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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Pre-buy bargain pulled from fire

Telegraph Editorial

If New Hampshire lawmakers had failed to agree on legislation increasing protections for people purchasing pre-buy home heating oil contracts, vulnerable consumers could have thanked Bedford Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn for sandbagging House Bill 1282.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise Friday that clears the way for the bill to become law. But how the compromise evolved says a lot about the legislative process and perhaps helps explain why public trust in government is so tepid. ...

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If New Hampshire lawmakers had failed to agree on legislation increasing protections for people purchasing pre-buy home heating oil contracts, vulnerable consumers could have thanked Bedford Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn for sandbagging House Bill 1282.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise Friday that clears the way for the bill to become law. But how the compromise evolved says a lot about the legislative process and perhaps helps explain why public trust in government is so tepid.

After passing the House by a strong 128-vote margin in March, the bill moved to the Senate. There, after a couple of small changes, it got a thumbs up from the Commerce Committee. All looked good until it hit the Senate floor on May 15.

That’s where Sanborn staged his ambush by introducing a non-germane amendment to pay out “settlement agreement moneys to towns affected by the Merrimack River flood control compact.”

What? Since when do flood-control settlements have anything to do with protecting consumers purchasing home heating fuel pre-buy contracts?

When a frustrated lawmaker seeks to resurrect pet legislation others have rejected, that’s when.

Without getting too deep into the boring details, Massachusetts has paid New Hampshire $1.1 million to compensate towns in the Merrimack River flood-control compact for lost tax revenues. The state – surprise, surprise – has kept the money to help balance the budget.

This legislative session Sanborn sponsored Senate Bill 360 which would have forced the state to release the $1.1 million to the affected communities. The bill breezed through the Senate, but ran into trouble in the House, where it died.

That left Sanborn in search of just the right House bill to which he could attach his flood control measure – one so coveted by House members that they’d accept the unwanted changes. His floor amendment to the home heating bill – which was really SB 360 in disguise – was endorsed by the Senate on a voice vote. So much for accountability.

A House and Senate conference committee met Thursday to resolve the differences in the two versions of the pre-buy bill and came up empty. Senators refused to remove the revenue reimbursement amendment, while representatives maintained the state needed the $1.1 million to balance the budget.

During the discussion, Sanborn accused the state of holding Merrimack River flood communities “hostage” by not releasing the money. “This continues to show the state is not complying with its law and keeping its word,” he said.

If anyone was being held hostage, it was the people of New Hampshire who were at risk of being denied much-needed consumer protection reforms because of Sanborn’s actions.

This is not to say Sen. Sandorn doesn’t have a point. The million bucks the state is holding should be distributed to the towns that deserve it. But the underhanded nature of slipping an unrelated, stroke-of-midnight “amendment” into a popular piece of legislation emits a tawdry stench..

We’re not naive. We know this stuff goes on all the time at the Statehouse. But that doesn’t make it right. And there is something particularly offensive when the original legislation being held captive protects hard-working residents from possible financial and physical harm if home heating fuel companies don’t make good on their promises.

Machinations like these undermine public faith in government.

All is not lost. The conferees met again Friday and found common ground. The towns in question will get about half the money they’re owed and consumers will be a little safer when pre-buying home heating fuel.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were quick to congratulate themselves for doing such a great job. But, upon reflection, is all well just because it ended well?