We all value our American democracy. But sometimes I doubt we see the connection between the ideals of democracy and the day to day activities of our governments.
Scholars often cite our unique northern New England town meetings as the "purest form of democracy." It certainly felt that way at our recent Goshen-Lempster Cooperative School district meeting and my Lempster town meeting. Both brought about debates on key issues and many expressing concern about the declining economy and high unemployment and the impact of local government and school spending on struggling families. Neighbors and townsfolk coming together and openly talking and then voting is a sign of healthy democracies in our towns.
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One essential of a healthy democracy is for the citizen to have the freedom to petition government officials. That opportunity was brought to Claremont when as one paper put it "hundreds turn out." Another paper estimated the crowd at 350. They were turning out for a joint meeting of the House Finance and Ways and Means Committees to get input on the state budget for the next two years.
When I walked into River Valley Community College I knew it was a special night. There were town and city officials, social service agency representatives, citizens speaking for themselves as well spokespersons for major regional institutions like Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. The members of the two committees that will write the budget from the House perspective got an earful from the speakers. Health care, the arts, municipalities and every other endeavor impacted by the state budget has a stake in being heard as the state’s finances are being put in place for the next biennium. Speakers had their chance to tell their story, often very personal ones, about what government cuts would mean to them. And it was all done publicly with no one excluded who wished to speak.
As speakers were being heard, there was, of course, a clear understanding: first, New Hampshire state government is going to be smaller in the next two years … expenditures will be less than in the current biennium, and secondly, worthy, deserving programs, institutions and governmental agencies are in competition for very, very scare dollars. A similar hearing was held earlier in the week in Salem with over 200 in attendance and another one is scheduled for tonight in Whitefield. In New Hampshire, we place a premium on having our elected officials accessible to every citizen.
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More than 200 union workers wearing bright lime green tee shirts with the slogan, Don’t Scrub Our Jobs, were among the crowd of 300-400 who attended a nearly eight hour public hearing on Senate Bill 152. The bill would have the Public Utilities Commission conduct a 90-day review of costs associated with a new scrubber at Public Service of New Hampshire’s Merrimack Station power plant.
A benefit of serving in the legislature for a few terms is that you build up some institutional memory. The Energy, Environment and Economic Development Committee heard the testimony on the bill. I am serving on the committee for my fourth term having chaired the committee during my first two terms. I am the only current committee member who was on the committee when the legislature passed a law in 2006 mandating PSNH to install a scrubber to reduce mercury emissions.
Those who favored the scrubber legislation at the time included the public health community, environmental groups, PSNH and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. At the recent hearing, some of those same groups were amongst the missing. Times and circumstances changed. A group of successful business people are leading a small group of less than 30 commercial ratepayers who have launched lawsuits and a lobbying and public relations campaign to pass SB 152.
It was interesting to have my Senate floor statements made three years ago used by opponents and proponents of the legislation to justify their position. What some have forgotten is that the goal of the scrubber is to reduce mercury emissions as quickly as possible. Mercury is emitted from coal fired plants and falls downwind of the plant site. This creates hot spots where mercury emissions are concentrated and especially affect the health of children and women of child bearing age. Nearly everyone in 2006, after months of work over two years, agreed this was the direction to go, even at a cost to rate payers of up to $250 million. The vote on the Senate floor, for example, was 22-2.
Now, costs have gone up 80% plus and the small group of commercial rate payers, although they deny it, are using SB 152 as a vehicle to delay or stop the installation of the scrubber. With no scrubber, there would be pressure to close Merrimack Station, PSNH’s largest facility, and force the company to buy power at high rates off the grid.
The legislature in 2006 told the company to install the scrubber. The company agreed and has been working on the project for three years spending over $200 million. Now the legislature is being pushed to backtrack on a major commitment to substantially reduce a major threat to public health in the impacted areas. And along the way, hundreds of jobs where "the shovel is already in the ground" are being threatened by possible delays. The workers don’t want the legislature to "scrub their jobs," and employing an old tradition of democracy, expressed their views to their government.
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