By Grant Bosse

December, 19 2011

State employees drove 1.5 million miles in state vehicles for non-business use last year, according to a report presented to the Legislature by the Department of Administrative Services. Starting in Fiscal Year 2011, DAS is charged with determining how many miles each state vehicles was driven for official and non-business use, and reporting any car or truck that had more than 15% of its miles driven off the clock.

The 233 vehicles reported to the Legislature were driven 1,504,034 miles for non-business use in FY11, and a total of 4,150,092 miles including official business. That’s enough miles to circle the Earth six times, or make three round trips to the moon. DAS calculates the state’s cost for allowing a state employee to use its vehicles at $.33 per mile, meaning that state employees cost the state $496,331 last year by using their government cars.

However, DAS also calculates how much it would have cost taxpayers to reimburse state employees if they had used their own cars for official business. The state reimburses official travel at $.55 per mile. So in some cases, it is cheaper to let a workers take home a state car than to reimburse them for their official travel. The 233 vehicles that tripped the 15% threshold represent 12% of the state’s fleet of passenger cars and light trucks under 10,000 pounds. The report does not include heavy construction equipment, which can be assigned to state employees but not used to commute to and from the job site. 61 of the vehicles were actually driven more for personal use that on official state business.

Last year, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 402, which in addition to directing departments to reduce their overall in-state travel, requires that reassignment of cars that exceed 15% personal use.

For every vehicle that logs more than 15% Non-Business Use (NBU), a panel of state officials led by DAS Commissioner Linda Hodgden decides whether the car should be repurposed within the fleet or retained by its current employee or department. Of the 233 vehicles that tripped the 15% threshold last year, 14 were repurposed while 218 were retained. The NBU report Hodgden presented earlier this month to the Legislative Fiscal Committee states that one vehicle assigned to the Board of Pharmacy was “erroneously logged NBU”. According to the report, there are 1,884 passenger automobiles and light trucks in the state fleet.

Senate President Peter Bragdon (R-Milford) was lead sponsor of SB 402, and said the report delivered the information the Legislature was hoping to find.

“While it is disturbing to learn so many taxpayer-funded vehicles are being used for commuting and other non-business purposes, I am pleased to learn that our efforts to increase the transparency of state government are paying off,” Bragdon said. “This type of information on state vehicle use was unavailable to the public before and I believe its release will give even more public support to our efforts to reform state government.”

Senator Chuck Morse (R-Salem) added that personal use of vehicles sometimes saves the state money, but it should be a fringe benefit for top state officials.

“As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I am constantly aware that we are accountable to the taxpayers concerning how we spend their money. That includes the use of state vehicles,” Morse said. “The vast majority of miles put on taxpayer funded cars should be accumulated by employees conducting official state business, not by employees taking private trips. In New Hampshire use of a state vehicle should be considered a privilege, not a perk that some people get and others don’t.”

Reimbursing state employees for the 2.6 million official miles logged by the vehicles in the NBU report would have cost taxpayers $1.47 million in FY11. DAS estimates that the total cost of maintaining those 233 vehicles was $1.37 million for both official and non-business miles.

The Josiah Bartlett Center will continue our Fleet Week investigation tomorrow.

By Charlie Arlinghaus

Originally Published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Odd as it may sound, in the next big budget battle the state government could learn a lesson from Washington in how to balance our books. In transportation spending, the state government regularly plans on spending much more than it has available. The state should reverse this practice and turn the highway plan from a wish list back into a plan.

The federal government may make significant cutbacks to the gas taxes it sends back to New Hampshire but who can blame them? Last year, like most years, the Highway Trust Fund took in $35 billion of revenue but authorized spending of $50 billion. That tells you just about all you need to know about how Washington works.

Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica has broken with tradition by planning on spending only what the fund collects in user fees (largely gas taxes) to balance this one corner of the federal budget. It’s a novel idea in Washington but one that we ought to import into New Hampshire.

New Hampshire currently plans its transportation spending under the old Washington model. Every two years, we authorize a new “Ten-Year Transportation Plan.” In this process, we have a long term plan for the infrastructure projects we can fund.

The difficulty with the so-called plan is that it is and has generally been a fiction. Over the years, the Ten Year Plan has morphed from an actual plan into a public relations document that bears little or no relation to reality. We know going into the plan that under current scenarios we have only so-much capacity. Yet project after project is added to the list to make people feel better even without any hope of paying for it.

It’s a game politicians play. They run around the state holding meetings and making people feel good. They pat selectmen and chambers of commerce on the back and say “we’ve added this important project to the Ten Year Plan.” Everybody feels good. We’re in the plan. He’s looking out for us. But back in Concord they snicker because it’s all a game.

There’s no money. The plan isn’t a real plan. Just a few years ago, the projects had swelled so much that it would have taken 30 years to fund the ten year plan. A former commissioner, Charles O’Leary, was brought in as interim commissioner to dish out the pain. He ruthlessly pared down the list so there were “only” 17 years of projects in the Ten Year Plan.

The Orwellian doublespeak part of the whole process is when people who want to raise user fees talk of a deficit in the plan as if simply planning on spending money you don’t have is a deficit. Because of the way the plan is developed, all we really know is that the wish list costs more than we have.

The problem is the process itself. The starting point should be available revenue under current budget scenarios (which includes the federal government sending $50 million less if they actually stop spending money they don’t have in this one tiny area of federal spending).

Highway spending in New Hampshire is not funded by general taxation. Our highway spending is supported entirely by user fees like the gas tax and turnpike tolls. So, if we’re developing a real plan, let’s start by figuring out how much money those fees will raise over the next ten years.

