CONCORD— Drivers could be paying more at the pump after the House Wednesday approved a 12-cent gas tax hike to fix the state's crumbling roads and bridges.
The House voted 206-158 to approve House Bill 617, which hikes the state's gasoline from 18 to 30 cents over three years for gasoline and over six years for diesel fuel.
The bill goes to the Senate where key Republicans say it will be killed and opponents say they will take the fight. The Senate has already approved a casino gambling bill which dedicates some of the state's revenue to fix roads and bridges.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, called an earlier version with a 15-cent increase "dead on arrival."
Morse said after Wednesday's vote he has the same view of the smaller tax hike.
"I don't support a gas tax increase," he said. "It's going to hurt the people who can afford it the least."
The bill's prime sponsor, House Public Works and Highways Committee Chairman David Campbell, D-Nashua, asked House members to reject "ideology" and look at "cold, hard facts."
"Intestate 93 will not be finished without new revenue," he said. He said the hike is necessary to replace the Sarah Long Bridge between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine.
"Don't be faint of heart," he told fellow lawmakers. "The people get it. They understand the issue. They just need to know the facts."
And, he said, "every penny" of the increased revenue "will be used for the maintenance and construction and reconstruction of the state's roads and bridges.
"It's plain Yankee common sense," said Campbell, to pay for necessary repairs now "rather than allowing them to grow exponentially by ignoring it."
But House Republican Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, said the tax hike is "simply growing government on the backs of the highway users."
Opponents, led by former House speaker William O'Brien, had complained that about 20 percent of the funds raised under the original bill would go to other uses.
The Ways and Means Committee tried to address that concern by adding a requirement that all money from the increase go to infrastructure, while the diversion of money from the existing 18 cents tax continue.
O'Brien proposed an amendment Wednesday to stop the "diversion" of any gas tax money from roads and bridges, but it was defeated, 217-146.
O'Brien argued Wednesday that U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, as a candidate for governor in 1996, proposed a halt to diverting gas tax money.
O'Brien called it a "false choice" to say that the state faces "a poor highway infrastructure or a 67 percent gas tax increase. That's not your choice today.
"The actual choice is between honest and accurate accounting of state finances or increasing the tax by 67 percent," he said.
New Hampshire's gas tax has stood at 18 cents per gallon since 1991. Republicans said Democrats would regret their votes in favor of the gas tax hike because people cannot afford it and don't want it.
Directly addressing the House majority Democrats, Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said, "Many of you ran on taking care of the little people and now on the other side of your mouth you want to take money out of their pockets."
Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, said "Bottom line, this gas tax is a war on poor people."
The 12-cent increase in the gasoline and diesel tax would produce approximately $817 million over the next 10 years for the state's roads and bridges, with $183 million for municipal roads and bridges.
The House and Ways Committee reduced the increase from 15 to 12 cents a gallon before sending HB 617 back to the House for a final vote.
The earlier version of the bill passed the House on a 207-163 vote on March 7.
In addition to ensuring that all revenue from the increase goes to infrastructure projects, the Ways and Means Committee also added language establishing a committee to study alternatives to the gas tax to pay for improvements to highways and bridges.