N.H. House Passes Higher Gasoline Tax

New 33-Cents-Per-Gallon Tax Would Fund Highway Upkeep

Concord — The New Hampshire House of Representatives endorsed yesterday the first increase in the state’s gasoline tax in 22 years.

The 207-163 vote sends Nashua Democratic State Rep. David Campbell’s bill (HB 617) to the House Ways and Means Committee with a solid but not overly strong mandate. And it raises the likelihood at least some of the House tax bill writers will want to give the increase a haircut before it wins final approval in the House.

Campbell said independent studies have shown the state has an annual, $74 million shortfall in spending on infrastructure that threatens to ruin New Hampshire’s reputation among out-of-state tourists for quality roads and bridges.

“New Hampshire does have an infrastructure crisis and the problem is getting worse each and every year,” Campbell said during the two and a half-hour debate.

And Campbell said he understands politically any tax increase is a difficult vote.

“It is always easy to find an excuse to vote no on a bill that raises revenue,” Campbell began. “I am asking you to build a new bridge today; a bridge that spans partisanship and rejects shortsightedness.”

Supporters insist the neglect of past Legislatures threatens to hand down to the next generation an inferior road and bridge network with more spans having to be closed and roads posted to disallow heavy trucks.

“If we don’t work together to fix this crisis, then collectively we will be fiscally responsible,” Campbell warned. “We will be passing off a highway system too big and too expensive to fully fix. We will put a stranglehold on New Hampshire’s economy.”

The increase would raise the cost of gas about $80 a year for the motorist who drives 12,000 miles a year with a car or truck that gets 23 miles per gallon, said Rep. Candace Bouchard, D-Concord.

Opponents shot back that the national average for family driving is 21,800 a year and with a car getting 15 miles per gallon this would translate to a $220 higher hit on the cost of fuel each year.

Former House Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker, R-Greenland, insisted this is a big government solution that is unnecessary.

“Not only will this bill not fix a single bridge it is far from the only way to solve our problems,” Tucker began. “Think of it for what it really is; it’s a tax bill and not just a tax bill, the largest tax increase in our history if we pass this.”

Former House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, led the opposition to the gas tax increase and tried without success instead to replace it. O’Brien’s proposed reform was to end spending nearly $80 million a year from the Highway Fund for highway enforcement by State Police and the court system.

“Under Republicans and under Democrats and under the budget that passed when I was speaker, we have punched holes into the highway fund and we have drained from that bucket for uses other than to repair roads and bridges,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the State Police would get money from the traditional state budget process and not rely on these diversions, freeing up enough current gas tax revenues to avoid the need for this increase.

“Vote to approve this amendment and let’s send it on to the Senate with a chance for once, in decades, to budget responsibly, when it comes to highway funds,” O’Brien said.

The ex-speaker warned rank-and-file members that they faced dire election consequences in 2014 if they follow top Democrats and support a tax increase that will equal $1 billion over a decade when it’s fully increased by in 2017.

“It is not right of leadership to ask you to engage in kamikaze legislating,” O’Brien said.

But Rep. Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson and one of O’Brien’s former political lieutenants, said the 1938 change to the Constitution setting up the highway fund cited enforcement as a legal expense from gas tax revenues.

“My intent is to stand here and support the Constitution and not allow things to be said that are constitutionally untrue,” Jasper said of O’Brien’s claims. “Let us decide what we think is right. It is not a leaky budget. It is a bucket we have made allocations from.”

The House rejected O’Brien’s idea, 251-120.

The current gas at 18 cents per gallon is the lowest in the Northeast and the second lowest in the cross-country Frost Belt, higher only than Wyoming. Campbell’s bill would raise the gas tax by four cents each three years in a row and another three cents in the fourth year for car and truck owners. By 2018, the tax increase would raise more than $110 million each year; one-fifth of the increase would go to communities for local road and bridge work.

The cost for diesel fuel would go up 2.5 cents per gallon annually over the next six years.

Once fully implemented at 33 cents per gallon, New Hampshire’s gas tax would go from the bottom 10 in the nation to just outside the highest 10 in the country.