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House votes for access to sealed bids

'Prison panel's life, oversight extended'

The House voted yesterday to continue a legislative committee overseeing the privatization of the state's prisons and to give it what critics say is inappropriate access to sealed bids from companies who want the job.

The bill "creates the beginning of a slippery slope," said Rep. Robert Foose, a New London Democrat. "The committee is intruding itself on the work of the executive branch (by) gaining access in ways that are not done in any other purchasing processes" in the state.

Foose persuaded some but not most. The House voted 220-101 to give the committee greater access to bid information after being told by another lawmaker it was the only way to keep prison officials honest as the bids are evaluated.

The bill must go back to the Senate for a vote because the Senate's version did not grant the bid access; it only extended the committee's report deadline.

The House has until today to act on bills sent over from the Senate. Representatives made a decent dent in its work yesterday.

In addition to the privatization bill, it voted on bills dealing with medical malpractice lawsuits, lifting a tax on internet access and scaling back a regional cap-and-trade program.

The Legislature created a privatization committee of three House members and two senators last year to develop a plan for privatizing the state's prisons. Simultaneously, and under the orders from the Legislature and Gov. John Lynch, state officials requested bids for three prison projects: a men's prison, a women's prison and a hybrid of the two.

Those bids arrived recently but too late for the legislative committee to hear from state officials about the merits of the bids. Hence, the need to amend the committee's deadline.

The House Finance Committee added the language giving the committee its own access to those bids. Rep. William Belvin, an Amherst Republican, argued for it on the House floor yesterday.

"The Department of Corrections spends over $200 million of general fund money and is in need of reform," Belvin said. "If I know the (department) is less than enthusiastic about privatization, and if I know this amendment gives the Legislature the ability to form an independent judgment of evaluating privatization proposals, I would vote for this."

The House did.

 'Early offer' settlements

 

A pioneering "early offer" system for medical malpractice cases sailed through the House yesterday, touted as a way to reduce money and time spent in court.

Senate Bill 406 allows medical providers to offer compensation to victims of malpractice to avoid litigation, a proposal backed by hospitals and opposed by trial attorneys. Opponents say it could tip the scales against patients who request an early offer but decide it isn't enough, as the patient would then have to pay the medical provider's legal fees if they lose their case in court or the settlement ends up to be about what they would have initially received.

The bill, written in conjunction with a University of Virginia law school professor, passed with a veto-proof majority, just as a slightly different version did in the Senate. Colin Manning, spokesman for Lynch, said the governor "has concerns about the bill."

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, a Salem Republican, called the bill a "win-win for all involved." House Speaker Bill O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican, said in a statement the bill "allows malpractice victims a route to find resolution quickly, if they so choose, and be able to move on with their lives."

"By establishing an optional process for victims of medical injury to pursue their claim without having to go through lengthy and expensive litigation, we can reduce the uncertainty for both patients and providers, which in turn will lower health care costs for consumers," O'Brien said.

 Internet access tax

 

It turns out the House is on board with banning a tax on internet access after all.

Last week, with relations strained between the House and Senate, the House responded to the Senate tabling several of its bills by killing the Senate's repeal of the internet access tax. But a House committee later attached the internet tax ban onto a Senate bill on dredging permit fees.

Yesterday, the House voted 245-80 to pass the dredging bill, with the tax ban included.

"Eliminating the tax on the internet will put money into the pockets of New Hampshire's working families," Bettencourt said in a statement. "At a time when we are still facing a difficult recovery in our economy, this is a step that will provide relief and encourage more individuals to get connected online and have access to all the advantages of the information on the web."

Opponents of the tax ban said the state could not afford the loss of revenue, estimated at $6 million annually.

 RGGI

 

Whether Republicans in the House and Senate can finally agree on what to do with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is still an open question.

The House voted yesterday not to concur with a Senate bill weakening the carbon cap-and-trade program's impact in New Hampshire and instead sent the bill to a committee of conference where leaders from both chambers will try to come to a compromise. Last year, a committee of conference on the RGGI issue ended abruptly when House negotiators said they wouldn't accept anything less than the state's complete withdrawal from the program, which doesn't have enough support in the Senate to override the governor's promised veto.

This time, the House leaders say they're willing to listen to what the Senate brings to the table. Supporters of RGGI say the program is working by creating revenue for energy efficiency projects in the state as it strives to reduce power plants' carbon emissions by 10 percent by 2018.

Republicans say it acts as a tax on power producers passed down to consumers.

Environment New Hampshire, a group committed to keeping RGGI in New Hampshire, cautiously applauded the House vote yesterday as a sign a deal might not get done.

"We shouldn't be rolling back a program that is working to lower our energy bills, keep energy dollars in our state, and reduce pollution," said Jessica O'Hare, a group spokeswoman.

 Medical marijuana

 

The House ignored a veto promise and passed a bill to legalize home cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes.

The vote sends the bill back to the Senate to review changes. The Senate-passed bill would allow patients with debilitating medical conditions or the patient's designated caretaker to cultivate and possess up to 6 ounces of marijuana, four mature plants and 12 seedlings at a registered location.

Lynch has promised to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. He is concerned about a lack of control over distribution.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309, mspolar@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @mattspolar. Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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