March 23. 2013 7:44PM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: State reps, senators nearing crunch time

State House Bureau

The legislative session is almost at the point when bills passed by the House are sent to the Senate and vice versa.

The House will begin its session Wednesday with Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff's bill to repeal of the stand-your-ground law approved last year.

At the end of the House's calendar is House Bill 617, which would raise the fuel tax 12 cents over three years for gasoline and over six years for diesel fuel.

The first vote on the controversial tax, 207-163, was not as strong as some had hoped after former House Speaker William O'Brien weighed in and essentially turned it into a partisan issue.

The House Ways and Means Committee gave the bill a "haircut" of 3 cents and tightened the language so all of the gas tax increase would go into fixing the roads and bridges across the state. But the political reality is a gas tax increase of 12 cents or even 10 cents is not going to come even close to passing the Senate.

So if you were a House Democrat, why would you want to be beaten over the head in the next election for voting for a "ludicrous increase" in the gas tax?

An increase of 8 cents over two years certainly would be defensible, considering the tax has not been raised for more than two decades, but the Senate wouldn't pass that either.

No gas tax is initially going to pass the Senate because gambling proponents in the Senate would want some gaming revenues to go to fix highways and bridges.

However, after House and Senate conference committees work out a compromise on the budget, the gas tax, although much smaller, may well be part of the revenue equation.

The other major event next week in the House is the budget. The Finance Committee must have its recommended budget completed Thursday.

The committee will work Monday and Tuesday and probably Wednesday on its recommendations, which is expected to track fairly closely to the budget proposed by Gov. Maggie Hassan.

While the revenue may be less than the governor projected, House budget writers have found some significant "savings" in areas such as caseloads at the Health and Human Services Department and a bigger pile of money due to expanding Medicaid to cover more state residents under the Affordable Care Act.

The Senate has seen little of the drama and attention the House has drawn so far this year, although there will be several "big bills," including Senate Bill 180 to establish a fund for victims of the Financial Resource Management Ponzi scheme. The big question has been how to pay for it.

The House and Senate have to act on all their own bills by Thursday. The House has until April 4 to approve its version of the budget.

The next two weeks are going to be busy.

- - - - - - -

SETTING PRECEDENT: Restricting free admission to the state's parks system is an issue the Senate has grappled with for more than a month.

No longer allowing people older than 65, lawmakers and the governor and executive council and their staffs to have free access to the parks is a touchy subject, particularly when it comes seniors, many of whom have enjoyed free skiing at Cannon Mountain. The changes were needed, supporters said, because the parks system is self-funding and needs more money.

Taking the bill off the table became a partisan issue last Thursday, and it quickly became more politically charged when Republicans tabled a committee amendment. The Finance Committee amendment would have also ended free parking for those with handicap stickers.

The amendment did provide for an annual senior pass for about $20 a year.

An amendment from Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 190, sought to remove changes that would affect people with walking disabilities but keep the other changes.

Senate Minority Leader and former Senate President Sylvia Larsen quickly noted that in the history of the Senate, amendments had never been tabled before, they had always been attached to a bill that was tabled. She asked Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, to identify in Senate rules where tabling an amendment was allowed.

Bragdon noted the provision was contained in the rules the Senate adopted last month on a voice vote. The rules allow the tabling of the main bill or an amendment, he noted.

Larsen was not done.

"I bemoan the history of the Senate was broken today," she said at the end of the session. "It is very unwise for us to inadvertently agree to the idea an amendment can be tabled without its bill.

"If you're a member of the minority or the majority, these things affect you," she said. "You have to have a fair process for everyone."

You might ask: What's the big deal?

If amendments are free floating, they can come off the table at any time, even if the bills they were intended to change are gone.

Once an amendment is off the table, it can be attached to another bill at any time, and all of a sudden it is alive and viable again.

It greatly enhances the opportunities for mischief, particularly for the party with the most votes.

- - - - - - -

BLOWING IN THE WIND: New Hampshire wind turbine sites have proliferated on the hillsides and mountaintops since the first wind farm was built in Lempster.

And there are more in the planning stages before state regulators.

Some wind farms are in highly visible locations, making some former supporters rethink the issue.

Wind farm opponents have turned to lawmakers to stop or at least slow the progress of a half-dozen wind farms in the pipeline. Similar efforts have been made by opponents of the proposed Northern Pass transmission line project,

While the House has been receptive to stalling Northern Pass, the Senate has not been quite so supportive. Regarding wind farms, however, the Senate has acted quickly.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, presented an amendment to a Senate bill at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee for a moratorium on wind projects.

The one-year moratorium would allow the state to do a full review of the state's criteria for wind farms and the Site Evaluation Committee's ability to review applications, according to Bradley's proposal.

Under the amendment, the chairman of the committee would study staffing and funding needs as well as the panel's ability to hire experts needed to make decisions.

A legislative study committee would look at the current criteria and recommend possible changes.

The Senate will vote on the amendment Thursday.

- - - - - - -

PUSH POLLING: The New Hampshire push polling law that ensnared former U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass' 2010 campaign could be even tougher if the House goes along with a Senate proposal up for a vote this week.

Senate Bill 196 seeks to distinguish between the negative telephone calls made under the pretense of polling from the more lengthy, legitimate surveys and opinion research.

The bill focuses on the length of the call and the number of people called. Push poll calls are short and go to several thousand people, while legitimate surveys are often as long as 20 minutes and go to several hundred people.

The state's law has run afoul of several national organizations - including the Washington-based Market Research Association and the American Association of Political Consultants - which filed briefs in support of Bass' motion to dismiss the charges brought by the Attorney General's Office in Merrimack County Superior Court.

The groups say the state's law has many political consulting firms avoiding the state, and that could affect the presidential primary.

They also claim the state law cannot bind federal campaigns, but the attorney general disagrees.

An amendment to the bill would define what a push poll would have to contain to be legal: informing the person called that it was a "paid political advertisement," identifying the organization making the call, providing a valid telephone for the organization, and identifying the candidate who is the subject of the call and whether it is in support of or opposed to.

The criteria are considered tough by most standards.

The bill was expected to be voted on last week by the Senate, but was put off a week.

Several key Republicans had set up a conference call with one of the party's national consultants to review the language, but the conference call fell through, so the vote was delayed until this week and presumably another conference call is set up.

- - - - - - -

IRISH EYES: Donald Manning, former House chief of staff and longtime House Democratic office staffer, will be honored at the Manchester City Democrats annual St. Patrick's Day Breakfast, beginning at 9 a.m. today at the Tower Café on Elm Street.

Democrats are coming off their victory Tuesday in the Manchester Ward 2 race for state representative; William O'Neil defeated former Rep. Win Hutchinson.

The governor will address the breakfast, as will U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

The city committee expects more than 125 people for the breakfast and hopes to raise more than $10,000.

The city's annual St. Patrick's Day parade begins at noon.