A toned-down legislative session?

New measures offer road to compromise, but ‘we will see’

In 2019, the legislative session in New Hampshire was marked by confrontation. Could 2020 be a year for compromise?

That might seem unlikely after votes on a range of bills often ended up in stalemate and a record number of gubernatorial vetoes — and especially after the Jan. 8-9 session when the House of Representatives passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage, mandated paid family leave and expanded net metering, all bills held over from last year and similar to ones already nixed by the governor.

Indeed, given that this is an election year, the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire expects the next session to be “more of the same,” perhaps even more contentious, said David Juvet, the organization’s senior vice president of public policy, adding skeptically, “we will see at the end of the session if they have some kind of Kumbaya moment.

But a quick review of new bills indicates there do seem to be attempts by both sides to present less ambitious measures this go-round, maybe just to score political points proving how “reasonable” they are, but perhaps to sponsor legislation that could actually become law.

For instance, when Gov. Chris Sununu put forward his own modest proposal on net metering, some Democrats and energy activists indicated that it was a step in the right direction.

The governor and other Republicans have also put some proposals forward on affordable housing that likewise may attract Democratic support.

As for the Democrats, they pulled back on some of their major issues as well. For instance, one measure would — instead of banning plastics instead encourage more recycling of them.

In addition, in the new session there are hardly any bills attempting to raise business taxes — though there are a few targeted bills to raise taxes on ski areas, cigarettes, solid waste disposal and registration fees on low-mileage cars. And, besides the minimum wage and family and medical leave, there are few bills related to employment and labor. Nor are there any major bills aimed at changing the health insurance industry. Instead, there is a focus on prescription drugs.

All told, at least 400 bills affecting business have been sponsored so far, with a few (some of the most important ones – the governor’s family and medical leave bill) yet to be filed. Here are some highlights.

Energy

In 2019, lawmakers passed bills expanding net metering, increasing renewable energy standards, shifting ratepayer rebates to funding energy efficiency —s all of them vetoed by the governor. And the House has done it all over again with bills left over from last year, though none passed with a veto-proof majority.

In the new session, there will be a new net metering expansion bill (House Bill 1218) that would increase the cap from 1 to 5 megawatts. Rep. Chris Balch, D-Wilton, has another bill concerning proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which are currently mostly rebated back ratepayers. The bill would allow commercial users to keep 80% of their rebate, while shifting all residential RGGI funds to energy-efficiency programs.

“The residential rebate totals approximately $2.50/year per family and does not contribute significantly to anyone’s household budget,” wrote Balch.

Another bill (Senate Bill 492) would increase the utility requirement to sell solar energy from 0.7% to 10%. Sununu has already vetoed a less ambitious bill.

But there are other bills that are supported by the governor. HB 1481 would increase the net metering cap from 1 to 5 megawatts, but it imposes another cap — no more than 125% of the energy currently produced would be eligible. It would also drastically reduce the rate that generators receive. While some in the Legislature denounced the proposal as a half measure, others said it was at least movement in the right direction.

There also are bills allowing municipalities to grant tax breaks for both storage and solar energy systems  (The latter — SB 424 — is sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. His counterpart, Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord (and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor), has drafted a bill would have the New Hampshire Public Utility Commission to participate in regional efforts to control distribution and transmission costs, which are, said Feltes, the fastest-growing portion of an electric bill.

The environment

Last year, the House made big news voting to ban plastic bags and straws, measures that died in the Senate. In the “leftover session” earlier this month, the House recycled the bag ban and added another bill allowing municipalities to the do the same. If either passes the Senate, they would face a veto.

Representative Balch of Wilton has sponsored HB 1194, which would mandate a 5-cent charge for plastic bags and another, HB 1564, which would simply ban polystyrene food containers. Maine has already banned such cups and Vermont and Massachusetts are on the way to follow, he said.

“Dunkin’ Donuts shops have already, voluntarily, transitioned away from polystyrene in anticipation of a prohibition passing regionally,” he said.

But there is another take on the issue, thanks to last year’s study committee on recycling streams and solid waste management.

Deputy House Speaker Karen Ebel, D-New London, has a bill requiring retail stores to put out bins to collect “film plastic, which includes food storage bags, bubble wrap, dry cleaning bags and shrink-wrap,” modeled after the a New Hampshire Grocers Association voluntary program. The idea is to keep them out of single-source recycling collections, where they gum up the separation equipment.

Well, some grocery stores are doing it, but HB 1701 would mandate that all retail stores larger than 7,000 square feet do it and certain stores over 3,000 square feet would have to as well, but only if they are part of chains of three stores or more.

That doesn’t sit well with the New Hampshire Retail Association.

Lobbyist Curtis Barry noted that online sales are up 14% this year. “It doesn’t seem fair to ask brick-and-mortar stores to collect something that they aren’t producing,” he said.

