By Andru Volinsky
Granite Staters, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, now face their biggest tax bill of the year, their property tax bill. For homeowners in Sullivan County suffering some of the highest tax rates in the state, this is a particularly burdensome time. To come out of the pandemic and economic crisis, New Hampshire needs a strong economy, good schools, a serviceable transportation system and broadband to every home. What we don’t need are politicians chained to the past by a failed tax pledge created by the Union Leader a half century ago that has resulted in our state having consistently and crushingly high property taxes, hampering the growth and prosperity of Sullivan County. As the lead lawyer in the 1997 Claremont School funding case, I have been fighting this broken system now for 30 years.
New Hampshire can’t accomplish our goals if we continue to rely more heavily than any other state on the most archaic and unfair tax system possible. If elected governor, I pledge to reduce property taxes for the majority of New Hampshire residents. During Chris Sununu’s term in office, property taxes have gone up by $320 million, more than the increase during the three years following the 2008 recession, and his inaction will cause it to go up even more. Does he even care? Tellingingly, Sununu is unwilling to devote any of the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money to property tax relief. While the governor obsesses on the largest 3% of businesses in our state, he ignores the local property taxpayer.
Here is how I will approach the problem.
First, we need to call it out — New Hampshire ranks first in the nation for relying too heavily on the local property tax and that reliance prevents us from doing what is needed for our fellow citizens.
Second, we must set a goal of creating a fair revenue system that results in a reduction in property taxes for the majority of state residents, not just the wealthy.
Third, we must put all options on the table. Taking a pledge to veto any reasonable means to pay for important services like education isn’t leadership.
Fourth, I will explore new options. Unlike Sununu, I will legalize marijuana sales, just like every other New England state. With property taxes due next week, we need to focus on how we can move forward. As your governor, that is exactly what I will do.
The property tax is like a second mortgage that everyone pays and that always goes up. Homeowners pay it directly, renters indirectly. New Hampshire businesses pay twice as much in property taxes as they do in business taxes. The property tax is also extraordinarily unfair. Wealthy people who can afford homes on a lake or near a ski resort enjoy low taxes. Mitt Romney with his $10 million Wolfeboro mansion pays a property tax rate that is one third that paid by a worker between jobs in Claremont.
Property taxes keep going up because politicians repeatedly shift state responsibilities to local communities and gobble up local revenues, often by reneging on promises not to do so. In the Claremont School funding case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that every child is entitled to a state-funded public education, but 25 years later the state pays less than a quarter of the cost. The rest is paid by local school districts with widely varying abilities to pay. The owner of a $200,000 home in Moultonborough pays $1,446 a year in property taxes. In Claremont, it is an outrageous $8,434. This is the tax system the Claremont case labelled unconstitutional for the arbitrary tax rates depending on where you live.
As governor, I will prioritize tax fairness for every Granite Stater, ensure the state lives up to its responsibilities, and lower property taxes while funding our schools fairly. In the four years I have served on the Executive Council, my constituents have shared their anxieties about the ever-increasing property tax burden forcing them to choose between food and medicine or paying their property taxes. I have heard from young people and working people that affordable housing simply is not available. Towns with high tax communities like Newport can’t draw in small businesses. Retirees are forced to leave their homes.
Let’s plan ahead. The status quo cannot stand. This is the job of courageous leadership. New Hampshire desperately needs that leadership now.
Andru Volinsky of Concord is an executive councilor for District 2 and a Democratic candidate for governor.