Legislative parking garage OKd, tagging along a watered-down housing bill

Lawmakers also approve BPT cut, municipal infrastructure, Burgess BioPower subsidy
Statehouse With Seal

(Dave Cummings/New Hampshire Bulletin)

“If we don’t move on this, I don’t know where you are going to park,” said Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, exhorting members of the NH House to pass a bill that includes some of the tattered remains of a major workforce housing bill. The House responded by passing House Bill 1661 on a 244-99 vote.

The bill was one of last bills contested on the last day of the legislative session, a day when both the Senate and House gave their thumbs up or down on deals forged by conference committee negotiators last week.

There was barely any debate on the business tax cuts contained in HB 1221. Some Senate Democrats complained about the cut in the business profits tax rate from 7.6 to 7.5 percent, but ended up voting for it because it also provided $28 million to municipalities that they hope will be passed on to be used for property tax relief. There was no debate on the measure in the House.

Nor was there any objection to Senate Bill 401, which provides $70 million to support municipal road and bridge projects as well as 4 million to build a road to support the redevelopment of the Balsams resort in Dixville.

Both chambers also approved the deal on HB 355, extending keno from bars and restaurants to convenience stores, without screens, as well as HB 1503, which provides a regulatory framework for cryptocurrency, without requiring state contractors to use domestic steel, language that had earlier been tacked on to the bill.

And nobody objected to SB 271, meaning that electric ratepayers will subsidize the Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin for another year.

‘Monster of a bill’

The big kahuna was HB 1661, the 36-page, 80-section omnibus bill that includes legislation covering regional career technical education schools, lead paint testing, special education grants for schools, funding for opioid treatment, licensing criteria for recreation camps, rules for the release of defendants pending trial, and most importantly to lawmakers, a new garage for lawmakers cars, and laws that will encourage affordable housing.

Rep. Mark Warden, R-Manchester, came out swinging, calling the measure a “monster of a bill,” since it melded together so many other bills, including what was left of SB 400, the workforce housing “community toolbox” bill, which proponents viewed as crucial to encourage the construction of affordable housing in New Hampshire.

But for the House to accept the bill, the Senate removed a number of the bill’s key tools. The House managed to get rid of “60 percent” of SB 400, estimated Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, who negotiated the bill in the committee of conference and was one of the few to defend HB 1661 on the House floor.

What’s gone includes provisions for a “Housing Champions” program that would reward towns that encourage affordable housing, as well as a provision to automatically extend local tax breaks usually provided for commercial development to housing and extend the duration of those tax breaks as well. Also watered-down were requirements to put workforce housing on a par with senior housing.

What is left are some transparency measures: land use boards will have to actually give a written reason to reject a developer’s plans and disclose municipal fees, as well as some deadlines, to help speed up the approval process.

Warden particularly took issue with a provision that broadened the term “public use” to allow towns to acquire land, not just for a public utility or to remove dilapidated structures, but also for workforce housing (though in this case not via eminent domain).

“To actually get in the business of building apartments, that’s a terrible idea,” Warden said. “Why on Earth do they think government is the answer to the housing problem? Government causes the problems in many instances with onerous zoning regulation, unreasonable wetland restrictions, requiring expensive fire sprinklers and a lengthy approval and permitting process.”

Warden didn’t mention provisions in the bill that actually address the local approval process, but he thought the best solution was the free market.

“’Workforce housing’ is a misnomer. It’s just housing. If high and luxury are built, higher-income tenants would move out of the old drafty noisy buildings into the nice fancy new ones, thereby providing more available and affordable housing in the vacated units.”

Rep. Michael Sylvia, R-Belmont, took issue with the lead paint provision – not in the SB 400 bill — which would have removed the requirement of two lead tests in children to trigger an investigation into whether the dwelling the family resides in needs to be remediated.

“Now the assumption is the apartment needs to be abated. We are going to increase the prices of rentals. Some buildings are going to be withdrawn from the market.”

Others attacked the sheer size of the bill, calling it a “smorgasbord,” while others criticized spending $9.35 million to tear down the Justice Department Building in Concord to make way for a garage estimated to cost more than $35 million, “to save two blocks of walking.”

Ladd defended the bill. He argued that the original bill, as introduced – which he said would double the number of students coming out of career technical high schools – was one of the most important pieces of educational legislation passed this year.

But on the whole, it was the garage that was the biggest selling point.

“If we don’t move today, we will be without a garage when the one at Storrs Street falls down, which will probably occur in the next 10 minutes,” joked Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, who then added, “the next few years.”

“I know I hate it when concrete falls on my car hood,” added Smith, the representative from Charlestown

The bill, like the others, now go to Gov. Chris Sununu for his signature.

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