Katy Burns: The art of getting someone else to pay for stuff

Monitor columnist
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Last November voters in Massachusetts – one of 26 states that offer citizens the use of the initiative, the ability to propose and vote on laws at the polls – voted to legalize recreational marijuana and set some parameters for the law’s scope. Among other things, the initiative called for a 12 percent tax on marijuana sales.

Initiative powers, though, vary by state. The procedure in the Bay State is called “indirect initiative” and it’s perhaps the most cumbersome and restrictive in the nation. This means the actual law has to be enacted by the elected legislature. And – surprise! – it gives the lawmakers plenty of room to mess with the details.

Which means that when the legislators finally got around to writing an actual law, the 12 percent tax had turned – who ever would have guessed it? – into 28 percent!

We are, after all, talking about Massachusetts.

As it happens, there was a certain citizen outcry, and late last week the legislature delayed passage of the law for a bit. I’ve little doubt it will be back, though, and at the higher rate. To which I can only say, “We should be doing this, not Massachusetts!”

Good grief, New Hampshire almost invented sin taxes and the high art of sponging off others! So why are we leaving the marijuana boom to Massachusetts?

Look at our history. I’m not sure just when our addiction to luring in outsiders to pay our bills started, but it was quite established when, in the last quarter of the 19th century, word got back that the land on the frontier – places like Ohio – was amazingly fertile. Without rocks!

As enterprising young folks lit out for the new promised land, our local leaders started pitching our half-abandoned farmsteads as ideal “country retreats” for outsiders. And at the same time, newly established grand hotels in our mountains – with their fresh, clean air and grand vistas – beckoned as respites to denizens of our eastern metropolises beset with heat, dirt and fetid air. Not to mention a whole lot of manure, which was a particularly notable feature of 19th century city streets.

Whatever helped to fill the state’s coffers was good. And that included gambling. Look at Salem’s Rockingham Park, now being demolished to make way for a no doubt splendid “mixed use development.” It thrived back in the golden years of horse racing last century, when glorious horse race palaces were among the few places where gambling was not only legal but celebrated.

As Peter Paul Jesep’s history Rockingham Park makes clear, the then-glamorous track drew headline-grabbing dignitaries – dancer Ruby Keeler and the crown prince of Liechtenstein! – to Salem and in its heyday generated over $100 million for the state’s coffers. In many years, according to Jesep, more than 20 percent of the state’s budget was generated by the track.

Horse racing was a great revenue generator, but so – at least briefly – was our commuter tax. In the early 1970s some crafty legislator came up with an income tax. Of course, not one real Granite Staters would pay. We just slapped a 4 percent income tax on folks who merely worked in this state but didn’t live here.

Pure genius! At least until an indignant U.S. Supreme Court told our lawmakers they were little more than highway bandits and should cut it out.

And more recently we had Mediscam, a wondrously complicated scheme concocted under Gov. Judd Gregg. It resulted in our siphoning millions of dollars from Medicaid and dumping them into our general fund, at least until the feds got wise to us and tightened the rules, making larceny less lucrative.

But horse racing may have been an early sign of our particular dependency on vice as well as outsiders, ideally combining the two in the Granite State’s favorite sins, smoking and drinking.

Today our borders and highways sport lavish state-run temples of booze to entice thirsty travelers. Cigarette supermarkets cluster along our state lines, and increasingly they’re joined by fireworks emporia. So why not add marijuana to the mix?

I’ll confess that before the splendid rapacity of the Bay State legislators drew my attention, I’d been a little uncertain about legal pot. Maybe we ought to be responsible, to wait, I thought, let other states experiment and get the kinks out of this great new merchandising opportunity.

But, hey, we didn’t do that with booze! Or with smokes! And now that we know they’re both poison, we’re still peddling them to all takers, at least of the legal age. And we’d do the same with dope, right? No sales to children!

Of course, to attract cross-border customers we’d tax it at a slightly lower rate than either Massachusetts or Maine, where pot is also now legal. That’s our modus operandi.

The state’s actual investment in cigarettes is virtually non-existent. They’re pure profit. And when it comes to liquor, we actually have socialized booze. We control it all with our state warehouse and palatial stores. So we get the taxes and the profit we get for selling the stuff! Pot would also cost taxpayers little, but the return to the state’s coffers would be large.

My goodness, people, we are New Hampshire. We introduced the modern state lottery, for heaven’s sake! And by week’s end it looked as if our Legislature will adopt highly addictive Keno to pay for full-day kindergarten. I mean, who else should? Surely not parents and taxpayers!

C’mon, Granite Staters. Booze and butts have served us well. Why not a little pot as well?

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)