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March 04. 2013 10:38PM

Former Speaker O'Brien wants gas tax money to go to infrastructure only

CONCORD - State Rep. Bill O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, a former House Speaker, said Monday that instead of raising the state gas tax, the state should prohibit use of the current tax for anything other than fixing roads and bridges.

O'Brien said he intends to propose an amendment on the House floor on Wednesday to "stop raiding the highway fund for spending not directly related to road construction and repairs."

He said his amendment would provide more than enough money to fix decaying roads and bridges.

"I'm trying to address arguments that we have to take care of our roads," O'Brien said. " But we have to do it in a way that means don't have to pay more taxes than necessary."
Lawmakers are considering increasing the state gas tax by 15 cents per gallon over four years to raise $980 million in the next decade to fix and upgrade the state's roads and bridges. Under a 1938 amendment to the state Constitution, money raised from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel that are deposited in the state highway fund must be "used exclusively for the construction, reconstruction and maintenance of public highways ... including the supervision of traffic."

The last several state budgets have called for channeling just under 70 percent of the money raised for the highway fund to the state Department of Transportation for road projects and highway aid to cities and towns.

The rest partially funds other agencies under the "supervision of traffic" clause.

The amendment O'Brien will offer Wednesday is intended to prohibit "draining of 27 percent of the highway fund for things that don't have to do with repair and construction of roads."

O'Brien acknowledged that House-crafted budgets during his days as Speaker allowed highway funds to be diverted to other departments.

"But now, given what we are hearing, that we have a crisis when it comes to maintenance of roads, let's use the money to take care of that," he said.

The Department of Safety would receive about $75 million from highway funds in Gov. Maggie Hassan's proposed budget, an increase of less than 1 percent over the current budget.

Other agencies such as the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, the judicial branch and the highway safety agency receive highway fund dollars for expenses that have traditionally been tied to supervision of traffic.

The Hassan administration said eliminating that use of gas tax revenues for the public safety budget would mean fewer state troopers out supervising traffic.

"O'Brien's amendment would have a devastating impact on public safety, affecting more than 300 state trooper positions that are funded at least in part by highway fund dollars," said Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg, who said the governor's proposed budget would put an additional 15 troopers on the road. House Public Works Committee Chairman David Campbell, who has led the charge for raising the gax tax to pay for road work, said O'Brien could have done what he is trying to do now back in 2011, when he was speaker and Republicans had the votes to override a gubenatorial veto.

"To suggest this at the last minute and leave a hole in the budget and defund troopers is fiscally irresponsible when he had the option to do this when he had a supermajority in the last biennium," Campbell said. "It is filling one hole by creating another of equal size."

O'Brien said public safety officials should compete in the normal budget process for money for troopers, the same way other departments make their cases for legislative funding from the general fund.

"Come into the budget process that is going on now and make a case for (public safety) functions, including continued employment of state troopers," O'Brien said. "It isn't easy, you have to make choices and explain them to people."

House rules provide that legislation such as the gas tax needs to be referred to the Ways and Means Committee by Feb. 28. A canceled session last week meant missing that deadline. It will take a two-thirds vote of the House to suspend that rule and keep the gas tax and other legislation on track.

While Republican leaders assured Speaker Terie Norelli they would agree to the rule suspension, O'Brien said he won't vote for it.

"Those of us who won't vote for suspension of the rules (won't because) doing so would expose our neighbors to a billion dollar tax increase," O'Brien said.

But he said he does not intend to "spend any time" trying to convince 125 Republican colleagues to defy the GOP leadership on the technicality.

wsmith@unionleader.com

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