By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — A 15-cent increase in the gas tax received preliminary approval in the New Hampshire House yesterday after two hours of debate pitting highway needs against what people can afford.
House Bill 617 moved the bill to the House Ways and Means Committee for more review after a 207-163 vote.
The bill would increase the 18-cent-per-gallon tax for the first time in 22 years. The proposal would phase the 15-cent increase over four years for regular fuel and six years for diesel.
The prime sponsor, Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, told the House the tax hike would help fund critical highway improvements the Legislature repeatedly has put off.
New Hampshire has an infrastructure crisis getting worse by the year, he said.
“Do nothing and the problem becomes bigger and much more expensive,” Campbell said.
The tax increase also would fund completion of the Interstate 93 widening, which is why the Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber of Commerce supports it, he said.
“Without new revenue,” he said, “that project will not be completed.”
Campbell described I-93 as “a clogged and failed artery.”
Rep. Daniel Eaton, D-Stoddard, agreed with Campbell, saying the state is behind on necessary highway work.
“This is an attempt to catch up and get the roads and bridges back where they belong,” Eaton said.
But the proposal concerned others worried about the potential effect on consumers and small businesses.
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said he has received many emails from constituents, telling him they are struggling enough with taxes.
“This is the wrong approach,” Baldasaro said.
He described the proposed tax hike as an attack on the poor and middle class.
Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, D-Manchester, said the proposal is a classic overreach, resulting in an 83 percent increase for taxpayers.
“An 83 percent increase in any tax should be beyond the realm of any consideration here,” Vaillancourt said.
Rep. Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster, described the bill as “another in a series of disturbing tax increases proposed this session.”
House Republican Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, issued a statement after the House vote, calling it the wrong bill at the wrong time.
“Our working families can’t afford another tax increase of any kind,” Chandler said.
The House, on a 251-120 vote, rejected an amendment from former Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, that would have restricted gas tax money for road work, barring the Department of Safety from using the highway fund to pay for state troopers.
“This is a huge tax increase,” O’Brien told the House.
But Rep. Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, who represents Pelham, said the fight over how to use highway funds belongs somewhere else.
“The budget is the place to have that argument,” Jasper said.
The Senate will weigh in later and could block the tax hike proposal.
The Senate is expected to approve a casino bill, Senate Bill 152, that instead would use gaming revenues to help fund highway work.
The developing differences of opinion among the House and Senate on how best to pay for future highway work ultimately could force both the tax and casino issues into the committee of conference process later in the session.
Gov. Maggie Hassan is backing the Senate casino bill, but hasn’t taken a stand on the House gas tax increase.
Hassan has commended both Campbell and Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, sponsor of the casino bill, for their efforts to deal with the highway funding problem.