Is this year's constitutional amendment just a ruse?
Illustration by Peter Noonan
This November New Hampshire voters will face a question that will have a lasting impact on the state's future financial health and its character.
It doesn't involve the presidential race and matters more than who will be elected governor. Way down on the ballot - below county commissioner candidates - is a question asking voters if they want a constitutional amendment forever preventing a state income tax from happening.
The state's tradition and live-free-or-die attitude toward taxes has already made the state one of just nine states that have rejected imposing a statewide income tax. In the 1930s the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the state Constitution prevented an income tax from being imposed there. But only one state has taken the affirmative measure of passing a constitutional amendment to make sure that one will never be imposed. In 1993 Texas did it.
The language on the ballot is fairly straightforward: "Notwithstanding any general or special provision of this constitution, the General Court shall not have the power or authority to impose and levy any assessment, rate or tax upon income earned by any natural person."
For the measure to pass and be placed in the Constitution, 66 percent of voters must approve it. Even amendment supporters say this is unlikely to happen. But passing this constitutional amendment really isn't the point.
The point is politics. Republicans currently have huge majorities in the State Senate and House. They can put whatever they want on the ballot. Constitutional amendments in particular don't need the support of Democratic Governor John Lynch. Besides the income tax amendment, another would change the Constitution as it relates to education funding.
When Republicans looked to the November elections they recognized two things: the presidential contest here was going to be close and the race for governor would be the most wide open in 16 years. History provided a guide on how their party could gain a small advantage.
In 2004 President George W. Bush was running for re-election and political operatives were saying the contest could all come down to Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning the Buckeye State, so that year Ohio Republicans put a constitutional amendment on the ballot forever banning gay marriage. Ten other states put the measure on the ballot and all had an overwhelming majority support the measures, but in Ohio, just putting the question on the ballot was seen as helping motivate conservatives to vote and helped Bush squeak out a win there.
The New Hampshire income tax amendment may not create the same fervor. Republicans are overwhelmingly against an income tax now, but are less sure about banning it forever. In fact, a WMUR Granite State Poll in August showed that only 55 percent of Republicans favored the proposed constitutional amendment. And through much of the election year there wasn't a single organization who announced plans to push a campaign for or against the question. Instead of driving people to the polls, the question, so far, has just led to a lot of shrugged shoulders.