On The Political Front: Gas Tax Hike May Be Tough Sell Among House Republicans

Mar 23, 2015

Lawmakers in the New Hampshire House
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

On The Political Front is our weekly conversation with NHPR's Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers. This week, a look at the politics behind a push for an increase to the gas tax from the head of the House Finance Committee. 

The Finance Committee in the New Hampshire House hopes to finish its work on the House’s budget this week. Some of their decisions have been controversial, and there’s even been talk that mustering the votes to pass a budget in the House may be tough.

Yes, that’s coming almost exclusively from Democrats, but there is a bit of drama this year in the House. To a degree this is typical,  and some you can chalk up to the challenge of budgeting under the pressure of a structural deficit.  The nature of New Hampshire’s spending and revenue mix means expenses always grow faster than revenues. This year, though, pressures do seem a bit heightened, partly because a bunch of money - some $150 million or so – was already spoken for due to settlement of lawsuits against the state, one over mental health services, another over the Medicaid enhancement tax. 

Neal Kurk

But another reason is the fractured nature of the Republican caucus. You have the leader of the Finance Committee Neal Kurk, for instance, pushing a gas tax hike, 7 or 8 cents, and arguing without the money New Hampshire’s transportation department would have to cut hundreds of  jobs. But the gas tax increase isn’t being included in the budget – it's in a standalone bill – because he, and other senior Republicans fear including that tax hike in the budget would doom the whole $11 billion-plus package.

So, the logic from House Republican leaders is is get Democrats to help pass the gas tax as a standalone bill and then hope the budget itself, can win broad GOP support, including from staunch conservatives, because to contains no tax increases.

In essence yes, but nobody in leadership knows yet if Republicans can muster the support needed to pass the gas tax. Neal Kurk says he hopes the starkness of the choice  - a higher gas tax versus as many as 700 layoffs, plus the resulting hit to services and road upkeep – will persuade Republicans, even those who ran on a promise not to raise taxes. I think it’s fair to expect it could persuade some, but for plenty raising the gas tax remains a nonstarter. Perhaps the gas tax could pass with a coalition similar to the one that elected Shawn Jasper Speaker of the House—namely, all Democrats and a far fewer Republicans.

But, to be clear, it’s not like Democrats like the budget coming out of the Finance Committee?

They don’t. They say it makes bad choices.  Particularly in Health and Human Services. They hate that it envisions ending Medicaid expansion. The same goes for trims proposed for substance abuse programs, and for some services for people with developmental disabilities. But the big picture here is that the House’s budget relies on revenue estimates that predict there is $240 million less to spend than what Gov. Maggie Hassan is predicting. 

Gov. Maggie Hassan
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Hassan has accused Republicans of budgeting as if the state were in a depression, and say they needn't be so tight on revenues. It ought to be said though that the revenues used in the House budget were also backed by the Democrats who sit on the Ways and Means Committee, which will be revising estimates before the budget moves to the floor next week.  It will be interesting to see if estimates rise.

But assuming the House does pass something before the end of next week, this will all start over again in the Senate.

Yes, and the Senate is already making clear  - as senates often do - that their budget will essentially start from scratch. This was alluded to several times last week when the Senate debated, passed, and then tabled bills that would cut the business enterprise and business profits tax. The bills, which would phase in reductions over a few years, passed along party lines and were tweaked a bit to lessen the effect on the next state budget, but the Department of Revenue is still predicting collection will see a $140 million hit over the next few years.

Lots to watch on the presidential primary front also. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is set to make his campaign official, the first candidate of note to do so. Cruz was here last week and is coming right back.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Credit josh rogers/nhpr

Yes. He drew decent crowds and was quite clear that he will be trying to stake a claim to be the field’s true conservative. He believes Republicans need to nominate a real conservative to win. Cruz returns to New Hampshire at the end of the week. Another Republican who will be here is Ohio governor John Kasich. He looked at running in 2000 but pulled the plug very early. A lot of local Republicans, mainly establishment types, are talking him up as a guy to watch. He’s in his second term as governor and served a bunch of years in Congress. Conservative on many issues, but also backed expansion of Medicaid. Far from clear if he’ll run though.