Above, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, speaks Thursday on the resolution to support Israel. Paula Tracy photo
By GARRY RAYNO
and PAULA TRACY
CONCORD — The legislature made quick work of Gov. Chris Sununu’s nine vetoes Thursday, sustaining all nine, although the House overrode one of the governor’s vetoes, but not the one for the Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin.
House Bill 142 would have allowed the biomass plant to continue operating for two more years while owners found a path to wean the plant off ratepayer subsidies and to generate electricity closer to the current wholesale rate.
Bill proponents said if the governor’s veto is not overridden, the plant will close Nov. 1, putting 30 people out of work, and upending the forest products industry in the North Country and other areas of the state.
They also said closing the plant will drive up property taxes for the rest of Coos County, but particularly in Berlin as well as the city’s water rates.
In his veto message, Sununu blasted the plant’s owners saying they failed time and time again when state government had given them time to find a solution and that has cost Eversource ratepayers about $200 million.
“Enough is enough,” he wrote.
But Rep. Henry Noel, D-Berlin, said the plant is following the purchase power contract signed with Eversource, while the Public Utilities Commission added a provision that added a paper debt. The provision requires once the debt reaches $100 million, the money has to be returned to ratepayers.
The House has passed several other bills suspending the payback as House Bill 142 would have done for two more years.
“The governor is asking us to blame an award-winning renewable power plant,” Noel said, when that provision “came from the PUC.”
He said the bill gives the plant the original solution it has sought and the delay is on the Legislature for not dealing with the issue.
“The Burgess BioPower plant is good for the economy, it is good for Berlin and the North Country and it is good for New Hampshire,” he said.
But Rep. Michael Harrington, R-Strafford, said the bill is just kicking the can down the road once again.
“This is deja vu all over again,” he said, “in a never ending series of bailout bills.”
He said the plant has amassed tens of millions of taxpayer dollars even before it was operational.
Harrington called the PUC provision a safety valve that has worked and the company needs to begin paying the money back to ratepayers.
If lawmakers override the governor’s veto, he said “they’ll be back here again to get a massive subsidy. That will just delay the inevitable, nothing is going to change.”
Rep. Corinne Cascadden, D-Berlin, not overriding the veto will mean the loss of the one remaining biomass plant in the state, and one of the top three in the nation.
“That would be a real failure by this legislature,” she said, “a failure by caving into politics.”
Cascadden said the legislature got it right this spring when it passed the bill and now they need to show the foresters, landowners and fellow citizens they will do what is right for New Hampshire again.
Needing a two-thirds majority to override a veto, the House failed to do that on a 194 -159 vote.
Burgess BioPower spokesperson Sarah Boone expressed disappointed in the failure to override the veto.
“This override was blocked by a legislative minority and will create serious financial events for the forest products industry, the City of Berlin, and Burgess. Over 10 years of operation, Burgess has generated enough energy to power 67,000 homes annually and has delivered more than $700 million in economic benefits to the state’s economy. The company is evaluating the veto’s impacts and considering its next steps,” Boone said.
The House did override Sununu’s veto of House Bill 337, which would require the office of professional licensure and certification to provide notice of public meetings 14 days in advance along with the material to be discussed seven days in advance and provide an opportunity for public comment.
Most agencies and boards require a 24-hour notice for a hearing, but Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, said some license holders have long complained some of the licensing boards are not transparent, with little notice of hearings and meetings and no information available about what is to be discussed.
In the Senate, Sen. Howard Pearl, R-Loudon, supported the veto saying he identified a flaw related to unforeseen issues and which would put another barrier in place for many of these volunteer boards. He said the 91a standard would be different from other boards in the state.
But Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, asked the body to override the veto.
She said nobody asked for a committee of conference and the body was in agreement for passage, “so I was really kind of surprised to see the governor veto this bill.”
One of the things learned during the hearing process were the voices of the licensees who asked for a 14 -day notification, she said, because they are busy.
“It could be a nurse doing shift work, a carpenter working on site away from home. They need that license,” she said. “But now, we are hearing, ‘what happens if someone doesn’t show up?'” and there is a lack of a quorum.
The bill passed the House on a 387-0 vote and the Senate on a voice vote.
In his veto Sununu said the bill would single out licensing boards and require a legal review of every document to be discussed seven days in advance.
The House voted 251-104 to override the veto, but the Senate voted 11-12 to sustain it.
All other vetoes before the House and Senate were sustained, including:
House Bill 35, which would have added the toll-free phone number of the National Eating Disorders Hotline to student identification cards. It was suggested by several high school students and was sponsored by a bipartisan group of House members.
In his veto message, Sununu quotes the National Alliance on Mental Health as saying the national eating disorders staff was laid off and the hotline terminated so under the circumstances he is vetoing the bill.
