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January 14. 2012 10:59PM

State House Dome: Senate's 1st vote eyed by Northern Pass


 

TURNING UP THE HEAT: The Senate finally starts rolling Wednesday, and one of the most hotly contested issues from last year — the proposed Northern Pass power line project — could be affected by the first vote.

The senators will have to decide what to do with House Bill 648 — which would prohibit the use of eminent domain to take land for an energy project except to address power system reliability — and organizations on both sides of the issue are putting the pressure on.

One group, the NH Coalition for Secure Energy, is a joint effort of the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Small Business and Small Industry Association. It favors the Northern Pass project — which would transmit electricity 180 miles, from the Canadian border to Deerfield — and has been calling residents to urge them to tell their senators to oppose the bill.

One person told us she received a call from someone who claimed the bill would make expansion of renewable energy illegal in the state.

Martin Murray, Public Service of New Hampshire and Northern Pass spokesman, said his company does not have anything to do with the calls. But he said the bill that came over from the House would have unintended consequences if a current right of way needed upgrading or widening to allow renewable projects to go forward.

Murray said that version of the bill would affect renewable energy projects, particularly in the North Country, where the transmission system is at capacity.

Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, said there are at least five New Hampshire renewable energy projects (four wind and the Berlin biomass plant) under way that did not involve eminent domain.

“Their spin on this seems disingenuous at best. The only project looking to have access to eminent domain is Northern Pass,” he said.

The project, which would bring Hydro Quebec power to New England, is a joint venture of Northeast Utilities, Public Service of New Hampshire's parent company, and NSTAR.

The project has been particularly controversial in the North Country, where there is no existing right of way for the new power lines. The company would have to purchase land from reluctant owners along a 40-mile corridor.

Opponents of the project believe if they can stop the eminent domain process, they can block the project.

The president of the Small Business and Small Industry Association, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg, acknowledged his group is making calls to encourage people to contact their senators about the bill.

He said association members can certainly use cheaper electricity to help them compete.

“I have to ask: ‘What is wrong with bringing hydro power to the state?'” Clegg said. “It goes into the grid, we get it, and it lowers the cost of power for everybody.”

Savage said the Forest Society, along with the Timberland Owners Association, sent postcards and issued e-newsletters to ask people to contact their senator and express support for the an amendment that will be proposed by Senate President Peter Bragdon and District 2 Sen. Jeanie Forrester. The amendment would make it more difficult to use eminent domain.

Last month, Bragdon told reporters it was a fundamental issue with him: Private developers should not be able to take private property through eminent domain.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amendment that would prohibit eminent domain takings until the Public Utilities Commission approved its use for a project

The bill will be the first one the Senate takes up Wednesday when it meets at 10 a.m. It's bound to draw a crowd.

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NO DELAY FOR ILLNESS: Last session, Republican Rep. Susan Emerson of Rindge had a widely publicized heated exchange with House Speaker William O'Brien just outside Representatives Hall over amendments she proposed to the state operating budget to provide additional money for Health and Human Services programs.

As a result of that encounter, Emerson was the first person to file an LSR, a request to draft a bill, when filing opened last fall. Her bill seeks to prevent bullying in the State House and the Legislative Office Building. The bill will be before the House Constitutional Review and Statutory Recodification Committee this week.

Emerson is recuperating from surgery and will not return to the House until later in the month, but HB 1533 is scheduled for a public hearing Thursday at 10 a.m.

She said she sent House leadership a letter three weeks ago asking that the hearing be delayed, but heard last week it would go forward as scheduled.

“It disappoints me tremendously that I will not be able to defend my bill,” Emerson said.

She noted Article 22, Part 2, says, “We as legislators should treat each other with respect, and we should not be impeded from doing our job of representing our constituents.”

She said the attorney general was asked to investigate the incident with O'Brien, but said he could not without a state law because of the separation-of-power provisions in the constitution.

