House, Senate busy during ‘crossover week’
Lawmakers were busy during “crossover week” at the State House, marking the deadline for legislation to make it over from the House to the Senate and vice versa. So many bills were flying between the two chambers that if you blinked you might have missed dozens of them.
The House gave its blessing to: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, which limits greenhouse gas emissions through a 10-state cap and trade initiative; a retirement system reform package that would have professionals now making investment decisions; a Coos County tax credit, rewarding business that create high-paying jobs in the North Country; and a bill limiting the use of radio tracking devices used at retail stores.
Meanwhile, among legislation passed in the Senate were Governor Lynch’s initiative requiring health insurers to offer discount wellness plans and another bill mandating health insurers to cover weight loss surgery.
But besides those headline-grabbing bills, you may have missed these:
Even before RGGI auctions sell off emissions allowances that could put millions of dollars in a conservation fund, the House has moved to widen the distribution of an existing fund.
You might remember that last year the Legislature passed a law requiring that a utility’s energy portfolio include an increasing percentage from renewable sources, or else pay into a renewable electrical energy fund. Last week, the House passed a bill, 194-130, directing the state Public Utilities Commission to reserve 10 percent of that fledgling fund to support smaller home systems of 5 kilowatts or less.
The grants – up to $6,000 per home – would allow most residential customers to save energy.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed a bill that would allow utilities to invest in small-scale localized renewable power production and regional distribution and transmission projects, if it doesn’t compete with private unregulated generation.
Legislation in support of workforce housing — one of the Business and Industry Association’s top priorities for 2008 — took a big step forward, clearing the House on a 176-150 roll call vote. The bill is in response to a state Supreme Court decision requiring communities to provide for affordable housing in their zoning plans. This bill defines affordable, or workforce, housing, requires that municipalities allow for it and sets up an appeal process for developers.
The Senate last week also passed two workforce housing bills with similar language over to the House, so the differences will probably be worked out in a conference committee.
The House passed a bill that would create a new type of liquor license, called a tavern license, for establishments that do not want to serve food, or otherwise don’t qualify as a restaurant. But the price is steep. One would be for taverns with more than 50 seats – with licenses going for $24,000 — and the other for smaller taverns, with licenses costing $12,000. That’s ten times the price of a restaurant license, but to qualify for a restaurant liquor license, you must either have more food sales then liquor sales, or those food sales must be more than $150,000 a year (except for seasonal restaurants, for which the threshold would be $75,000 of food sales). Local communities also would be able to veto a tavern, but not a restaurant.
The House may have downsized the state’s 10-year highway plan rather than pass a gas tax to pay for it, but members did agree — in a 169-152 vote — to add slightly less than a quarter cent per gallon increase in the surcharge to clean up oil spills from underground storage tanks. The House balked in a 163-158 vote to a fifth-of-a-penny increase in the tax on home heating oil to clean up home spills, saying that it’s not the time to tax people struggling to keep warm during the winter.
Hazardous waste fee
The House put off for another year a plan to impose a fee schedule for those who store hazardous waste, meaning the fees would go into effect by July 2009. Businesses that store such material would have to pay as much as $1,000 into the hazardous materials emergency response program. In any case, they would need to start reporting to the state how much of such material is stored, if the bill is approved by the Senate.
Texas Hold ‘Em
The House passed a bill that attempts to regulate Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments. It would allow charities to receive an 8.75 percentage of the gross from such tournaments, as opposed to 34 percent of the profits, as they do now. The bill also would increase the bond paid to operate such tournaments from $70,000 to $300,000, as well as require the industry to fund an inspector, though the exact amount to be levied is not specified in the measure. Last year a similar bill died in conference committee.
The Senate passed a measure that would expand the benefits available to part-time workers. Under current law – which was approved last session – only part-time workers who had to care for a family member are eligible to collect benefits, even if they aren’t seeking full-time work. Under the new measure, anyone would qualify.
After a last-minute amendment by Sen. Bob Clegg, R-Hudson, the Senate voted to ease up a bit on requirements to list subcontractors before bidding on state contracts. The requirements are intended to prevent any baiting and switching, and allow the state to make sure subcontractors are really independent, and not actually the contractor’s employees under the guise of subcontractor. Clegg’s amendment exempts road crews, since they change so much from day to day. It also would allow contractors to release the names of the subs 48 hours after getting a bid, so as not to tip off competitors as to who contractors are using.
Septic study requirement
The Senate voted to require a septic site assessment study before the sale of waterfront property, including rivers, streams and ponds, though the requirement near smaller bodies of water won’t go into effect until 2010.
The Senate voted in favor of setting up a “business court docket” in Superior Court through which a judge with special knowledge of business law would handle disputes of more than $50,000. The docket would deal with cases between businesses on such matters as breach of contract or fiduciary duties, Uniform Commercial Code claims, claims relating to commercial real estate or securities, surety bonds, franchisee/franchisor disputes, shareholder actions, commercial class actions, commercial bank transactions, disputes among board members and business insolvencies.
Other measures passed by the House included:
• A bill expanding the authority of the Pease Development Authority to appoint the ports director and lease property
• Three bills stiffening insurance fraud fines and increasing state enforcement authority
• A bill licensing mortgage originators in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis
• A bill requiring that junk yards and pawn shops maintain records of purchase transactions and that they be verified by positive identification of each seller of material
• A bill requiring the state to purchase biodiesel fuel if it is as cheap as regular diesel.
None of these bills has become law. They still have to be approved in the other chamber and be signed – or at least not vetoed – by the governor.