Senate Finance Committee Chair Forrester says 'no' to hike in state gas tax

CONCORD — Speaking on "The Exchange," broadcast by New Hampshire Public Radio, yesterday, Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith), who chairs the N.H. Senate Finance Committee, expressed her opposition to increasing the gas tax, suggesting instead that the Legislature consider "a combination of a lot of different things."

Last year, legislation to raise the gas tax from 18 cents to 30 cents a gallon in three annual increments of four cents carried the House of Representatives but foundered in the Senate. This year Senator Jim Rausch (R-Derry), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, has introduced a bill to index annual increases in the gas tax to the rate of inflation, beginning with a four-cent increase on July 1, with all the projected revenue of $31.9 -million appropriated to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Forrester acknowledged the challenge of funding the maintenance and improvement of roads and bridges and said that she appreciated Rausch's effort to address it. However, she added that "the fact is that the money that would be raised by the four cents he is recommending will not cover the operational shortfall." She said that without an increase in its budget, the DOT will face a $48-million deficit by July 1, 2015. A four-cent increase in the gas tax, Forrester called "a finger in the dyke."

Forrester noted that $250-million is required to complete the widening of I-93 between Salem and Manchester while $12-million to $15-million is needed for paving and another $15-million for bridge repairs. She said that with another $50-million the state could maximize federal matching funds for highway projects. "This is a big number," Forrester said. "Four cents is not going to fix that problem."

Between 2006 and 2013, Forrester said that the DOT has spent $100 million on roads and bridges every year, but the agency's operating budget has risen 22.4-percent. She said that her concern about raising the gas tax is that "it's not going to go to fix roads."

When a caller asked host Laura Knoy to press Forrester to explain how she would tackle the problem, she began by calling for "a serious look" at the $81 million in highway funds that are appropriated for other purposes, particularly to the Department of Safety. She also favored "fix it first," a concept touted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which lends priority to repairing, rebuilding and maintaining existing roads before undertaking new projects. But, in reply to a question about completing the widening of I-93, she answered "we should finish that."

Forrester also suggested "private-public partnerships," in particular arrangements with public utilities to bury transmission lines in the state-owned right-of-way. Senator Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) has sponsored a bill directing the DOT to designate corridors where transmission lines could be buried and negotiate lease with developers of energy infrastructure. Representative Candace Bouchard (D-Concord), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, discounted the suggestion, claiming that the leases would not generate significant revenue.

Last year the Senate leadership proposed introducing casino gambling and earmarking a share of the revenue for roads and bridges. The proposal failed in the House, but this year the a handful of bills to authorize expanded gambling are again before the Legislature. Asked if the Senate would again offer gambling revenue as a means of funding infrastructure improvements, Forrester replied flatly "not me."