Capital Comments: Pace Picks Up for State Senate

By State Senator Bob Odell

The pace of activity in the State Senate has been gradually picking up steam.

Our last session ran five hours and we dealt with over 40 bills.  And then any Senate bill that has a fiscal note indicting it could have an impact on the budget and state spending had to be out of committee by Thursday afternoon.  That allows those bills to go to the Senate floor and if passed then be referred to the Finance Committee to assess financial implications.

This is one of those New Hampshire legislative rules that really works.  I often wonder if Congress could benefit from the simple rules and deadlines that seem to insure that we get our work done on time.

There are consequences, of course, of these deadlines.  The 7-member Ways and Means Committee had to meet after our session and go past the normal work day.  We went into executive session, the term used for the process when the committee discusses each bill, possibly accepting amendments and finally voting on recommendations of ought to pass, inexpedient to legislate (kill the bill), send to study (kills the bill) or pass with amendment.

The audience at executive sessions is largely made up of lobbyists, agency officials and staff.  There is no testimony taken but committee members may ask questions of the people in the audience.  No minutes of the discussion are kept, but there are detailed records kept of motions made, votes cast and amendments offered.

*   *   *

The Ways and Means took up 13 bills at our executive session.  Given that the committee deals with revenue and tax legislation, the bills are often quite technical.

One bill, Senate Bill 351, was brought forward to exempt dairy farmers from paying the business profits tax on the sale of cattle.  It seems years ago the Department of Revenue Administration determined the proceeds from the sale cull cattle, animals which are not productive and are ready for salvage, were not taxable.  More recently, auditors have tried to assess the business profits tax on these sales.

The committee wanted to help the dairy farmers and the legislation would exempt them from the profits tax on cattle sales.  But doing so would likely violate the state’s constitution which insures that all taxpayers are treated equally.

The solution came after the Commissioner of the Department of Revenue Administration, Kevin Clougherty, met with Lorraine Merrill, the agriculture commissioner, to work out an arrangement.   A simple letter from the Commissioner Clougherty to me as chair of the Ways and Means Committee stating that going forward cull cattle would not be considered an asset for the purposes of applying the business profits tax to dairy farmers.

With the letter in hand, the committee voted the bill inexpedient to legislate as the purpose of the legislation had been accomplished and the bill was no longer necessary.

Sounds complicated and it can be, but that is an example of discussions that surrounds many bills.

*   *   *

Altria, at $23.6 billion in sales, it is the largest tobacco company which many of us think of as the old Phillip Morris cigarette company.  The company has been pushing Senate Bill 498 which would change the way we tax cans of smokeless tobacco like their Copenhagen and Skoal brands.  Their lobbyists suggested that by taxing by weight instead of by adding our percentage tax at the wholesale level New Hampshire would get more money.

The Ways and Means Committee did fall for that line recognizing that our current tax structure works and that prices will rise which will increase our tax revenue.  In truth, and acknowledged by Phillip Morris lobbyists and their opponents from Reynolds Tobacco, this is a market share battle between America’s two major tobacco companies. The vote was 7-0 to kill the bill.

*   *   *

The committee voted against the repeal of the changes to apply the interest and dividends tax to some limited liability corporations (SB 473) but voted in favor of making changes to the law that has wide support in the business community (SB 497).  The committee also voted to repeal the meals and rooms tax on campsites (SB 474).

*   *   *

This is the tenth year the State Senate has hosted Read Across America sponsored by the National Education Association.  It is always held around the birthday of Dr. Seuss

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