O’Brien: Legislators who vote for gas-tax hike could face electoral consequences
Representative William O'Brien and representatives from Americans for Prosperity speak out against raising the gasoline tax in a press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Concord; Tuesday, March 5, 2013. (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
The House will take an initial vote today on a proposal to raise the state’s gas tax by 15 cents over the next four years.
Supporters say the revenue is needed to shore up New Hampshire’s deteriorating roads and bridges. But a group of Republicans led by Mont Vernon Rep. Bill O’Brien yesterday said any representative who votes for the bill could face consequences in next year’s election.
“We’ll be interested to talk to the voters about those representatives who think a $1 billion tax increase is something that they want to go into the next election having supported,” said O’Brien, who was speaker of the House for the last two years, at a news conference with about 20 other GOP representatives.
Republicans lost control of the House in last November’s election, and Democrats now hold a majority in the chamber. Republicans still hold a 13-11 majority in the Senate.
The bill going before the House today would increase the state’s gas tax from 18 cents to 33 cents over the next four years: by 4 cents this year, next year and in 2015, and by 3 cents in 2016. For diesel fuel, the increase would be spread over six years, not four.
The gas tax was last raised in 1991.
Rep. David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat and chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, introduced the bill. He has said it would mean $981 million in extra revenue over the next decade for transportation projects, including nearly $203 million more in block grants to towns and cities.
The legislation was endorsed by the public works committee last month on an 18-0 vote.
“I think this bill will have support on both sides of the aisle. I think legislators that were sent here to fix a problem realize that this bill fixes a problem,” said Rep. Candace Bouchard, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.
The House had been scheduled to vote on the bill a week ago, but last week’s House session was canceled due to a forecasted snowstorm.
If it passes today, it will go to the House Ways and Means Committee for a second look, since it involves state revenue. It will then come back to the House floor for a second vote; if it passes again, it will go to the Senate.
O’Brien said he will introduce an amendment to the bill during today’s floor debate, a provision that would require the money in the state’s highway fund to be used solely for transportation purposes.
“This huge tax increase is entirely unnecessary if we stop the ongoing raid of our highway fund. This has gone on for years. It’s gone on under Republicans. It’s gone on under Democrats,” O’Brien said. “It’s now time to stop — if we truly have this problem with maintaining our highway infrastructure.”
That would be a break from past practice. State budgets, including the one passed two years ago when O’Brien was speaker, typically use money from the highway fund for the Department of Safety and other state agencies.
Marc Goldberg, spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan, said in a statement that O’Brien’s amendment “would have a devastating impact on public safety, affecting over 300 state trooper positions that are funded at least in part by highway fund dollars as directed by the New Hampshire Constitution.”
Hassan, a Democrat, hasn’t taken a position on Campbell’s bill.
But O’Brien yesterday called such arguments “the classic bait and switch argument,” and said the Department of Safety should go through the same budget process as other agencies if it wants the state to pay for personnel.