Peeking in on House matters

The gallery for the public to watch House of Representatives proceedings is like a magnet for senators who have offices on the third floor of the State House. We take detours from our trips to the restrooms or to meetings to walk over to the gallery door, peer in and ask a lobbyist, “what’s going on?”

With its 400 members, long debates and often confusing parliamentary tactics, it is can be pretty raucous. I stopped by a couple of times on Wednesday as the House voted narrowly against legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults. With gasps from the gallery audience, the House quickly voted to reconsider its decision and then passed the bill a little later. It was great legislative theater.

The marijuana legislation debate and voting took nearly three hours and was just one bill of many the House took up on Wednesday.

While the Senate and House both met on Jan. 8 to kick off the session, the House has been meeting every week. The Senate’s Jan. 8 session was very short and perfunctory and we will not meet again until Jan. 30.

Much work, of course, is going on in the Senate’s committees. Senate President Chuck Morse of Salem has made it clear to committee chairs he wants committees to move legislation along rapidly. There are more than 200 bills introduced this session by senators and we must deal with a couple of dozen bills held over from last year. Then, the Senate faces the onslaught of hundreds of bills coming to us from the House.

Managing the Senate legislative process is not easy. There are always reasons to delay a hearing or to slow the process to make sure stakeholders have a chance to be prepared or to research an issue, but the danger is that senators get overwhelmed by work either on the committee or on the floor. That does not help us do our best work. Following our predictable and proven process works best. That is why, to get 2014 started, Senate committees held public hearings on over 40 bills last week

I started the week by chairing the initial 2014 meeting of the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday morning. We quickly dispatched with two bills held over from last year by recommending the bills be killed on the Senate floor. One would have doubled the maximum bet in charitable games and the other increased tax credits available to the Community Development Finance Authority.

Then, we went into a long hearing on SB 333, a bill to prevent municipalities from taxing recreational vehicles. The committee heard from campground owners and campers who object to towns that are starting to apply real estate taxes to recreational vehicles at campsites. The stories were very compelling that we should not be taxing campers. We will hear next from the Department of Revenue Administration as to why they have been telling towns they need to collect the tax. Two towns represented at the hearing also did not believe they should be collecting the tax. Only one person, a professional assessor, spoke in favor of taxing camping vehicles.

Tuesday afternoon the Senate Finance Committee heard a presentation by the State Treasurer on the status our Revenue Stabilization Reserve Account or rainy day fund. Cathy Provencher is very clear spoken and it is tough to miss her message. Before becoming Treasurer in January, 2007, she headed the audit division of the Legislative Budget Assistant’s office. She can be independent as she is not appointed. She is one of two state officials elected to their positions by the full Legislature every two years.

She believes we should put “every penny of the state’s surplus” from the last biennium into our rainy day fund. She says our current $9.3 million rainy day fund balance is “inadequate” and adding the surplus of $15.3 will increase the fund to $24.6 million or 1.8 percent of our general fund unrestricted revenue. Our goal, the Treasurer said, should be to a rainy day fund balance of between $70 million to $140 million as recommended by rating agencies.

After she addressed the committee, Sen. Sylvia Larsen of Concord introduced her bill (SB 238) that would direct $7 million of the surplus to relieve funding pressures at the Department of Health and Human Services. Her bill would put the balance of the surplus into the rainy day fund.

The lines are drawn on how the state uses its small surplus that was accumulated during the biennium that ended on June 30. For the two-year budget period, state income exceeded spending by $75 million. But $60 million had been predicted and was put into the current budget, leaving just $15.3 million of surplus. I suggest the debate will go on with a committee of conference offering a resolution in late May.

An interesting statistic: New Hampshire has the 46th lowest amount of rainy day fund cash available for daily operations, 2.6 days. The median among the 50 states is about 20 days with states like Wyoming and Alaska with almost 200 days. Connecticut and Maine are below us. Next is Illinois and at the bottom is Arkansas.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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