CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire's House debated for two hours Wednesday before voting to phase in a 15-cent increase in the gas and diesel fuel tax to help fix deteriorating roads and bridges.
The bill calls for increasing the tax on gas over four years and on diesel over six years.
The 207-163 vote sent the bill to the House's tax-writing committee for further review before the House takes a final vote. If it passes a second time, the bill will go to the Senate, where it faces powerful opponents who are pushing gambling revenues as a better way to fund the highway improvements. The gambling bill is expected to pass the Senate next week, but the House has rejected dozens of such bills over the years.
"Despite the House's determination to increase the state's gas tax, this bill will be dead on arrival when it reaches the Senate," predicted Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse, a sponsor of the Senate gambling bill.
Paying to fix New Hampshire's deteriorating highways is shaping up as a choice between legalizing video slots and increasing the gas tax. Whether gamblers or drivers finance the fix isn't likely to be decided until the budget is acted on in June.
New Hampshire has not raised its 18-cent tax in 22 years, and supporters say more money is needed to finish expanding Interstate 93 from the Massachusetts state line to Manchester and for other highway improvements.
"A good infrastructure is imperative for New Hampshire to compete with other states for business and jobs," said House Public Works and Highways Chairman David Campbell.
Campbell, a Democrat who had the support of most Republicans on his committee, sponsored the bill, which would raise about $1 billion over 10 years. It would fully fund the $250 million needed to finish widening I-93.
Campbell said nearly two dozen bridges have been closed over the past two years and more on the state's "red list" of bridges most in need of repair will be closed without additional funding.
Rep. Mark McConkey, a Freedom Republican, said his profit on gasoline hasn't risen in the 22 years since he opened his convenience store. He said the tax would not be reflected penny-for-penny in the price of fuel.
"Gas is a commodity and a commodity is volatile," he said. "Gas is priced locally. My price today is 11 cents lower than one week ago."
Former House Speaker William O'Brien, a Republican from Mont Vernon, tried unsuccessfully to get the House to vote down the increase and instead fund highway improvements by not diverting money from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees and other highway-related money to agencies other than the Transportation Department. His proposal would have cut the Department of Safety's budget by more than 40 percent as well as cut small allocations to the Justice Department, Health and Human Services Department, highway safety agency and the courts.
O'Brien argued state troopers should have to compete for funding from other state taxes.
"They shouldn't hide behind stories of red-listed bridges to make their case," he said.
Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican, said the tax increase would hurt people already struggling.
"I drive a Cadillac. I can afford a few cents more, but a lot of people in my district can't," he said.
"Stop the great sucking sound, the sound of us sucking money out of our constituents' wallets," said Rep. Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan — unlike her predecessor — opened the door a crack during the campaign to raising the gas tax to fix deteriorating highways and included gambling license fees from a yet-to-pass casino in her budget for other state spending. Hassan has repeatedly said she supports one high-end, highly regulated casino.
Campbell, of Nashua, argues legalizing one casino to compete with three proposed resort casinos in Massachusetts and a slots parlor won't raise enough money and, unlike the gas tax, is not constitutionally earmarked for highways.
More than 350 municipal bridges are on the state's red list. Another 140 bridges owned by the state are on the list.
The roughly 1,600 miles of state roads in poor condition would stretch from Concord to Fargo, N.D. The almost 1,900 miles in fair condition would continue on from Fargo to Lake Watson in Canada's Yukon territory. And the 800 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.