Sticking Points for Congressional Energy Conferees.

Thursday revealed major sticking points on Energy legislation during the opening meeting of the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the Energy Bill.

Those include: funding for infrastructure, drought and wildfire language, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who co-authored the Senate bill and serves as chair of the conference committee, urged conferees to “prove the skeptics wrong,” adding that her efforts to pass a bill had been “written off by every trade journal three or four times.”

The Senate passed its bill 85-12 in April, and the House passed an amended version 241-178. The House’s more partisan version included much of the House’s own language on energy efficiency, and it added provisions on contentious issues like the California drought and wildfire management.

The drought language would loosen some requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and the wildfire provision would expedite forest management projects. The provision on drought attracted a veto threat from the White House. The Obama administration also criticized the provision on wildfire but stopped short of a veto threat.

The Senate bill avoided those controversial topics because supporters knew that it would threaten their ability to pass the first update to the country’s energy policy since 2007.

Murkowski’s co-author, committee ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) also gave optimistic opening statements, praising some of the less controversial provisions rather than pushing on the controversial ones.

But the meeting, which allowed most of the 47 conferees to give brief statements, quickly shifted toward a few key issues where members have dug in their heels.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who had previously expressed his displeasure with both the House and Senate bills, reiterated that he wants to check off three boxes in the final conference report. Pallone wants the final legislation to invest in energy infrastructure, to focus on “direct benefits for consumers,” and to include action on climate change.

Pallone didn’t go into detail on the second and third demands, but he is already dissatisfied with the lack of infrastructure funds in both the House and Senate bills.

After the meeting, Murkowski made no promises, saying conferees would work through the infrastructure issues along with other disagreements.

A few natural resources and land management issues also present challenges. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) continued to call for measures addressing the California drought and wildfire management. Cantwell has said that those issues are important, but they should be left out of the energy bill because they’re too contentious to handle now.

The wildfire provision has some bipartisan support on the conference committee. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who is a conferee, voted for the measure as a standalone bill, and he briefly praised it in his statement on Thursday. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also encouraged members to include language on wildfire management, but he did not mention the House’s measure specifically. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the bill’s sponsor, is also a conferee.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is also a sticking point. The Senate bill would permanently reauthorize the fund, but Bishop has said that’s a non-starter without some changes that shift control from the federal government to states. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) emphasized her support for similar changes to the conservation fund. Wyden, meanwhile, called permanent reauthorization “a particularly valuable part of the Senate bill.”

Upton has already said he doesn’t think lawmakers will reach a deal before the election. At Thursday’s meeting, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) accused some House and Senate Democrats, without naming anyone in particular, of dragging their feet.

After the meeting, Murkowski said Barrasso is simply warning members and stakeholders that a new Congress means there will be a full reset on the bill. It would be a waste of the past year’s efforts not to pass something by December.

 

 

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Energy issues dominate the hearing schedule in Congress this week.

A House and Senate conference committee on comprehensive energy legislation is scheduled to meet formally for the first time on Thursday. Members will be working out the differences between their two versions of legislation that could be the first update to federal energy policy since 2007. The Senate passed its bill with overwhelming bipartisan support in April, while the House narrowly passed its own version of energy modernization legislation on a party-line vote, meaning there will be significant issues for the conference committee to work through this fall.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to review the Federal Power Act, particularly the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and electricity markets over the past 20 years.

There are two House Foreign Affairs hearings scheduled on Thursday afternoon that are focused on energy markets. The Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa will hold a joint hearing with the Energy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to discuss energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific is also scheduled to meet to discuss opportunities to advance U.S. energy policy in Asia, particularly the region’s dependence on liquefied natural gas from the United States and the economic and security interests involved.

On Friday morning, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets will hold an oversight hearing on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to the devastating flooding that occurred in Louisiana in August. The agency has approved more than $100 million in disaster relief grants for flood victims, but Congress may be asked to provide additional emergency funds to assist with the recovery effort.

