"

Sununu adviser English said this new process would make sure "speed" is a hallmark in any action to close down a school that's experienced an abrupt outbreak of the virus.

Rebecca Fredette, state director of special education, said school administrators have reported that tight timelines to complete evaluations of all students with disabilities in this bill could pose an "undue burden."

klandrigan@unionleader.com