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March 14. 2013 8:16PM

Former House speaker says state is diverting tax money

CONCORD ­- It was a battle of the buckets at the State House on Thursday, as proponents and opponents of an increase in the state's gasoline tax squared off in Representatives Hall during a well-attended hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Former House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, brought his green plastic paint bucket full of holes to make a point: the state highway fund is constantly being drained for other purposes. It's the same bucket he brought out at a press conference earlier in the month when he began his battle against the gas tax increase proposed by Nashua Democrat David Campbell.

On Thursday, Campbell brought out a bucket of his own to bring attention to an amendment to the gas tax legislation that would ensure every new penny raised goes to fix the state's roads and bridges. His big red bucket with a large lock had two pennies attached to the top, and a sign that read: "Every Penny to Roads and Bridges."

The visuals captured the deep divide in the state Legislature over how to fund repairs to state and locally controlled roads and bridges over the next 10 years.

Campbell testified on behalf of his legislation, which would increase the tax drivers pay at the pump by 15 cents in increments of 4 cents each year for the next three years, and 3 cents in the fourth year. The current tax is 18 cents a gallon, and would rise to 33 cents over the four-year period.

The House of Representatives voted 207-163 to approve the legislation on March 6. The bill (HB 617) is now before the House Ways and Means Committee, where it could be modified before returning to the full House for a final vote. It is expected to face tough opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Campbell showed the committee data that suggest the state has fallen way behind on its goal of repaving 500 miles of road per year, and has 140 red-listed bridges in need of repair. Cities and towns in the state have 353 bridges of their own that need attention, he said.

"We need to fix our state roads; we need to fix our town roads," he said. "And we need the money to do it through our Department of Transportation."

Campbell said he had heard from voters and lawmakers that the increase might be more palatable if it was 100 percent protected for road and highways, and not diverted to any other purposes in the state budget. "People have told me, we'll support a higher gas tax, but we want every penny to go to roads and bridges," he said.

While the amendment Campbell promoted at the hearing would ensure that every penny of the increase goes to roads and bridges, all of the money raised by the existing tax is not affected, and would still be diverted to other purposes, like funding the state police or other functions in the Department of Safety.

O'Brien said it's time for the practice to stop. Existing law allows 27 percent of the money raised from the gas tax to be used for other purposes. Through various legislative maneuvers, that percentage has gone beyond 30 percent in recent years.

O'Brien's green bucket was plastered with stickers illustrating what other state departments have gotten from the highway fund in the past two years, including $153 million to the Department of Safety; $592,784 to the Department of Resources and Economic Development, and $435,976 to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The former house speaker argued that if those diversions were stopped, there would be plenty of money to fund the needed repairs with no tax increase.

"The Department of Safety should come in before the Legislature and argue for its needs like other departments, and not just get automatically funded through diversion of funds that are raised for one purpose and used for something else altogether," he said.

Critics argued that O'Brien's plan plugs one leak but creates other leaks all over the state budget, including $75 million a year for the Department of Safety.

The committee also heard testimony on two amendments to raise the tax by smaller amounts. One sponsored by House Ways and Means Vice Chair Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, would increase the levy by four cents each year for three years, while another by Bedford Republican John Cebrowski, a member of the Finance Committee, would allow for a seven-cent increase over two years, with four cents in the first year.

"Fifteen cents would never, ever make it through the Senate," he said, "but seven cents gives us a chance. And that's what I'd like ... a chance."

Just before the hearing started, Americans for Prosperity, which advocates for limited government and lower taxes, held a press conference in the Legislative Office Building to unveil a petition drive to oppose any gas or diesel tax increase. The petition is online at www.stopnhgastax.com.

"NH families and businesses are already struggling. Now is the worst possible time to increase the cost of an essential commodity like gasoline and diesel," said Greg Moore, AFP state director.


dsolomon@unionleader.com


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