While not Energy related per se., on Thursday, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will meet to discuss the Obama administration’s $400 million cash payment of U.S. taxpayer funds to Iran that has been linked to the release of several U.S. hostages. The payout has come under intense scrutiny, particularly from congressional Republicans. The hearing will focus on the $400 million cash payment and the implications on U.S. efforts to inhibit terrorism financing.

The Iran payout is also the subject of a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on the lack of transparency on money from the Judgment Fund, a permanent Treasury Department account used to pay judgments and claims against the United States.

Congress must plan for states to go insolvent.

A number of states, including large ones like New Jersey, Illinois, and Ohio, could become insolvent during the next decade.

These states are burdened with underfunded pensions and other post-retirement benefits (mainly health care) that will impose a growing burden on governments as more baby boomers retire. At the same time, the states’ ability to fund these pensions will be compromised by two factors. The first is a long-term fall in the labor participation rate, requiring younger workers to bear a heavier burden of funding legacy costs. The second is a decrease in long-term growth rates, which will cause both tax revenues and returns on pension investments to fall below expectations.

Reforms are needed to restore fiscal solvency.

It is not too early for Congress and the next president to start planning for a state to go insolvent. Both the Detroit and Puerto Rico bankruptcies were preceded by years of denial in the face of inevitable facts. Given the combination of high unfunded liabilities, slow growth, deadlocked politics and, in some cases, legal barriers to reform, some states are likely beyond the point of saving. Illinois is a good bet to go first, but five or 10 states are in similar positions.

One approach is for Congress to pass legislation dealing with the specific state involved. This need not be a bailout. In fact, a bailout would be extremely unwise. It would tax states that had managed their finances responsibly, reward unions and bondholders who had enabled poor government, and eliminate any pressure to deal with the problems early. However, the legislation must contain enough financial assistance to restore both short-term liquidity (the ability to pay bills now) and long-term solvency (the ability to stay afloat). This assistance need not cost the taxpayer much. Indeed a careful combination of loan guarantees conditioned on significant structural reforms may be all that is needed. This process would resemble that followed in New York City and Washington, D.C., both of which are widely regarded as successes.

A benefit of this approach is that it allows for continued financial supervision of the state’s finances, thus maximizing the chance of overcoming barriers to reform and ensuring a return to long-term solvency.

A large problem with this approach is that it may not be able to reduce the state’s debt burden. Congress’ ability to erase debts may be limited legally to the formal bankruptcy process. Although governments may use a combination of economic and legal pressure to encourage creditors to settle their claims for less than par, it would have a much more difficult time forcing holdouts to accept losses. In such circumstances, it could be that the political and economic burdens of making all creditors whole are just too great outside of the bankruptcy process.

The odds of a state becoming unable to pay its obligations grow every year. Many state retirement plans are significantly underfunded and are unlikely to meet their investment goals over the next decade. The financial demands on state budgets will increase significantly. At some point, making a concerted effort to catch up imposes too much political pain and only delays the inevitable. When the end game happens, it usually comes as a surprise to many.

Congress can nevertheless prepare for insolvency by choosing its strategy now. The ideal solution would treat holders of unsecured debt the same as unfunded pensions, it would impose enough losses to ensure that the state regained its financial solvency, and it would condition debt relief on significant reforms. Ideally, the process would be available long before a state technically became insolvent but after it was willing to make significant reforms. Unfortunately, political resistance and unrealistically exuberant projections may prevent a state from taking advantage of any solution before insolvency.

P3-friendly legislation taking root.

Recently NJ Senate President Sweeney opined the viability of Public-Private Partnerships.

Political and legislative support is also growing  in states that have already started implementing P3-friendly legislation as well as regulations to control the deliverability on partnership construction projects.

The recent Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act could be beneficial for the development of P3s, setting a positive trend in federal legislation.

A number of states have already taken steps to increase the possibilities for using public-private partnerships for transportation and construction projects.

In California, a recent transportation funding bill could set the stage for the Department of Transportation and regional transportation agencies to enter public-private partnerships for transportation projects beyond the current end date of Jan. 1, 2017. It also would allow the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority to use P3s for transportation projects. Bill AB-2742 was held in committee in the Assembly in May.

Louisiana Senate Bill 195 is about to allow the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enter into transportation projects P3s. In June, the governor signed the bill.

