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December 11. 2012 11:53PM

If state representative has his way, counties could tax

After several unsuccessful attempts to pass a statewide income tax, a Keene lawmaker has come up with a unique proposal: Let the counties do it.

"I'm prepared to look like a catsup bottle when they throw all the tomatoes at me," said Rep. Delmar Burridge, a third-term Democrat, of the reception he expects at the State House.

Burridge said his bill would allow counties to institute a tax on a county-wide level. So, in effect, Cheshire County might have an income tax, while neighboring counties do not.

The bill calls for a 1 percent tax on adjusted gross income to be earmarked specifically for salaries and benefits of K-12 public school teachers.

"And that would come off of the top of the local property tax you are assessed from the local school board," he said, theoretically, at least, offsetting property taxes.

"My intent is to keep folks in their homes and not move out of Keene or other places because they can't afford the property taxes," Burridge, 66, said.

The proposal was featured Tuesday on the web site of the Huffington Post. Last week, the site published a story on Burridge's bill to ban openly carrying guns into public buildings.

Burridge is a self-described liberal who teaches general studies at River Valley Community College. He was first elected to the House in 2006 and was reelected in 2008. He did not run in 2010, when the Republicans swept into the majority. But he ran again this year and was part of the big Democratic victory that saw the House once again turn blue.

Opposition to bill

House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, told the Huffington Post web site it is unlikely the bill will pass. She cited the Nov. 6 vote in which 57 percent of Granite Staters favored a constitutional ban on an income tax.

Although the vote did not reach the necessary two-thirds super-majority for passage, Norelli said it "gives us a warning that the public is not in support of an income tax in New Hampshire."

The speaker did not return the New Hampshire Union Leader's calls seeking comment.

Democratic Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan also opposes Burridge's bill.

She took the anti-broadbased tax pledge as a candidate "and would veto this bill if it came to her desk," said her spokesman, Marc Goldberg.

The bill would allow the legislative delegations of each county, which is composed of House members, to enact the income tax for its particular county only.

Burridge cited as his inspiration former state Sen. Jackie Cilley, who lost to Hassan in the Democratic gubernatorial primary while refusing to take the pledge.

While Cilley lost by a substantial statewide margin to Hassan, Burridge noticed that she won big in Cheshire County, receiving 58 percent of the vote.

"She was a cool, brave person," he said.

Besides, he said, "People in this state like local control. Well, let's give them local control."

Burridge noted counties already have the ability to levy their own property taxes, as cities and towns do.

And as a safeguard, he said, under his bill, any income tax enacted would "sunset" after six years, "and they'd have to go through the whole process of the county delegation voting for it all over again."

Democrats have held the governor's office for all but two years since Gov. Jeanne Shaheen took office in 1997, and with the exception of Shaheen during her campaign for a third term, she and Gov. John Lynch took the anti-broadbased tax pledge.

"This is why I'm not under the party's 'Big Top,'" said Burridge, "because I think we're in contempt" of the state Supreme Court's Claremont school funding decision by not having an income tax.

"And no one wants to say that," he said. "I hold Democrats to a higher level of ethics and performance - I'm just biased that way - and to me, (taking the pledge) is just wrong.

"And I'm in trouble with the leadership all the time for the way I feel," Burridge said. "I'm not one of (Norelli's) soldiers."

Is plan legal?

Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican and retired long-time attorney, said it's a "no brainer" and a "slam dunk" that the plan violates Part 2, Article 5 of the state constitution, which says all taxes must be proportional "upon all the inhabitants of, and residents within," the state.

"To my knowledge, any tax that has ever been proposed for a certain geographic area of the state has never been enacted," he said.

Even with a Democratic-controlled legislature, he said, the plan will fail.

"There is widespread opposition to the balkanization of the taxing power in the state," Hess said. "It crosses all ideological levels."

A Democratic attorney, former party chair Kathy Sullivan, was unsure if the plan is constitutional.
Despite the language of Part 2, Article 5, she said, “We do have county taxes and municipal and school district taxes on property.”

Sullivan, who opposed broadbased taxes as party chair, she said she did not know enough about the new House to venture a guess on whether Burridge’s plan can pass. But she said, “They are all aware of the results of the election,” including the vote on the constitutional amendment question.

Cilley declined to comment for this report, citing her new job as a staffer in U.S. Rep.-elect Carol Shea-Porter's office.

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John DiStaso may be reached at jdistaso@unionleader.com.


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