New Hampshire transportation officials protest $41M cut proposed by House budget writers

Industrials Associated Press

A $41 million cut to the state's highway fund, as proposed by House budget writers, would make roads more dangerous and result in more than 300 layoffs, transportation officials said Monday.

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"Passing this bill is not passing a budget — it's passing the buck," Deputy Transportation Commissioner Patrick McKenna told the House Finance Committee.

The highway fund, which pays for road and bridge projects and maintenance, is just one area facing significant cuts during the budget-writing process. Rather than make the cuts as part of the overall state spending plan, House budget writers put the Department of Transportation's budget into its own bill that will have a separate debate and vote on the floor.

The Republican-led House must approve a budget and send it to the Senate by April 2.

Last week, House budget writers considered raising car registration fees to help keep the highway fund afloat. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan included a 35 percent hike in the registration fee in her $11.5 billion, two-year budget proposal.

The highway fund, about $250 million in 2014, raises money mainly from registrations and the gas tax. The cuts would bring the fund back to roughly 2007 levels.

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But the proposed fee increase received harsh blowback from factions of the Republican Party, including the caucus led by Rep. Bill O'Brien, a former speaker. The increase was removed, prompting a discussion of cuts. The bill as written would cut $20.5 million each year in 2016 and 2017.

Republican Rep. Steve Stepanek, an O'Brien ally, supports the cuts.

"There's a tremendous amount of mismanagement in that particular department, and all we're doing by giving them more money is allowing them to continue to mismanage and waste money," he said.

McKenna said the cut would mean 50 to 70 percent reductions in engineering functions, halting progress on the Interstate 93 expansion and allowing for fewer bridge inspections. It would mean a 9 percent reduction for winter maintenance, forcing the closure of 16 highway maintenance facilities across the state. In total, 321 employees — out of a workforce of around 1,650 — would lose their jobs and 84 vacant positions would remain unfilled, he said. Cutting state money could also jeopardize federal funds, McKenna said.

"Cutting services and deferring maintenance of equipment and roadways are not measures of efficiency or innovation; they are budget gimmicks, and they will lead to greater spending in the future," McKenna said.

Republican Rep. Neal Kurk, finance committee chairman, said if the committee wants to make cuts it should be specific about where those cuts come from rather than asking department officials to make the choices. Kurk said he hopes the final bill will make it clear to lawmakers what stands to be lost if no additional revenue sources are proposed.

"It's very clear that if the Legislature is not willing to raise additional revenue, here are the kinds of services that we will not have," Kurk said. "The idea is to make this stark."