In Missouri, Senate Bill 861 would change the existing legislation to allow P3s for construction of public buildings, water facilities, waterways, water supply facilities or pipelines, wastewater or wastewater treatment facilities, and vehicle parking facilities. It does not include highway, interstate or bridge construction, but current legislation already allows for using P3s for pipelines, ferries, river ports, airports, railroads and light rail. The bill was signed by the governor in July.

New Hampshire Senate Bill 549 is another piece of legislation joining the trend. It is bound to allow the Department of Transportation to use public-private partnerships for intermodal infrastructure and transportation projects. This bill was also signed by the governor in June.

In the case of New Hampshire and other states, the new legislation also stipulates the creation of a Public-Private Partnership Infrastructure Oversight Commission. Its mission is to administer P3s, setting contract regulations and bidding criteria.

Thus far, it appears that most states are interested and willing to amend their legislation and to create a healthy environment for public-private partnerships. The trend of introducing regulatory changes is a natural step by state legislators to protect  citizens from unsuccessful P3s.

Two More States Edging Closer to Passing Transportation P3 Legislation

Bills making their way through state legislatures in Tennessee and Kentucky could allow governments in both states to begin developing transportation projects through public-private partnerships. Kentucky’s legislation would allow this procurement method to be used for other public projects as well.

Legislators in Nashville are considering SB 2093, which would authorize local and state governments to pursue P3s and give partners the power to seek loans, purchase rights of way and collect fees. The  bipartisan bill also permits developers to submit unsolicited proposals but includes a 90-day period during which other firms can submit competing proposals.

One project that could be built through a P3 is a $5.4 billion bus rapid transit line connecting Nashville and Clarksville, reported “The Tennessean”. Neither sources of funding nor proposed alternatives have been identified but legislation introduced last year that would allow the metropolitan transit system to charge customers a fuel tax to fund them will be considered this spring.

Kentucky is considering two identical bills that would permit state and local governments to use P3s develop capital projects, such as public roads, bridges and parks. Projects worth more than $25 million would require the General Assembly’s approval, reported CN׀2 Pure Politics.

HB 309 or SB 132 may stand a stronger chance of passing than a similar bill that then-Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed in 2014 because it called for the imposition of tolls to pay for the replacement of Brent Spence Bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio. The new legislation explicitly prohibits the imposition of tolls on interstate highway projects between the two states.

 

New Jersey Legislation & Regulation Watch For 2016

New Jersey’s weakened gaming industry, workforce pressures and vulnerable environment have driven legislative developments in recent months, giving interested folks plenty of pending bills to watch in 2016.

Atlantic City, the state’s only constitutionally-allowed gaming revenue resource, has suffered  from casino bankruptcies, closures and competition, driving lawmakers to consider tax incentives that would boost the resort town, along with a proposal to geographically expand the market share of casinos.

Casino employees, some of whom have gone on strike in the past year, represent just one industry characterized by a labor pool that wants a better work-life balance. Lawmakers have heeded their calls with legislation that has drawn objections from a recession weary business sector still struggling to cope with ongoing economic uncertainty.

On the natural resources front, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed changes to rules governing the state’s flood hazard areas have riled conservationists who fear the updates lessen protections and pander to developers.

Here’s a summary of critical legislation and regulation that could affect significant  New Jersey State changes in 2016:

Atlantic City Fiscal Recovery Package

Pinning their hopes on reviving Atlantic City, lawmakers are continuing to push a financial incentive package spearheaded by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and Sen. Jim Whalen, D-Atlantic.

Three of the bills have passed both houses of the Legislature as of the Assembly’s Dec. 17 voting session and are awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s signature. The anchor of the proposal, A3981, calls for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan to stabilize the town’s fiscal health.  A3984 would reallocate a casino tax that’s being used for redevelopment projects to help the city pay debt service on municipal bonds, and A3985 would drop a five-year obligation to use casino revenue for marketing purposes so those funds can be redirected to the city.

In November, Christie signed into law another part of the package, A3983, that would provide additional state money to the city’s struggling public schools, but implemented an  absolute veto to A3982, that would have required casinos to provide proof they are providing “suitable” health care and retirement benefits to employees.

