Editorial: What’s our tax plan? So glad you’ve asked!
When Republican Gov. Sherman Adams thought New Hampshire needed a broad-based tax back in the 1950s, we thought he was right. When Republican Gov. Walter Peterson refused to take the state’s Pledge against such a tax in the 1970s, we thought he was right. When Republican Reps. Bert Teague and Doug Hall suggested a statewide income tax in the mid-1990s, we thought they were right. When Democrat Arnie Arnesen ran for governor in 1992 on a tax-reform platform, we thought she was right. When Republican Liz Hager and Democrat Clifton Below actually convinced the Republican House to pass an income tax in 1999, we thought they were right. When any number of candidates for any number of state offices have spoken squishily about the need for “all options to be on the table,” we have wearily endorsed them too, figuring their tortured speech was code for an income tax.
We bring you this brief, mid-summer lesson in ancient history because of the curious query tucked into the bottom of a column written by former House speaker Bill O’Brien in yesterday’s Monitor. Referring to the editorial board at this paper and others, he asked “What taxes would they have increased in order to spend more money than was available when we cut spending in the 2011-13 budget? And why, if that budget was so awful, have the spending cuts been continued into the 2013-15 budget in order to again avoid raising taxes?”
Well. We’ve been making this argument for lo these 60 years, and finally someone wants to hear about it!
New Hampshire could use a statewide income tax. It would fix several problems that have never felt much like a “New Hampshire Advantage” to us. The existing tax system is regressive. The overreliance on property taxes hits poor people far harder than those with money. In a wealthy state, wealthy people aren’t asked to pay their fair share. Poor towns are saddled with poor schools. And at the state level, a chronic “structural deficit” means there’s never quite enough money to do what government properly should because revenue doesn’t quite keep pace with costs.
In the years that O’Brien was speaker – and often in the decades before him – state budgeters made many harmful choices in the name of keeping existing taxes down and new taxes off the table. Most recently, we’ve seen New Hampshire residents in the throes of mental health crises warehoused in local emergency rooms because there’s no room at the state psychiatric hospital to treat them. We’ve seen pricey tuition bills from purportedly public universities create huge debt for young people just starting out in life. We’ve seen female prison inmates deprived of the counseling and education that could set them on a more successful path, only to land back in prison anew. We’ve seen the state’s roads and bridges go dangerously un-repaired and unimproved. We’ve seen justice delayed in a court system strapped for cash. In a small state, many such problems are imminently fixable. Often the true problem is not a lack of money but a lack of will.
Some of the most egregious failings of that last budget have been fixed in the most recent one. Some have not. Why, O’Brien demands to know from the Monitor and others. Well, it turns out, our view hasn’t quite held sway. (Not yet!) Gov. Maggie Hassan doesn’t turn to us for advice, nor did those who came before her. We don’t work in concert with legislative leaders nor, alas, do they take their marching orders from us.
Thanks for asking, Rep. O’Brien.