Ken Wells' Report from Concord April 15, 2020
The customary title of this column, “Report from Concord”, seems peculiar to me now, since I’ve been unable to go to Concord for the past month. Just days after the all-night House session I described in the previous issue in the Beacon, the Governor locked down the State House and all the related government offices, due to the rising pandemic. Roughly a week later, after the State House was locked down, the Governor issued his stay-at-home order for the rest of NH citizens - a wise and necessary measure to quell the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases across NH.
But what does closing the State House mean? It is not merely a building that has been shut down. Because the Senate and the House are unable to meet, there can be no quorum, so no votes, and their standing committees cannot hold any public hearings to advance legislation. The Executive Council, a powerful and unique NH entity which approves or rejects every major purchase or contract with the State, is also barred from meeting in the State House, so no new state contracts can legally be entered into.
Many are raising serious concerns about whether our representative democracy will be able to function under these emergency conditions, especially since the COVID-19 emergency will likely continue much longer than any of us would like. As long as the emergency ban on meetings is in effect, and until virtual government meetings by teleconferences can be recognized as legally acceptable, a serious obstacle exists to the constitutional functioning of our state government. Unfortunately, we have not quite figured out how our representative system can work during the current pandemic, which rightly demands physical distancing, because the legislative bodies cannot meet to discuss and modify their own rules to respond to the crisis, nor can they update existing laws.
History tells us repeatedly, times of crisis are times when autocrats have tried to increase and consolidate their power. Not to draw a direct comparison to NH, but as a worst-case cautionary tale, recall that in 1933, Hitler cemented totalitarian control of his country’s government with an emergency decree he issued the day after the German legislative building, the Reichstag”, was totally destroyed by a mysterious nighttime fire. Unopposed, Hitler was free to do what he did. Let’s learn from history.
With the State House shut down, all the co-equal branches of NH government face a significant obstacle to their function, and our constitutional democracy faces a number of risks. The guard rails imposed by the NH Constitution’s “checks and balances” provide a dynamic and productive struggle among 1) the “General Court”, composed of the House & Senate Legislative bodies, 2) the Executive Council, who must approve the State’s contractual expenditures 3) the NH judicial courts, and 4) the Governor’s Executive offices.
How does the venerable NH Constitution envision government? Your interests, as citizens of NH’s Merrimack District 1, are primarily represented by your elected officials in the Legislature. (That is, myself, David Karrick and Senator French.) The courts, presided over by judges appointed by this and previous Governors, make sure that everyone is playing according to the “rulebook” embodied in the NH Constitution and in statute. The Governor, as chief executive, is granted vast and sweeping powers he can wield with agility in the face of a sudden crisis like COVID-19, but his emergency measures are subject to review in the slower, but powerfully deliberative processes within the Legislature and the Courts.
The NH Constitution is a brilliant document, crafted and refined over many years to consider past and future circumstances, and even such an emergency as this current pandemic was planned for. In the case of emergency spending, the Legislature’s “power of the purse” was delegated in RSA 9:13(d) to a small bipartisan “dream team” called the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, who has the power to approve or nix any emergency expenditures on behalf of the full Legislature. (It’s called “joint” because its members include both House Representatives and Senators of both parties.) Especially important these days, the Joint Fiscal Committee is constitutionally permitted to conduct its business via telephone or internet teleconferences.
What does the NH Constitution say we are supposed to be doing, to quickly and constitutionally distribute federal emergency aid to NH people when it arrives this month? Yeah, that’s not what’s happening right now. The Governor has created his own, different “dream team” which he calls “GOFERR”. This body supposedly has oversight, but possesses no constitutional power to reject or halt expenditures of the $1.25 billion dollars in federal funds, to whomever, by the Governor. GOFERR seems aptly named, because its only power, it seems, is to rubber-stamp the Governor’s decisions on what happens to the money . Now, I trust that the Governor means to do right by the People of NH, but could anyone stop him if he decided to send part of NH’s $1.25 billion in federal emergency funds to say, bailout the out-of-state industries that are his political supporters? The NH Constitution says the existing Joint Fiscal Committee must be the body empowered to stand in the way of such questionable decisions, and that the Joint Fiscal Committee is already constitutionally empowered to make sure that the People get the monies intended for them.
