Capital Beat: Campaigns use gas tax increase as latest talking point

Last modified: 7/6/2014 11:52:43 PM
Update: This article originally reported the Portsmouth Herald couldn’t be reached to clarify the June 9 story about Sen. Shaheen’s comments on the federal gas tax. Shaheen’s campaign could not confirm or deny the article’s accuracy when this column was originally reported. On July 9, the paper’s executive editor said Shaheen’s team asked for a correction, but that he is standing by the paper’s reporting. Shaheen’s official office also confirmed they requested a correction.


The kids are out of school, the sun is shining and family vacations are on the calendar. Summer is here, and politics is the last thing from most people’s minds.

But the price of gas isn’t. Averaging at $3.67 per gallon as of last week, the price of gas is expected to hit a six-year high this summer, largely due to conflict in the Middle East. Ask Republicans, however, and they’ll tell you it’s all Gov. Maggie Hassan’s fault.

A 4.2-cent increase in the gas tax, the state’s first since 1991, took effect on Tuesday. The extra $32 million a year form the tax will go toward funding road and bridge improvements. For months, Republicans have been referring to the measure as “Maggie Hassan’s gas tax.”

“Maggie Hassan’s gas tax is a regressive tax on working families. It’s a tax on taking your kids to school, a tax on driving to work, and a tax on running your business,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein said in a campaign release.

Andrew Hemingway, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, weighed in as well.

“When you brag about raising taxes on families already struggling in a stagnant economy...I’d say you’ve demonstrated the difference between the two of us,” he said in a statement in early June.

What they don’t mention is that Republican state Sen. Jim Rausch of Derry was the bill’s prime sponsor and that four other Senate Republicans voted for it. In other words, this bill was generated by a Republican and wouldn’t have passed without Republican support.

Americans for Prosperity, likewise, is decrying the “23 percent” increase. (Twenty-three percent, of course, sounds more eye-popping than 4.2 cents.) Even with the increase, New Hampshire still has the lowest gas tax in New England as well as the lowest gas prices. For someone who drives 10,000 miles a year and gets 25 miles to the gallon, the tax increase would cost them an extra $16 a year – if all of it is reflected at the pump.

But Pat Moody, manager of public affairs for AAA Northern New England, said it’s unlikely consumers will see a direct effect at the pump.

“It’s going to be hard to see a direct correlation to the increase in the gas tax and the pump price, because the gas tax is such a small component of the entire price of a gallon of gas,” Moody said.

When asked whether he thought the rhetoric around the tax was proportional to the increase, Havenstein’s press secretary Henry Goodwin said there is a compound effect on quality of life any time the cost of living goes up.

“Even if that’s a little bit, the cumulative effects of that does affect people’s quality of life,” he said. “It makes it incumbent on people not to raise the tax when summer driving season starts pushing prices up as well.”

Havenstein’s real problem with the tax, Goodwin said, is that he thinks it wouldn’t be necessary if the state budget were better managed. State law says at least 73 percent of the designated “Highway Fund,” must go toward the Department of Transportation, while 26 percent can go to the Department of Safety. But the budget passed last year suspended that rule, sending more of the highway fund money toward safety. (Hassan included this in her budget, but both the House and the Republican-led Senate ultimately improved the full budget, which included a suspension of the rules.)

“Walt has got no problem with spending money on roads and bridges,” Goodwin said. “His point is it’s not necessary to raise the gas tax because we already have enough money allocated within the Highway fund for highways. That’s what it’s there for.”

Hassan isn’t backing off her support from the bill and her campaign noted that the Business and Industry Association as well as several chambers of commerce supported a one-time increase.

“The New Hampshire Constitution says that the Highway Fund shall be used for roadwork and for the supervision of traffic on New Hampshire highways, which is why portions of the State Police have been funded out of the highway fund since its inception. If Walt Havenstein wants to cut these funds, then he will need to explain to voters why he wants to take state troopers off the roads and make New Hampshire’s highways less safe,” Hassan’s campaign spokesman, Aaron Jacobs, said in an email.

Meanwhile, there’s also a debate over how to fund road and bridge projects at the federal level. The federal Highway Fund, which provides money for road and bridge projects nationwide, is set to run out of money on Aug. 1 if Congress doesn’t act. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen held events in Windham and Hampton this week to highlight the need for infrastructure funding and to discuss one of her own bills that aims to increase money for bridge projects by $5.5 million, which would include money for the Sewalls Falls Bridge in Concord. U.S. Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, both Democrats, also weighed in on the need to find money quickly.

In mid-June, two U.S. senators proposed increasing the federal gas tax by 12 cents over two years to replenish the fund. Shaheen said on WMUR that she does not believe increasing the gas tax will fix the problem and her campaign reiterated Thursday that she does not support raising the gas tax.

“Senator Shaheen has never voted for an increase in the federal gas tax, and as she told WMUR does not support one,” campaign spokesman Harrell Kirstein said.

But earlier in June, the Portsmouth Herald reported that Shaheen said finding new money for the federal highway fund will include multiple pieces, including raising the gas tax.

“Shaheen said she believes the solution is going to involve “a whole variety” of moves, including raising the gas tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993, asking states to pay more of the burden and turning to the private sector for support,” said the article, which covered Shaheen’s visit to a meeting of the Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials to discuss infrastructure funding.

The campaign could not confirm or deny whether the Herald article, which did not quote Shaheen directly, accurately portrayed her comments. The Herald reporter who wrote the article could not be reached for comment, but there is no correction accompanying the story.

The New Hampshire Republican Party and Republican U.S. Senate candidates Jim Rubens and Scott Brown have both pointed to that article as the basis for attacks that Shaheen supports raising the federal gas tax. The state party sent out a press release alleging Shaheen planned to call for an increase in the gas tax on her Hampton stop, but that did not happen.

