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Garry Rayno's Under the State House Dome: Fuel tax vote slated in Senate

By Garry Rayno
New Hampshire Union Leader

March 22. 2014 10:31PM

THE SENATE will vote on a 4.2 cent gas and diesel tax increase Thursday in a deal to complete the Interstate 93 expansion, replace the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge and remove the Exit 12 toll booth on the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

The House will vote on a $3 billion, 10-year highway improvement plan this week, and the two bills have been tied together as lawmakers try to find a way to complete what they consider essential projects and repair the state's crumbling highway system.

The Senate Finance Committee and House Public Works and Highway Committee have come up with a plan that uses bonds funded by future federal highway money earmarked for New Hampshire and $200 million in new bonds.

The deal would allow not only for the completion of the I-93 expansion between Salem and Manchester, but also two key projects that the House committee believes have to be done: replacing the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge and expanding Route 101 in Bedford for two miles beyond the intersection with Route 114 and Boynton Street.

House Public Works Chairman David Campbell, D-Nashua, said that section of Route 101 "is probably the most dangerous section of road in the state."

He noted the road is way above capacity and sees frequent accidents.

The Sarah Long is the state's No. 1 red-listed bridge, but Campbell said that is not the only reason to replace it. There are significant economic reasons, too, he said.

The current structure is too narrow for the next generation of freight tankers carrying oil, propane, salt and other products into Portsmouth Harbor. In addition, the Navy uses the bridge's railroad trestle to carry spent nuclear fuel rods from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, he said, and if that was no longer possible, the facility would probably close during the next round of base shutdowns.

Maine and New Hampshire would split the cost of the $160 million project.

The House committee decided to take $1.2 million a year earmarked for guardrail replacement and use it for secondary road rehabilitation projects, and it redirected $1.1 million from turnpike exit renumbering to paving projects on rural roads.

Campbell said the committee also decided how it would want the money spent if a 4.2 cent gas tax was approved. With the $32 million increase, $12 million would be allocated to reconstruct about 36 miles of the worst roads, $13 million to pave about 190 miles of roads in fair condition, and $7 million a year in additional money for municipal bridge aid.

"We have a list of roads and bridges for (fiscal 2015)," Campbell said. "Beyond that, it's up to the Finance Committee next year."

The Senate gas tax agreement allocates the $32 million the same way for 2015.

"The plan is heavy on maintenance and preservation of the infrastructure there now," Campbell said, "and low on new projects."

The Senate appears to have 14 or 15 votes for the gas tax increase, which would be the first since 1991, but the bill has a poison pill: the elimination of the Exit 12 tolls on the F.E. Everett in Merrimack.

The House has traditionally opposed eliminating existing tolls, and this will be a hard sell. Former Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, has pushed for the elimination, but the House Public Works Committee opposed it and wanted it considered in developing an overall turnpike toll plan.

The gas tax, Senate Bill 367, will almost certainly end up in a conference committee at the end of the session, with a likely showdown over Exit 12.

That worries some who believe the roads and bridges are in the worst shape they have been in in some time.

"People come up to me as chair of the Public Works Committee and say it seems like the roads are worse than they have ever been this spring," Campbell said. "The answer is they are because they were worse when they started off. Roads that have not buckled before buckle now. That's what happens when you get behind the maintenance curve."

Medicaid Expansion: For the second time this year, the House will vote to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act Tuesday, sending Senate Bill 413 to Hassan and her signature.

The New Hampshire Health Protection Program establishes a two-and-a-half year pilot program that would end if the state does not receive federal approval for program provisions or if federal government does not pay 100 percent of the costs.

The program would provide private health insurance to about 50,000 low-income, working people paid for by federal Medicaid dollars.

About 12,000 people who qualify and have insurance through their employers would begin coverage under an existing state program to pay premiums in four to six weeks. The other 38,000 would go onto the state's Medicaid managed-care program July 1 and then move to private insurance during 2016 if a waiver was approved by March 31, 2015. If the waiver is denied, the program would end in six months.

The bill crafted by Senate Republican and Democratic leaders would set in place a compromise lawmakers had not been able to achieve in 15 months of negotiations until six weeks ago.

The compromise requires at least three waivers from the Center for Medicaid Services, but would begin without the most significant, which would allow the state to use private insurers to cover those whose income is between 0 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, and other Republicans want to change the bill so the program would not begin until the state has the waiver it needs for the private insurance. The proposed amendment is nearly identical to one proposed by Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, that was rejected by the House Finance Committee on a party line vote.

Republicans will also attempt to cap the program at 60,000 residents, or $400 million annually, but that is not any more likely to be approved than the other change.

The program is expected to bring in about $340 million annually for the state's health care providers once it is running at capacity.

The outcome is not in doubt, and Tuesday's vote to approve the Senate bill without changes will send it to Hassan's desk and eventually into law.

The only question about Tuesday's vote is how long the debate will last and whether former Speaker Bill O'Brien's followers will apply their method of filibuster as they did last week, dragging out debates on a gun bill, a paint disposal program and a fetal homicide bill.

However, at the end of the day, New Hampshire is almost certain to join 26 other states and Washington, D.C., in expanding Medicaid eligibility. Currently New Hampshire is one of six states that have yet to decide.

Common Core: The new Common Core education standards developed by the national school superintendents and governors associations are controversial, but bills delaying or halting their implementation in the state received little attention.

Six bills dealing with Common Core either by delaying or eliminating implementation, questioning the Department of Education's authority to adopt the standards, or protecting the privacy of student results will all be before the House this week.

Not surprisingly, not one of the bills comes with a recommendation it be approved. Instead, the recommendations from the House Education Committee are to kill three of the bills and send the rest to interim study, a polite way to kill a bill, particularly in the second year of a legislative term.

The next Legislature, elected in the fall, has no obligation to do anything with any recommendation that might result from the study. In most cases, the bills are never studied and are just left to die quietly.

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