Editorial: A business argument for raising the gas tax
As it turns out, business executives have to maneuver their cars into potholes, around frost heaves, over crumbling bridges and through traffic, just like the rest of us. Their nerves – and their hubcaps – are no more immune to the aggravation that comes from driving on poor roads than anyone else’s. Equally important, their bottom lines suffer when they can’t transfer their products efficiently from Point A to Point B.
That’s at least part of the explanation behind the surprising announcement this week from the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire that it supports a modest increase in the state gas tax as a way to raise money to improve the state’s roads and bridges.
It’s not often you hear captains of industry encouraging politicians to raise taxes. And though the BIA proposal is too modest a step to fix all that ails New Hampshire’s transportation system, it should give courage to timid state lawmakers that they can do the right thing without losing their conservative credentials.
Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement has been agitating for more money for months. He’ll tell anyone who listens about his agency’s looming budget deficit, its inability to complete critical projects such as the widening of Interstate 93 and the deterioration of New Hampshire’s existing roads and bridges. He’s paving 200 fewer miles of roads a year than he’d like to. The number of “red-listed” state bridges is 145 and climbing. An additional 353 local bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Thirty-seven percent of the state’s roads are in poor condition. Clement doesn’t care where the revenue comes from – only that it comes his way, and fast.
But for lawmakers – and their constituents – where the money comes from is no idle concern, especially when so many legislators believe New Hampshire’s preposterous no-tax pledge should include any tax increase of any kind at any time.
That thinking has meant that the state gas tax, which traditionally produces the revenue that fixes the roads, hasn’t been raised in 22 years. As BIA President Jim Roche noted: “I challenge any business to go 22 years without adjusting its prices.”
The BIA is suggesting a one-time 4-cent increase in the tax, which is currently 18 cents per gallon. The plan would raise $28 million this year.
That’s significantly smaller than a plan proposed last year by Democratic Rep. David Campbell of Nashua. Campbell would have increased the gas tax by 12 cents over three years, giving the DOT enough to cover the department’s immediate needs and work on I-93.
Lawmakers rejected it and are now considering a new version, proposed by Republican Sen. Jim Rausch of Derry, who would increase the gas tax by 4 cents this year and again in 2018, then tie future increases to the consumer price index. Though it has the support of Gov. Maggie Hassan, Rausch’s plan faces deep skepticism in the Republican-controlled Senate, particularly the portion concerning the out-years. The BIA, too, opposes any plan that would create automatic increases tied to the rate of inflation.
And these aren’t the only ideas out there. Some lawmakers are counting on revenue from an as-yet-unapproved casino to help fix the roads. Others are employing the magical thinking that says Clement can simply manage his way out of this jam. Across the country, states are experimenting with much more forward-looking ideas, including user taxes based on the number of miles driven rather than the number of gallons of gas consumed. That way, no fuel escapes taxation and even the drivers of super-efficient vehicles pay for the wear and tear they contribute to the roads.
At this point, even a small increase in the state gas tax is better than nothing. But if New Hampshire policymakers want a truly safe and efficient transportation system, they will need to get much more serious about the state of the state’s roads – and fast.