Driving to Concord for this year's first day of committee hearings, I looked forward to a short and pretty casual meeting of the Senate Energy, Environment and Economic Development Committee. After all, there was just one bill (SB 73), held over from last year, to be heard and it related to an annual report on the state’s efforts to reduce energy consumption.
My plans were shattered when Gail Brown, my assistant passed along an email that said that after the public hearing on SB 73 the committee would hold a public information session on a bill that had not formally emerged from the drafting process. I was surprised that I did not know about the planned session. I was told it was listed in our weekly calendar. And so it was but not in the usual section. It was listed with the "notices," between information on filing our annual financial disclosure form and an invitation to attend a cocktail party hosted by a lobby firm after our January 6 legislative session. Easy to miss.
The subject of the information session was a change to the systems benefit charge but because the Senate had not yet met in 2010, a new bill could not be heard at a public hearing … on at an information session. The bill, which would become Senate Bill 300, sends $5 million over the next 18 month to low income families to reduce their electric bills.
The bill had bipartisan support including co-sponsorship by the Minority Leader, Peter Bragdon (Milford), so there was no question about the merits of the bill. There are approximately 30,000 families who receive discounts on their electric bills now. The discount, based on family income and size of family, can be as low as 5 percent up to 70 percent off a monthly electric bill. With the recession and increased unemployment, there is a wait list of an additional 8,000 to 9,000 families who qualify for assistance.
All electric consumers pay the systems benefits charge. For residential customers, it amounts to just under $20 per year. This program started about ten years ago with some of the money going to energy efficiency grants to businesses, residential consumers and public institutions. A lesser amount goes to the low income assistance program. SB 300 would reduce the amount going to energy efficiency and increase the amount going to the low income program.
The Senate majority planned to fast track the bill to get money flowing quickly to families on the wait list. There were two problems: first, there was unexpected opposition from some in the conservation community who felt the reduction in money going to energy efficiency and essentially sending it to the low income families was a poor long term investment; secondly, although assured that even if the Senate did not have time for a public hearing, the House would hold a public hearing on the bill. The latter turned out to be untrue.
In the end, the motion to suspend the rules failed. And while Senators see the need and want to eliminate the wait list, it decided to stick with the tried and true public hearing process.
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At the beginning of each Senate session, Senators are invited to introduce sports teams, community leaders and others visiting the chamber. Last week, the day could have been called "Helen Schotanus Day" as Senator Matt Houde (Plainfield) called Helen to the dais to be recognized by the Senate for her years of service to public education. Helen, a Grantham resident, is retiring after 38 years in education including 24 years at the Department of Education.
Helen retires having fought since 1986 to insure that every child in New Hampshire has the opportunity to attend a public kindergarten. When New Hampshire made kindergarten a part of the definition of an adequate education a couple of years ago, the few remaining school districts without public kindergarten were required to provide it. For those of us who place a high value on kindergarten, we can thank Helen Schotanus for her dedication and determination that today makes kindergarten available to every public school student. It is a remarkable milestone.
Congratulations and a hearty thank you to Helen for all of her years of outstanding service.
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The Kearsarge Community Presbyterian Church was filled for the Eagle Scout Court of Honor for Jesse Smerald. Jesse has moved up to the highest rank in scouting and was recognized for his leadership in scouting and for his Eagle Scout project which included working with the New London Recreation Department and Conservation Commission to improve wilderness trails in his town. A fourth generation scout, Jesse has earned his recognition and our congratulations for his achievements.
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