NASHUA BULLETIN                          February 062015


Welcome to the Chamber's weekly legislative newsletter, The Advocate!  With the start of the new year comes the start of NH's state legislative session.  For those of you who have been active with our Chamber for a while, you already know to expect this legislative newsletter in your inbox each week. It provides a recap of what happened in Concord each week, and previews what is coming up in the following week that pertains to various business interests. We hope you find this weekly publication informative, and a great way to stay attuned to what is happening in Concord that impacts southern NH's business community!


Rail Study Committee Recommends Nashua to Manchester Line

The big news of this week happened on Tuesday, when Governor Hassan released the long-awaited recommendations of the Capital Corridor Rail Study, and announced as the most cost-effective option the idea of extending commuter rail from Lowell through Nashua and up to Manchester.  At the press conference to announce the recommendations of the Study Committee, Chamber President/CEO Chris Williams spoke on behalf of the Chamber and reminded those in attendance of the importance of commuter rail not simply to just the Nashua region, but to the whole state.  As Chris said, since Nashua and Manchester constitute the main economic engine for the whole state, then whatever serves to ignite the economy of our region is something that is also directly beneficial to other parts of New Hampshire.


We know this is a controversial issue, and the Committee's report sparked a number of editorial counter-arguments based on the contention that this is not a wise approach financially. We are happy to have that debate.  It is time to start thinking outside the box, and to play offense instead of defense (with all due respect to Malcolm Butler!). Let's not have New Hampshire be the place where people can say, as Mayor Donnalee Lozeau put it at the press conference, "Everything happens everywhere but here."


The fact that rail presents potential financial challenges should not mean that the potential financial advantages should be simply turned aside. There are already some interesting ideas being pursued as to how rail would be funded and maintained, and that is why the Chamber supports SB 88, Senator Betty Lasky's legislation to study public-private partnerships to fund intermodal transportation (that bill came out of the Senate Transportation Committee with a unanimous recommendation that it should pass, and it has indeed now passed the Senate as one of the first bills that the Senate is sending over to the House.) Rest assured that the Chamber is going to continue its work to move this issue along. 


Worker's Compensation Debate Opens (HB 477)

One of the most controversial issues being taken up by the Legislature this session is whether the state should establish a fee schedule for workers' compensation. On Tuesday, the House Labor Committee held a hearing on HB 477, a bill filed by Brookline Representative Jack Flanagan, the House Majority Leader. HB 477 would cap workers' comp medical fees at 150% of Medicare. The bill also would increase (from 60% to just over 66%) the level of workers' comp indemnity payments. This bill, along with a Senate fee schedule measure that has been introduced by Senator Gary Daniels, are the two main workers' comp bills being considered this session, and there are various segments of the business community arrayed on different sides of the issue.


The coalition in favor of the bill includes organizations like the New Hampshire Auto Dealers Association, the Retail Grocers Association and the New Hampshire Truckers Association.  Their argument is centered on the difference between the fees that health care providers charge for workers' comp services and the lower fees they charge for the same types of services outside of workers' comp. They see a fee schedule as a way to reduce workers' comp costs.


On the other side of the fence are health care providers, like the New Hampshire Hospital Association, the New Hampshire Medical Society, and sports medicine & physical therapist groups.  They argue that there should be no price-fixing and that a state-mandated fee schedule will have negative consequences that would limit the options that workers have, because states with fee schedules have seen delays in the time it takes for an injured employee to get care. They urge the Committee to focus on the fact that the current system has been successful in getting people back to work as quickly as possible (this aspect of the dispute also brought in labor advocates on the side of the health care providers in opposition to the bill).


Where does this one end up?  You can expect that there will be a lot of push from the House and Senate to try to get the two sides to reach some sort of a workable compromise here. The Labor Committee is due to vote this coming week. 


BET Tax for Non-Profits? (HB 569)

Last week we talked about old chestnuts falling off the trees, and here is another one of those, one which we are hoping does not hit our non-profit members in the head.  Representative David Hess has resurrected his proposal to tax certain non-profits under the Business Enterprise Tax.


In his testimony before the House Ways & Means Committee, the always genial Rep. Hess made his pitch that non-profit entities "which walk like businesses and talk like businesses should be taxed like businesses". Thus, HB 569 makes certain nonprofits liable for the BET, and at the same time reduces the BET on all businesses (Rep. Hess noted that although he wants this bill to be revenue neutral, some of the co-sponsors of the bill want to use this measure as a means of increasing revenue for the state.)


Rep. Bill Ohm of Nashua came in to testify in opposition to the bill. He asked the Committee to maintain the exemption for entities like the Hunt Home that provide a valuable service for the state.


And of course there were many representatives of charitable entities that were present to testify in opposition to the bill (as old friend Kevin Landrigan put it in the photo he tweeted a little while ago, when Rep. Hess was testifying he was literally "surrounded by foes of his plan"). The first of those opponents called to testify was Tom Blonski, the head of NH Catholic Charities. Blonski said that this bill would cover NHCC services such as the NH Food Bank and the NHCC nursing homes, and that for them this would be a brand new tax. Thomas Galligan, the President of Colby-Sawyer College, spoke in opposition on behalf of higher education, and urged the Committee not to take action that will increase their costs (Sr. Paula Marie-Buley, the President of Rivier College, also was in attendance). Similar testimony came from hospitals and home care providers.


We'll probably have more to report on this one next week.


Public Utilities Commission Briefs Senate Energy on New England Energy Infrastructure

On Wednesday, the Senate Energy Committee had a briefing from Commissioner Robert Scott of the Public Utilities Commission on the subject of energy infrastructure issues.  As you will remember, one of the takeaways from the Greater Nashua Chamber's 2015 Legislative Symposium was that the high cost of energy must be viewed as one of the top legislative priorities for 2015.  (You knew that, anyway).


According to Commissioner Scott, the top priority for New Hampshire must be fuel assurance. He told the Committee that the limitations on our access to natural gas meant that as a region we incurred $3 billion in additional energy costs last winter. He calculates New Hampshire's share of that extra cost to have been the equivalent of about $.023 per kilowatt hour (or about $278 million of the $3 billion.)


The Committee has requested the PUC to return in a few weeks to provide further updates.


Things Settling Down In House

Finally, we want to note that Wednesday's House session marked the first day of regular House business on bills this year, and thus it was the first of the regular session days since Representative Shawn Jasper of Hudson was elected Speaker.  As you will remember, Representative Bill O'Brien was the choice of the Republican caucus in the run-up to this year's election for Speaker, and legislators loyal to Representative O'Brien made no secret of their anger that Representative Jasper had put himself forward as a candidate at the eleventh hour. In the days following the new Speaker's election, the O'Brien forces announced that they were going to establish what amounted to a shadow House Republican leadership, complete with its own offices on Main Street in Concord.


But despite the sound and fury that surrounded Speaker Jasper's victory, things have begun to settle down noticeably in the House.  The Jasper team, which is heavy on House veterans, has engineered a smooth transition and exhibited a firm grasp of how the House works (and, perhaps more importantly, how the House should work.) Given how chaotic the weeks after the election seemed to be, it is no small thing that Wednesday's session seemed to be short on angst and that the House appears to have gotten down to business.


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