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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Gas is a taxing issue in the NH House

Kevin Landrigan

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this column can be found at


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Editor’s Note: A longer version of this column can be found at

The big question about the pending increase in the state’s gasoline tax isn’t whether it will get smaller.

It will, and as soon as Tuesday, when the House Ways and Means Committee looks to be ready to give the 15 cent jump a little trim down to 12 cents.

The query of note is whether it make any difference in the House, where supporters would love to get more than the 207 votes they had for the cause last week.

The likely answer is no.

Since it’s still at double digits and goes out beyond the current two-year term of the Legislature, will it get any of the 10 Democrats who opposed it earlier to change their minds?

Not likely, and some believe there could be a few more defections when it returns the week after next.

Will this little downward bump move any opposing Republicans into the approval column?

It’s hard to see it, although Rep. John Cebrowski, R-Bedford, stepped out of the party garb Thursday by proposing a 7 cent increase.

The New Hampshire chapter of Americans for Prosperity is trying to cement the anti-votes with a new citizen petition it has posted online.

Usually these “Hey, take a look at this!” invitations get a 20 percent click rate. New Hampshire Director Greg Moore said the one that only went up Thursday has a 60 percent hit-me standard.

For the AFP, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. It’s a tax increase (they hate those) and an energy tax (Koch Brothers-funded – they really hate those), at that.

Here’s the AFP link:

The mystery is whether the gas tax will become part of the trailer bill to the state budget that will clear the House next month.

Supporters say it should, since a higher gas tax is the “House position” and this is one way to push it in front of the Senate even after that Republican-controlled body votes it down.

But a few House Finance Committee veterans are urging Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, and Finance Chairwoman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Portsmouth, to oppose that, fearing it would contribute to tying up the state budget fight well into the fall.

Another scenario would have the House tack its final gas tax solution onto the casino bill coming over from the Senate.

Talk about a death cage match.

Tight campaign

We have a good special going down in the Queen City on which voters will decide Tuesday.

The election is to replace Rep. Robert Thompson, who resigned his Manchester Ward 2 House seat right after winning it because he was moving to Florida.

Former Rep. Win Hutchinson is the GOP nominee facing off against Democrat William J. O’Neil.

As an former representative, Hutchinson has to have the slight edge, and the state GOP is weighing in with $600 in Spectrum Marketing mailings it revealed on Thursday.

The candidates are very competitive (read $$$), Hutchinson raising $2,400 and O’Neil bringing in $2,100.

Labor is with O’Neil big time, with the IBEW weighing in big at $1,000, followed by the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire and the Manchester Fire Fighters at $250 each, along with the Teamsters at $100.

The Senate is picking sides, with Republican Nancy Styles, R-Hampton, $250; Jim Rausch, R-Derry, $100; and Russ Prescott, R-Kingston, $100, all with Hutchinson and Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, $100, with O’Neil.

Former House Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker, R-Greenland, $50; Mayor Ted Gatsas, $100; and the AFP’s Moore, $100, also chipping in for Hutchinson.

The GOP could really use a W – any W – these days.

Close numbers for casino

Those backing a casino had a right to celebrate their victory in the Senate.

A 2-1 vote for any expanded gambling legislation is impressive, even coming from a legislative body that has endorsed casinos or slots at the racetracks numerous times over the years.

Let’s look behind the numbers, and they help spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E for the movement in the House.

The blinking caution sign came from the Senate Republican Caucus.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, sponsored the bill, and he won the backing of Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford.

Yet, Senate GOPers only backed the bill 7-6.

This handicapper’s count in the House starts with about 125 solid pro-gambling members. That isn’t a bad base, but it’s about 60 votes short of what would be needed to lock in the casino there.

The dilemma is that many of the new Senate Democrats are philosophically liberal, such as Martha Fuller Clark, D-
Portsmouth, who said it would be “just plain wrong” to build a state budget on a now-illegal activity that would have plenty of social costs attached to it.

So any victory recipe for casinos relies on House Republicans making up at least 35 percent, probably more like 40 percent of a winning base.

Some Senate opposition has no counterpart in the House like Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who has his eyes at least glancing once at a return to federal office in Washington.

