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NHBR: ’15 Session – A Lot More of The Same

Yet Each Legislative Session Has Some Ideas Added to The Mix

By Bob Sanders

January 23 2015, New Hampshire Business Review

Every year, New Hampshire state lawmakers spend much of their time rehashing the same debates, especially when it comes to bills affecting business – whether it is finally to enact a policy that was proposed decades ago or to repeal one that was just enacted. The issues are the same, only the times and the makeup of the Legislature change.

For instance, how many returnable bottle bills have fallen off the legislative track into oblivion? John Dumais, president of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, has seen 27. Other bills appear to be returnable as well.

Repeal the expansion of Medicaid? How about more restrictions on utilities’ use of eminent domain? Will the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative be repealed this year or raided? Casino gambling anyone? Let’s get rid of the Certificate of Need Board. Commuter rail up to Manchester, as the governor called for in her inauguration address? Now that’s another novel idea.

Yet each legislative session has some ideas added to the mix. And what does it look like for 2015? NHBR already delved into taxes and labor issues (“Taxes, workers’ comp at top of legislative agenda,” Jan. 9-22 NHBR). Here’s a look at what’s coming up in some other key sectors in the economy.

Energy

The power of eminent domain will probably get the most attention this year. The only new thing is that it is aimed at natural gas pipelines, not just the Northern Pass high-transmission line from Canada.

The debate over such bills is not just on the merits, weighing landowner private property rights against the needs of utilities, but also whether the state can preempt a federal agency, which usually rules on energy matters.

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, chair of the powerful House Finance Committee, thinks it can and should. His bill would grant legislative veto power over eminent domain, which he acknowledged could delay projects for more than a year. There will be a provision to waive, but that too would have to go through a legislative committee.

Rep. James Belanger, R-Hollis, chair of the Municipal and County Government Committee, is also weighing in on the topic, proposing two bills. One would allow a landowner to request that the company taking a piece of a parcel be required to take the whole thing. The other would allow a town to vote on whether a company should be allowed to take any publicly owned land.

The latter bill, specifically aimed at natural gas pipeline projects, has nine co-sponsors.

And there will be the oft-repeated attempt to repeal two energy-related funds, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, through which power companies have to pay for the right to emit carbon, and the state’s Renewable Energy Fund, through which utilities pay if they don’t meet increasing standards to include renewable energy in their portfolio.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who voted that the state should join RGGI at its inception, has always supported bending the law as opposed to ending it. It was his bill that directed many of the funds raised by RGGI toward paying for electricity rebates, as opposed to energy-efficiency programs. It also took what’s left away from the Public Utilities Commission programs and handed it over to those run by the utilities.

Now Bradley is proposing to go even further. Because of recent increases in electric rates, he favors directing all RGGI funds to ratepayer rebates, eliminating funding energy-efficiency programs entirely, at least for two years.

This is preferable to an outright repeal because New Hampshire ratepayers buy most of their electricity from power producers in the states that still belong to RGGI, he said.

“We are on the hook on for the cost anyway,” he said. “This is the best way to get it back to supply some relief to ratepayers.”

As for the Renewable Energy Fund – which is divvied up to a number of renewable projects administered by the PUC – Bradley would push back increasing the standards for two years, and would rebate the money back to ratepayers if electric rates increase. But he might run into some resistance from the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, since burning wood is one way to meet the renewable energy standards, and the renewable fund finances a popular program for wood pellet furnaces.

Some other bills are tinkering with the renewable standards as well.

One bill would allow hydroelectric power to be included in Class I, which would lower requirements for other renewable sources, like solar, wind and wood.

Bradley also has something new to offer: a bill that would limit the sulfur content of fuels. New Hampshire is one of the few states that allow more sulfur, thus becoming a “dumping ground” for such fuel, he said. It also would cost distributors less if the state has the same standard as others, so this would be a “win-win,” he said.

Health care

Yes, there is a bill for the state to establish a single-payer health insurance system, and on the other side, a bill authorizing individuals and businesses with fewer than 100 employees to purchase policies out of state.

Sen. Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington, will revisit the tort reform debate, with a bill limiting requirements for live testimony by medical professionals. He claims it drives up costs.

Also, expect reruns of the debate on expansion of Medicaid, though it will probably be put off until next session, since the current bill sunsets in 2016. There’s also the implementation of the Medicaid Enhancement Tax, which is a priority of the New Hampshire Hospital Association.

As for the rest of the Affordable Care Act, even strong opponents like the New Hampshire Association of Insurance Agents have accepted the reality of the law. And while no one right now really wants New Hampshire to take on the responsibility of running its own health insurance exchange, what happens if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that those on the federal exchange – as New Hampshire residents with Obamacare are – can no longer get subsidies to make their plans more affordable?

