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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Almost no suspense in vote for Senate boss

State House Bureau

August 31. 2013 11:32PM

Unless there is a cosmic shift in the political universe this weekend, Chuck Morse of Salem will be the next state Senate president Tuesday on a unanimous vote of the 24 senators.

The Senate is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m., and most senators should be on their way back home by 11.

What could have made an interesting day evaporated last week when all 13 Republican senators voted to support Morse. That meant there would be no coalitions, and the Democrats lost any shot they had to leverage a little more power.

Facing a sure 13-11 vote to put Morse in the president's chair, Democrats see little reason to create any animosity or inflame the partisanship and will make his selection unanimous.

On Tuesday, Morse, who is serving his fourth term in the Senate, will take over the reins of power from Peter Bragdon in an orderly fashion, not like the last mid-term change when a coup ousted then-Senate President Tom Eaton and replaced him with Ted Gatsas, who is now mayor of Manchester.

Two weeks ago, Bragdon and the Local Government Center, which is the state's largest health, property, liability and workers' compensation insurance provider for cities, towns, school districts and counties, announced he would replace interim Director George Bald.

At first, Bragdon said he would remain Senate president and step down when there was any conflict of interest, but he came to believe he needed to step down to allay any perception of impropriety after several days of controversy raged.

Morse will not be taking any executive director's position anytime soon; he is a successful businessman owning the nursery and landscaping supply company Freshwater Farms in Atkinson.

When Morse assumes power, offices and staff will have to be shuffled around, but there are not expected to be any significant changes.

The real heavy lifting of the two-year term - the state operating budget, which Morse crafted and the Senate passed, 24-0 - is done.

Morse's management style is pretty well-known. As Senate Finance Committee chairman for three of his four terms, Morse has sat down with department heads, legislative budget experts and others to gather as much information as possible about any given issue.

Once a decision is made, Morse lets the governor and his or her department heads manage their own financial affairs. He is not a micro manager and is willing to be persuaded if the numbers add up.

In the past, Democrats on the Finance Committee had criticized Morse for not keeping them in the loop, but that was not the case this year.

How that translates for Morse as Senate president, remains to be seen.

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Vermont Yankee and Divestiture: Electric utility issues are beginning to rise to the top again after a half-dozen years of dormancy.

A legislative oversight committee is grappling with the possible forced sale, or divestiture, of Public Service of New Hampshire's fossil fuel-burning power plants. Supporters of the forced sale say selling the plants will lower electric rates for the declining number of PSNH customers who continue to buy their power from the utility.

The committee met last week, but there was scant support to force PSNH to sell the plants now.

Also last week, Entergy, owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, announced it would close the plant by the end of next year and begin the decommissioning process.

Entergy had just won a seven-year legal battle with Vermont to keep the plant open. The plant is one of the oldest operating nuclear facilities in the country and has had some serious mechanical and facility issues in recent years.

There is a common thread to PSNH divestiture and Vermont Yankee closing, and that is the low price of natural gas.

Natural gas plants are cleaner than other types of fossil-fuel burning generators, much cheaper to operate and not radioactive.

That means electricity derived from burning natural gas is much cheaper than electricity produced by burning coal or from nuclear fission.

Entergy cited economic reasons for closing the plant, saying the cost of natural-gas-generated power is so low the plant is losing money.

Vermont Yankee is not as large as Seabrook Station and generates about 600 megawatts of electricity, which is not insignificant but not essential for the New England Power grid to meet its needs.

The low cost of natural gas has also meant PSNH's plants, particularly Merrimack Station in Bow, do not operate all the time as they once did. In fact, the two plants on the Seacoast, Schiller and Newington stations, do not operate much at all.

A key PSNH argument for retaining its generating plants is they are a hedge against rising natural gas prices, and you have to believe PSNH will now say its plants are needed to help replace the electricity produced by Vermont Yankee.

However, the owners of Vermont Yankee have to believe natural gas prices will stay low for some time or they would not close the plant, Rep. Bob Backus of Manchester said at the Electric Utility Restructuring Oversight Committee meeting last week.

The two committee members most vocally in support of keeping the divestiture option on the table were Backus and Sen. Jeb Bradley, who was one of the architects of the state's electric deregulation law when he was a House member.

Although Backus pushed for some action to lower rates for PSNH customers, Bradley took a more wait-and-see approach, which is likely the course lawmakers will take in the upcoming session.

There is little for lawmakers to do until several things become clearer, including: how much of the $425 million PSNH invested in a new emissions scrubber at Merrimack Station the company will be allowed to recoup from customers; whether natural gas-generated electricity continues at its current level; and how fast PSNH power customers switch to cheaper, independent suppliers.

When Enron created havoc in the California energy market through price manipulation in the early 2000s, New Hampshire lawmakers pulled back from full divestiture and allowed PSNH to retain its generating plants. Lawmakers' haste in stepping in too soon is one of the reasons PSNH is in its current dilemma.

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Legislative Trips: To travel or not to travel, that is the question the Legislative Ethics Committee tried to answer in a ruling last week.

Questions have arisen about whether legislators would be accepting something worth more than $25 by traveling at someone else's expense. Such a situation would be inappropriate.

Lawmakers sometimes attend conferences and programs in this country and abroad. Such travel often includes expenses such as airline tickets, hotels, meals, fees and registration

The committee chairman, Concord attorney Martin Gross, ruled that if a trip is related to legislative issues that could be of interest to the state, accepting reimbursement is OK.

"Reimbursement for 'junkets' or 'see-the-sites' trips as part of a legislative group doesn't qualify for the exemption - the event must offer, as a genuine and central element, organized learning about subjects that are or may become the focus of legislative activity in New Hampshire."

Reporting the expense is not necessary if the trip is paid by an organization to which the state pays dues, such as the National Conference of State Legislators. However, other paid trips do have to be reported even if they are related to legislative matters.

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Not Fade Away: Former Transportation Commission George Campbell has joined the Louis Berger Group of Morristown, N.J., as vice president of its transportation engineering business unit.

He will focus on design-build and public-private partnership project development and transportation business development within the Northeast, according to a news release from the company.

Louis Berger is an international consulting firm.

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