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NH Senate panel considering bill hiking gas tax

Morgan True, Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Repairing New Hampshire's deteriorating roads and bridges must be a priority for lawmakers, according to testimony at a Senate hearing Tuesday, but opinions were split over where the money should come from: higher taxes at the pump or proceeds from a long-debated casino.

A proposal before the Senate Ways and Means Committee would raise the state's gas and diesel tax 12 cents per gallon over several years but opponents of the idea were keen to back an alternative — legalizing a casino.

Tax hike opponents argue that increasing the gas and diesel tax — collectively known as the road toll, which hasn't been raised in 22 years — would hurt the trucking industry and pass costs to consumers. But they said a Senate-passed casino proposal directing a portion of state gambling revenue to transportation projects provides a nontax alternative.

Many who favor increasing the road toll also said they support expanded gambling in the state, but they don't want to rely on a casino, that has yet to be approved, to cover the state's transportation needs.

"I want to see a casino right on (Interstate) 93, but that's not where we are today," said Kevin Waterhouse, a Windham Republican who serves on the House Public Works and Highways committee. "We need to make sure there will be funding no matter what happens in the house on (the casino bill)."

The Senate passed a casino legalization bill last month, but the House has consistently rejected such proposal over the years.

Supporters say the extra road toll money would go to the state's highway fund, with 12 percent dedicated for municipal aid. The state has more than 1,600 miles of road rated in poor condition, and close to 500 state and municipal bridges it deems structurally deficient and in need of repairs or replacement to continue operating.

According to figures presented by the bill's House sponsor, David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat, the increase would generate close to $634 million over the next 10 years for the highway fund and increase state aid to municipalities for transportation projects by 51 percent.

More money for municipalities is hugely important, said Henry Spencer, a selectman from Effingham. Without it, he his town and many others will be forced to raise property taxes or let municipal roads and bridges fall into greater disrepair.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Chris Clemente said it will be much cheaper for the state to fund repairs now than replace roads and bridges in the future. He urged lawmakers to find a long-term solution for the state highway fund, which has run a deficit for close to a decade.

The legislature has used a series of budgetary patches to shore up the highway fund's deficit, including selling bonds on highway obligations and temporarily raising the Registry of Motor Vehicles surcharge. Most recently, lawmakers sold a stretch of Interstate 95 to the Bureau of Turnpikes. The $120 million was supposed to be paid over 20 years, but much of that is already spent, with the remainder included in the two-year budget that starts in July.

But trucking company operators like Brian Lewis, Vice President of Concord-based New Hampshire Distributors, Inc., said greater efficiency standards are taking vehicles off the road and higher fuel costs are thinning already tight margins. He said an added increase to fuel costs will significantly impact his company's bottom line.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee will make a recommendation to their colleagues before the proposal is put to a full vote. The bill does not face an easy road through the Republican-controlled Senate, where several lawmakers have vocally opposed the measure.