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House: Get state out of carbon pact



Laste modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011
The New Hampshire House voted yesterday to withdraw the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

The 246-104 vote came over concerns by Democrats that the House Committee on Science, Technology and Energy did not take time to adequately discuss or revise the bill after hearing eight hours of public testimony.

'What's the rush? Is someone holding a gun to our heads, forcing us to jump off a cliff? Because that's what we're doing,' said Rep. Naida Kaen, a Lee Democrat and member of the committee.

RGGI is a cap-and-trade program for controlling carbon dioxide emissions. Ten Northeast states participate in the program, which allots carbon allowances to each and then requires power plants to purchase the allowances at auctions. The money from those purchases is used for energy-efficiency projects. So far, the auctions have netted more than $28 million for New Hampshire. The program has cost New Hampshire about $11 million, according to figures provided by Democratic Gov. John Lynch in a letter to the House committee.

Lynch said yesterday that he opposes the withdrawal because it will result in New Hampshire ratepayers paying higher costs for electricity without receiving any benefits. Because electricity is sold regionally, New Hampshire ratepayers would still have to pay the higher rates even if the state withdrew, but it would not get money back for energy-efficiency projects.

'In effect, this legislation would result in New Hampshire ratepayers paying higher electric rates to subsidize efforts to reduce electric bills for customers in other Northeast states,' Lynch said. 'Becoming part of RGGI was a bipartisan effort. Withdrawing from RGGI would be a blow to our economy and to our state's efforts to become more energy efficient and energy independent.'

The vote was largely along party lines, with a handful of Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the bill. The bill will be sent to the House Finance Committee for further consideration.

Those who support withdrawing from RGGI say that the science behind climate change is questionable and that it is not the role of government to take money from ratepayers and use it for favored projects. Science, Technology and Energy Committee Chairman James Garrity said the system relies on 'shaky climate science.'

Garrity said RGGI is about money, not the environment.

'RGGI is a stealth tax hidden in our electric bills, with the illusion of free money to those who benefit from its funds,' Garrity said.

Garrity said RGGI amounts to an additional government mandate that limits the free market.

'RGGI should be repealed because it rests on shaky economic science, that government should collect some money from all of us to redistribute that wealth to a few of us,' Garrity said. 'The majority believes our constituents' money should remain in their pockets to be spent or saved or invested as they see fit.'

Supporters of RGGI say the program addresses climate change and has benefited New Hampshire both environmentally and economically. The state joined RGGI in 2008.

Rep. Beatriz Pastor, a Lyme Democrat, said that by the end of 2011, New Hampshire is expected to reap $4.2 million in energy savings for residents and businesses and to reduce 13,200 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. She said the RGGI money has been used to increase energy efficiency in public buildings and private homes and to create new jobs in retrofitting and weatherization.

Pastor said there is considerable scientific evidence that links carbon dioxide to climate change. Even if not, she said, why take a chance?

'There was never any scientific evidence or certainty Russians were going to nuke this country during the Cold War, yet every U.S. president prepared carefully for that possibility,' Pastor said. 'Noah, told a natural disaster was about to occur, faced natural uncertainty. He could have said it doesn't look like it's going to rain. Instead, he decided to build the ark, and he saved the human race.'

Democrats also questioned the process and politicking surrounding the bill. Kaen said every committee member was allowed to make one statement in committee, with no back-and-forth. An amendment, which delayed the withdrawal until January 2012, was also voted on in committee with little discussion.

On Monday, the fiscally conservative national advocacy group Americans for Prosperity launched robocalls targeting specific representatives' districts, urging constituents to call their legislators and tell them to support withdrawing from RGGI. AFP State Director Corey Lewandowski said the group got involved because of an interest in lowering electricity rates and shrinking the size of government. Lewandowski said the program is run by 'unelected bureaucrats' at the Public Utility Commission, who give money to for-profit businesses that could pay for their own energy upgrades.

