EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 26, 2013

Free E-ZPass OK for N.H. legislators

Ethics Committee rules on issue; ski passes can't be accepted

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — CONCORD — State lawmakers can accept free E-ZPass transponders from the state Department of Transportation.

That’s the ruling from the Legislative Ethics Committee.

Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, asked the committee for a “ruling on the $30 plus E-Z Pass that is given as a gift to legislators.”

The ethics panel said the combined value of the transponder and prepayment exceeds the $24.99 lawmakers are allowed to accept.

But the panel found the units are not the same as regular E-ZPass transponders used by the public, because they are not valid for use outside the state.

State law lets lawmakers pass free of charge through tolls on New Hampshire highways.

“Thus, the transponders merely expedite the free toll gate passage for legislators mandated by statute, rather than providing anything else of value,” the panel said in its ruling. “Accordingly, we advise that the non-revenue transponders issued to legislators, when used in vehicles bearing legislative plates, are not prohibited gifts.”

Sapareto disagrees with the free transponders and the panel’s ruling.

“I don’t have one. I think it’s unethical,” Sapareto said. “Why do I need to waste taxpayer money for something the law says I get free anyway?”

He would have lawmakers pull into tolls and show their ID or plates because it won’t take much time. Then the state could save on the expense of providing the transponders, he said.

“Can’t you just take the time and go over to the tolls?” he asked.

The number of lawmakers using the transponders wasn’t immediately available, but Sapareto said it’s virtually everyone traveling through tolls to get to the Statehouse.

Sapareto said he’s not so much disappointed in the ethics panel’s ruling as he is in the Legislature and its leadership.

He maintains lawmakers should be setting rules themselves for their behavior.

“We follow the letter of the law, instead of the spirit of the law,” Sapareto said.

He’s not done raising questions about benefits and gifts lawmakers receive.

He said his next question to the panel will be about the free parking around the Statehouse that legislative leaders get.

“That’s not worth more than $25 a year?” Sapareto asked.

He admits such questions annoy some of his colleagues.

“Aw, don’t make waves, don’t stir things up,” he said they tell him.

But he’s not the only one asking these questions.

Rep. Ed Gionet, R-Lincoln, turned to the ethics panel when he was offered three free ski passes for the state-owned Cannon Mountain ski area while serving on an advisory board.

“I thought maybe that was not the right thing to do,” Gionet said.

The ethics panel agreed and applied the ruling not just to Gionet, but to every member of the Legislature.

It barred them from accepting Cannon ski passes, concluding they provided something of value to lawmakers not authorized by law.

“That ruling encompassed all the members of the House,” Gionet said. “That cost my colleagues their passes for skiing.”

He said he felt badly about it because of all legislators do for their state.

“We don’t get paid and we get beat on all the time,” he said.

The ski pass situation to him was just a personal issue.

“I had a personal concern that accepting this is beyond the line of duty,” Gionet said.

The ethics panel saw a difference between the ski passes and the E-ZPass transponders.

“Non-revenue transponders add nothing of value that is not directly authorized in statute,” the panel concluded.

Sapareto rolls his eyes over all this.

“That ski pass is not OK, but the E-ZPass is OK,” he said.

He wants the Legislature to take this all on and apply modern, updated standards.

“That’s our job,” he said.

Lawmakers also get into state parks for free using their legislative IDs or plates, Sapareto said.

State law grants them access to state facilities, he said.

“We may really get $110, $115 or $120 a year,” Sapareto said, pointing to financial benefits lawmakers derive beyond their $100 annual pay.