CONCORD, N.H. — Paying to fix New Hampshire's deteriorating highways is shaping up as a choice between legalizing video slots and increasing the gas tax.
The gas tax has been 18 cents for 22 years. House Public Works and Highways Chairman David Campbell, a Democrat with support from a former GOP House Finance chairman, is sponsoring a bill to increase it 12 cents and to raise registration fees over three years. The money would be used to pay to complete the widening of Interstate 93 from the Massachusetts border to Manchester and to fix ailing roads and bridges.
Democratic State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro also has on his side a powerful Republican, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse, and he's sponsoring a bill to legalize 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games in one casino.
Whether gamblers or drivers finance the fix isn't likely to be decided until the budget is acted on in June.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan — unlike her predecessor — opened the door a crack during the campaign to raising the gas tax to fix deteriorating highways as well as to a casino to provide revenue for the state government. Hassan said last week she is focusing on building consensus around a revenue source.
New Hampshire looks like a state with a case of measles when looking at a map of deficient bridges. Each red dot represents one of more than 350 municipal bridges on the state's red list — those most in need of repair. Another 140 bridges owned by the state are on the list.
Similarly, squiggly red lines represent state roads in poor condition.
The 1,565 miles of roads in poor condition would stretch from Concord to Fargo, North Dakota. The 1,867 miles in fair condition would continue on from Fargo to Lake Watson in the Yukon. And the 828 miles in good condition — mostly the interstate and turnpike system that benefited from federal stimulus funding improvements — would run the rest of the way from Lake Watson to Anchorage, Alaska.
D'Allesandro, of Manchester, and Morse, of Salem, propose using almost half the revenues from legalizing a casino for highways. The rest would be earmarked to public universities and possibly economic development.
Neither legislator could provide an estimate of the gambling revenues. The proposed licensing fee would be $80 million and would not be available until next year's budget at the earliest.
Senate Republican Leader Jeb Bradley, of Wolfeboro, and Morse insist the Senate must first debate whether to legalize video slots before dividing the profits.
"I think we know we are falling further behind in our ability to have an infrastructure people can depend on," he added.
But bipartisan support for infrastructure improvements may not be enough. The House has killed dozens of gambling bills over the years, and Senate opposition to a gas tax increase is likely to be just as strong.
"It's a $147 million tax on the citizens of New Hampshire," Morse said of Campbell's gas tax bill.
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Campbell, of Nashua, said the latest estimates are that the bill would raise less — $122 million in the third year. He argues legalizing one casino to compete with three proposed resort casinos in Massachusetts won't raise enough money and, unlike the gas tax, is not constitutionally earmarked for highways. He argues that someone driving 10,000 miles a year and burning 500 gallons of gas will pay about $60 more under his bill. The registration fee hike for cars would be $5 each of the next three years.
Campbell points to the nearly two dozen bridges that have been closed over the past two years as reason to act now. He also argues the tax increase won't be reflected penny-for-penny in gas prices. New Hampshire's tax rate is the lowest in New England, yet gas can be found cheaper in nearby states, he said.
He faces a strong foe in the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, whose 325 trucking company members oppose the bill because it also raises the diesel tax and registration fees. Association President Bob Sculley said the cost to truckers would be an unaffordable $1,875 more per year.
"If we have to drive around a (closed) bridge, that's what we'll have to do," he said.
But Campbell said New Hampshire can't keep ignoring the problem. He characterizes New Hampshire's approach as ignoring a roof whose shingles have blown off by sticking a bucket to catch the drip from bad weather. Next, the blue tarp goes up and finally the roof caves in, he said.
"The drip is coming down. We've got a lot of buckets," he said.
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