State Rep. William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, and other Republicans in the New Hampshire House will propose a floor amendment March 6 to divert millions of dollars in highway funds from the state Department of Safety and other projects into direct road construction. It's one GOP effort to move up projects and derail a proposed 15 cent gas tax increase which purports to raise $1 billion during the next 10 years.
The House is scheduled to debate and vote on the gas tax proposal, sponsored by Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, on Wednesday.
In response to O'Brien's proposal, Campbell said, via email:
“I agree with the former Speaker that we should work cooperatively, in a non-divisive and bi-partisan manner to fix New Hampshire Highways & Bridges, and I am very gratified that he acknowledges we need to keep our roads repaired and that New Hampshire has ‘pressing highway needs.
“What we disagree on is how to most completely and fairly fund those repairs over the long term at both the state and municipal level. Representative O’Brien’s floor amendment plugs the hole in the State Highway budget by creating a $75 million annual hole in the Department of Safety. This proposal would devastate the State Police force and public safety and it is unclear what impact this would have on the Department of Motor Vehicles which directly serves the public in the registration and licensing of automobiles. This amendment further eliminates the urgently needed financial aid to New Hampshire towns & cities for their deteriorating infrastructure. Without this funding, the economies of these communities will deteriorate rapidly, which in turn hurts the economy of the entire state.”
Currently, monies from an 18-cent per gallon gas tax as well as Department of Motor Vehicle fees are put into a state highway fund. Most of the $250 million-plus in that fund – increased to 73 percent starting in July – will go into road construction and repair. Another 27 percent is spent at the Department of Safety and other programs.
O’Brien and state Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, said for far too long, under both Republican and Democratic leaderships, a portion of the monies for highway funds, about $80 million, has been spent on other things. Pointing to a bucket on a table with factoids taped to side of the bucket, O’Brien stated that a re-diversion of the funds back into highway and bridge repairs, would alleviate the need for a new gas tax.
“If we just stop this diversion, if we just plug the leaky bucket, no tax increase is needed at all,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien, however, took it a step further and challenged the assertion that there were any dire problems with roads and bridges that were emergencies. He wondered how long a bridge or road could be on a red list – for years or decades – without falling down. But even if there were such roads and bridges, he said, the repairs could be made and the 10-year plan could be pushed up to seven or eight years without a tax increase.
O’Brien called criticism to his proposal “a classic bait and switch argument” and called on the Department of Safety to make its case for funding “just as every other agency has come in … and ask the Legislature to weigh its needs against other needs,” just like social service agencies and the university system has done.
“These choices are hard choices but they’re necessary choices,” he said. “What is not necessary is in these times of our neighbors, the taxpayers of New Hampshire, paying these huge federal tax increases, not finding jobs, that we give them the biggest tax increase in history … now is the time for some budget honesty.”
Ober said the gas tax bill had “significant issues” and failed to address the issue of hybrids and electric cars “pay their share” of highway and road construction costs and it is why the proposal was a failure.
Greg Moore, the new director of NH-Americans for Prosperity, an opponent of the gas tax, said the group would be working to block the increase. He said the increase is the largest tax increase in the state’s history and an ongoing effort to harm energy consumers in the state. Moore said the gas tax would amount to about $3 per fill-up, per consumer, or about what a gallon of milk or a pound of hamburger costs.
“While some of us might be able to afford that, many New Hampshire residents that are struggling will have to make a difficult decision,” he said. “When the sponsor of the gas tax calls this ‘the gift that keeps giving,’ we’d wish he’dspend a little more time thinking about the people he’d be taking from.”
Ray Chadwick, the vice president of Granite State Taxpayers, also spoke out against the proposal.
In giving a short response in favor of the gas tax and challenging the amendment, state Rep. Candace Bouchard, D-Concord, said it was constitutional to allow the Department of Safety to be funded via the highway fund, noting that state troopers and public safety were indeed connected to the highways.
She said a portion of the money would be handed down to cities and towns to pay for their road projects, and allowing for property tax relief. Later, after it was pointed out that property taxes rarely – if ever – go down and this proposal wouldn’t actually deliver property tax relief, Bouchard clarified her point, saying that the increase in funds would allow cities and towns more flexibility with funds and more projects to be done on a faster timetable.