The second step is to figure out what those specific revenues will support and what they won’t support. The advantage is that we can figure out what gets left out and whether or not we can live with that. It helps put any proposal for new projects or new revenues in context.

As part of that process, we’ll have to make distinctions between new features and maintaining the current features we have. Our current roads require regular repaving so they don’t disintegrate. We have a red list of bridges in need of repair. Setting aside the money for prevention and maintenance should probably take priority over some of the more glamorous projects.

I love open road tolling where I can fly through with an EZ Pass and not be bothered to stop. However, the very large expense of such a new feature comes at the expense of fixing a lot of decrepit bridges. Is my convenience more important than maintaining our current infrastructure?

When the plan matches the revenue, we can evaluate proposals to raise or cut revenues more clearly. This is what we can fund with current revenue. He wants a toll increase to do these four things. That is a much more strategic evaluation than saying we just need some extra so I can tell everyone yes and put them on the wish list.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank based in Concord, New Hampshire.

January 2011

Charlie Arlinghaus on Understanding the State Budget and Current Shortfall.

Grant Bosse presented on Growing State Debt Shortfall.

Rep. David Campbell outlined State Transportation Spending .

and Rep. Ken Hawkins explained The State Retirement System.

 

Please note that each file is a large pdf file and may take a few moments to download

As noted in last post, gas prices always spike seem to spike in the spring. Why is that?

Well, there are several reasons. The first are the basic laws of supply and demand. With nicer weather, people tend to drive more, increasing the demand and thus the price.

The second is what is called the Seasonal Gas Transition. Taking effect in 1995, amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990 mandated a different formulation of gasoline for the summer months, colloquially known as the ‘summer blend’ to cut down on pollution. Changing output from summer to winter blends of fuel is not as easy as flipping a switch. Rather, the refinery must often shut down completely in order make the change over.

In addition, the summer blend mandates a lower percentage of Butane in gasoline for environmental reasons. The Butane is replace with more expensive ingredients, further boosting the price.

The summer blend also reduces the mileage per gallon, further increasing demand on gas to travel the same distance.

Perhaps most troubling is that different areas have different blend requirements, meaning that surplus fuel in one area can not be easily shipped to a deficit area, resulting in potential large regional price differences and giving oil companies distorted market power than they otherwise would have. This could be easily solved by doing away with these variations entirely or at the very least parring them down to a more reasonable number.

The actual cost of the summer blend is difficult to calculate and as a result, there are a wide range of opinions as to the exact cost. Estimates range from $.01 to $.15 per gallon.

As reported by WMUR this morning, gas prices have slightly increased over the past week, after a slight dip.

Looking at data from GasBuddy.com we see some interesting historical trends when it comes to March gas prices.

March historically sees a plateauing in gas prices, followed by a spike that peaks roughly around Memorial Day. The extent of the peaks vary from year to year, over the past 6 years as historical data, with anomalous years removed, NH typically sees a 17% jump in prices.

That being said, there is only so much room for prices to go up. Last year we saw only a 13% run up from a price level of about $3.50/gal, where prices rose right up against the $4/gal mark. This year we are starting at a base of roughly $3.65/gal, and a 13% increase would mean about $4.11/gal.

Conventional wisdom holds that $4.00/gal is the psychological point in which people begin to change their driving habits and most industry experts contend that the oil companies, faced with the loss of sales, will try to keep it under $4.00 a gallon. However there is only so much wiggle room before they would have to sell gas at a loss to keep it at or below $4.00/gal.

On a side note, if you haven’t discovered Gasbuddy.com yet, it is certainly worth a look. Beyond historical data, their primary purpose is to provide real time gas prices. Using something akin to a Wikipedia model, gas prices are updated by users punching in data from their local gas stations. Though these days gas prices can change several times a day, the time of the last update is noted which gives the reader an idea of how the accurate that figure is at that particular moment in time. For example, if the last update is 2 hours old, chances are it is right on the mark, if it is 18 hours old, maybe not. Data older than 36 hours is removed from the list.

It is a great tool if you are looking for the best price on gas whether it be around town, somewhere along your commute or on a trip.

Long story short, gas prices are only going to go up (baring some unforeseen event), so fill up now.

-Josh

While originally on the deferred project list for the New Hampshire Ten Year Highway Plan, the I-93 widening projects for Exits 2 and 3 are back in the plan.

The House Public Works Committee placed the projects back into the plan based on events in Washington concerning the Federal Highway Bill. When the Governor’s proposal was being put together, the conventional wisdom coming from Washington was that there would probably be a 33% cut to Federal Highway money given to the states. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation, rather than using optimistic numbers, appropriately decided to use a conservative estimate in their planning.

While this initially left the Exits 2 and 3 off the 10 Year Plan, they were placed at the top of the deferred list, meaning that in the event of more funding, they would be returned first to the Plan.

With the US House plan that sought cuts not moving forward and a US Senate Plan that provided a two year extension at current levels of Federal funding for the states heading for a vote, the NH Public Works Committee amended the 10 Year Plan and added the Exits 2 and 3 projects back. However, the amendment added the caveat that should Federal Funding not be the same as last year, then the Exit 2 and 3 projects would be removed.

The US Senate version of the Federal Highway Bill passed the body today and it is uncertain which direction US House leadership will take on the bill. Current authorization to tax runs out on March 31st, so both bodies must agree to a plan by then.

Luckily here in New Hampshire, the State Senate does not have to vote on a 10 Year Plan until after the Federal Highway Bill has passed, so they will be able to work with concrete Federal Funding figures, rather than projections.