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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: 1 down, 2 to go

State House Bureau

March 16. 2014 3:53AM

Three major issues have dominated the 2013-14 Legislature: casino gambling, Medicaid expansion and the gas tax.

With about three months to go in the session, two issues are still alive, though while the eulogy is being written for casino gambling, no bill has a stake through its heart until lawmakers go home in June.

A great deal of hard work went into the casino gambling bill by Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, and the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority he led. Even lawmakers who oppose gambling for moral, religious or financial reasons said the bill was the best regulatory scheme produced to date.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to approve expanded gambling today is to protect New Hampshire programs from the inevitable state revenue drain once casinos open in Massachusetts and expand in Maine. By some estimates, that would be as much as $75 million a year, which is substantial, while a New Hampshire casino was expected to produce about $100 million a year for the state.

Money for the state is also a key aspect of the other two issues. Medicaid expansion proponents might argue with that assessment, but they would have to agree expansion would mean at least $1 billion to health care providers - mostly hospitals - and more state revenues through the Medicaid Enhancement and Insurance Premium taxes.

The House Finance Committee meets Tuesday at 10 a.m. to decide what recommendation to make on the Medicaid expansion proposal, Senate Bill 413 - officially the New Hampshire Health Protection Program. Some 50,000 people would receive coverage - at least 38,000 of whom don't currently have any.

The House could decide to make some changes to the bill in order to gain a little more of what members want, but that is not likely as expansion supporters want to put the bill on Gov. Maggie Hassan's desk as soon as possible so the program can begin.

Similarly, if the casino bill had passed the House, the Senate would have sent that quickly along to Hassan without changes.

The House has approved Medicaid expansion three times since the beginning of the two-year legislative session and is expected to do so a fourth time.

The gas tax has one more hurdle to jump in the Senate before the House acts on the bill and sends it to Gov. Maggie Hassan. The Senate Finance Committee holds a public hearing on Senate Bill 367 at 9 a.m. Thursday.

The bill would raise the gas tax a little more than 4 cents a gallon, to about $22 cents, the first increase since 1991.

The bill's prime sponsor, Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, told his colleagues last week when the Senate gave the bill preliminary approval on a 14-9 vote: "It has been a long, rough, bumpy road filled with numerous potholes."

And it has.

With the backing of 10 Democrats and four Republicans, the bill is likely to finally make it out of the Senate when it meets March 27, despite the strong opposition of Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, who wants to pay for increased highway and bridge rehabilitation and construction with revenues from a casino.

The 4 cent increase would provide about $32 million in new money for the highway system, but not nearly enough to pay for the work needed on roads and bridges and to finish Interstate 93 expansion from Salem to Manchester.

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Divestiture: House Bill 1602 has received scant attention this session, though it would essentially require state utility regulators to quickly determine whether Public Service of New Hampshire should sell its fossil-fuel burning power plants.

The bill, which the House is scheduled to vote on this week, is sponsored by the chairman of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee, David Borden, D-New Castle, and would direct the Public Utilities Commission to determine whether selling the plants would benefit Public Service ratepayers economically.

The PUC would have to file a report by Dec. 31 with its determination. The PUC staff has already told lawmakers that selling the plant would reduce the cost to Public Service customers, but that report was done before natural gas prices spiked this winter, driving up the cost of electricity.

The Electric Utility Restructuring Oversight Committee spent much of the summer and fall exploring the issue of divestiture and high electric rates, but stopped short of attempting to force Public Service to sell the plants, including Merrimack Station in Bow, where the company recently invested $422 million in an air emissions scrubber that will further raise rates for customers.

The PUC has a case to determine how much of the $422 million Public Service customers should pay, and it has turned nasty.

The scrubber, divestiture and stranded costs are a triangle that lawmakers, regulators and the company are trying to resolve, but to date have been unsuccessful.

HB 1602 is one of the moving pieces the next Legislature will have to try to put together.

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Abortion: Last year and so far this session the Legislature has been relatively free of abortion debates.

That is about to change.

This week, the House has four bills related to abortion: to declare that life begins at conception; to license outpatient abortion clinics; to collect statistic on abortions performed in the state; and to add the death of a fetus to the state's criminal code.

Rep. Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster, introduced House Bill 1503 after his daughter was in an accident and lost her unborn child. The bill has been changed by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to enhance penalties if a fetus dies and the perpetrator is convicted of manslaughter or murder.

Several members of the committee want the original bill passed instead.

Supporters say the bill is not about abortion, but pro-choice activists disagree and say similar bills have been used to restrict abortion rights in other states.

The House Judiciary Committee wants the full House to kill House Bill 1504, which would determine that life begins at conception, which would make abortion illegal.

The Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee recommends House Bill 1501 be killed. The bill would require outpatient abortion clinics such as those of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, the Concord Feminist Health Center and the Joan G Lovering Health Center, formerly the Feminist Health Center of Portsmouth, to be licensed by the state.

The committee voted, 17-0, that the bill should be killed.

The same committee on the same vote recommends that House Bill 1502, to collect data on the abortions performed in the state, be sent to interim study, which is a polite death in the second year of a legislative session because the next legislature has no obligation to do anything with the bill.

The bills are expected to be hotly debated this week.

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Award for Dupont: Ed Dupont, former Senate president and former chairman of the University of New Hampshire Board of Trustees, was honored this month by The New England Board of Higher Education.

Dupont, who heads the government relations firm The Dupont Group, received the organization's 2014 David C. Knapp Award for Trusteeship at its 12th annual Excellence Awards celebration in Boston.

"He led the board through the most significant governance changes in the system's 50-year history," the NEBHE noted.

"The changes aimed to help system institutions be more nimble and responsive to intensifying competitive, financial, political and demographic challenges. The changes provided with institutions greater autonomy, better leveraging for cost-efficiencies and synergies, and increased CEO accountability."

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