The problem of the day (yesterday, as I write this, two weeks before press time) is that the suit challenging GOFERR brought by the Legislature will take some time to grind through the courts, and in the meantime, the federal money might already have been spent improperly. Good luck getting any of that money back to NH people after the check clears, especially since it would be hard and slow to get the money back if it was cashed by an out-of-state entity. (If you would like more information about what state & federal aid might be available to you, your children or your small business, see the information posted at AndoverBeacon.com, or call me.)
I’m convinced that GOFERR isn’t in the best interests of the People of NH, and bypassing the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee is not consistent with the NH Constitution I swore an oath to protect.
Optimistic thoughts on being a homebody in Andover
We all worry about “bad things happening” to us and to those dear to us in these pandemic days. There is growing anxiousness about the waning of our livelihoods and our environment, looming just over the horizon. I admit I feel cut off from my former routine and occupation, giving me too much time to worry about my grown children who are at risk as “essential employees” in the high-risk environments of grocery retail and an urban medical research lab.
But as frightening as these times may be, it is also true that times of adversity are when we learn of inspiring stories about acts of kindness and bravery, of neighbors reaching out to help their neighbors, and about everlasting bonds of life-long friendships being formed. These are great things that don’t simply “happen to us”, but are things that we deliberately go out of our way to do for each other.
We are blessed to be where we are right now, in the middle of rural NH. I think back to wonderful stories written by Donald Hall, in String Too Short to be Saved. He described summers he spent driving a horse-drawn hay wagon and tramping in the woods around his grandfather Wesley Wells’ farm near Ragged Mountain, almost a century ago. Many things are different today than they were in Hall’s youth, but most of the important things haven’t changed. Whether our roots here go back generations, or whether the winds of fortune carried us to alight here just recently as newcomers, we are so fortunate to find ourselves in the midst of a caring community, surrounded by natural beauty and resources, and importantly, living at some distance from the first shock wave of the pandemic. Nevertheless, we know change is coming. We have been granted time to contemplate our next move together.
As one looks at how societies have changed over time, one sees long periods of slow, evolutionary change that altered little, interspersed with short, intense disruptions that caused major upheavals. Looking at it optimistically, those upheavals are opportunities for people to re-think what “leading the good life” means to them, and gives them a chance to make different choices about how they choose to live. We are at just the beginning of such an upheaval. There will be no going back - the future will be different from the past, as always.
The key to survival and success in such a fluid situation, if one has been granted time to think it over, is to cooly assess how the worst might come about, and then devise a plan to avoid that. Then with some clever re-thinking of what is most important to us, we might even discover a “new normal” that puts us in a better situation than our “old normal”. Passively resisting the change will not lead to the best outcome, nor will a refusal to acknowledge the existence of new risks.
While my family and I search for our own “new normal”, we discovered that being active and constructive is an excellent way of coping.
“Staying at home” has a dreary, shut-in ring to it, but “being at home” sounds as inviting as a month of Sundays. While we were “being at home”, we baked cookies and stitched masks for the hospital and an old folks home. We took our dog for walks that were as long as the old boy hoped they would be. We worked in the yard and enjoyed the emerging daffodils, and on the rainy days we repainted a room for a fresh look.
Slowing down to watch the natural world transition into spring has been more refreshing than any new coat of paint. I’m hopeful about reports that worldwide, the atmosphere and wildlife have already shown signs of recovering, as worldwide pollution has declined in the past months. Can we imagine a “new normal” that finds new ways of making the things we need, growing our food and transporting it, buying less “stuff” that gets thrown away after one use, and doing more work from home, so that the health of our world improves?
Most of all, I hope we can all find good ways to cope, asking others for help when we need it, and offering to help others as we can. You can start very simply by merging your grocery lists with say two neighbors, and taking turns with them to do one weekly shopping trip. That way, each of you ventures out in public only once every three weeks, you save fuel driving one car instead of three to the store, and you reduce the risk to the grocery workers by reducing the number of people they come in contact with.
I’m sure that many readers will have their own great ideas to share about how we can help each other, and how we can discover a safe, healthy and uplifting “new normal” together!
Ken Wells represents Andover, Danbury and Salisbury in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.