Power plant vote disappoints Berlin senator

State Senator John Gallus, R-Berlin, has learned to expect surprises the last big floor fight of the term. But he still left the 14-hour session May 4 mumbling he might be in the wrong political party.

“Put that down,” he said to the only reporter left to cover the session at midnight. Gallus had just lost three crushing votes.

First the Senate passed his North Country power plant bill with what he deemed a hostile amendment. In a passionate floor speech he warned the unwelcome text would keep Public Service of New Hampshire and any competitors from building a wood-fired facility near Berlin.

The rider forces any future biomass plant in Coos County to share half its losses or profits with New Hampshire ratepayers. Today PSNH is guaranteed a 9.6 percent return on its investment. Ratepayers eat 100 percent of any losses. Those are called stranded costs.

Gallus said no firm would proceed under a 50-50 arrangement, the brainchild of Senate President Ted Gatsas in a Finance Committee session earlier in the week.

Gallus thought he had crafted a good political deal three weeks ago to give PSNH the enabling legislation to expand its regulated generating capacity into Berlin. The big utility had, and perhaps still has, plans for a wood-fired facility like its new one under construction at Schiller Station in Portsmouth.

“Our average family income is $30,000 below the state average,” Gallus told his colleagues. “Our tax rate is one of the highest in the state. Our fastest-growing jobs are cashier and fast foods. Our logging industry is already devastated. A power plant would be a great way to diversify the state’s energy base. With gas up to $3 again. We’re using up our fossil fuels. We asked those merchant power plants if any of them were willing to come north. The answer was a resounding, ‘No, no, no.’ They didn’t want to compete in an open market and give my loggers a fair price for their wood. All we want is a wood-fired plant. You might as well vote this amendment down. It does nothing for us.”

Sen. Bob Odell, a co-author of the amendment, said his only goal was to free PSNH to build the plant. Nobody else needs special legislation to do that.

“This bill isn’t about electricity,” Gallus replied. “It’s about keeping an industry alive.”

Sen. Peter Burling testified for a new Coos County power plant in recent committee sessions.

“I feel like I’ve shoved a cart through a mudhole, and every inch someone adds a keg to the cart,” he said. “But this amendment is a place to start.”

After half an hour of debate, Gallus voted against his own bill, HB 1690. The roll call was 21-2, with only Dick Green, R-Rochester, lending him support.

“I didn’t want you to be alone,” Green told Gallus.

Right before adjournment, literally past the 11th hour, the Senate added another controversial amendment to the power plant bill. This one would help launch a dental clinic for the needy in Tamworth under the auspices of Tri-County Community Action. The division vote was 12-9. One senator said the Republican caucus also considered tacking the clinic to a multimillion dollar emergency spending bill to aid victims of the Alstead flooding.

Hours earlier, the House sent to study committee a similar Tamworth dental clinic bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield.

The 11th-hour parliamentary surprise last year was a game of fiscal chicken over that same dental clinic. The Senate tacked its project funding onto the capital budget the last day of the conference committee to force the House to OK the project. It refused, the Senate blinked first, and it vowed to come back with another clinic bill in 2006.

“Next time we will have 24 votes in the Senate,” majority leader Bob Clegg vowed a year ago. He got 12 on Thursday.

The tired senators were getting silly, but Gatsas asked them to hold it together a few more minutes.

“Could I speak to my amendment?” Gallus said above the noise. “A lot of people have a long drive home to Manchester.”

Gallus lives two hours north of Concord.

The Senate soon rejected a Gallus amendment to a long-tabled bill, hoping to stretch the eligibility period for unemployment benefits. The Berlin lawmaker promised it would help the 100 workers at Groveton Paperboard and 250 at Fraser Papers who have lost jobs over mill closings. He lost a lopsided voice vote, but composed himself. He gently embraced both Gatsas and Sen. Jack Barnes, R-Raymond, at the same time. The gesture lasted seven or eight seconds. They talked quietly.

House Speaker Doug Scamman, R-Stratham, watched the late maneuvering from the Senate balcony. It was hot and muggy up there. He had already put in a tough day refereeing willful people in his own chamber. And he lives an hour from Concord.

“It’s very unlikely the Tamworth bill will go through,” the House leader said.

Gatsas replied, “We’ll be working for the Senate position in the conference committee.”

Gov. John Lynch said he would follow the dispute closely.

“Hopefully, the right decisions will be made,” Lynch said.

“This vote will kill both bills,” Gallus said. – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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