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House member questions free tolls for lawmakers

A state representative unhappy that lawmakers lost their free ski passes to Cannon Mountain two years ago is now asking whether lawmakers should continue to get free E-ZPasses that let them cruise through New Hampshire toll booths at no cost.

Rep. Frank Sapareto, a Derry Republican serving his sixth term, has asked the Legislative Ethics Committee to opine on whether accepting that perk is allowed given that state law prohibits lawmakers from accepting anything worth $25 or more. Sapareto has estimated the value of the E-ZPass transponder, $8.90, and unlimited in-state tolls to be worth more than $30.

“We should keep all of (the perks) or take them all away,” said Sapareto, who tried unsuccessfully this year to increase the gift limit to $100, more than enough to cover the cost of a one-day lift ticket at Cannon Mountain he used to enjoy for free.

The Legislative Ethics Committee received Sapareto’s request this week and has not yet responded.

Free tolls are not a new perk for state lawmakers, who in exchange for a yearly salary of $100 also get free admission to state parks and reimbursement for legislative-related mileage. Before E-ZPass arrived in 2005, toll booth attendants waived lawmakers by at no cost if their vehicles had legislative license plates.

This practice isn’t mere tradition. State law says vehicles bearing plates with the state seal, including those available to elected officials, “shall be granted toll-free use” of the state’s turnpike system.

The state does not monitor whether lawmakers are taking advantage of free tolls for more than just legislative work. There would be no point under state law. As written now, the law sets almost no limits on when or why vehicles with legislative license plates are entitled to free tolls.

The only exception is that the perk can be used on the New Hampshire turnpike system only. And the E-ZPass available to lawmakers works only in New Hampshire, not outside the state, said Bill Boynton, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

Told yesterday about the law granting lawmakers with the right plates a free pass through the tolls, Sapareto wasn’t any less interested in his inquiry to the ethics committee. State law, he said, also allows lawmakers free entry to state parks, but lawmakers are no longer able to ski for free at Canon Mountain, a state park.

Sapareto said he intends to ask for an ethics opinion on whether legislators should receive free street parking in downtown Concord on legislative days. Over the course of a two-year session, that perk would total $25 or more, he said. “Is everything we are doing unethical now?” he said.

For a long time, lawmakers were allowed to accept discounts of any amount as long as the same discounts were available to lawmakers generally, according to a 1992 advisory opinion
issued by the Legislative Ethics Committee. The Legislature changed that in 2006 after New Hampshire Public Radio revealed that then-House Speaker
Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican, had accepted $68,000 in personal gifts. The House censured Chandler but opted not to remove him; he is now minority leader of the House.

The 2006 law set the gift limit at less than $25.

In 2011, Rep. Edmod Gionet, a Lincoln Republican, asked whether the law change prohibited lawmakers from accepting free ski passes from Cannon Mountain since they were worth more than $25. The Legislative Ethics Committee concluded it did. Lawmakers rejected an effort earlier this year to reinstitute the free ski passes. The committee has continued to field similar questions.

In April, Rep. Patricia Higgins, a Hanover Democrat, asked if she could accept free or reduced admission to a $170 handgun training course sponsored by the National Rifle Association. The ethics committee said Higgins could accept a discount of $24.99 but not free admission, according to a 7-0 ruling.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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