The third rail of N.H. politics

April 08, 2002|By Jules Witcover

CONCORD, N.H. - Just as meddling with Social Security is considered a forbidden political third rail in presidential politics, New Hampshire has one of its own - personal income and sales taxes. Neither has ever been levied here, and candidates who have tried to buck the tradition have been buried by it.

But three-term Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen touched the third rail after her 2000 re-election by proposing a sales tax, which failed, and she is still standing tall enough to be the likely Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, without a primary challenger, in November.

Two prominent Republican opponents, incumbent Sen. Bob Smith and Rep. John E. Sununu, are poised to remind voters of that sales tax proposal, and to blame her for the state's continuing nightmare of finding a way to pay for court-mandated public education improvement.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that any state education-funding plan must provide an adequate education, using an equal tax rate, for every child in every town. As a practical matter, this requirement means that needy school districts cannot be specifically targeted.

The current solution is for each town to contribute to the state education fund and get back what it needs to meet the state standard. The result is that there are about 40 or 50 "donor towns," some of which are relatively poor, that wind up helping to pay for schools in other towns, some of which are affluent. The redistribution has created an uproar in the donor towns, which say the principle of local support of local schools is being violated. A statewide property tax was enacted in 1999 to satisfy the court order, but the legislature continues to struggle to find a better solution to education funding.

The issue is certain to dominate the political landscape in the Senate race as well as the gubernatorial contest, with four Republicans and three Democrats vying in the state's September primaries to become Ms. Shaheen's successor.

Some of the Republicans have already proposed a constitutional amendment that would get around the state Supreme Court's decisions rejecting the targeting of specific needy towns and school districts, and thus avoid the creation of donor towns.

A battle cry against a state court running local school systems has resonance with conservatives, but because such an amendment needs three-fifths approval of the legislature, the Democrats, including Ms. Shaheen, say it is not achievable.

Former Sen. Gordon Humphrey, who lost an earlier gubernatorial bid to Ms. Shaheen, is seeking the GOP nomination for governor again and is ahead in most polls, if only as a result of wide name recognition in the state.

Two courageous - or foolhardy - Democratic candidates, state Sens. Mark Fernald and Beverly Hollingworth, are proposing that voters grab the other political third rail, a state income tax, as the solution. Some surveys indicate voters here may be rethinking the traditional no-no in light of the thorny education-funding squabble.

Longtime Republican activist Tom Rath says the presence of the education funding debate ensures that "the race for governor will bleed into the Senate race," meaning the state issue unavoidably will also be central in the contest for the federal Senate seat.

In a somewhat similar situation in New Jersey a few years ago, a highly unpopular tax increase by Democratic Gov. James Florio became an issue in the re-election bid of Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley. Mr. Bradley declined to state a position on grounds it was a state issue beyond his authority, a recalcitrance that nearly cost him his seat against Republican challenger Christine Todd Whitman, later elected governor.

Ms. Shaheen, with no primary opposition, can't count on either Republican candidate to lay off her record on education funding. As in the past, she can be expected not only to defend it but also to paint either Mr. Smith or Mr. Sununu as too far right for an increasingly moderate New Hampshire, and thus survive having touched the sales tax third rail.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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