Energy efficiency, vaccines, and beyond: A roundup of House and Senate action

By: , and - February 17, 2022 5:53 am
A screenshot of the House session

The House will be back in session on Thursday. (Screenshot)

New Hampshire House lawmakers moved on Wednesday to approve the Senate’s version of a bill designed to save the state’s energy efficiency programs, NHSaves. Proponents of energy efficiency measures, such as weatherization and efficient appliances, have advocated for the program as the state’s one lever against rising electric and heat costs. Funding for the program was cut in a November decision, halting energy efficiency programs, including those for low-income families, and casting uncertainty on the future of energy efficiency jobs in the state.

Dozens of energy contractors came to the State House to tell lawmakers about the devastating effect cutting funding would have on their businesses and clients. And the decision prompted a range of legal actions, including multiple appeals to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

The version of the bill passed by the House Wednesday would restore key elements of the programs, including evaluation and performance incentives, and allow for moderate annual increases to the budget. It also sets aside $400,000 to promote energy efficiency, which comes with both economic and climate benefits.

“Now those energy efficiency programs can once again proceed. Without this amendment, hundreds, possibly thousands, of jobs would be lost and companies might have to cease doing business,” said Rep. Michael Vose, an Epping Republican. 

Gov. Chris Sununu has already indicated that he will sign the legislation, House Bill 549, when it reaches his desk.

The bill was one of dozens that passed on the House and Senate floor Wednesday, as both chambers met to take up the first crop of bills in the 2022 session. From redistricting maps to cannabis legalization, the two chambers explored a range of state policies Wednesday. Here’s some of what passed – and what didn’t. 

Vaccines and dental benefits

Three of the at least 30 COVID-19 vaccine-related bills appear to be going nowhere after Wednesday’s House session. One is moving forward.

HB 1655, sponsored by representatives who’ve pushed back against COVID-19 mandates, sought to require private and public schools to teach students how to strengthen and maintain their immune system through nutrition, vitamins, dietary supplements, and exercise. The House killed it.

Also voted inexpedient to legislate was HB 1634, which would award $250,000 in state research grants to study the effect COVID-19 vaccines have on the human body.

And HB 1224, aimed at preventing public agencies from mandating masks and businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination, was sent to a study committee.

A pared back version of HB 1608 survived. Sponsors wanted to require the Department of Health and Human Services to try at least three times to reach the 750,000 people it vaccinated and added to the new vaccine registry during an emergency order that prevented people from refusing to be included. Those who didn’t respond would be removed, as would the only electronic record of their vaccination.

The House amended the bill to require the department to advertise the opportunity to be removed from the registry. The department already has a form on its website to do so.

Adults and elderly people on Medicaid are a step closer to getting preventative dental benefits with the unanimous passage of SB 422. The bill calls for using money from a recent $21 million Medicaid-related settlement to start the program.

A similar bill is making its way through the House. The initiative has been in the works for nearly two decades.

Recording custodial interactions

On Thursday, representatives voted to advance HB 1540, which would require police departments to record interrogations of people they have in custody. That bill, if signed into law, would put New Hampshire among the 30 states that have done so; supporters said it was an overdue measure that would eliminate the chance of convictions arrived at from false confessions, and shield departments from lawsuits. 

Opponents pointed to potential costs for local departments to capture and store the recordings, and said the bill violated New Hampshire’s constitutional prohibition of unfunded mandates to cities and towns. 

The House also voted to pass, along party lines, HB 1469, which would prevent banks from creating “social credit scores,” defined by supporters as mechanisms to bar certain people, businesses, or organizations from banking. Republicans have raised alarms about banks potentially barring citizens and businesses over political stances, from offensive social media posts to gun ownership. 

“It is our responsibility here in the General Court to protect the rights of our citizens from abuses by big business, big government, big banks, big tech, or even big lawyers,” said Rep. Max Abramson of Seabrook. 

Democrats have countered that discrimination in banking is already covered in state statute.

School meals and education freedom accounts

A bill by Democrats to expand New Hampshire’s school meal programs and require that breakfast and lunch be offered to all students was struck down on the House floor Wednesday, as Republicans raised concerns about costs to districts and towns.  

“Parents know that all students deserve proper nutrition,” said Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican speaking on the bill, HB 1660. “But … this is a local control issue associated with local school districts.” 

Rep. Stephen Woodcock disagreed.

“This is kind of a tough thing – a mean-spirited attempt to stop youngsters who are hungry and need food,” the Conway Democrat said. Woodcock later apologized for the characterization, saying he had become emotional.

House Republicans also killed HB 1684, a Democratic bill intending to add a financial cap to the state’s “education freedom account” program that lets low-income families access state funds for home schooling and private education expenses, with Democrats calling it responsible governing and Republicans describing the bill as an attempt to “decimate” the program.

Forensic audit of elections and cannabis

Meanwhile, in a blow to the conservative side of the political spectrum, the House nixed a bill to require a forensic audit for the 2020 elections in New Hampshire, an effort spurred by falsehoods that the 2020 election was manipulated against former President Donald Trump. HB 1484 would mandate the hiring of an independent third party by the House speaker to review the audit; the work would be paid for via an “election audit fund” in the state Treasury that could be funded through “gifts, grants, and donations.”

