The end of session committees of conference process can be rough and tumble business. Or, it can be so collegial and low key that a conference committee meeting feels like a chat amongst friends. You never know.
Everyone, however, did know the deadline: 4 p.m. last Thursday afternoon to "sign off" on all reports coming out of committees of conference.
There were about 70 bills that went through the committees of conference process where House and Senate conferees try to work out the differences between each body’s version of the same bill. Agreement could not be found on 14 bills and they died.
I served on a dozen committees over the week leading up to Thursday’s deadline. Here’s how three of them went:
The notice told you that the committee of conference for House Bill 388 would start at two o’clock last Tuesday and the conference on House Bill 1346 would start 30 minutes later.
The prime sponsors of both bills were House members so the House was in charge of organizing the conference. The bills had been passed in the House, amended in the Senate, and the House called for conference committees.
Representative Jim Garrity (Atkinson) led the conferences as he is chair of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee. Three other House members were on the committees, too. As chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I was on the conference along with two committee colleagues.
House Bill 388 deals with having providers of voice-over-the-internet-protocol services collect the E-911 surcharges they already collect from landline and cell phone customers. The House had called for a committee of conference just to give their members time to review the changes made in the Senate. Chairman Garrity announced the House was fine with the Senate changes. The meeting took five minutes. That one was a breeze.
As with all other committees of conference, when there is agreement, the chair writes a brief report on the committees’ decision. Each committee member then must "sign off" on the report. If one person fails to sign off, the bill dies. At times, to get the report completed the House Speaker or Senate President will replace a member who does not want to sign off and replace the legislator with another who will sign off.
House Bill 1346 will permit owners to hire PSNH approved contractors to build line extensions on their private property. Currently, Public Service of New Hampshire requires that only PSNH crews may do the work.
The House called for a committee of conference to see if the Senate would agree to add seven words to the bill to make sure contractors could do line extensions for businesses and commercial properties as well as residences. The Senate agreed and the conference was over. It took about 10 minutes. It was another easy one.
I have been working with the Department of Environmental Services and stakeholders for a long time to put in place a process so that development projects requiring two or more permits can be expedited. DES Commissioner Burack and I met in the fall of 2010 and decided on an approach. I introduced a bill, Senate Bill 142, that was a placeholder for the idea of speeding up permitting.
This year DES came forward with language to accomplish the goals we wanted to achieve. My original bill was amended with the DES language and passed the Senate. The House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee amended the bill once again. When the bill went to the House floor, Representative Neal Kurk (Weare) asked the House to add a non-germane amendment to the bill. The amendment would make it easier for the Department of Health and Human Services to go outside our regional mental health agencies to contract for services.
The department said it needed the amendment to push agencies currently providing services to come to the table to get new contracts for work the department is required to provide. The department also wants to be sure the mental health agencies will cooperate with the three companies that are implementing a managed care system for the state’s Medicaid program by year end.
I chaired the committee of conference. There was a general agreement on some new language that would help protect the regional mental health agencies like West Central Services and Riverbend, but there was still some uncertainty about the impact from the department’s amendment. HHHS has been successfully contracting with the mental health agencies for 26 years and some of us wondered why the legislature should be intruding in the negotiating process now.
In the end, the committee of conference voted to support a revised amendment. Then it was time to sign off on the report from the committee. Senators in the majority and minority caucuses were expressing concern about the amendment and how it would affect their local mental health agencies.
The four House conferees signed off on the committee report, and Senator Chuck Morse (Salem) did too. But Senator Amanda Merrill (Durham), a member of the minority caucus and I did not sign off on the report. Senate President Peter Bragdon (Milford), by prior agreement, did not replace us. And with that my original permitting bill died along with the HHS amendment. It was probably the right decision. That was a tougher committee of conference.