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House panel considering smaller gas tax raise

A House committee was asked yesterday to consider recommending a smaller tax increase – or no raise at all – on gasoline and diesel fuel instead of the 15-cent increase proposed under a bill to raise revenue to finish the Interstate 93 expansion and for other highway improvements.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Campbell of Nashua, would raise the tax – which has not been changed for 22 years – from 18 cents a gallon to 33 cents a gallon. Under the bill, the increase would be phased in over four years on gasoline and six on diesel.

The House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the bill yesterday, and meets Tuesday, when it is expected to vote on the tax proposal. The full House votes on the measure later this month.

Campbell, the Public Works and Highways Committee chairman, told the Ways and Means Committee that 11 bridges closed in the last year and more on the state’s “red list” of bridges most in need of repair will be closed without additional funding. He said the state is paving only about half the miles of roadway it needs to each year to maintain them properly and avoid costly reconstruction.

His bill would raise about $1 billion over 10 years and would fully fund the $250 million needed to finish widening I-93 from the Massachusetts state line to Manchester. A Democrat, Campbell has the support of many Republicans on his committee.

Rep. John Cebrowski, a Bedford Republican, proposed phasing in a 7-cent increase over two years instead of the higher amount. Cebrowski said he can’t support the higher increase but recognizes the need to beef up the funding going to road and bridge repairs. His proposal would raise $516 million over 10 years.

“It’s difficult for me as a fiscal conservative,” he said of his proposal. But Cebrowski added that he knows from experience in business that companies looking to relocate to a state consider the health of the state’s infrastructure.

The committee also is considering a 12-cent increase that could be the compromise. Campbell said he could live with the smaller figure because it would be enough to fund needed improvements. The 12-cent increase would raise $817 million over 10 years.

Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association said any increase would be too hard on the trucking industry.

“You might ask, who in the industry does this tax hurt the most? The answer is the small and single truck owners who do not have the ability to purchase fuel in bulk or receive volume discounts that may be available to larger fleets,” association President Robert Sculley said.

House Minority Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett also criticized the proposed tax increase.

“Increased fuel costs will increase the cost of doing business in our state which will inevitably force our state’s businesses to pass along additional burdens to the consumers. That means that not only will New Hampshire families pay more at the pump, but they will also pay more for essential goods and service across the state,” Chandler said.

Former House speaker Bill O’Brien, a Republican from Mont Vernon, asked the committee to reject the increase and instead recommend funding highway improvements by stopping all but a small amount of the money from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees and other highway-related revenue from being diverted to agencies other than the state transportation department.

His proposal would cut the Department of Safety’s budget by as much as 40 percent as well as cut small allocations to the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, highway safety agency and the courts.

The House rejected a similar proposal March 6.

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