N.H. to vote on amendment barring state income tax

Saturday November 3, 2012

CONCORD, N.H. -- For the first time in more than 70 years, New Hampshire voters will be asked to weigh in on a state income tax.

Voters face three ballot questions Tuesday, and topping the list is whether to pass a constitutional amendment that would bar the legislature from imposing an income tax in the future.

In 1939, voters were asked to empower the legislature to impose an income tax of up to 6 percent, as part of a proposed constitutional amendment that also sought approval for taxes on timber, luxury items and inherited property. With a two-thirds vote required for passage, voters soundly defeated the proposed amendment by a vote of 52,157 to 44,950, according to the 1939 New Hampshire state manual.

Voters will also be asked whether lawmakers should have the ultimately rule-making authority over the courts. The ballot questions haven’t generated as much debate as the candidates, but their passage could change the state’s political landscape.

Banning an income tax would embed in the constitution the decades-old "pledge" New Hampshire candidates are perennially challenged to take to oppose an income tax. And it would remove it as an option to balance future state budgets.

Only eight other states have no broad-based income tax -- Washington, Texas, Nevada, Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wyoming and Alaska. New Hampshire and Tennessee both tax interest and dividend income.

The second question would vest in the legislature the power to pass laws on how the courts are to be administered. It also would allow lawmakers to trump rules imposed by the justices of the Supreme Court if the two are in conflict.

Opponents say the amendment violates the separation of powers doctrine, while several prominent judges feel that rulemaking is the equivalent of lawmaking and should reside with the legislature. Similar proposed amendments have been defeated twice in the past decade -- in 2002 and 2004.

House Speaker Bill O’Brien, a conservative Republican, is an avid supporter of the amendment and staunch critic of the family court system.

Former Gov. Stephen Merrill and retired Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nadeau teamed up to lobby against its passage, saying it amounts to one branch of government imposing its will on another.

Each of the proposed amendments must pass by a two-thirds majority to be enacted.

A third question asks voters whether a constitutional convention should be held to propose and debate amendments to the state’s charter. The question must be put to voters every 10 years and typically is defeated, even though only a majority vote is required for passage.

The most recent WMUR Granite State poll conducted by the UNH Survey Center and released on Oct. 24 shows lukewarm support for the income tax amendment. GOP lawmakers and candidates are the leading lobbyists for the amendment, but only two-thirds of polled Republicans said they support it.

Republican candidate for governor Ovide LaMontagne supports the amendment. Democratic candidate Maggie Hassan does not, although she has vowed to veto an income or sales tax.

"Most amendments don’t get passed," said Andy Smith, director of the survey center. "It’s a very high hurdle in New Hampshire for a constitutional amendment to get through and that’s by design. It wasn’t meant to be easy."

Smith said the center has not done any polling on the question of who should have the ultimate authority to govern the courts, but predicts it will fail to get the two-thirds vote needed to pass.

"It’s very confusing to most people," Smith said. "If people don’t really understand what the issue is, they tend to vote against it."


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