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March 05. 2013 1:10PM

O'Brien says supporters of higher gas tax could face fallout

CONCORD - Former House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, warned lawmakers thinking of supporting an increase in the state gasoline tax that a vote in favor of the increase will be turned against them in the next election.

"We'll be interested to talk to the voters about those representatives who think a billion dollar tax increase is something they want to go into the next election having supported," O'Brien said.

Backers of the gas tax increase say it will raise $980 million over the next decade -- $30 million in the first year of the increase.

O'Brien, who did not seek a leadership position in the current Legislature, held a news conference Tuesday to continue to bang the political drum against the proposed 15-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax over the next four years. The former speaker plans to offer an amendment Wednesday to stop what he terms the "diversion" of money from the state highway fund, claiming the result would be "more than enough" money to make needed repairs.

O'Brien's proposal is based on accepting the idea that roads and bridges need work, but he questioned claims that the state faces a "crisis."

"I certainly question the severity of the problem as professed by some of the proponents of this tax increase," O'Brien said. "But I'm willing to say we can do more."

House Transportation Committee Chairman Carolyn Bouchard suggested the claim of crisis is based on advice from experts.

"I trust the (Department of Transportation), I trust our engineers from DOT," Bouchard said. "I'm not an engineer. (O'Brien) is not an engineer. DOT is doing their job in letting us know what the conditions of the roads and bridges are."

O'Brien said supporters of the gas tax increase endorsed by the House Public Works Committee last week may pay his threatened political price with nothing to show for it if the Senate kills any House-passed tax bill.

"I would find it interesting that there would be representatives who, knowing it not to be a solution, would nonetheless go into the next election having supported a $1 billion tax increase," O'Brien said.

One Senate Democrat agreed Tuesday there are still 13 solid Republican votes against a gas tax increase. Bouchard wouldn't predict the fate of any House-passed gas tax bill in the Senate but was wary of claims of extensive political fallout for tax hike supporters.

"I think the people of New Hampshire know we have a problem with our highways and bridges, our infrastructure," Bouchard said. "Our surrounding states have a higher gas tax than we do, yet a lot of times prices on the Mass. border, the Maine border are higher; the only people making money off New Hampshire's gas tax being so low are the oil companies."

The full House will take up the gas tax increase Wednesday and decide whether to send it to the chamber's Ways and Means Committee for further review.

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