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Dave Solomon has been a reporter or editor for New England news organizations since 1977. He has served as executive editor of both the Portsmouth Herald and the Nashua Telegraph. He joined the reporting staff of the New Hampshire Union Leader in 2012.

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February 25. 2013 4:27PM

John DiStaso's Granite Status: Sponsor calls proposed gas tax hike “gift that keeps on giving”

MONDAY, FEB. 25: CAMPBELL'S EMAIL. The chief sponsor of legislation to raise the gas tax by 15 cents over four years called the plan "the gift that keeps on giving" in a recent email to top Democratic members of the powerful New Hampshire House Finance Committee.


"As my father used to say, 'Don't spend it all in one place!" Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, wrote on Friday in explaining that his gas tax hike bill will generate "bonus monies" for purposes not directly associated with highways, roads and bridges.
(For earlier Granite Status items, click on "Granite Status" above.)


With the House set to vote on the plan on Wednesday, Campbell wrote that in addition to raising about $800 million over the next 10 years for Interstate 93, red list bridges, more than 1,600 miles of state roads and more than $200 million in additional municipal aid for infrastructure, the tax hike will also provide additional money for the state general fund and other departments.


Campbell wrote that he had been informed by the Department of Safety's Bureau of Tolls that his bill would generate "unrefunded road toll (gas tax) revenue" totaling millions in the next five years.


When his proposed four-step gas tax hike is fully phased in, Campbell wrote, it will generate $1.25 million annually for the Fish and Game Department, $658,000 annually for the general fund and $593,000 annually for the Department of Resources and Economic Development's Bureau of Trails.


Under Campbell's bill, the gas tax would increase by 15 cents over four years -- 4 cents-a-year in each of the next three years and 3 cents in the fourth year.


Bob Sculley, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, said he saw the Campbell email.


"We already don't like the bill," he said. "It's a horrible bill. But what concerns me is that besides the additional tax burden of nearly $1 billion on highway users, a portion of it will be used for non-highway uses.


"If this passes, I would recommend strongly that our board take legal action against the State of New Hampshire for violating Article 6-A of the constitution," Sculley said. "It would be a no-brainer."


Campbell told the New Hampshire Union Leader that while he should have been more serious in his language, the use of some gas tax revenue for other purposes is legitimate, legal and has been on the books for many years.


"I interjected a little humor in my cover sheet," he said. "If that offended people I apologize. But it doesn't change the numbers. It doesn't change the way we've been presenting this all along."


Campbell said that under state law, Granite Staters can be refunded a portion of gas tax money they spend on gasoline for "non-highway purposes," such as boats, snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and even chainsaws and lawn mowers.


Campbell wrote in an email, "Most people, being unaware of the law or choosing not to, do not submit these receipts and the unrefunded (gas tax) revenue is distributed in accordance with the statutes.


"If everyone filed for a refund, there would be no money for these state agencies," he wrote.


"If anything it's good that it's being publicized," he said in an interview. "People can take advantage of that."


Campbell said some large marinas "factor (the gas tax portion) out of their prices because they have the technology to do that, but most places don't. And most people don't take advantage of the refund."


Campbell wrote in his email that his proposed distribution of the revenue from the gas tax hike does not include the "unrefunded" non-highway money, "meaning that what has been represented all along as the revenue raised by the increased (gas tax) going exclusively for highway purposes is accurate."


Republican former House speaker Bill O'Brien said Monday Campbell's language was "incautious" and could lead many House members to oppose the proposal.


"That's certainly language that I don't think he'll use in debate unless someone asks him about his use of it," O'Brien said. "And someone just might ask him about it.


"How many times do we have to be reminded that email is a very dangerous thing?" asked O'Brien. "We tend to write emails as if we're talking to each other, but it's in writing and it lives there."


O'Brien wrote in an email to Campbell that using the funds for other departments "is contrary to your public protestations that 'every dollar' of the gas tax hike will be going to roads.


"This is such an expected (and heretofore,undisclosed) multi-million dollar windfall (taken, of course, from the wallets of our constituents, who are already paying 50 cents more a gallon for gas since the election), that you went on to advise the Democratic leaders who received your email that they 'don't spend it all in one place.'"


O'Brien said he did not appreciate Campbell's humor.


"For a middle income family in New Hampshire, paying another $2 or $3 every time they fill up their car, on top of the additional $5 or $10 they already have to add to that fill-up since the election in November, isn't really humorous," he said.


"We shouldn't make our constituents pay for our jokes. Any we shouldn't backfill for irresponsible spending by adding taxes."


"It's very cavalier language," said Sculley of the 350-member motor transport association. "It reminds me of (former transportation commissioner) Chuck O'Leary recommending (in 1994) that people 'Drive fast and don't look back'" when crossing New Hampshire bridges.


Although the Campbell plan received a unanimous, bipartisan vote of "ought to pass" by the public works committee last week, House Republican Leader Gene Chandler said he opposes it.


"It's a pretty ambitious plan," he said.


Regarding Campbell'ss choice of words in his email, Chandler said simply, "David is promoting his bill."

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