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Another View -- Diana Lacey: Union Leader editorial got gas tax hearing all wrong

March 06. 2014 10:54PM

I was present for DOT Commissioner Chris Clement’s testimony before the Senate Ways and Means Committee on February 18th. The Union Leader’s follow-up editorial wrongly, and quite unfairly, captured what occurred.

Bill sponsor, Sen. Jim Rausch, faced several questions by Senate President Chuck Morse. It was Sen. Morse who raised, multiple times, questions regarding potential revenue from a casino bill before the Legislature, contrary to what was reported in your editorial. In fact, his questions were more like suggestions.

He asked if casino revenue would help the infrastructure funding problem. Rausch said that it could, however the casino bill doesn’t specifically require the revenue to go to infrastructure. Rausch noted casino revenue estimates are insufficient to correct the upcoming funding deficit for our roads.

Morse questioned whether remaining unfunded road work should be given to local communities to take over. Translation: downshift state responsibility and increase pressure on property taxes.

Morse again raised casino revenue as a better funding option with Clement. Clement responded that it would be insufficient and that he was not there to weigh in on what the “right” revenue source was, but instead was there to explain the impact of the gas tax bill. Morse asked whether the state should just focus on widening I-93, again mentioning leaving more state roads for local communities to take responsibility for and casino revenue. Sen. Bob Odell did indeed refocus the interchange back to the gas tax.

Clement attended the hearing because that is the Legislature’s expectation of state agency heads; he answered their detailed questions. They actually called for more information from Clement than the extensive data he brought to them. For the record, Clement has repeatedly, publicly stated that he is “revenue agnostic.”

Surprising news from the hearing, which appeared absent in media reports, was Sen. Morse’s suggestion that the solution may be to downshift (pass the buck) responsibility for most state roads to communities. Note he never asserted he believed casino revenue was enough to fix the entire problem, nor did he contend there wasn’t a problem or that Clement was crying wolf.

Most taxpayers would strongly object to either of the suggestions Morse raised in the hearing (both carry the same impact). Maintenance costs will increase through downshifting. Towns will not be able to pass sufficient local road user fees as an alternative revenue source to pay for these costs; they will be forced to raise property taxes or leave more roads to deteriorate. Many New Hampshire communities already struggle to meet their responsibilities, which were exacerbated by other downshifting the Legislature authorized in recent years.

Downshifting these costs to New Hampshire property tax payers is unfair. There are significant economies of scale in maintaining DOT responsibility for state-owned roads and bridges. It is a longstanding, strong marriage of public and private resources that handle this vast workload; and the New Hampshire business community supports this bill because it is a fair and reasonable solution.

Most taxpayers want safer roads, not more dangerous. They also want to avoid the vehicle damage that pot holes create. The gas tax increase is a reasonable, fair way to save our roads. It maximizes cost efficiencies, saves hundreds of public and private sector jobs throughout the state, doesn’t raise property taxes, and it doesn’t let tourists drive for free here. Even if you drive 20,000 miles annually in New Hampshire and only get 20 mpg, the increase is less than a pack of chewing gum a week. Saving our roads will be far more costly if we pay for them with property taxes.

Diana Lacey is president of the State Employees’ Association.

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