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State House Memo: A big, quiet bill becomes a law

This is the story of just one of the 900-plus bills that came before the New Hampshire Legislature this year.

It’s a bill that didn’t make headlines as it passed through the legislative process and that probably won’t be the subject of campaign ads. But it’s a bill that makes a difference. A bill that improves how state government works, saves money and supports thoughtful energy development, while safeguarding our natural, historic, and aesthetic resources.

Senate Bill 245 was inspired by a legislative study focused on the role of the Site Evaluation Committee, a committee of 17 state officials established in 1991 to review proposals for new energy facilities. The SEC acts on applications for power plants, gas pipelines, transmission lines, wind farms and other renewable energy projects. The volume of applications has increased from one a year to nine in 2014.

There was widespread agreement among study participants that the current SEC process was “unsustainable” – too large a committee, taking up valuable state agency time and financial resources. There was broad support for increasing public participation in siting decisions, and finally, many participants believed that the criteria used to make siting decisions needed to be expanded and clarified.

Coming close on the heels of the release of the study, the bill as introduced was bare-boned. In the Senate, a group of stakeholders came together to put meat on the bones. This group included legislators, state agency personnel, environmentalists, community activists, energy developers, labor and the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association.

The issues they grappled with were political, legal, technical and financial. After intense discussions, a bill evolved that most stakeholders could support. The proposal called for a SEC that was more efficient in its use of state agency resources, while adding public members to the SEC and providing more information to potential host communities. It also clarified the economic, environmental and aesthetic factors to be considered by the SEC in making decisions about energy project siting. With a unanimous vote, the Senate sent the bill to the House.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, when the bill came to the House. At the same time, however, we all agreed that there were some technical issues to be resolved, particularly how to fund the SEC.

Rep. Amanda Merrill, a Durham Democrat, volunteered to oversee the bill once it came to us. Nobody could have been better for the job. A former and highly respected member of the Senate, Merrill is detail conscious and an excellent listener. She was extremely careful to continue to involve all stakeholders in the process, up to 25 people in the room at the same time.

As chairman of the Science, Technology and Energy Committee, I can say that through the thoughtful attention of my committee, the invaluable assistance of staff and the continued work of stakeholders, we smoothed out the rough edges of SB 245 and added a number of reforms that increased the efficiency and responsiveness of the SEC.

The skilled and patient members of the House Finance committee added the final, critical pieces to the bill. With the contributions of so many, the bill then passed through the House with the support of representatives from the widest possible political spectrum. The Senate agreed to our amendments.

What does all this mean? It means that the SEC will work more efficiently and with the closer involvement of New Hampshire residents and an updated set of decision-making criteria. A path to permanent staffing and funding for the SEC is established. And last, but far from least, we are reminded of what the Legislature does when it does its best work: bringing people together to address a problem, to compromise when necessary and to make things better going forward.

A near perfect SB 245 now goes to the governor for her signature.

(Rep. David Borden is a Democrat from New Castle.)

Sounds like rational energy planning is DOA in NH.

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