“I'm trying to set up something to give the attorney general some power to come in,” Emerson said. “We need to do something to protect future legislators from getting into a similar situation. It's sad.”

House leadership referred questions about the timing of the public hearing on Emerson's bill to the committee chairman, Rep. Daniel Itse of Fremont, who did not return phone calls Friday.

Emerson said 97 people wanted to co-sponsor the bill with her, but only 10 lawmakers can sponsor a House Bill.

The names of the 97 people will be listed in the House Permanent Journal, saying they support the bill, Emerson said.

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GOVERNOR'S POLL: The final tracking poll done by Public Policy Polling last week prior to the Presidential Primary not only tracked the presidential candidates but also asked the 1,771 likely Republican voters what they thought about possible Republican gubernatorial candidates.

The Democratic polling company asked those it surveyed whether they have favorable or unfavorable opinions of Ted Gatsas, Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith. Smith and Lamontagne have both announced they will seek their party's nomination, and Gatsas, who recently won reelection as Manchester's mayor, has not convinced everyone he won't run for the corner office.

Of the three, only Lamontagne had a higher “favorable” rating than “unfavorable,” but for all three, “not sure” was the response given by the highest percentage of those surveyed.

Of those polled, 37 percent had a favorable opinion of Lamontagne, 26 percent unfavorable and 38 percent not sure.

Lamontagne was found to be most favorable among Newt Gingrich and Rich Santorum supporters and least favorable among Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman supporters.

Smith, who recently resigned as the executive director of Cornerstone Action, had an 8 percent favorable rating and a 19 percent unfavorable rating, with 73 percent not sure.

Smith was found to be most favorable among Rick Perry, Gingrich and Santorum supporters and least favorable among Ron Paul and Gingrich supporters.

Gatsas, who also served in the state Senate and on the Manchester Board of Aldermen, had a 21 percent favorable rating, 23 unfavorable and 56 percent unsure.

He was found to be most favorable among Gingrich and Santorum supporters, although he supported Mitt Romney, and least favorable among Paul and Perry supporters.

With all three running, Lamontagne received 36 percent support, Gatsas 13 percent and Smith 11 percent, with 40 percent of the respondents undecided.

In a head-to-head contest between the two announced candidates, Lamontagne received 40 percent and Smith 12 percent, with 48 percent undecided.

The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

The pollsters did not sample Democratic voters about their potential choices for governor.

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SWAN SONG: Outgoing Public Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Getz testified on Senate Bill 256 last week. The bill would require the commission to have the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and Governor and Executive Council approve consultant contracts with the commission.

The commission often hires outside consultants to advise on major issues, such as electric deregulation or the sale Verizon's land lines to FairPoint Communications, and charges the utilities for the service.

Utilities such as FairPoint have complained about the cost of the outside consultants, but the commission said consultants are needed to either expand the commission's own resources or for their expertise in specific areas.

Getz, who is stepping down as soon as a new chairman is confirmed by the Executive Council, told the Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee, “This is probably my swan song as PUC chair, but I hope it is not my swan dive with this bill.”

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ANOTHER FAMILIAR NAME ADDED: Former Executive Councilor Ruth Griffin of Portsmouth has joined a long list of prominent Granite Staters opposed to repealing the state's gay marriage law.

Griffin, who also is a former Republican National Committee member, was one of nine new supporters added to the list last week.

“We could not be more pleased that Ruth and these other talented people have agreed to join the bipartisan effort to protect marriage and families,” said Standing Up for NH Families co-Chairman Lew Feldstein.

The repeal bill is likely to come before the House on Feb. 1.

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STATE OF THE STATE: Gov. John Lynch will deliver his final State of the State speech to lawmakers on the last day of the month.

A joint House and Senate session will convene to hear the speech, which is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. in Representatives Hall.

Garry Rayno writes State House Dome every week for the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at grayno@unionleader.com.


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