The House voted 0-350 to sustain the veto.
House Bill 342 would have added a lead blood test requirement notification to a form for children entering day care or public schools.
The state has a law requiring a test for lead poisoning for children one and two years old, but compliance has been slipping, said Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole.
She said the bill does not put up a barrier to entering daycare or school, but would provide another opportunity to remind parents their child needs to be tested and how to do that.
She urged lawmakers to override the veto on lead poisoning awareness week.
“We all know the damage lead poisoning can do to young children,” Weber said.
The override failed on a 184-171 vote.
Senate Bill 256 would have required a safety program for off-highway recreational vehicles for those older than 12 years and require operators over 14 years old to be with someone 18 years of age or older to operate a vehicle.
The bill would require a valid driver’s license to operate an OHRV on public roads.
Sen. Suzanne Prentiss, D-West Lebanon, urged an override, but was voted down on a 10-13 vote.
The governor argued the bill would negatively impact tourism in the state and people would go to other states to ride.
Injury, Prentiss said, is the leading cause of death in New Hampshire.
“I am heartened to see there is an effort for all these parties to work together,” she said on some future measure, but “I think we should override.”
Senate Bill 42, which would have eliminated interest payments for those who received unemployment benefits than they were legally entitled to.
The beneficiary would still have to repay the overcompensated amount, but would not be charged interest under the bill.
Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, noted the bill passed on a voice vote and had bipartisan support.
“Many of them were barely back to making full wages again,” she said.
They were literally struggling to keep their lives going again, Soucy said, and for some, the bill of thousands of dollars was catastrophic.
“This is a reasonable, modest step,” she said, which would “allow the department to focus on those who do commit fraud.”
Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Contoocook, urged the Senate to maintain its position approving the bill where fraud was not an issue. She said the bill does not excuse the overpayment and people still have to repay the debt.
“There are plenty of other tools,” she said, rather than charging interest and it is “cruel.”
Sununu said the bill would mean those owing the money would have no incentive to pay it back.
Senate Bill 79 would have defined and established requirements for an industrial generator as a customer-generator under the limited electrical energy producers act and raises the net metering cap for those entities to 5 megawatts.
Bill sponsor, Sen. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, asked the body to support the governor’s veto of his bill.
“Too bad, it’s a great bill,” said state Sen. David Watters, D-Dover.
Over the years, net metering bills have been one of Sununu’s favorite veto targets under a program that allows residential and small businesses or public institutions to be paid for the solar power they generate but do not use.
Sununu and others have long claimed the practice raises the cost of electricity for non-generating customers, but a Public Utilities Commission study found the cost shift to be minimal.
Sununu claimed the bill removes the long-time 1 megawatt limit on the net metering program and eliminates all limits except for industrial and municipal hosts.
Senate Bill 51 would have established a commission to study charitable gaming and historic horse racing, and would have continued a moratorium on adding the historic horse racing to gaming facilities not established before 2022.
The commission was also in another bill, but additional sites for historic racing done on a kind of slot machine, is currently under a moratorium until next year.
Sununu said the bill continues to allow state government to pick the winners and losers in the charity gaming industry.
Senate Bill 193 would have required a bargaining unit in negotiations to meet within 10 days after a request has been filed by the other unit. The period could be extended by 10 days by agreement of both sides.
Sununu said state government should not be inserting itself into the collective bargaining process.
Prentiss asked for an override which would amend the collective bargaining good faith statute that would “insert a tool” for either parties to enter into negotiations within 10 days.
But Sen. Bill Gannon said it would redefine “good faith” and urged the body to sustain the veto. He noted the NH Municipal Association now opposed the bill and believes it would insert the legislature into collective bargaining.
He said he would like to see a new bill that does not impose such time deadlines.
On a vote of 9-14 the governor’s veto was sustained.
In order to override, a veto, both the House and Senate need a two-thirds majority.
The state Senate had a moment of silence and lit a candle for two former State Senators, Robert Clegg, R-Hudson, and Franklin G. Torr, D-Dover, who died since the Senate was last in session.
The Senate and the House passed a resolution related to the terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israel.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said what is needed is peace instead of war, and noted the Lewiston, Maine, mass shootings in which at least 18 were killed Wednesday night.
Sen. Carson asked senators to support the resolution and said she watched in horror what was happening in Israel, particularly at the music festival of soldiers parachuting in.
“How much longer do we ask the Israeli people to turn the other cheek?” she said. “We need to stand with our Jewish friends.”
Thursday’s meetings were the last session for the House and Senate during 2023.
Correction: Burgess BioPower is not the only biomass plant in the state as stated in a previous version of this story.