Rep. Ed Butler, D-Hart’s Location plans to introduce a bill to address that concern, if needed, but it’s “simply exploratory.”

Rep. John Hunt, R-Rindge, former and current head of the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee is throwing a bit of a bombshell into the mix – he wants to “get rid of” the New Hampshire Medical Malpractice Joint Underwriting Association, only a few years after the fund reached a multimillion-dollar settlement requiring it to distribute its surplus among its health care provider policyholders.

“It’s a horrendous idea,” said Hunt. “We have government sponsoring a socialist liability insurance policy for doctors and practices.”

The bill would grandfather out older physicians at the back end of their tenure, but everybody else would have to buy insurance privately.

The New Hampshire Medical Society argues that the JUA has a stabilizing role on the market, which results in lower health care costs, said Scott Colby, its executive vice president.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers are exploring some new frontiers in the medical field.

Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, has two of them. One would define telemedicine, which would allow doctors to prescribe drugs from afar, as long as they are not potentially addictive pain killers. It’s a bill supported by the Medical Society. Stiles also has a bill that would allow hospitals to contract wholesale laboratory tests to save money.

She also is sponsoring a measure that would allow patients to contract with a doctor to provide preventive care. Instead of a traditional fee-for-service, the doctor would get paid a set fee for whatever care was needed. The service would be in addition to a catastrophic health insurance policy.

“We just have to be clear that this is not insurance,” said Stiles.

Construction and Real Estate

The state budget is the construction industry’s biggest concern, specifically how and if the state will continue to fund building roads and schools though taxes and fees.

But there is legislation related to home construction as well. So far, there are none that challenge workforce housing rules, which is good news as far as the Business and Industry Association is concerned, since that has been one of its top priorities. But there are some bills to extend affordable housing.

Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, is sponsoring a bill that would require municipalities to allow accessible dwelling units, sometimes known as mother-in-law apartments. Some zoning laws don’t allow such dwellings, or limit them to a size so small as to making them unlivable. His bill would require they be at least 800 square feet.

Boutin has a couple of other bills that would clear the way to growth. One would define phased development, so developers wouldn’t have to keep obtaining approval for each phase of a project. Another would eliminate the quorum requirement for a zoning board, which is sometimes hard to get in a small town, delaying projects for months.

In addition, the New Hampshire Association of Realtors supports a bill House Commerce Chair Hunt is sponsoring that would tone down the disclosures required for arsenic levels in wells.

There’s also a bill under the radar screen that would increase the allowable homestead amount from $100,000 to $250,000, presumably enabling towns to make homes more affordable.

Retail

When it comes to retail, you can apply the medical maxim, “Do no harm.” For retailers, that means no sales tax. But does it also mean no collection of E911 fees on prepaid phones?

“Such fees are easily collected in other states that have a sales tax because they have a mechanism for it. But New Hampshire merchants don’t, so it would be a burden to set one up”, said Curtis Barry, a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Retail Association.

Automobile dealers are concerned about changes to the recently passed Dealer Bill of Rights, and Hunt is sponsoring a measure that would remove some of what he calls “horrendous” aspects of the law, which he says has led some car manufactures to withdraw rebates and other incentives for dealers.

Grocers are concerned about any attempt to increase the cigarette tax. And they also are working to ensure that there will be no more mega state highway welcome centers that supply gas, as there is at the newly opened twin rest areas on Interstate 93 in Hooksett.

Pharmacists need to be on the alert this year. One measure to be considered would require them to accept donations of unused prescription drugs (currently voluntary) and another would give the New Hampshire Board of Pharmacy the power to set rules concerning work schedules and mandatory rest breaks for licensed pharmacists.

There are quite a few bills dealing with medical marijuana. In addition to a replay of the legalization debate, there are numerous measures that would fine-tune the state’s medical cannabis law. Of the two published by deadline, one would allow physician assistants to prescribe it, while another would require the state to start processing applications for patients by July 23.

As for legal recreational drugs, Boutin, would permit nano-brewers to set up tap rooms with tables at which to eat, but no requirements to sell food. That could be purchased from a food truck parked outside, he said. Patrons would be limited to two pints of beer.

“It will be a new direction in the industry,” Boutin said. “It would be exciting for New Hampshire to be on the forefront of something.”

While you can expect the same old debate on casino gambling, there are some new ideas out there as well.

Boutin would permit simulcast bingo, which he says would sweeten the pot and add to the excitement. “It’s for smaller charities that don’t have the foot traffic,” he said.

Finally, Kurk would require state agencies to review all rules affecting privately owned business, explain why they are necessary or can’t be replaced by something more efficient.

And it is a Kurk-sponsored bill that would require state universities and colleges give STEM scholarships to students who stick around New Hampshire for five years in that field (or else repay the university back).

“It would make our educated workforce more attractive to industry,” Kurk said.