New Hampshire lawmakers convene at UNH

Tuesday, June 2, 2020
The Whittemore Center with chairs set up on the floor

Four hundred chairs are set up at the Whittemore Center where the New Hampshire House of Representatives is meeting due to the coronavirus.

For the first time since the Civil War, the New Hampshire House of Representatives will be meeting outside the State House when it convenes a session on June 11 at The Whittemore Center, one of the few indoor arenas in the state large enough to host the 400 lawmakers and provide healthy social distancing required due to the coronavirus.

“We looked at several options, and I really liked the idea of hosting it at the state’s largest public university,” said Steve Shurtleff, House speaker. “With UNH being a land grant college and everything that all the schools in the University System of New Hampshire have done for our state, I think it’s great that we’re able to hold the session at The Whit.”

The session is an unprecedented step away from Concord. Built in 1819, New Hampshire’s State House is the oldest in the country in which the legislature still meets in its original chambers. By the 1860s, House membership had grown from 194 when the State House opened to 340, and lawmakers approved plans to renovate and expand the old State House. With construction underway, the Legislature convened at the Merrimack County Court House in Concord for the 1864 session. It was the only other time in the State House’s 201-year history that lawmakers met anywhere else.

The session is an unprecedented step away from Concord. Built in 1819, New Hampshire’s State House is the oldest in the country in which the legislature still meets in its original chambers.

Shurtleff said while some lawmakers were reluctant to meet outside of Concord, most understood the need to meet in person and in a space that allows for safe social distancing. With 6,500 seats, The Whit proved to be an ideal fit, and he praised the university for accommodating the session.

Gathering lawmakers while keeping them each 6 feet apart presents a unique challenge for the Granite State. New Hampshire has the largest state legislature in the country, and one of the largest legislative bodies in the world, after the House of Commons in both Britain and India and the U.S. House of Representatives.

When they arrive at The Whit, House members will take a little longer than usual to be seated, since members will have their temperatures taken and be issued N95 face masks before they are allowed inside.

“I am so impressed and grateful to the University System and to UNH for being incredible to work with throughout this process,” said Shurtleff, whose has a lifelong connection to the State House. Shurtleff grew up in Concord, delivered newspapers in the neighborhood and was a Concord police officer who patrolled a walking beat downtown and around the State House area.

"While some legislative activities, including committee and commission meetings, have resumed work remotely, we understand it is important for the Legislature to resume session to complete the work that the people of New Hampshire elected us to do as well as provide important checks and balances to the state government during this crisis,” wrote Shurtleff and Senate President Donna Soucy, both Democrats, in a joint statement.

Each representative will be given a UNH tote bag containing the printed materials for the session, which is expected to last the entire day, and they will vote on handheld digital tablets.

“On the 11th of June, we’re all going to be Wildcats,” Shurtleff said.

Photographer: 
Jeremy Gasowski | Communications and Public Affairs | jeremy.gasowski@unh.edu | 603-862-4465