CONCORD, N. H. (AP) — The state shouldn't raise the gas tax to pay for needed highway repairs, Rep. William O'Brien said in an email to his colleagues on Monday.
Instead, the Republican former House speaker announced he will introduce a floor amendment before a vote on the increase on Wednesday. He said the amendment would eliminate expenditures from the highway fund for any purpose other than road and bridge projects.
"We shouldn't be raising alarm among voters about deficient roads and bridges" and then spending that money for other purposes, O'Brien said in an interview following his announcement.
The state has more than 1,600 miles of road rated in poor condition. It has red-listed 140 state and 355 municipal bridges, meaning it deems them structurally deficient and recommends they be closed until they can be repaired or replaced.
Several agencies besides the Department of Transportation receive money out of the highway fund. The Department of Safety receives the largest amount after transportation, close to $75 million of nearly $260 million appropriated annually to the highway fund. All the other agencies receive a combined $3 million.
Democratic Rep. David Campbell, sponsor of the gas tax increase, said O'Brien's proposed solution "plugs a hole in the state highway budget by creating a hole in the safety budget."
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan's office said in a statement Monday that cutting the Department of Safety out of highway funds would have a "devastating" effect on public safety and jeopardize more than 300 state trooper positions that are paid for in part with highway money.
The state's gas tax, 18 cents per gallon, is the lowest in the Northeast and hasn't been raised since 1991. Campbell's bill, which was approved unanimously by the bipartisan committee where it was introduced, would raise the tax 4 cents in each of the first three years and 3 cents in the final year, for a total increase of 15 cents by 2017. Revenue from the tax increase would be enough to fully fund the state's 10-year transportation plan and reduce the number of roads and bridges in poor condition, according to figures Campbell provided.
O'Brien said if Campbell and others are selling the gas tax increase as necessary to pay for road improvements, then that's how the money raised from it should be spent. If the Department of Safety or others need additional money they should include that in their budget request, he said, adding it shouldn't come out of the highway fund. He did not indicate where additional money for safety might come from, acknowledging that his proposal would force legislators into difficult decisions.
The former speaker pointed to a longstanding debate over the constitutionality of using highway funds to pay for things not directly related to construction, reconstruction and maintenance of state highways. Campbell argued that the state constitution allows highway funds to be spent for traffic supervision and much of that responsibility falls to state troopers.
O'Brien and Campbell said that taking money out of the highway fund for other agencies is a decades-old budgetary practice used by the legislature — one that occurred during O'Brien's tenure as speaker.
Campbell said he hopes the debate on the gas tax increase, before the Wednesday vote, will focus on his bill, which he said is legitimized by the legislative process. He said he's pleased to hear O'Brien acknowledge the state has a road and bridge crisis.