Election Results Show N.H. on Verge of Taxpayer Revolt

Laconia — November 20, 2005 — When New Hampshire turned its back on the GOP in last year’s presidential election and supported Democrat John F. Kerry, political pundits wondered whether the once crimson Republican state was changing its hue.

There was talk that candidates in this most conservative of New England states might no longer need to take the time-honored anti-tax pledge in order to be elected.

Not so fast.

Judging by this year’s election results, New Hampshire is on the verge of a taxpayer revolt similar to the one Massachusetts experienced in 1980, when the Legislature adopted Proposition 2 1/2. The state law caps annual property tax increases at 2.5 percent, plus new growth, unless voters approve a higher amount.

From Portsmouth to Manchester, a quiet tax rebellion took place at the ballot box earlier this month, as voters across New Hampshire swept fiscal conservatives into office and imposed strict spending limits on their local leaders. Laconia went so far as to adopt a tax cap — rare in New Hampshire.

”Voters are concerned about property taxes and are willing to vote for people and structures that will keep a lid on spending,” says Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a conservative Granite State think tank. ”The question is: Will policymakers address those who have voiced spending concerns or reject them as a bunch of cranks?”

In a race watched closely throughout the state, Laconia community activist Niel Young, a conservative commentator and former state representative, successfully petitioned for a city charter amendment that establishes a tax cap. Laconia, on Lake Winnipesaukee, is the third New Hampshire city to adopt such a cap; Nashua and Franklin have had similar measures in place for years.

The Laconia tax cap, passed by a vote of 1,842 to 1,708, forces the council to craft city budgets by taking the prior year’s spending plan, accounting for inflation by adjusting by the consumer price index, and then adding to that figure any revenue derived from new development.

”There’s a wave sweeping across this state,” said Young. ”Taxpayers are fed up with the way the mayors and councils spend. They like to forget it is taxpayer money, our money, they’re spending. It’s appalling.”

Taxpayers in New Hampshire’s old farming towns and mill cities voiced similar frustrations on Election Tuesday, proving ”The Pledge” is still crucial today, some 33 years after Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr. coined the term by vowing to veto a broad-based tax.

In Manchester, the state’s largest city, voters jettisoned incumbent Mayor Robert A. Baines, electing Alderman Frank Guinta to the city’s top office. Guinta promised to provide tax relief and criticized the mayor for ”six tax hikes in six years.”

”People do respond to messages like that, but the proof will be in whether he can keep his campaign promise and cut taxes,” said Baines. ”It will be interesting to watch as the city goes through its revaluation process and tries to meet mandated cost increases.”

In a high-profile race in Dover, former state Representative David Scott ran on an anti-tax platform and won a seat on the City Council. In Rochester, City Council member John Larochelle vowed to lower taxes and was elected mayor in a landslide victory.

In Nashua, voters put teeth into their tax cap, making it more difficult for city leaders to raise spending, and made fiscal conservatives a majority on the Board of Aldermen. Fred Teeboom, father of Nashua’s tax cap, was among those elected to the board.

Portsmouth voters elected Steve Marchand, a conservative Democrat, as their next mayor. Marchand, who used to make his living auditing municipal books, last year pushed unsuccessfully for a 4 percent budget cap. This year, he ran an aggressive campaign calling for a curb in city spending and sailed to victory with 67 percent of the vote.

”When you’re running in a local election, you don’t get into social issues too much,” said Marchand. ”Fiscal issues are the focus, and on those issues, most people in New Hampshire tend to be conservative, regardless of which political party they belong to. People may not agree on a lot of social issues, but they want someone in office who is going to act in a responsible manner when it comes to their hard-earned tax dollars.”

In Sanbornton, a small town on the shores of Lake Winnisquam, voters have become so incensed over what they view as frivolous spending on the part of local leaders that they have submitted a tax-cap petition with 300 signatures to the Board of Selectmen and are pushing to do away with Town Meeting.

”When we suggested a 3 percent tax cap, our proposal was compared to Proposition 2 1/2, but something needs to be done. Things have gotten out of control,” said Jim Grotton, vice president of the Winnisquam Village Association. He noted that the town selectmen originally proposed a $3.7 million spending plan for next fiscal year, an increase of about 25 percent over last year’s budget.

Grotton said he holds out little hope that next year’s budget will reflect the association’s wishes, because even if town leaders offer a conservative budget, voters at Town Meeting are likely to add tens of thousands of dollars to the spending plan. Like many New Hampshire towns, budget decisions in Sanbornton are made at Town Meeting.

”There’s a nostalgia issue with Town Meeting, but it’s not what it used to be,” said Grotton, who served on the Finance Committee for four years before resigning in frustration. ”No one hitches up the horse and takes a picnic basket to town center to spend the day socializing and debating the warrants. These days, the only people who show up are those who have a direct stake in the outcome — town employees, their relatives and friends.”

As Grotton works to impose fiscal restraint in Sanbornton, Young is receiving a steady stream of calls from New Hampshire residents who want to duplicate what was done in Laconia and impose strict spending limits on their local leaders. The Winnisquam group came calling, as did folks from Dover, Derry, and Plymouth.

And, as officials in the state’s mountain region begin to tax ”scenic views,” more than doubling the tax bills of some property owners, Young expects the telephone’s shrill ring to continue.

”This is not going to stop,” Young said. ”People are livid. They see the tax cap as an insurance policy, the only way of ensuring that local officials do the right thing.”

© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company

Election Results Show N.H. on Verge of Taxpayer Revolt