LivableMHT tries to stay out of politics, except when those politics directly impact urban development and livability issues in the Queen City. And State Senator Chuck Morse (R-Salem)’s refusal to consider key aspects of the House budget is certainly an instance when politics will have a major impact on the city.
Specifically, Sen. Morse, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, opposes a 30-cent increase in the tobacco tax, and a 12-cent increase in the gas tax. To his credit, Sen. Morse opposed the 10-cent decrease in the tobacco tax last session, which has only had the effect of increasing profits for tobacco companies. New Hampshire’s tobacco tax is by far the lowest in the region, and the low tax only benefits a handful of state line-bordering retailers. The state has an interest in promoting lower tobacco use–including a financial interest, since the healthcare costs associated with tobacco use fall in part on the state, and in part on all residents with insurance. The state is very short on revenue for things like infrastructure maintenance and construction, and education funding; and raising the tobacco tax has the dual effect of raising revenue, and promoting healthier lifestyles.
The gas tax, however, is even more important, and Sen. Morse’s opposition to it is even more troubling. NHPR has a great video about why New Hampshire’s roads are in such dire shape. In part, New Hampshire’s gas tax, which is fixed at 18.4-cents per gallon rather than a percentage of the price like the meals and rooms tax, hasn’t been raised since 1992, so it hasn’t even kept up with inflation. On top of that, cars get better gas mileage today than they did 21 years ago, so even ignoring inflation, revenues are down, all while the costs of road maintenance have steadily risen.
The point of the gas tax is as a usage fee to pay for roads. A fairer way of charging for the use of roads would be to tax the miles driven, but that would be much more difficult to assess and isn’t under consideration. So the option is to raise the gas tax and ask drivers to pay for road repairs, or to put off repairs and let them get more expensive. And it’s not just more expensive for repairs on roads–it’s estimated that New Hampshire’s bad roads cost drivers in southern New Hampshire roughly an additional $500 in car repairs each year. A raise in the gas tax, then, could actually save residents money as roads are repaired.
Instead of increases in the gas and tobacco taxes, Sen. Morse wants to rely on a one-time $80 million licensing fee for a casino, which coincidentally will likely be located in the town he represents.
There are a number of problems with that, however. First, the casino licensing fees and later taxes wouldn’t come close to raising the amount of money needed, and which would be raised by gas and tobacco taxes. Second, the House hasn’t even approved the Senate bill legalizing casino gambling in the state. Third, politicians like Sen. Morse vocally oppose subsidies for economic development tools like commuter rail, and yet they’re perfectly happy to have things like casinos subsidize (however inadequately) road maintenance.
A casino may benefit Sen. Morse’s hometown, and someone from Salem may not have to drive on many New Hampshire roads, but his intransigence on the House budget will hurt New Hampshire as a whole, and cities like Manchester. It’s exceedingly clear that New Hampshire needs to offer more education aid to cities like Manchester; and the high cost of in-state tuition means more young people are leaving New Hampshire and not returning. It goes without saying that New Hampshire’s roads are in bad shape. And for a state that relies on tourism, that’s a big deal. For a state that also relies on high-tech jobs, bad roads, underfunded schools and an exodus of college-aged talent is a huge deal.
Sen. Morse is quoted in today’s Union Leader as saying: “Beginning next week, [the] Senate Finance [Committee] will take a fresh look at the budget in an effort to create a document that funds state government within our means while protecting the reforms implemented last session.” But Sen. Morse fails to acknowledge that voters resoundingly rejected the draconian “reforms” of the last session, including a majority of voters who voted against Sen. Morse’s party in the state senate elections.
Sen. Morse is the finance committee chairman not because most voters agree with his approach, but because his party gerrymandered districts enough to maintain a narrow 13-11 majority in the Senate with only about 45% of the overall vote. He should keep that–as well as the need to compromise if he hopes to see a casino in Salem–in mind as the Senate Finance Committee reviews the House budget. Most important though, Sen. Morse should keep in mind the needs and priorities of New Hampshire residents.