The Grocers Association isn’t on board either, said its president, John Dumais. Many stores — thanks to just-in-time delivery systems — don’t have room to store plastics anymore.  Lawmakers should wait for three years, he said, when manufactures come up with a more viable solution to recycle them.

Ebel alluded to other measures that came out of the study committee, including a $1.50 solid waste tipping surcharge in a Senate bill to be proposed by Sen. David Watters, D-Dover. The money paid by municipalities would be rebated to them but other funds collected would be used to support solid waste reduction technical assistance and planning activities. Watters also is sponsoring a bill, she said, that would clarify the state’s recycling goal of 40%. Ebel herself submitted a bill that would help reach that goal by requiring the state come up with regulations for the commercial composting of meats and dairy, “since 20% of our waste is food waste,” she said. “There hasn’t been a comprehensive waste plan since 2003. We have taken our eye off the ball.”

In addition, several bills deal with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The BIA contends that the state overregulates the chemical and was not happy with the House passage last year of HB 661, another bill leftover from last session, which would give people the right to sue generators for medical monitoring. Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, sponsor of that bill, is also sponsoring HB 1603 this year It would set up a revolving loan fund for municipalities to help clean up any contamination, funded by hoped-for proceeds from the multistate litigation that New Hampshire is participating in.

Housing and construction

Both the New Hampshire Home Builders Association and the New Hampshire Association of Realtors are backing two affordable housing bills supported by the governor.

HB 1632 would establish a business profits tax deduction for income derived from a workforce housing development, as well as temporarily reduce the real estate transfer tax for first-time homebuyers. It also would allow municipal economic development and revitalization districts to increase workforce housing and other development within a municipality.

HB 1629 would streamline the municipal approval process, adding requirements for members of a zoning board of adjustment or planning board, modifying the appeals process for zoning decisions, and providing for fee-shifting and posting of bond in appeals to Superior Court from decisions of boards of adjustment.

Both organizations expect some pushback from the New Hampshire Municipal Association.

“It should be an interesting conversation,” is the way Bob Quinn, the Realtors’ lobbyist, put it. “But we are experiencing the tightest housing inventory in the state ever and the state needs to get involved. The lack of affordable housing is hurting the state’s economy.”

There are several other bills dealing with housing.

Senator Bradley’s SB 475 would permit municipalities to grant property tax credits for densely built workforce housing. And Rep. Casey Conley, D-Dover, has a bill, HB 1248, that would allow community revitalization tax relief incentives to be used for affordable housing projects outside of downtown areas.

In addition, Conley’s HB 1247, would require landlords to give 90 days’ notice for residential rent increases that exceed 5%  (and provide similar protection in an event of a sale of the building). Conley cites the state’s 1% vacancy rate, with rising rents forcing tenants to find housing where there is none. But Quinn used the same statistic, arguing that such provisions would causing landlords to withdraw from an already tight market, making the situation worse.

Builders will be playing some defense as well. There are two bills to repeal the newly formed Housing Appeals Board, which has yet to be set up, which has the authority to overrule local decision zoning decisions.

And Realtors will be backing a SB 458, which would permit municipalities to regulate short-term rentals in their zoning laws, even allowing them to crack down on “disorderly houses,” where absentee owners allow their guest to party loudly. “But they can’t eliminate that use in a single-family home” under the measure, Quinn said. “It creates guardrails but allows for flexibility.”

Healthcare

Without any big bills rewrite the state’s insurance laws, the focus this year will be on prescription drugs.

A bill sponsored by Feltes would designate a state agency to be a licensed wholesaler, or contract with such, to import drugs from Canada. Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, has a bill that would step up the state’s regulation of pharmacy benefit managers. The bill was not ready to be read at deadline, but Rosenwald said that it’s similar to a bill in Maine that would require customers to pay the lowest price, that pharmacies would be charged the same, that any coupon savings would be passed to the patient through lower drug prices or lower premiums, and that the money insurers pay to PBMs would be counted as administrative costs, not premiums.

“It would level the playing field,” she said.

While pharmaceutical manufacturers and insurers might oppose such legislation, independent pharmacies would welcome it.

“People are beginning to realize that PBMs don’t save money. They shift money from you and me to them,” said Rick Newman, who lobbies for the New Hampshire Independent Pharmacy Association.

Among other prescription drug bills is HB 1280, which would cap co-payments for insulin at $100, based on a bill from Colorado.

“The price of insulin has skyrocketed in recent years, and many diabetics are struggling to afford it,” said Rep. Garret Muscatel, D-Hanover, the bill’s sponsor.

The New Hampshire Medical Society is backing SB 531, which would prohibit insurers from insisting on prior authorization when it comes to emergency room visits and those addicted to opioids seeking help.

“Maybe we’ve gone too far with attempting comprehensive fixes, and this year we will like go to after the most egregious problems,” said James Potter, the society’s CEO.

Bob Sanders can be reached at bsanders@nhbr.com.

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