- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - A Derry Republican wants the trucking industry to support his proposed gas and diesel tax increase or face reductions in the amount of cargo they can haul on New Hampshire highways.

Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Rausch said Thursday he will work to reduce maximum truck weights below 104,000 pounds if his bill to increase the tax by 4 cents a gallon fails.

Rausch he isn’t threatening the industry, he said. If there isn’t more money to maintain New Hampshire’s roads something else has to be done and lowering the weights trucks can carry would cause them less damage.

“All I’m saying is if we can’t fix our roads, I believe it is our responsibility to do everything we can to prevent serious damage,” said Rausch.

Bob Sculley, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, said the industry will not drop its opposition to the proposed tax hike it believes is too costly and called Rausch’s proposal an act of retaliation.

Rausch insists reducing weights wouldn’t be retaliation.

“That’s not true. I’m trying to preserve the roads,” said Rausch.

Rausch has an ally in his House counterpart: Transportation Chairwoman Candace Bouchard, a Concord Democrat.

“If nobody wants to pay any more, then we have to look at preserving roads and bridges in a manner we can, and some of that will have to be in a reduction of truck weights,” she said Friday.

Sculley said a better funding source would be from legalizing casino gambling, which is being considered by the House.

Rausch’s bill proposes calculating future increases using the Consumer Price Index. His first calculation would be based on the difference in CPI from 2003 to 2013. Later increases would be every four years and Rausch estimates they would average a penny.

The 18 cent tax would rise about 4 cents per gallon in July under the bill. It has not been increased since 1991 and is the lowest in New England.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Bob Odell said Thursday he anticipates the bill will receive a favorable recommendation from his committee on March 4 if an amendment is adopted to remove indexing the increases, which drew the strongest opposition.

The 4 cent initial tax increase is projected to raise $32 million annually but it is unclear how much would be used for road improvements and how much to shore up the Department of Transportation, which estimates it will have to lay off nearly half of its workers without more money in the two-year budget that starts on July 1, 2015. The department projects it will have a $49 million deficit in 2016 that grows to $106 million in 2017.

Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement said his department needs operating cash because a series of one-time funding fixes enacted by lawmakers are ending. Even with a tax increase, he would still be forced to lay off some workers, he said Friday.

Without additional money to repair the state’s roads and bridges, reducing truck weights will only delay the deterioration of the state’s infrastructure, said Clement.

The Senate will vote on the bill March 13. It isn’t clear if it will pass because Senate President Chuck Morse, a strong casino backer, opposes hiking the tax.

Gov. Maggie Hassan has said if a consensus is reached on a tax increase, she will sign it.

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