House passes 15-cent gas tax increase
CONCORD - The House preliminarily approved a 15-cent gas tax increase Wednesday that supporters say is needed to address the state's deteriorating roads and bridges.
After about 2½ hours of debate, the House voted 207-163 to approve House Bill 617 (click for roll call vote), which would raise $980 million over the next 10 years, $30 million in the first year.
Under the bill, the gas tax would increase 15 cents over four years for gasoline and over six years for diesel.
The vote was largely down party lines; only 15 Republicans voted for HB 617 and 10 Democrats voted against it.
The bill goes to the House Ways and Means Committee for review before coming back to the House for a final vote, but is "dead on arrival" in the Senate, according to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem.
"This is the first step in a long legislative process," said the bill's prime sponsor, House Public Works and Highways Committee Chairman Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, after the vote. "It is gratifying to see that the full House recognizes that our infrastructure crisis must be addressed immediately."
Supporters said the bill is needed to restore the state's highway system and will help create jobs and retain and attract businesses to the state.
But opponents argued the state's taxpayers could not afford the 83 percent increase in the gas tax, saying it would most impact the state's most vulnerable citizens. They note the increase would be the biggest in state history.
O'Brien amendment fails
By a 2-to-1 margin, the House rejected an attempt by former House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, to stop diversion of the highway fund to other state agencies, such as the state police. The House rejected the amendment on a 251-120 vote.
O'Brien and others argued the gas tax increase would not be needed if the money were not diverted.
He questioned if there is a real highway infrastructure crisis.
"If you assume there is a crisis, it can't be addressed by plugging the holes in the leaky bucket that is the highway fund," O'Brien said. "If we stop the leaks, we'll have twice as much in this budget than as if you pass the tax increase."
He criticized the House Democratic leadership, saying "It is not right of leadership to ask you to engage in kamikaze legislating."
But supporters say the increase is long overdue.
"The state does have an infrastructure crisis and it's getting worse each year," Campbell said. "If we do not face this, it could become a catastrophe, not just a crisis."
He said voting for the bill is the fiscally responsible thing to do. The longer the state waits, the more roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, which will cost more and more to repair.
"I am asking you to build a new bridge today, a bridge that spans partisanship and ejects shortsightedness," Campbell said.
He and others said lawmakers have been derelict over the last decade and now have to face the music.
18 to 33 cents a gallon
Some opponents noted something does need to be done to fix the state's highways and bridges, but raising the gas tax 15 cents is not the way to accomplish that.
Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, said he was prepared to vote for a modest increase in the gas tax, but not one of the size proposed in HB 617.
"Raising the gas tax from 18 to 33 cents a gallon represents a classic overreach, an overreach on steroids, an overreach run amuck," Vaillancourt said. "This goes beyond what has ever been done in this House on any tax ever."
Republican House leadership opposed the bill.
"Our roads and bridges do need attention, but this is the wrong bill at the wrong time. Our working families can't afford another tax increase of any kind," said House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett. "Our economy is still fragile and taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the pockets of New Hampshire consumers is not the solution to the problem."
No go in Senate?
Morse, who is one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 152, which would allow a casino in New Hampshire and allocates some of the state revenues to road and bridge repairs, said the bill will not fly in the Senate.
"Despite the House's determination to increase the state's gas tax, this bill will be dead on arrival when it reaches the Senate," Morse said. "HB 617 creates unnecessary pain at the pumps. It hurts the little guy who can least afford it and businesses that continue to struggle in an economy that is still stuck in neutral."
He said taxpayers would be better served by pursuing non-tax revenues to pay for road and bridge repairs."
The House vote was also criticized by Americans for Prosperity-NH.
"Unfortunately today the New Hampshire House continued its war on energy consumers," said Greg Moore, state director. "After recently passing a 25 percent increase on heating oil, the House voted to increase the gas tax by 83 percent, meaning that New Hampshire taxpayers will now have to pay an additional $3 when they fill their tanks. This is an irresponsible and unnecessary burden upon NH taxpayers."
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold another public hearing on the bill before deciding on its recommendation.