“The NHGOP is attacking Jeanne Shaheen to distract New Hampshire from Scott Brown’s record of voting again and again for big oil tax breaks and collecting big oil money in return. Scott Brown is the candidate in this race who stands with oil companies, and they continue to pour millions into New Hampshire to try to buy him our Senate seat,” Julie McClain, communications director for the state Democratic Party said in an email.

Both Rubens and Brown say they do not support increasing the federal gas tax.

In 2012, when a gas tax increase was being discussed as part of a budget package, Brown said the following to a Boston news website about increasing the gas tax: “We’ll see. It depends where it goes… By the way before we raise any gas taxes, we have plenty of money right now.” When Massachusetts lawmakers considered raising the state’s gas tax in 2011, Brown, then a U.S. Senator from that state, sent a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick stating his opposition to the measure.

Democrats look to secure women’s vote

The U.S. Supreme Court’s “Hobby Lobby” decision is re-engerizing Democrats around a message that’s been key to the party’s success in recent elections: We are the party that cares about women’s health and women’s equality.

The decision found that closely-held companies whose owners have strong religious beliefs do not have to provide insurance coverage for certain types of contraception. The Affordable Care Act mandates insurers cover contraceptives, but the court found forcing that mandate on companies is a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats here and nationwide are characterizing the ruling as a setback for women’s health that gives employers a say in their employee’s health care where none is warranted.

Both Shaheen and Hassan sent out fundraising emails pegged off the decision, which they say sets up a clear contrast between themselves and their opponents. Neither Havenstein nor Brown are candidates who have shaped their messages around social issues. But in similar statements, both said they support women’s access to health care but also support the decision.

While serving in the U.S. Senate for Massachusetts, Brown co-sponsored the Blunt Amendment, which would’ve allowed employers to exempt themselves from certain types of coverage for religious reasons. It failed, but was essentially a legislative version of the Supreme Court decision.

Shaheen held a campaign event pegged off the decision, talking with female leaders in a roundtable setting about women’s health care issues.

“This is a decision that should be made by women, this should not be made by an employer, it shouldn’t be made by the government — it should be made by women. And I think that distinction will be clear to women throughout this campaign,” Shaheen said.

Hassan has not responded to Havensteins’ comments directly, but someone form her campaign did send out a fundraising email on the same day as the decision came out.

“Governor Hassan has been a true advocate for women in New Hampshire, and she will speak out against this decision -- and for the connection between a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health decisions and a woman’s economic independence and success,” the email said.

A close call

The Ballot Law Commission affirmed that Havenstein is eligible to run for governor, but even the three commissioners who voted in his favor said his acceptance of a tax break for “principal residents” of Maryland is “troubling.” The facts of the case made it a “close” one, Chairman Brad Cook wrote in his ruling, with the two dissenting commissioners arguing Havenstein’s actions show he abandoned his New Hampshire domicile and lived in Maryland for part of the past seven years.

But in the end, the commission ruled in Havenstein’s favor, and the decision cannot be appealed.

“For the majority, reviewing the past decisions of this commission, the law, and the facts, leads to the conclusion that Walter P. Havenstein, regardless of his place of physical location during various job assignments, important as they were, intended and did remain a New Hampshire “inhabitant,” Cook wrote, speaking for the majority.

Democrats, however, don’t look as if they plan to let this attack on Havenstein go. On Thursday, the state party released a video stringing together clips of Havenstein saying “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember” when asked about various Maryland property forms he signed during the commission hearing. Havenstein, attorneys noted, used his Maryland address on tax forms one year and he replied “it’s whatever Turbo Tax cranked out.”

“Havenstein may have narrowly survived a Ballot Law Commission hearing this week, but he won’t get off so easily when he faces Granite Staters who won’t accept ‘I never gave it much thought’ or ‘It’s whatever Turbo Tax cranked out’ as excuses for not playing by the rules,” McClain said in a statement.

Havenstein, for his part, called the commission’s decision “vindication” and said he is ready to continue talking to voters on the campaign trail.

Tom Hassan to leave academy’s top job

First Gentleman Tom Hassan plans to retire as principal of Phillips Exeter Academy at the end of next school year in order to increase his support for Maggie Hassan’s political career, he wrote in a letter to the school’s trustees last week.

“I find myself drawn to a new chapter in increasing my support of Maggie’s work as the New Hampshire governor,” he wrote. Family concerns, particularly care of the couple’s son Ben, also played a role in the decision, Tom wrote.

Tom Hassan has worked at the school for 25 years in a number of roles from dean of admissions to director of college counseling to principal.

“Seeing the Academy from these vantage points and serving in top leadership roles during my time here has been an unparalleled opportunity, and I am grateful for every day that I have been a part of this community,” he wrote.

Campaign notes

∎ An online video emerged last week of Havenstein referring to the Tea Party as “teabaggers” during a 2010 talk at the University of Maryland, WMUR reported. Havenstein’s opponent Andrew Hemingway called on him to apologize yesterday. Hemingway has been associated with the Tea Party movement and these comments, even though made well before Havenstein was a candidate, could help Hemingway draw a further distinction between himself and Havenstein.

∎ U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster will be the beneficiary of a fundraiser with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley later this month. O’Malley, who is widely considered to be building for a presidential run, is hosting a fundraiser for Kuster and five other House Democrats alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

∎ Texas Gov. Rick Perry is coming to New Hampshire in May. Perry, a Republican who ran for president in 2012 but fizzled out before the New Hampshire primary, hosted a dinner with notable New Hampshire Republicans in Texas several months ago and looks as if he’s testing the waters for a second run.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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