Lewandowski said the robocalls informed people New Hampshire already received $28 million from ratepayers. The calls said if ratepayers thought their electricity bills were too high, they should contact their representatives.

Rep. Sandra Keans, a Rochester Democrat, said she received two dozen calls by people who were patched through directly to her. Keans said the callers did not know her name but had been told to press a number on their phones if they wanted to prevent their electricity bills from increasing.

'This was an insidious act to frighten those folks in my district,' Keans said.

Environmental advocates said they were disappointed in the vote and would look to the Senate for reconsideration. Jim O'Brien, executive director of Conservation New Hampshire, echoed Lynch's statements that the state would lose energy-efficiency money without benefiting ratepayers.

He added, 'Is that the path we want to go down, that you're no longer regulating a major pollutant in New Hampshire?'

Kindergarten

The House killed a bill that would have repealed the requirement that school districts offer public kindergarten.

'I believe most of us do agree the mandate for public kindergarten was probably unconstitutional and wouldn't be mandated if it came today,' said Rep. Ralph Boehm, a Litchfield Republican and vice chairman of the House Education Committee.

But at the same time, Boehm said, all of the state's school districts now offer kindergarten.

'Removing the mandate wouldn't change the result,' he said. 'I know of no town that would do away with public kindergarten.'

In a vote of 213-134 to kill the bill, every Democrat but one opposed the bill, while Republicans were split.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Maltz, a Hudson Republican, who argued that the mandate to provide kindergarten is unconstitutional because the state does not fully fund it. Kindergarten was added to the state's definition of an 'adequate education' in 2007, and the last communities were required to add kindergarten by 2009.

Supporters of the bill argued that the decision to have kindergarten should be a matter of local control.

'It's a fundamental part of our Republican platform that we support local control of schools because clearly the people running those schools know at least as much about education as we do,' said Rep. J.R. Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican. 'If we create a system where every school in the state must be uniform, we have eliminated the possibly for experimentation.'

Hoell said each school district should be allowed to set its own policies.

'The (districts) that excel will be copied, and the ones that fail will be replaced, and that is how improvement is made,' Hoell said.

But Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Concord Democrat, cited studies showing the economic and educational benefits of offering public kindergarten. In 1990, Gile said the city of Laconia cut kindergarten in a budget crisis. A class that went without kindergarten consistently had lower grades and needed more individual attention in future years than classes that came before or after it, she said.

In addition, Gile said, if the bill passes, districts that want to retain kindergarten would lose state money to support it.

'Local property taxes could soar,' she said.

Boehm said the bill would also be unfair, since school districts who accepted a higher level of construction aid that the state earmarked for use for kindergarten would now be able to use those classrooms for nonkindergarten classes.

Other business

Another bill that gained significant attention from the public would have forced state retirees to pay more for their medical benefits. The bill would shift an additional $10 million in state costs to the retirees, with the amount the retiree has to pay depending on the amount of his or her pension benefits. At least a dozen state retirees handed out fliers yesterday with the heading 'promises,' arguing that the health benefits were promised to them while they were working.

'It takes quite a bite out of retirees,' said Thea Aloise, a 66-year-old former stock clerk for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Aloise said her husband is disabled.

'If I have to pay up for my health insurance, we'd practically have to go for assistance,' she said.

The House voted to send the bill back to the committee for more work.

In other business, the House overturned the recommendation of the Environment and Agriculture Committee to put $2.5 million into an emergency relief fund for milk producers. Supporters of the bill said it would help struggling farmers in an industry where the federal government sets milk prices. But opponents, who rejected the committee's recommendation in a 112-239 vote, said the state does not have extra money to spend. They said the bill is a way for government to redistribute wealth and bail out one industry.

The House also passed a bill establishing a committee to review state participation in federal grant-in-aid programs, which send federal money to the state for specific programs.

The bill declares unconstitutional any grants relating to matters 'not included among the defined powers of the federal government.' Republicans supporting the bill said it would stop federal encroachment on state affairs. Opponents said cities and towns would lose federal money, and the committee would be a waste of time and resources.