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House okays 12-cent increase in N.H. gas tax, sends bill to Senate

Last modified: 3/28/2013 12:16:05 AM
The House yesterday gave final approval to legislation that would increase New Hampshire’s gas tax for the first time since 1991.

On a 206-158 vote, the Democratic-led House passed a bill to raise the tax by 12 cents, phased in over three years for gasoline and six years for diesel fuel. The state’s gas tax is now 18 cents per gallon.

The bill next goes to the Senate, where Republicans hold a 13-11 majority. Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, has said it “will be dead on arrival” in the upper chamber.

The bill had passed the House earlier this month. But since it involved state revenue, it went to the House Ways and Means Committee for a second look.

The version of the bill that passed the House on March 6 on a 207-163 vote called for a 15-cent increase. The Ways and Means Committee trimmed that increase to 12 cents ahead of yesterday’s final vote.

Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican, argued yesterday that the increase would still hurt low-income residents.

“This gas tax is a war on poor people,” Burt said.

But Rep. David Campbell, the Nashua Democrat who has championed the proposal, has said it’s necessary to raise revenue to complete the widening of Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire and repair failing bridges and repave deteriorating roads across the state.

“The people want and expect us to solve problems facing our state. . . . When the roof leaks in your home, you do not ignore it. You fix it,” Campbell said.

When fully implemented, the additional 12 cents per gallon would bring in about $92 million a year. It would mean an estimated $816.8 million over the next 10 years, $183 million for municipal aid and $633.8 million for state projects, on top of revenue from the existing gas tax.

After extended debate, and rejecting two amendments offered by Republicans, the House voted to pass the bill.

The March 6 vote fell largely along party lines, with 15 Republicans in support and 10 Democrats opposed. Yesterday’s vote also split on party lines, with 13 Republicans voting for the bill and eight Democrats voting against it.

CHINS, cash-balance study

In other action yesterday, the House voted, 211-140, to pass a bill restoring broader legal language for the Children in Need of Services program, or CHINS.

The CHINS program is designed to help children who exhibit truancy and other behavioral issues, as a form of intervention before their behavior can escalate to criminal behavior. It was cut deeply in the state budget two years ago.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, has proposed restoring some funding for the program, and the bill passed yesterday would restore legal language expanding the scope of the program and allowing participating children to receive voluntary services.

In addition, the House on a voice vote killed a bill that would have established a committee to study a cash-balance retirement plan as an option to replace defined-benefit pensions for new state employees.

A committee last year studied the possibility of a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan to replace pensions, but didn’t focus on cash-balance plans, which are a sort of hybrid plan.

Rep. Dan McGuire, an Epsom Republican, asked the House to table the bill so an improved version could be introduced later in the two-year legislative term. But his motion was defeated on a 194-161 vote.

Final votes

Several pieces of legislation that passed the House earlier this year got final approval yesterday, and now head to the Senate.

Like the gas-tax bill, they deal with state spending, revenue, rules and other issues, and so went to a second committee before coming back to the floor for a second and final vote.

They included:

∎ A bill barring state officials from assisting the federal government in implementing provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act that deal with the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists. It passed yesterday on a voice vote; it previously passed on a 337-15 vote.

∎ A bill allowing a form of chemical cremation, called alkaline hydrolysis. It passed on a voice vote; it had previously passed the House on a 257-113 vote, and an attempt yesterday to table the bill was rejected, 214-82.

∎ A bill creating a special recreational license for scuba divers to catch lobsters by hand. It passed on a voice vote, having previously passed on a 303-66 vote.

∎ A bill to increase the per-gallon fee on fuel oil, which goes into a discharge-cleanup fund, from 1 cent to 1.25 cents. It passed on a 194-156 vote; it previously passed on a 186-165 vote.

Liquor oversight

The House also approved, on a voice vote without debate as part of its consent calendar, a bill that would provide more oversight for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s store and warehouse contracts.

The Executive Council typically approves contracts with state agencies. But a 2009 reform gave the liquor commission greater autonomy, including an exemption from that contract-review process.

The commission sparked controversy last year when it awarded a 20-year warehousing contract to German-owned and Ohio-based Exel Inc. Several other bidders – including the current warehouse contractor, Nashua-based Law Warehouses – have criticized the decision, and lawsuits have been filed.

Under the bill approved yesterday, store and warehouse contracts and leases must be approved by the attorney general’s office, and contracts must also go before the Executive Council.

Drones, colors tabled

The House had been scheduled to vote on a bill that would restrict use of the flying machines known as drones.

But on a 278-87 vote, the House tabled the bill. Today is the deadline under House rules for the chamber to act on all non-budget bills, so taking the drones bill up later would require a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican and its original sponsor, have been working on the bill. The latest version would have banned armed drones and restricted the use of unarmed drones for surveillance.

But Rep. Paul Berch, a Westmoreland Democrat, said the bill has “numerous problems,” including possible conflicts with federal regulation of domestic airspace, and “far more work needed to be done on the bill.”

At least 30 states are considering legislation to restrict the use of drones, most on privacy grounds, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The House also voted, 266-66, to table without debate a bill that would have made orange, yellow and red the official state colors.

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


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