Jewish World Review April 8, 2002 / 27 Nissan, 5762

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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N.H.: Another political third rail

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | 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 taxation. 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's still standing tall enough to be the expected Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, without a primary challenger, in November.

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

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 that the principle of local support of local schools is thus violated. A statewide property tax was enacted in 1999 to satisfy the court order, but the legislature continues to struggle to find a more satisfactory solution to education funding.

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

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

Former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, who lost an earlier gubernatorial bid to 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 Hollinsworth, are proposing that voters grab the other political third rail, a state income tax, as the solution on the school issue. 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 assures that "the race for governor will bleed into the Senate race," meaning that the state issue will unavoidably also be central in the latter election.

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 reelection bid of Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley. 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 Whitman, later elected governor.

Shaheen, with no primary opposition in her race for the Senate, 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 Smith or Sununu as too right-wing for an increasingly moderate New Hampshire, and thus survive having touched the sales-tax third rail.


Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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