But others privately offered some of what bedevils those wanting a casino in the House GOP conclave – the lack of a new regulatory regime to police it, the granting of a lucrative monopoly to a single private business and that it’s a prescription for giving Gov. Maggie Hassan the 10 percent increase in total spending in her state budget.

The Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling is just getting its opposition machine in gear, and Chairman Jim Rubens vows a spirited, campaign to keep the House squarely in the anti-casino camp in which it has been for 20 years.

The Senate vote informed supporters of the tough slog that lies ahead for them across the wall in the Statehouse.

Tough to call

We’re still trying to learn what the end game is in the House Finance Committee.

Proposed scary cuts to Hassan’s proposal were to have been listed last week, and the latest guesstimate has them coming out Tuesday. These would presume the spending blueprint does without the $80 million in casino licensing fees.

The three divisions of the House budget panel have pored over potential reductions, but want to wait until the public hearing phase concludes in Rochester and Claremont.

By the way, we could have the first strong anti-spending flavor at these hearings, as organizers for the conservative Rochester 912 group have been trying to enlist people to attend.

Meanwhile, once the cuts are spelled out, is there internal rebellion among the House Finance Democrats on the panel to restore the spending however they get the money?

Does this prompt some among the group who are fine with a casino – such as division Chairmen Dan Eaton, D-Stoddard, and Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough – to cast about for support of an amendment that sticks the casino money into the trailer bill to the budget?

If they have a grand design for how this is going to play out over the next several weeks, House Democratic leaders are doing a wonderful job keeping it close to them.

Recognizing problems

Republican gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne attributed a better ground game, a more unified opposition, Hurricane Sandy and former Gov. John Lynch as key ingredients in his solid defeat by Hassan last November.

During an interview on Chris Ryan and Jeanne Lester’s “NH Now” program on WKXL on Friday, Lamontagne admitted the GOP wasn’t ready to even identify, much less reach out and touch, the 100,000 who signed up to vote on Election Day.

“We learned a lot as Republicans how superior the Democratic machine was to the Republican machine,” Lamontagne said.

GOP leaders failed to coalesce behind a message for either its presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, or himself, he continued.

“Give credit to the Democrats; they are unified, we are not,” Lamontagne said.

The Manchester lawyer lamented the state party and his campaign had no control over the $8 million anti-Hassan ads from the Republican Governors Association, while the New Hampshire Democratic Party had much more input into what was said with the $11 million in outside money spent attacking Lamontagne.

“I couldn’t control the messaging; I think the messaging was off,” Lamontagne said.

The attacks on Hassan for not paying property taxes on the Phillips Exeter Academy-owned home in which she lives was the wrong tact.

“Maggie Hassan is not a New Hampshire person, not because she doesn’t pay property taxes; she does pay property taxes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island,” Lamontagne said.

“I don’t think that message was the right one anyway.”

Further, Hurricane Sandy allowed President Barack Obama to look like the great healer, and it created a blackout on campaign news.

“I think that was a game changer in terms of the momentum, as well; we saw it on the ground here in New Hampshire,” Lamontagne said.

Lynch’s endorsement of Hassan supplied a big lift to her and blunted GOP attacks against her as a big tax and spending liberal, he said.

“That was not a perfunctory, quiet endorsement; it was full-throated and a big help to her,” Lamontagne said.

Power play

This could be a big month for Public Service Co. of New Hampshire.

There it is on Page 14 on its annual report: That an alternative route for the Northern Pass project will be unveiled publicly by the end of the first quarter.

That’s 13 short days away.

Northeast Utility financial executives told investors recently that work was closing on a new design that would employ more “public right of way” than its first plan, which drew widespread opposition from the North County and political leadership in both parties.

There’s one dirty little secret about a public right of way alternative.

The original plan was only going to go across 47 private properties, although many of them were large and also signature, pristine, undeveloped areas.

PSNH’s right of way with its existing power lines has easements over property holders that run into the four figures.

Sure, if you have a power line already on your land, what’s the big deal? Well, this could be a much higher one, and some landowners, if given a second chance, may not be as big PSNH fans as they once were.

All of this comes as the state’s largest utility and a venerable political force faces a long-term financial struggle as its core consumer business shrinks with more and more power competitors getting into the act.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).