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Ethics committee: Special E-ZPasses don’t violate gift limits for N.H. lawmakers

The special E-ZPasses that allow New Hampshire lawmakers to drive through toll plazas at no charge don’t violate ethics rules, according to the Legislative Ethics Committee.

The 7-0 opinion, issued Friday, came after Rep. Frank Sapareto, a Derry Republican, asked the committee in June if the transponders counted as a perk with a value in excess of the $25 limit for gifts to legislators.

They would if they were ordinary E-ZPasses, Chairman Martin Gross wrote in the committee’s advisory opinion. But they’re not: They only work at New Hampshire toll plazas, and they’re used under a state law that grants free access to the turnpike system for any vehicle bearing the state seal on its license plates.

Such plates are issued to members of the House and Senate.

“Thus, the transponders merely expedite the free toll gate passage for legislators mandated by statute, rather than providing anything else of value,” and “are not prohibited gifts,” Gross wrote.

New Hampshire lawmakers receive an annual salary of $100 but get other benefits including mileage reimbursement, free access to state parks and the free passage through toll booths.

Until 2011, lawmakers got free ski passes at Cannon Mountain, which is owned by the state. But the ethics committee ruled that the passes exceeded the $25 limit for gifts; a bill to exempt the passes from the gifts limit was rejected by the House earlier this year.

Sapareto said yesterday he thinks the committee’s latest ruling is flawed. If lawmakers get E-ZPasses because they’re entitled to access the turnpike system for free, he asked, why shouldn’t their free access to state parks entitle them to ski passes?

“They seem to be accepting one and not the other,” he said.

Sapareto said he’s trying to make a point, for the Legislature “to recognize where the boundaries are, and decide whether we want to take control of it or whether we want to allow special interest groups to control it.”

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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