In February, Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement told a legislative committee that his agency was neither for nor against a House bill that would raise the state’s gas tax by 12 cents to pay for much-needed repairs to New Hampshire’s roads and bridges.
At the time, Clement could remain, as he put it, “revenue agnostic,” as long as income earmarked for his department from a proposed casino was still a possibility.
But the House swept the casino option off the table two weeks ago, leaving the gas tax increase as the only proposed alternative to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
Accordingly, at a gathering of business leaders in Concord on Monday, Clement assumed a less guarded position on the House proposal.
A gas tax hike, he said, would put the department on a “path to greatness.” The increase, which would bring in an estimated $817 million over the next 10 years, would allow for completion of I-93, double state aid for municipal bridge and highway repairs and fully fund the state’s 10-year transportation plan.
“If we do not get a long-term, sustainable funding source in the next biennium, we are in really big trouble,” said Clement, speaking at a panel sponsored by the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.
Clement said the department has relied on a series of “one-time fixes” to plug a $124 million hole in the state’s highway fund, including issuing bonds to pay for operations, raising vehicle registration fees and selling a portion of I-95 in order to divert turnpike revenue to the highway fund.
The latter scheme brought in $120 million, which was supposed to be disbursed over 20 years. But four years later, Clement said, the money is just about gone. “We’re done – we have about $24 million left,” he said.
Meanwhile, state aid to municipalities for bridge repair and maintenance has not increased since 1994, he said. As a result, the state shut down 11 bridges last year, including two in Francestown on the same day. All told, nearly 500 state and municipal bridges have been red-listed, meaning they have structural deficiencies.
Some of those red-listed bridges, including Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth and the Sewalls Fall Road bridge over the Merrimack in Concord, now have to be replaced, at much greater cost.
“The Memorial Bridge was our number one red-listed bridge,” he said. “Less than 20 years ago, it was $20 million to do a complete rehab that would have given us a brand new bridge. We didn’t have the money. Now we’re spending $90 million to replace it because we didn’t maintain it.”
According to TRIP, a nonprofit transportation safety group, New Hampshire’s roads are in similarly dire condition. More than a third of state-maintained roads and highways — some 4,559 miles of pavement — are in need of repair, according to the group, while the state DOT has a current roads and bridge maintenance backlog of $1.3 billion.
Reversing the trend won’t be easy.
The Republican-led Senate rejected the House’s plan to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1991, one day after the Democratic-led House killed the Senate’s casino bill. Because it’s in the House’s version of the budget, the gas tax will likely be part of the negotiations by the bipartisan committee of conference when it begins to assemble the final budget later this month.
Whether it survives those negotiations is another matter.
Rep. Candace Bouchard, a Democrat from Concord who chairs the House Transportation Committee, told the BIA group that the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation, or GACIT, will begin public hearings on the 10-year transportation plan in July.
Bouchard said that if the commission doesn’t have more revenue to work with, New Hampshire’s cities and towns will have to continue deferring much-needed maintenance on their roads and bridges.
That would not only present a potential public-safety problem, but an economic one, as well.
“We’ve become a state that is not completing on an economic level with the surrounding New England states,” Bouchard said. “And if we’re going to go forward and to grow our economy, invest in jobs, we’re really going to have to look at the deficit we have in this plan.”
New Hampshire’s campaign-finance regulations are a jumble of contradictions, a fact that people who study the issue never fail to point out.
A year ago, a consortium of good-government types awarded the Granite State a “D” for political financing, citing how easy it is for donors to get around the dollar limits on contributions.
Last week, a campaign-finance watchdog group weighed in, and once again New Hampshire found itself at the bottom of the class.
In an analysis of disclosure requirements for PACs, non-profits and outside spending groups, the National Institute on Money on State Politics gave New Hampshire an “F.”
Why? It seems we’re one of 25 states that don’t require independent political groups to report “electioneering communications” — advertising that refers to a candidate or ballot measure, but does not urge voters to cast their ballots one way or the other.
Such ads are distinct from so-called independent expenditures, which tell voters which candidate or ballot issue they should support on Election Day.
But in most cases it’s a distinction without a difference: electioneering communications are typically issue ads that give voters a not-so-subtle nudge in the direction of supporting or opposing a candidate. For instance, a group will bankroll ads in the heat of a campaign asking voters to call and thank (or spank) a candidate for supporting (or ignoring) the “hardworking taxpayers” of New Hampshire.
In the Granite State, candidates and political parties have to register with the Secretary of State’s office and file spending reports. So do political committees, which state election law defines as two or more persons organized to influence an election.
That definition has made the state’s guidelines difficult to enforce.
In 2010, for example, the Attorney General’s office investigated complaints that several tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations had funded attack ads without reporting the expenditures. The attorney general cleared the groups, ruling they were not considered political committees under state law because their “stated purposes” didn’t include telling people how to vote.
Since then, legislative attempts to close this loophole have gone nowhere. But pressured by advocates for greater transparency, lawmakers are trying again.
Bills in both the House and Senate would change the definition of a political committee to mean any group that spends $5,000 or more on independent expenditures or electioneering communications.
Both bills would stiffen the penalties for failing to comply: political committees that do not register or report their spending would be fined 25 percent of their expenditures, on top of the current penalty of $25 for each day the report is late.
What neither bill will do is require tax-exempt groups, such as 501(c) 4s, to report their donors — a concession that was necessary to gain broader support for the new rules, said Gordon Allen of the Coalition for Open Democracy, a Concord-based group that is lobbying in support of the bills.
Even so, requiring all political groups to at least report their expenditures would make New Hampshire’s rules on outside political spending as robust as federal guidelines, a standard met by only 15 states.
Both bills have been put on hold until next year. But if lawmakers can agree on the changes, New Hampshire might one day earn a gold star for transparency.
“We could go from an “F,” says Allen, “to an “A.”
A legislative proposal to expand the production and sale of food grown in New Hampshire received a lukewarm reception at a public hearing at the State House this morning.
Senate Bill 141 calls for the creation of a farm-to-table program to promote the economic development of New Hampshire’s farming and fishing sectors, while increasing consumers’ access to locally grown and processed food. The program would be implemented by an advisory council of farmers, vendors and sustainability experts working closely with the state Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, told the Senate Executive Department and Administration Committee that the program would help bring together the “disparate groups” who are already committed to the “grow-local, eat-local movement” in New Hampshire.
“There is an ongoing interest throughout all of New England, in fact throughout the country, to look at how we promote and coordinate what really is a major food revolution in this country” Clark said. “This bill is an effort to make sure NH is in the forefront as this food revolution moves forward.” Continue Reading
New Hampshire lawmakers have introduced legislation that aims to expand the market for food grown in the Granite State.
Senate Bill 141 would establish a farm-to-table program to help bolster the state’s “food and farm economy” by increasing access to healthy food, promoting jobs and encouraging private and public investment in local agriculture.
A public hearing is scheduled for 10:15 Wednesday in Room 100 of the Statehouse.
The bill, sponsored by a half dozen legislators led by Sen. Martha Fuller Clark (D-Portsmouth), calls for creation of an advisory council to the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. Among its duties, the council would be charged with gathering data on the types of food produced in New Hampshire, “current and potential markets” for local farmers and the extent of land available for future food production. Continue Reading