It Tried to Live Free It Deserves Its Fate

RICHARD REEVES

February 05, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK. — New York -- Barring unexpected bad luck, this will be the first time in 24 years that I will not be in New Hampshire for its quadrennial vote festival, ''First Primary in the Nation.''

I won't miss it.

In fact, I take a certain perverse pleasure in listening to the Yankee whining coming from that corner this year about rising taxes and declining government in these hard times. The people of New Hampshire, with no state income tax or state sales tax, have made their bed, of ice, and now they have to lie in it -- and pay rising property taxes just to maintain their abysmal level of public services.

''Live Free or Die'' is the state motto. My observation, based on all those visits over the years, was that folks really meant the first part. A lot of them in the southern part of the state, which is where the people huddle together in the winter, were trying to live free by working across the border in Massachusetts and skidding back to their chilly tax haven at night.

In 1988, my last trip, New Hampshire was booming. Unemployment was below 2.5 percent and the price of an average house -- one near employment in Massachusetts -- rose to more than $140,000.

Now unemployment is almost 8 percent and the average house price is down to $111,000. The state has lost more than 50,000 jobs in just four years.

I wish those terrible things had not happened to my fellow Americans, but at least it stopped the constant and sanctimonious verbal contempt for government in general and ''Taxachusetts'' in particular.

The public works and diverse non-Yankee public of Boston were seen as an affront to New Hampshiremen who went to white wooden churches and hid their money from the collection plates of government. With the grace of God, they persuaded themselves, they did not need the modern services and industries of Massachusetts and they did not need to invest any of their own money in roads and classrooms -- there was not even garbage collection in many parts -- and other such responsibilities of civilized government.

So, they lived free, passing around ''The Pledge,'' created by one of the United States' worst newspapers, the Manchester Union Leader, a slip of paper committing politicians not to consider imposing broad-based taxes on noble New Hampshire. Sign or die, candidates.

That's how George Bush defeated Bob Dole in the 1988 Republican primary: Mr. Dole was asked to sign a national pledge not to raise federal taxes during a televised debate. He refused, and that was it for him.

It was great, self-deluding fun. Shopping malls were built along the border, sometimes with the parking lots in Massachusetts, so that people from Boston and environs could avoid their home state's sales taxes. All that worked up to a point. The point was the collapse of the Massachusetts economy, with the debris falling on the border-crossers in New Hampshire.

Without a prosperous Massachusetts to drain, 1 million New Hampshiremen and women have to pay their own bills, usually through property taxes that are becoming among the highest in the country. One of the things that hurts most now is the inflexibility of those property taxes.

Income taxes go down when you lose a job; property taxes don't. Mortgage payments don't go down, either, and more than 150,000 state homeowners are delinquent in mortgage payments.

A hard place, I think. It is not for nothing that New Hampshire

calls itself the Granite State. There's a mean streak up there. Or is it a coincidence that that one flinty little state could produce such mean little men, from Sherman Adams to John Sununu, watched over by the ghost of William Loeb past?

Having said that, I suppose we all owe something to New Hampshire every four years for rubbing some of the rough edges off the men who would be president. Where else but in New Hampshire would people think that Pat Buchanan is a cuddly guy?

, Maybe it's just the mittens.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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