By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The wonderful thing about following the New Hampshire legislature is there is always another surprise hiding in the anterooms of the State House or the nooks and crannies of the Legislative Office Building.
The latest surprise is a new parking garage for lawmakers, really just House members, because the Senators all have prime parking spots.
The $35 million would also be used to demolish the current Department of Justice building, or what old-timers remember as the New Hampshire Savings Bank building and the current Legislative Parking Garage on Storrs Street after the state just spent considerable money fixing it up.
Where is the money coming from? The language in the amendment says, “The governor is authorized to draw a warrant for said sums out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated. The appropriation shall not lapse.”
That means it will come from the hefty revenue surplus the state has this fiscal year, and the last sentence means if the project is not done at the end of the biennium the money will not lapse into the general fund as is usually the case unless the state uses bonds to pay for a project.
The amendment does not indicate what will become of the Attorney General’s Office which now is in the savings bank building.
And another section of the amendment would give New Hampshire residents a three-month vacation from paying the gas tax at 22.2 cents a gallon.
The amendment will have a public hearing Monday at 2 p.m. before the House Finance Committee.
The irony of razing the Department of Justice building is it too came through a last minute deal when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation put the building on the market after it took over the bank, one of the five biggest in New Hampshire that failed due to the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The FDIC owned a lot of real estate in New Hampshire at that time and much of it was sold at bargain basement prices.
The state was happy to have the building and quickly moved the Attorney General’s Office into the facility from its cramped quarters in the State House Annex Building.
The City of Concord was not so happy to have it come off the tax rolls.
The building’s purchase did not go through the usual process for a state capital project.
And this new proposal has not gone through the usual process either.
Under normal circumstances, the project would have had the scrutiny of the House Public Works and Highways Committee and the Senate Capital Budget Committee as well as the governor’s office.
It would have been included in the capital budget that makes its way through the legislative process during the first year of the two-year term as does the state operating budget.
But the capital budget process has been somewhat upended with all the federal money that continues to flow to the state since the pandemic began with the governor’s office, or more specifically, the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery taking the role of the legislative committees.
The CARES Act money was distributed only through the governor’s office with a legislative advisory committee that if not ignored, often was minimized.
There is a little more legislative involvement now that Republicans control the Legislature, but certainly less than what would be the normal process for developing capital projects.
The Legislative Parking Garage across Main Street and behind the New Hampshire Historical Society building has been a less than ideal arrangement, but it keeps legislators from monopolizing all the parking spaces around the State House.
It is a bit distant for some of the older lawmakers and can be a treacherous walk in icy or snowy weather.
And it often appears as if it is constantly under rehabilitation with numerous problems including the entrance and exit ramps.
Building a new parking garage was considered when the state bought the bank building which came with a parking lot next to the Concord Police Station, but ultimately the lot remained as it was and used mostly for staff parking.
It is not surprising to see a new parking garage closer to the State House and Legislative Office Building considered, but it did not come through the usual process with the usual scrutiny.
The gas tax holiday would be only for New Hampshire residents, so the influx of tourists during the peak summer period would not enjoy lower cost gas by 22.2 cents a gallon.
While U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, who is running for reelection, proposed a federal gas tax holiday, her potential Republican opponents this fall did not join her including Senate President Chuck Morse, who will have a say on the state tax holiday.
The state gas tax holiday would come during the traditionally three biggest months for collections.
According to the monthly revenue plan developed for the current fiscal year, the total collections for the three months would be $10.4 million for July, $10.2 million for August and $11.1 million for September.
The actual collections for those months were $11 million, $10 million and $11.5 million respectively. Those figures are for the total gas tax sales and not just from New Hampshire residents.
If state residents account for half of the tax, which is likely underselling the numbers, it would mean a $16.25 million reduction in the Highway Fund.
The amendment does not say the governor will make up the difference from funds not otherwise appropriated.
The Highway Fund has been running “a deficit” for a number of years, not just because of the pandemic — which had a grave effect on collections — but also because of the growing number of alternative-fuel vehicles such as those powered by electricity or propane.
For at least the last two budgets, the legislatures added general funds to the Highway Fund to allow the Department of Transportation to function in much the same manner it has in the past.
What to do with surplus revenue has been somewhat of a partisan issue.
Democrats like to spend it on boosting social services that have been limited by appropriations, training programs and some key capital projects.
Republicans on the other hand, like to spend it as one-time expenditures rather than “growing the size of government” by creating new programs or expanding existing ones.
At the end of February, the revenue surplus was $192 million including an $11 million legal settlement.
Of that money, $100 million has been targeted for a settlement fund for those abused at the hands of Youth Detention Center employees.
The parking garage would be another $35 million and there are more proposals coming through the pipeline every day.
What is not on the agenda, however, is trying to mitigate the inequality in the state’s education funding system, perhaps the biggest problem facing the state and has been for some time, but somehow it never is on the top of the list for action.
And that is a shame.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.