Our weekly Senate session on Wednesday ran late as Senators cobbled together an amendment to allow towns and school districts to hold special meetings on short notice to accept stimulus money. That might sound easy but towns which operate with traditional town meeting forms of government are quite different from SB 2 towns where there is a deliberative session followed by voters going to polls to vote on the issues before them.
Senators were delayed for nearly an hour for a reception hosted by the Governor in their honor at Bridges House. But everyone agreed, the resulting bill with the new amendment should meet the needs of towns and help insure that they can respond should federal stimulus money be made available to them.
Cities, through city councils or boards of aldermen, operate under different statutory ground rules than do towns so cities will be able to accept stimulus money without any change in law.
Everyone is looking for opportunities to reel-in money from the stimulus package. On Thursday, the Commissioner of the Department of Employment Security reported to a joint meeting of the Senate Finance and Ways and Means Committees that the state had already qualified for a $10 million addition to our unemployment trust fund. But, Senators were surprised to hear, if we tweak our current laws relative to unemployment benefits for spouses of employees who have to move out of state and some tied to military moves, the state could qualify for an additional $20 million for the trust fund. That would mean for a maximum of 100 newly eligible unemployed, the state would generate more than a million dollars annually in interest that would easily cover the benefits cost involved. By Friday afternoon, legislation was drafted so it can go before the Senate at our next session on March 4th.
The Senate Energy, Environment and Economic Development Committee met in an early morning session and again in a special afternoon meeting on Thursday to take up seven bills. There were two bills dealing with implementation and changes to the Comprehensive Shoreline Protection Act (SB 134, SB 139) which went into effect last July, another to create the Coastal Watershed Alliance (SB 168) and one on the permitting of mines (SB166). They were unique because no stimulus money is involved.
The bill (SB 159) to establish a director of broadband planning and development is tied directly to the federal money. Everyone sees the need for the state to get serious about expanding broadband access in every area of the state but it is difficult to justify a new position as you are eliminating about 700 state employees in the budget process. So, simply said, there will be no new broadband position unless we get federal money to pay for it. That was done by amending the original bill.
The committee chair, Senator Fuller Clark (Portsmouth), has authored a bill (SB 73) to require state departments to reduce energy consumption and to make an annual report on their energy reduction efforts. This obviously would create a new administrative burden on the departments, and given the tight budget constraints, what do you do with the chair's bill which has obvious merit? The answer: you recess the bill until our next committee meeting on March 5. In the interim, researchers will be looking for federal stimulus money to implement the proposed energy consumption program. No money, no program.
The last bill (SB 164) has a price tag of $155 million and is dependent upon about half of that coming from "new or existing federally funded renewable power programs." There is potential for biomass and wind power generation in the north country but the transmission lines from there to the southern part of the state where most electric power is consumed cannot handle very much added load. To upgrade and expand the transmission capacity would cost $155 million. But who will pay for that and who will guarantee that there will be new renewable power generators to use the new transmission capacity. It is an issue a little too big for an hour session of our committee. Some optimistically feel the "stars are lining up for this project" given the commitment of the new president to increase America's use of renewable power. This is also a long term project requiring years of planning, engineering and construction.
Whether you agree with the stimulus program or not, it is the law and money will be flowing to every area of the country. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is over 1,000 pages and every page raises someone's hope or expectation of getting money for their good purpose. It is complicated and confusing with major questions ahead on what does and what does not qualify for funding. And the new law has certainly added a new and important consideration to the legislative process in Concord.
You can look at the stimulus plan at www.recovery.gov.
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