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Truckers Honk at N.H. Gas Tax Bill

Concord — The prime Republican sponsor behind a bill to increase the gas tax said if the bill doesn’t pass, he will seek a repeal of laws that benefit the trucking industry, including a 2005 bill that increased the weight trucks can carry by 24,000 pounds.

“That added weight is helping to destroy our roads, and what do we hear from them? ‘We don’t want to help you,’ ” Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, said yesterday.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee heard testimony for nearly four hours on Rausch’s bill to increase the gas tax by four cents this year and again in 2018, then tie future increases to the consumer price index. The state’s gas tax of 18 cents per gallon hasn’t changed since 1991, making it difficult for the state Department of Transportation to complete projects as inflation causes costs to rise.

Rausch told the committee this is not a tax but a user fee, because how much it affects people will depend directly on how much they drive on the state’s roads.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, has said she will sign the bill if it comes to her desk. But it faces a rocky road to get through the Senate. Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, asked pointed questions yesterday that made his opposition clear. Sen. Bob Odell, R-New London, said he’s open to discussing a one-time increase but does not support putting future increases into law now.

“I’d like to make it perfectly clear, whether you call it a road toll or a gas tax, we’re not changing the debate that we’ve had for years,” Morse said to Rausch. “While you and the governor agree with indexing, I disagree with you completely.”

The state’s highway fund is set to start 2016 with a $48 million deficit, said department Commissioner Chris Clement. All of the money from the proposed increase, about $31.9 million in 2015, would go to the Department of Transportation’s highway fund, but the bill doesn’t spell out what projects it will go toward. If the Legislature can’t find money to repair the roads, it will need to look for ways to minimize damages, such as limiting how much weight trucks can carry, Rausch said.

“I’ve been up here for 14 years. You know how many times I’ve heard, ‘Oh, we’ll take care of it next year’?” Rausch said. “Everything I’ve tried has failed, so let’s go back to the user fee, let’s finally say ‘If you want these roads, let’s take care of them.’ ”

But representatives from transportation and other industries that rely on trucking said Rausch’s statement that he’ll try to decrease weight limits if they don’t comply is retaliatory and would hurt productivity while raising prices for consumers.

“Everything in our state is moved by truck — everything,” said Bob Sculley, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, which opposes the bill. “If you in fact decrease loads that have been legally able to travel on our roads, you are going to end up having the average New Hampshire citizen pay more for everything they do in the state.”

Trucks already pay thousands of dollars in taxes and fees without accounting for fuel, Sculley said. Many of those trucks drive more than 100,000 miles per year, so an increase in fuel costs would be significant, he said.

Jasen Stock, of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, said he didn’t hear Rausch’s comments, but that a reduction in weight limit would have a negative and dramatic effect on the forestry industry.

Supporters of the bill said fixing the state’s roads and bridges is key to bringing in new businesses, growing the economy and keeping young people here. Clement said the state Department of Transportation would need to eliminate as many as 700 jobs if it can’t fill the expected 2016 deficit. But opponents said the increase would hurt drivers and consumers and that putting a formula for future increases into law now wouldn’t allow for public and legislative input later.

Both Rausch and Morse support expanded gambling as a means for bringing more revenue into the state for roads and bridges.

Under the gas tax bill, the state treasurer would be required to calculate increases and share them with the governor, the president of the senate and the speaker of the house up to 30 days before the increase is in place. It would also be sent to the commissioner of the department of safety who must post it publicly. Rausch also said it would be possible for future Legislatures to change the formula or amend the bill if they think the increase is unsustainable.

“If the lobbyists are doing their jobs, I’m assuming somebody’s going to monitor it,” he said.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee will make a recommendation March, 4 then send the bill to the full Senate.