During the only televised debate for governor last fall, a question was read carefully.
“It would not be election season in New Hampshire without the following question: Do you pledge to veto any broad based sales or income tax?”
Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, repeated the language of the “pledge” in his answer.
“I pledge to veto a sales tax or an income tax. I’ve made that very, very clear and if such a tax came to my desk I would pledge to veto. We will not have a sales or income tax in New Hampshire while I’m governor.”
Lynch’s answer shocked no one. He has taken the pledge since his first campaign in 2004.
The question got both candidates on the record, but it was about as relevant as asking candidates if they admire the North Country’s fall leaves or if they agonize over the Red Sox. The pledge has become so ingrained into the ethos of New Hampshire politics that taking it is a given. It is unimaginable that any governor in the near future will refuse to take this pledge. And, going further, the reality is that no foreseeable Democratic nominee for governor will deny the pledge either.
We have reached a point where politically the pledge no longer matters.
But the debate question’s opening clause was right about something. The “pledge” to veto any sales or income tax bill has been something of a Granite State tradition. The language goes back to the 1950s, when Gov. Hugh Gregg used the term, and first became significant in 1972 when Gov. Mel Thompson made it a central theme in his first campaign. In the years since, the Union Leader has taken it upon itself to hold politicians accountable on the pledge. In fact it was a Union Leader editor who wrote the debate question above. Since 1972 only one person has won the governorship without taking the pledge. (It was Gov. Jeanne Shaheen during her last re-election in 2000. In 1996 and 1998 she took the pledge.)
No Republican candidate for governor since 2000 and no Democratic one since 2002 has backed an income tax. The Republican Party is firmly behind the pledge. And while the state Democratic Party’s platform backs an income tax proposal, those Democrats expressing interest in being governor (former Congressman Dick Swett, State Sen. Maggie Hassan, former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, Senate President Sylvia Larsen) all would most likely take the pledge.
It wasn’t always this way. Throughout the years there have been a handful of Democratic nominees for governor who have rejected the pledge. Most argued the state’s over-reliance on the property tax is unfair to the elderly and working families. In 1992 there was even the possibility that both the Republican and Democratic nominees for governor would back an income tax. It was an election, former Attorney General Tom Rath told the New York Times then, that had “the potential to be an absolute watershed in terms of the direction of public policy in New Hampshire.” But only Arnie Arnesen, the Democrat, won her primary while income tax backer Republican State Rep. Liz Hager lost the nomination to eventual Gov. Steve Merrill.
Recently groups like the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition have attempted to use town meetings around the state to pass resolutions doing away with the state’s dependence on the property tax. Their efforts, now a few years in, have been nothing more than intellectual exercises and their victories this year almost disingenuous. (Did conservative Kingston voters want to replace property taxes with a different system or just reject taxes in general? The resolution language leaves that unclear.)
For better or for worse, the Old Man may fall, but the pledge lives on. NH
This article appears in the October 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine