By John Toole
---- — Businesses contending with rising fuel prices are worried about the New Hampshire House passing a gas tax increase tomorrow.
“It’s going to hurt our business,” Michael Bellmore, owner of Derry-based King Cab, said yesterday.
“This is ludicrous,” said Paul Hartnett, owner of Derry’s Axis Coach limousine service.
A proposed 15-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase comes up for debate tomorrow.
Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, sponsored House Bill 617 to finance repairs state roadways.
“New Hampshire’s state and municipal roads and bridges are in terrible condition,” Campbell told the House in a written report in support of the bill. “The problem is getting worse each year.”
Campbell proposes raising the gas tax gradually over four years. He said it would generate about $1 billion over the next 10 years to finish the Interstate 93 widening project, replace deteriorating bridges and put more money into town roads.
New Hampshire’s 18-cent-a-gallon tax is the lowest in New England. Massachusetts’ tax is 21 cents, Vermont’s is 19 and Maine is at 30 cents.
The gas tax here was last increased in 1991.
Campbell’s bill received bipartisan, 18-0, support in committee.
He said the committee vote acknowledges the only way to correct the problem of deteriorating infrastructure is to properly fund road work.
But the debate comes as gas prices have surged.
“Gas has gone up 40 cents in the past month,” Bellmore said.
It was worse than that, according to one price survey.
The website GasBuddy.com, which tracks prices, reported New Hampshire saw 32 straight days of rising prices from January into February, climbing from $3.26 per gallon regular to $3.73.
“It’s out of control,” said Andy Carace, owner of Pest-End Exterminators and Pro-Tech Lawn Care, which operates offices in Plaistow, Derry and Methuen.
“We must be spending $15,000 to $20,000 a month,” with more than half of a 28-person workforce on the road, Carace said.
Company fuel expenses have doubled since President Obama took office, he said.
“Gas is too much,” Carace said. “We’re taxed enough.”
A gas tax boost would hurt them, Southern New Hampshire businesses maintain.
“This is going to hurt our profitability,” Bellmore said. “It’s our money, our profit. It is the raises we’d give our drivers if we could afford to.”
Hartnett said the gas tax increase would ratchet down already small profit margins for transportation-focused businesses.
“This would not allow us to hire any more people,” Hartnett said. “I’ll end up going back on the road myself.”
Mark Cianci, whose family operates Salem-based C&C Auto Transport & Equipment, said the gas tax increase would harm business.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re not making money the way it is because fuel prices are going up,” Cianci said.
A gas tax increase can hinder business development.
“We can’t afford to grow,” Cianci said.
Customers also can be hurt.
“That all transfers into going up on prices for hauling,” Cianci said.
That includes consumers who need at-home services.
“Ultimately, the consumer will be paying the additional cost,” Carace said. “That’s the way it works.”
Jake D’s Roast Beef and Pizza in Derry encounters gas expenses from deliveries.
“Fifteen cents is a significant impact,” owner Perry Hanges said yesterday. “It affects our bottom line and it affects our customers’ bottom line.”
Customers have a limited amount of disposable income, something already affected by higher payroll taxes, Hanges said.
“They have to cut back somewhere,” he said.
Less disposable income for consumers is bad for Derry, so a tax increase would be unwelcome, the restaurant owner said.
“It’s definitely going to hurt the consumer,” Hanges said. “It’s going to hurt my business.”
Businesses want the state to look at other options.
“There’s got to be another way to do it,” Hartnett said.
“I have a liberal thought,” Bellmore said. “They should institute an income tax and make people pay who haven’t been paying their fair share.”
He has a group in mind.
“Go find the rich people and tax them,” Bellmore said. “The gas tax is just hitting poor people who have got to work.”
The Legislature does have another idea in mind.
Sens. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Jim Rausch, R-Derry, want the state to license a casino and take revenues from expanded gaming and apply some of them to road work.
“I agree with that,” Carace said.
The Senate is expected to consider the casino bill next month.
Campbell’s report to the House said the gas tax bill would create more than 1,000 new jobs as more money goes into road construction.
“New Hampshire’s present and future taxpayers, the driving public, the state’s tourism industry and overall economy cannot afford to further delay raising sufficient funds to properly fix the state and municipal roads and bridges,” he said.
Gov. Maggie Hassan has yet to take a specific position on the gas tax proposal. She has, however, supported licensing a single casino.
She has said she looks forward to a “consensus solution” to funding the state’s transportation needs.