CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – A group of House and Senate lawmakers have joined forces to push a beverage tax that they say would raise millions a year for groundwater protection and other conservation programs.

But opponents – including retailers and bottlers – say the move is bad news for the state’s low-tax bragging rights. They also say the state’s solid finances make it unnecessary.

The proposed tax would add 2 cents to the cost of beverages smaller than a gallon, and 5 cents to anything larger. A 12-pack of soda, for example, would cost an additional 24 cents if wholesalers passed the increase on to consumers.

The tax would not apply to juices that are made and sold onsite, such as apple cider, or to milk. The tax would be paid at the wholesale level, but such taxes often are passed to consumers.

“No doubt about it, it’s a tax and a tax that will ultimately be borne by New Hampshire consumers,” said Larry Melanson, marketing director for Coca-Cola Bottling of Northern New England.

But Sen. Richard Green, R-Rochester, a supporter of the measure, takes issue with describing it as a tax. He says it’s a fee that will apply primarily to water-based products and the money will go to conservation programs mandated by law.

“Every year we have to fight to find funding for LCHIP and these other programs. State law requires we fund them,” he said. “We’re just ignoring the law. I can do something about it, or I can sit here, do nothing, and complain about the lack of funding.”

If passed, the measure would use 30 percent of revenues to fund the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, and 10 percent each to maintain dams across the state, for water supply protection programs, and for river and stream management.

The remaining 40 percent would go to the state’s general fund.

Melanson, who also is president of the state Soft Drink Association, said sending so much money to the general fund “makes this a money grab. And to pass a new tax when the state has a surplus, that’s antibusiness.”

The grocery and soft drink industries say the measure will push prices too high, costing sales and forcing businesses to cut jobs.

“It’s a sales tax. Senator Green can call it a fee if he wants,” said John Dumais, president of the New Hampshire Grocers Association. “We have an image as low-cost state, but we’re losing part of that image every time we pass a commodity tax.”

Dan Conner, of Conner Bottling Works in Newfields, says this measure would be bad for business. He says it just adds another accounting task for his company, which produces the Squamscot line of soda and is a distributor for PepsiCo products.

“We’re stressed right now with time. This isn’t going to generate any money for us to add a position, so it’s going to hurt the bottom line and I’ll have to take a look at benefits for my workers,” he said.

Rep. Richard Cooney, R-Salem, the bill’s prime sponsor, says the state needs to prioritize protecting water resources.

“In my view our water resources are being stressed. Our population is increasing, our economy is growing, and when that happens we have to put more of our financial resources into protecting water than we did in the past,” he said.

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