Democrats pass three bills after briefly gaining majority in New Hampshire House

By: - February 24, 2023 5:09 pm

The New Hampshire House in session on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. (Screenshot)

Democrats briefly gained a majority in the New Hampshire House Thursday and passed a handful of bills – the latest example of the precarious control over the chamber this session.

With a slim advantage Thursday afternoon, House Democrats revisited two bills that had been tabled by Republicans and passed them, and used their majority to pass another bill on party lines. 

As a result, the House advanced House Bill 430, which seeks to rein in eligibility for the state’s “education freedom account” program, and House Bill 234, a bill that would end the practice of renewable energy credit “sweeping” and force New Hampshire utilities to pay more for clean energy.

HB 430 would limit education freedom accounts to students who are presently in a New Hampshire public school or who are entering kindergarten or first grade. Currently, the savings accounts are available to all students whose families meet the income requirements, including students already enrolled in private school or home schooling. The bill would reduce the number of families receiving the EFA benefits; a majority of students who have received them so far were not attending public school, according to the Department of Education.

HB 234, meanwhile, would prevent New Hampshire utility companies from offsetting their clean energy obligations by using unregistered renewable energy credits generated by residents and businesses, a process known as “sweeping.” 

Under the state’s renewable portfolio standard, utilities are expected to buy a certain number of clean energy credits, or invest an equivalent amount into the state’s Renewable Energy Fund. And residents and businesses that are producing renewable energy on their properties and sending it back into the electric grid are able to register that output as “credits.” Utilities are expected to buy those credits when they are registered. But many residents don’t go through the process of registering the credits. In those cases, the utilities can “sweep” the unused credits and add them to their portfolios without paying for them.

Democrats argue the practice amounts to energy theft, and that it allows utilities to reduce the number of credits they need to buy without putting an equal amount of funding into the Renewable Energy Fund. Republicans contend that it is up to the residents and businesses producing the energy to register the credits and be compensated if they choose. And they said barring the practice would cost utilities $3 million a year in additional expenditures.

Both HB 430 and HB 234 had been tabled during earlier House sessions; both were removed from the table Thursday and passed, over Republican opposition. The two bills head next to the House Finance Committee, and both will receive another vote on the House floor next month. 

House Democrats also passed House Bill 111, which would create a study committee to look at ways to create electric vehicle charging opportunities for residential renters. That bill heads next to the state Senate. 

The unexpected bill passages and Democratic majorities are a byproduct of House Republicans’ razor-thin majority this year. The House is presently split 201-198, with one seat vacant. Due to difficult-to-predict attendance on both sides, large absences can tip control to one party or another. 

On Thursday, Republicans criticized Democrats for using their brief majority to target the education freedom account program.

“It’s awfully telling that the first thing Democrats do when they get a short-lived majority in the House is vote to strip Education Freedom from low- and middle-income families, all while passing a bill that will raise those same families’ electricity costs,” said Republican Party Chairman Chris Ager in a statement.

But Democrats, in their own statement, defended the passage of HB 430 and noted that it would only affect students seeking to join the EFA in the future, not current ones.

“HB 430 does not affect anyone in the voucher program already, but will provide necessary oversight by re-focusing the voucher program to its stated purpose – providing ‘school choice’ for NH kids, rather than providing big kickbacks to wealthy private schools while our public-schools struggle to keep the lights on,” said House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm in a statement.

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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. Email: [email protected]