Constitutional Amendment to Expand Gambling

Looking beyond Atlantic City, lawmakers are considering  advisiability of  casinos in the Meadowlands and the Monmouth Park racetrack.  Legislation would reverse the state’s constitutional restriction, and the topic could be left up to voters.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Dec. 17 approved Sweeney’s SCR185, that would pose the question of non-Atlantic City gaming in a public referendum next November, while the Assembly passed a twin version of the bill on to that house’s Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee.

The legislation would make for a “potentially huge” expansion of the New Jersey’s gaming industry, although the passage of a constitutional amendment is difficult to predict given the expected high turnout due to the presidential election.

Supporting New Jersey Families Act

Casino employees and the state’s labor force in general also stand to get a boost from pending legislation aiming to improve work-life balance and increase paid time off. Along with legislation that would help displaced casino workers prepare to re-enter the workplace, lawmakers are also considering a family-geared legislation package that was unveiled in May by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen. The Supporting New Jersey Families Act, which has yet to undergo committee review, would require employers in all industries to provide shift workers with predictable schedules and time off to attend school activities, expand state employee family leave privileges and establish a commission to do a gender pay disparity study. The bills have twin legislation in the Assembly.

The first prong of Weinberg’s package, the Schedules that Work Act, S2933, provides a private right of action for employees seeking to change their work schedules.

Paid Sick Leave

Among the most controversial legislatative actions are those advocating for employees is the proposed Paid Sick Leave Law, S785 and A2354, under which workers would get the better of five to nine sick days or more generous packages provided under local laws.

The Senate bill, also sponsored by Weinberg, got full approval in Dec. 17, while the Assembly version is poised for a second reading by the chamber. That bill counts Assembly members Pamela R. Lampitt, D-Camden, Shavonda E. Sumter, D-Passaic, Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, Jerry Green, D-Passaic, and Benjie E. Wimberly, D-Bergen-Passaic as primary sponsors.

During a Senate committee hearing in June, the legislation was hailed by unions, think tanks and groups such as the New Jersey Working Families Alliance. Business-centered organizations, such as the New Jersey Farm Bureau and the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, criticized  the administrative and expense ramifications.

Given New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s previous opposition to mandated sick leave, the future of the legislation remains uncertain, since in the aggregate, the  legislative proposals would create new administrative burdens on employers, including smaller businesses and start-ups, and increase the risk of litigation as traditional employer prerogatives are legislatively  prescribed.

Flood Hazard Area Rules

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s planned changes to flood hazard area rules, announced in June drew not only a backlash from environmentalists but twin bills proposed explicitly to overturn the changes. They are presently pending public comment.

Among the biggest changes in store is the increase in the amount of vegetation in riparian zones — where regulated water meets land — that can be disturbed for construction, and the extension of that allowed disturbance to building projects that would normally require a hardship exemption.

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, D-Union, served as a primary sponsor of SCR180 that received full Senate approval in October and is pending before the Assembly. Identical legislation, ACR249, was introduced in November by Assemblyman John F. McKeon, D-Morris, and Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, D-Essex. Both bills have been advanced by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.

These rules affect virtually all development in all sectors across the state, and also serve as one of the state’s few points of leverage over federally authorized projects, like pipelines and utility facilitiesThese rules also dictate rebuilding and resiliency policy in and near flood prone areas. The impact would reach beyond the shore to industrial sites, many in low-lying areas along New Jersey Rivers.

Where the state goes on these issue affects not only environmental quality but also the value of properties, and the costs and likelihood of future business expansion.

Out-of-network legislation clears Assembly committee

The New Jersey state Assembly bills to address surprise out-of-network hospital bills are one step closer to becoming law, despite some remaining concerns for both payers and providers.

The two bills, sponsored by Assembly Democrats Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), Gary S. Schaer (D-Passaic), Troy Singleton (D-Mount Laurel), Pamela Lampitt (D-Voorhees) and Grace Spencer (D-Newark), cleared the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee on Monday.

