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NH legislators agree on bill to protect heating fuel consumers

CONCORD — Senate and House negotiators reached agreement Friday on a bill to better protect consumers who enter pre-paid heating fuel contracts.

The bill limits when heating oil companies can advertise pre-paid contracts and makes failure to deliver heating fuel a violation under the state Consumer Protection Act.

Thursday, House and Senate negotiators came to quick agreement on the heating fuel pre-buy provisions in House Bill 1282, but could not agree whether the state should give towns in the Merrimack River flood control compact $1.1 million from a settlement reached with Massachusetts.

Massachusetts has refused to compensate communities for the land they lost to the flood control area that cannot be used for any other purpose.

The Attorney General’s Office reached a settlement with Massachusetts last year to pay about one-quarter of what it owes from 2009 to 2012.

The Senate wanted to turn over all the settlement money to the towns. Instead the House wants to use the money to pay communities in the current biennial budget.

The Republican-dominated, 2011-12 legislature did not include money in its budget to pay the communities in the compact.

The House offered to use half the money to pay the communities, and the Senate at first refused to do that, but eventually agreed to the proposal.

Under the bill, 22 towns in the Merrimack and Connecticut flood control compacts would receive $542,672.

The heating fuel contract bill gained momentum this winter when Fred Fuller Oil and Propane Co. Inc. failed to meet scheduled deliveries of heating oil.

The bill limits when dealers can advertise and solicit customers for pre-buy contracts to between May 1 and Oct. 31.

Under the bill, failure to deliver heating oil under a prepaid contract would be a violation of the Consumer Protection Act that would be in most instances a class B misdemeanor but could be increased to a class A misdemeanor for repeated or gross violations.

The bill also allows heating fuel dealers to use inventories to meet requirements that dealers have 75 percent of the pre-buy fuel covered through futures’ contracts, surety bond or letter of credit.

The bill also requires dealers to register with the Secretary of State’s Office and file an annual report demonstrating how the company will satisfy its obligations to consumers.

The House and Senate will vote on the compromise next week.

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