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Editorial: Give It a Rest

As one of New Hampshire’s most persistent and passionate advocates for an income tax, Mark Fernald reacted predictably to the defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban the state from adopting one: He persisted in passionately arguing for a state income tax.

“Everyone knows the problem with the property tax is so often it falls on those who can least afford to pay,” Fernald, who ran for governor in 2002, told the Nashua Telegraph in a story published in the Nov. 9 Valley News. “That’s always been the issue. ... We have to do something.”

Indeed, a bill proposing an income tax has already been filed, according to Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, who is in contention for House minority leader. “I don’t know if there’s support for it, but there’s always somebody talking about it.”

Those familiar with this space know that we subscribe to the Fernald view of the New Hampshire political universe, which is to say that we believe a system that is overly dependent on property taxes is fundamentally unfair and cannot produce adequate revenue to meet the state’s essential responsibilities. That said, we hope that even the most ardent supporters of a state income tax realize that now is not the time to resume the crusade, regardless of the righteousness of the cause.

While income tax supporters can be grateful that the proposed constitutional ban failed, its defeat was anything but a victory for their cause. The ban is not now part of the state constitution not because it didn’t receive support, but only because it didn’t receive the two-thirds support required. The amendment was a transparently bad idea — both as a matter of policy and as a policy matter that didn’t belong in the constitution — yet it still received about 57 percent support. While petitioned articles calling for a re-examination of the state’s tax system received widespread support at New Hampshire town meetings several years ago, this vote seems to more accurately capture the state’s general sentiment about the income tax. It’s strongly unfavorable.

Moreover, governor-elect Maggie Hassan not only took the so-called Pledge during the general election campaign, she secured the Democratic nomination by beating a candidate who refused to rule out an income tax. Elections are supposed to matter, and this one spoke loudly and clearly about the income tax on several levels.

And although fighting the same legislative battles on an annual or biennial basis is something of a New Hampshire tradition — anyone doubt that the Legislature will again consider a constitutional amendment to diminish its responsibility to support public education, for example? — it’s not a healthy habit. Repeatedly fighting the same old battles isn’t a great use of time, and the Legislature will have no shortage of work to do when it returns to Concord in January.

Which is not to say that this isn’t a battle worth returning to at some point. While we don’t doubt the unpopularity of an income tax among both lawmakers and their constituents, we also don’t doubt that the fundamental flaws of the existing tax system will one day demand to be addressed. But this past election makes unmistakably clear that the day has not yet arrived.