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Gas tax bill set for vote

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 23. 2013 10:15PM

CONCORD - The first of two controversial options to pay for fixing roads and bridges the state Department of Transportation claims are failing comes up for a vote in the House this week.

Members of the House will consider a proposal to increase the gasoline tax by 15 cents over four years. The money would go to fix state and local roads and bridges.

Casino gambling is the second alternative, with the proposal for a single, high-end casino projected to contribute between $18 million and $58 million per year for road projects. Finishing the widening of Interstate 93 would have top priority, but local communities would also get money for road repair.

Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, who sponsored the gas tax, is also in favor of casino gambling.

Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, a primary sponsor of the gambling bill, is opposed to the gas tax hike.

"Casino gambling will provide money for our roads and bridges," Morse said. "The people of New Hampshire will not stand for an increase in the gasoline tax."

Campbell said gambling revenue can be used elsewhere while the gas tax revenue helps fix the roads.

"Gaming, I say, is needed because we need revenue in this state, not only for roads and bridges," Campbell said. "There's a few reasons why I am opposed to fixing roads and bridges through gaming; No. 1 is there's not enough money."

Campbell raised a few eyebrows last week when he told a Concord hearing that the state roads are in a crisis, soon to become a "catastrophe.''

"It's a catastrophe when you can't afford to fix it, it's a catastrophe when red-listed bridges will become greater than we can fix them," Campbell said later.

The latest version of Campbell's gas tax increase would raise about $980 billion over 10 years by raising the tax by 15 cents per gallon over four years.

In the early 1990s, the tax was raised from 14 cents per gallon to 18 cents during the administration of Gov. Judd Gregg.

The DOT lists 1,652 of 4,559 miles of state roads in poor shape and has 140 of 2,127 state bridges on its "red list" of problem bridges, with an additional 353 city and town bridges on the list.

DOT officials say objective measures are used in rating a bridge or a roadway as deficient.

The "red list,'' a term coined in the mid-'80s, refers to bridges that have at least one structural deficiency, according to DOT spokesman Bill Boynton.

"Bridges in the red list are inspected twice a year, other bridges are inspected every two years," Boynton said. "If necessary, they are taken out of service."

Roads are also deemed to be in poor condition after what the DOT says is an objective evaluation.

Boynton said the procedures include the use of a specially equipped van that rides over pavement and evaluates the ride and the quality of the road surface.

The agency also uses information from field observations by employees and information from the six highway districts in the state.

The gambling bill would see the state take 25 percent of the money generated by slot machines to cover the cost of regulation, highway repair, aid to higher education and North Country economic development. Two other, smaller pots of gambling revenue would be used for other purposes.

Based on experiences in other slot machine states, each of the 5,000 machines would generate between $162.89 per day, the rate in Maine, and $285.98 per day, seen in Connecticut.

That means eager gamblers would be pumping between $297 million and $521 million through New Hampshire's machines every year.

Based on other Northeastern states, the state's share of gamblers' slot machine losses would range from $74 million to just over $130 million. Highways would get 45 percent of that, or between $18.5 million and $58.5 million, equal to 60 percent of the revenue projected by higher gas and diesel taxes.

Campbell said he'll stick to his use of the term "catastrophe'' to describe what he says is the continuing rotting of state roads.

"It was 600 miles of road in 2000, now its 1,600, a third of our total state roads," Campbell said. "I don't apologize for using those words because it's absolutely true."

The House vote this would send the tax to the Ways and Means Committee, where financial and economic implications would receive particular scrutiny. After consideration by that committee, there would be another House vote, then on to the Senate.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Morse says the bill faces slim odds in the upper chamber.

"I don't think this would pass," Morse said last week. "Just talk with people at the pumps paying more for gas and ask them about raising taxes by another 15 cents."

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