Voting 273-76, the chamber voted to table the legislation, likely immobilizing it for the rest of the session.

And the chamber split over a pair of bills to legalize cannabis in the state. The chamber struck down HB 1468, which would have legalized the possession of cannabis for anyone 18 and older – a step down from typical bills that use 21 as the required threshold. But it passed HB 1598, 235-119, approving a Republican-led bill that would put control over cannabis sales in the hands of the state Liquor Commission. 

Redistricting maps

Over in the Senate Wednesday, Republican-backed maps for the House and Senate passed in party-line votes. Both proposals have been criticized for gerrymandering, giving Republicans partisan advantage.  

“Unless he vetoes these bills, Gov. Sununu can no longer say there are just a few examples of gerrymandering in New Hampshire, as he did in his 2019 and 2020 vetoes of an independent redistricting commission. In fact, all the proposed maps have so far been gerrymandered for partisan advantage, making districts uncompetitive and locking in incumbents,” said Open Democracy Action Executive Director Olivia Zink in a written statement following the vote.

Vaccination incentives for health care workers

The Senate also passed – by unanimous voice vote – SB 319, allowing insurance providers to offer a “wellness incentive” to encourage employees to be vaccinated. The program is not not unlike the $300 paid to state workers covered under the state’s health plan for certain “health reward activities” that include a flu shot. 

Initially, the bill, sponsored by Nashua Democrat Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, would have required insurance companies to offer the benefit. 

Energy

On the consent calendar, the Senate approved SB 261, which would allow net metering reimbursements to happen more frequently. Currently, utilities such as Eversource provide credits for net metering on an annual basis. The bill asks that they provide them on a quarterly basis, a change that would encourage more people to participate, according to an Eversource lobbyist.

The Senate also passed two offshore wind bills that had already gained committee support. The bipartisan bills were also on the consent calendar and passed without debate. SB 268 aims to give New Hampshire a seat at the table for future siting decisions on offshore wind, while SB 440 provides guidance on criteria for purchasing wind energy.   

And a Democratic proposal to set up an electric vehicle and infrastructure fund was also advanced by the Senate. SB 447 was designed to receive federal funding earmarked for electric vehicle infrastructure. New Hampshire is slated to receive $17 million over the next five years, with about $3.5 million next year. According to testimony by the Department of Environmental Services, adoption of electric cars is increasing, with registrations of new electric cars doubling in recent years.  

Landfills and groundwater

SB 396 advanced through the Senate without debate; the bill allows the Department of Environmental Services to contract with an engineer or hydrogeologist when evaluating landfill permits.

But an attempt to regulate additional types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances didn’t make it through the Senate. SB 455 would have required the DES to adopt groundwater quality standards for three additional chemicals: perfluorobutanoic acid, PFBA; perfluoroheptanoic acid, PFHpA; and perfluorodecanoic acid, PFDA. The DES had opposed the bill because the data on these chemical compounds is still under scientific review. Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, said the bill was brought to him by lawmakers from Merrimack because of concerns that these compounds were “breakthrough chemicals in terms of the filtration system that is being used in Merrimack.”

It was shot down by the Senate in a voice vote.

Grave sites

Historic grave and burial sites of African Americans who were alive at the time of slavery have been found in New Hampshire in recent years. SB 258 is aimed at preserving these sites, in addition to documenting them, and alerting descendants so they can participate in the process. The bill, passed by the Senate on a voice vote, also requires that any associated archeological materials that have been removed from a burial site be returned.

Hundreds of these graves have been found around the state, including Portsmouth, Deerfield, Milford, Amherst, Hancock, Dover, Hanover, Somersworth, and Concord, Watters said.

Voting rights

A bill requiring an audit of the 2022 primary and general election passed. SB 366 requires the Secretary of State’s Office to audit a random selection of ballots taken from AccuVote machines, running them through a high-speed scanner. The bill came from the Committee to Study Post Election Audit Counting Devices.

Short-term rentals

A bill to ban municipalities from enacting zoning that would prohibit short-term rentals passed on a voice vote. Proponents of SB 249 pointed to the economic importance of tourism in the state. Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, a Portsmouth Democrat, spoke against the bill. Given the impact short-term rentals have on the price and availability of housing in the state, she said municipalities should be able to pass local regulations to address the issue in their own community.

Access to capital

Sen. Becky Whitley’s bill to help socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses access capital was voted down in a 13-10 vote. Republican Sen. Erin Hennessey joined Senate Democrats voting in support of the bill. SB 428 would have covered some fees that small businesses incur when applying for the capital access program through the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority.

Whitley said the legislation would help women- and minority-owned businesses. Senate Republicans opposed the bill and called it exclusionary. The bill’s language uses the same definition as the U.S. Small Business Administration, including businesses owned by “individuals who have experienced disadvantages due to gender, race, ethnicity, cultural, and economic disadvantages,” Whitley said.

The House meets again at 9:30 a.m. Thursday for the second half of its session. First, though, lawmakers in both chambers will gather in Manchester to hear Gov. Chris Sununu’s State of the State. The Senate will not meet again this week. 

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.

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