Originally introduced earlier this year as a single bill, the two new pieces of legislation cover changes in the administrative process for hospitals during non-emergency procedures, as well as creating a new transparency tool to determine what providers are charging for care — known as the Health Price Index. If enacted, the out-of-network bill would rely on the state Department of Banking and Insurance to find an organization to collect and maintain the Health Price Index.

The out-of-network bill, which is similar to a bill making its way through the Senate, is raising concerns about the increased burden on health care professionals, while the creation of a new price tool is likely to increase the already too-high-cost of insurance plans.

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association supported the out-of-network bill, but has some concerns about the HPI.

“NJBIA continues to oppose creation of an HPI,” testified Mary Beaumont, vice president for health and legal affairs.  “Surcharges on health insurers and benefits plans will ultimately increase health care costs for New Jersey employers. Furthermore, it’s duplicative. Existing sources collect and provide in-network and out-of-network cost information from physicians, hospitals, health care facilities and insurers.”

Similar opposition can also be seen for the administrative burden on doctors from the out-of-network bill.

But the bills’ sponsor believes the physicians and health care professionals within the health system should be responsible for tracking the insurance information. Laws already exist for emergency situations to be treated as in-network, so elective procedures are typically where surprise bills appear.

“If they were given the choice between continuing with medical care that ultimately would lead to substantial out-of-pocket costs and considering other options that carry a lower price tag, the vast majority of reasonable New Jersey residents certainly would choose the latter. The problem, at present, is that they don’t have that choice,” said Schaer.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, who heads the health committee and reviewed a similar bill, applauded the Assembly bill.

“Along with my Assembly counterparts sponsoring the bill, I am now confident that we have a piece of legislation that will advance through both houses before the end of this legislative session,” Vitale (D-Woodbridge) said in a statement. “People are being forced to choose between paying off medical bills that they never expected to receive or paying their necessary everyday expenses like rent, mortgage and food. It’s not a fair choice to have to make. New Jersey consumers need to know what they’re getting into, before non-emergent out-of-network medical services are provided, so they can make informed choices rather than being arm-wrestled into damaging debt.”

The bills call for the following to be implemented by health care facilities:

  • Disclose whether the facility is in- or out-of-network.
  • Advise the patient to check with the doctor arranging the services to determine whether or not the doctor is in- or out-of-network.
  • Advise the patient if a change in network status has occurred between the time the appointment was made and the time of the procedure.
  • Advise that the patient contact his or her insurance carrier for further consultation regarding costs.
  • Make publicly available a list of standard charges for the items and services it provides
  • Follow a binding arbitration process to allow consumers a chance to fight surprise bills
  • Publish online the names, mailing addresses and telephone numbers of physicians working at the facility and hospital-based physician groups with which it has contracted to provide services, including anesthesiology, pathology and radiology.

The New Jersey Association of Health Plans released a statement supporting various aspects of the bill, but stated concerns with the peer review process, cost sharing for emergency services and the $1,000 threshold for arbitration — all of which were urged by hospitals and health care providers.

“We believe that the peer review process will add cost and prove to be of limited utility, as it is not likely to provide information not already available to the disputing parties.  We are also concerned about our experience with peer-review process, as we have seen that providers are reluctant to challenge their peers.  As a result, we do not support the proposal,” NJAHP said in the statement.

“While we continue to have concerns about a number of elements of the bill, especially the network audit section, which we see as redundant of existing regulatory requirements, overall, we are supportive of the bill.  Consumers, labor organizations, businesses, the State Health Benefits Program and other payers will benefit from the bill’s transparency measures and cost containment measures. It is time to put a stop to surprise bills for consumers and reign in the predatory price gouging practices by certain provider.”

Martin J. Milita, Jr. Esq., is senior director at Duane Morris Government Strategies, LLC.

Duane Morris Government Strategies (DMGS) supports the growth of organizations, companies, communities and economies through a suite of government and business consulting services. The firm offers a range of government relations and public affairs services, including lobbying, grant writing; development finance consulting, media relations management, grassroots campaigning and community outreach. Milita works at the firm’s Trenton and Newark New Jersey offices.

Visit his blog at: https://martinmilita1.wordpress.com

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