N.H. House passes gas tax increase, sends to governor’s desk
A bill aimed at paying for major transportation projects through a 4.2-cent increase in the gas tax passed the House yesterday and will now go to Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk.
“I look forward to signing this bipartisan legislation into law so we can keep New Hampshire’s economy moving forward by advancing critical road and bridge projects and finishing the long-overdue expansion of I-93,” Hassan said in a statement after the vote.
On July 1, this bill will increase the gas tax from 18 to 22.2 cents, the first increase since 1991. The roughly $32 million in new annual revenue from the increase will be dedicated to state and local road and bridge repairs. The bill also removes the toll at Exit 12 in Merrimack on the Everett Turnpike and creates a commission to study whether the state Department of Transportation is operating efficiently, two provisions that helped bring some Senate Republicans on board. Seventeen House Republicans voted for the bill and seven Democrats voted against it.
“This Legislature has failed in its financial responsibility to properly invest in our highway system and in our state’s economic future,” said Rep. David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation. “Every dollar, every penny in this is (for) construction and repair of municipal and state roads and bridges.”
The bill sends 42 percent of the new revenue toward bonding for the widening of Interstate 93 from Salem to Manchester, Campbell said. Of the rest of the new money, 33 percent will go to municipalities for local road and bridge repairs, and 25 percent will go to repairs of secondary state roads in fiscal years 2015 and 2016. Under the bill, the 4-cent increase will be repealed in 20 years, or when bonding for the I-93 project is paid off.
But critics of the bill said the state isn’t effectively using the money that’s already in the highway fund. Under state law, 68.5 percent of money in that fund goes to the Department of Transportation while up to 30 percent goes to the Department of Safety. In recent years, the Legislature has suspended those rules to send more money to the Department of Safety and other agencies.
“We still face challenging economic times. How can we tell the people we need to raise taxes on them for roads when we are siphoning off millions of dollars for other things?” said Rep. Laurie Sanborn, a Bedford Republican. “We need to prove we can do a better job with the existing fund before putting an additional burden on” taxpayers.
Republicans introduced four amendments to the bill yesterday, all of which were defeated. One would have removed language related to the Consumer Price Index, which was used in the methodology for determining the 4.2-cent increase. Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, said leaving the language in the bill would make it easier to tie future increases to the index, which sponsors of the bill originally wanted to do. Another amendment would have eliminated the toll at Exit 11 instead of Exit 12, and a third would have eliminated all three tolls in Merrimack.
Rep. Adam Schroadter, a Newmarket Republican, offered the fourth amendment, which would have added his marijuana decriminalization bill onto the legislation. The Senate refused to hear that bill last week, saying it was too similar to a bill the body rejected last year. Although decriminalization passed the House easily, Schroadter’s amendment was defeated 260-72. Some supporters of decriminalization said tacking it onto the gas tax bill would jeopardize both pieces of legislation.
“This is not the bill to attach it to,” said Rep. Joel Winters, a Nashua Democrat and supporter of decriminalization. “I don’t want to pass down broken infrastructure to my kids. I think we need to pass (the gas tax bill) as it came over from the Senate.”
Republicans have seen an election year opportunity in the gas tax increase and are raising alarms that it will put a major strain on the wallets of New Hampshire families. Although Republican Sen. Jim Rausch of Derry is the prime sponsor of the bill, the state Republican Party has branded it “Gov. Hassan’s gas tax.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein called on Hassan to veto it yesterday.
“The gas tax is a tax on getting to work, it’s a tax on getting your kids to school, and it’s a tax on doing business. The people that this tax will hurt the most are the people who can afford it the least,” Havenstein said in a statement.
Rausch, however, has noted that if the entire 4-cent increase is reflected at the pump, it would cost someone who annually drives 10,000 miles at 25 mpg roughly $16 a year.
Other House action
∎ A bill aimed at increasing pay equity between men and women passed 187-134, but must go to the House Criminal Justice Committee and come back to the House before it reaches Hassan. The bill would prevent employers from discriminating against workers who discuss their wages, more clearly define the reasons employers can pay people different wages and extend the period during which people can file complaints to three years after the discrimination occurred.
∎ The House also passed a bill aimed at reorganizing the juvenile justice system and reinstating a long-dormant advisory committee. This bill, which already passed the Senate, would take the juvenile justice system out from under the purview of the Division of Children, Youth and Families. This bill now goes to the House Finance Committee.
∎ A Senate bill to reorganize the Site Evaluation Committee, which approves energy projects, passed 227-69. It will also go to the House Finance Committee.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)