House gas tax backer admits his 'timing was unfortunate'
CONCORD - The leading proponent of raising the state gas tax admitted Tuesday his "timing was unfortunate" when he referred to some of the proceeds as "the gift that keeps on giving."
An initial vote in the House had been scheduled for today, but Speaker Terie Norelli cancelled today's session based on forecasts of heavy snow. The gas tax vote was put off until next Wednesday.
Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, sent an email last Friday referencing money from the gas tax that will be used for the Fish and Game Department, the Department of Resources and Economic Development's trail fund and the state's general fund.
Critics suggested the statement showed that tax supporters wanted higher taxes for more than just highways and bridge work.
Former House speaker Bill O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, was quick to criticize Campbell for his remark, calling it contrary to Campbell's "public posture that 'every dollar' will be going to roads."
"My comments were taken wrongly by some people," Campbell said in response to questions from members of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, which he chairs.
Campbell is the chief sponsor of the legislation, which would raise the state gas tax 15 cents over four years. The state constitution provides that money that goes into the highway fund can only be used for road projects. A 1967 state Supreme Court opinion ruled the gas tax is really a
toll paid for use of state roads, and not a tax.
The advisory opinion for the Legislature said since the state sets money aside to refund taxes collected on fuel used in off-road vehicles, that money is never part of the highway fund. Refund money that goes uncollected can be used for any purpose.
People who use gas in snowmobiles, boats and other off-road equipment can get a refund on the tax, but it has to be at least $10 - 55 gallons at the current rate - and they have to file a form found on an obscure page on the Department of Safety website. (See Page A1.)
Not a gift
Campbell said his email was intended to let the chairs of committees overseeing budgets that get unclaimed refund money know what to expect, since higher taxes would mean more money set aside for refunds.
Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire said Tuesday that Campbell's comments "demonstrate his commitment to big government and a major disregard for New Hampshire taxpayers."
"Tax dollars are not a gift to the government. Tax money generated in this state represents the hard work of New Hampshire families and businesses and for Rep. Campbell to refer to taxes raised as 'bonus monies' is egregious and insulting," said Corey Lewandowski, AFP-NH state director.
Campbell accused the tax foes who seized on his comments of trying to stir up a controversy to take attention away from what he says is the need for money to fix roads and bridges.
"It doesn't change the issue; the issue is our roads and the issue is bridges. They are in bad, bad shape," Campbell said. "If we don't fund them, we are going to have a catastrophe on our hands; those who want to pick at anything will find some reason to be against it."
House Republican leader "Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, suggested the back-and-forth between Campbell and tax foes sharpens the debate, but may not affect the way members of the House vote.
"I'm not sure it will change any minds; it might reinforce some people's positions who are thinking one way or the other," Chandler said. "He thought that was the best way to defend his bill and talk about it - it was probably a poor choice of words."
Public Works Committee Vice Chair John Cloutier, R-Claremont, said it was all a tempest in a teapot.
"Opponents are looking for anything they can use to discredit this bill, so they just jumped on it," Cloutier said. "Any one of us could make a mistake like that. They jumped on it - they're out to kill this bill."
Committee member Peter Ramsey, D-Manchester, who questioned Campbell about the controversial statements during a public session of the committee, said he wanted to satisfy himself that there was no plan to spend money touted as being for roads and bridges for some other purpose.
"If there was going to be a diversion, I would vote against it," Ramsey said.
The first vote on the gas tax bill is now scheduled for next Wednesday. Under House rules, since the bill raises a tax or fee, it must be referred to the Ways and Means Committee before receiving a final House vote.