Income tax ban sounds good but …

Not surprisingly, the merits of a personal income tax was a lead topic of discussion at Thursday’s Henniker debate among the three declared Democratic candidates seeking to replace retiring four-term Gov. John Lynch.

If not openly debated, a strong undercurrent of whether New Hampshire would be better served by reducing its reliance on property taxes by siphoning income has flowed through virtually every state election for more than three decades. The Old Man of the Mountain may be gone, but New Hampshire’s fondness for arguing over an income tax remains etched in stone.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rep. Everett Sackett, R-Lee, sponsored income tax legislation during several biennial sessions. All were easily defeated.

In 1981, when the state was in the midst of another of its fiscal crises, the House of Representatives even supported an income tax in a nonbinding, anonymous roll-call vote posed by then-Speaker John Tucker. A similar vote on a statewide general sales tax failed.

There are more examples, but the point is that for a state that has never had an income tax, it has been and remains a vital topic of discussion each election cycle.

At Thursday’s debate, former Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan, of Exeter, stepped up and took “The Pledge” to veto any sales or income taxes. Former Sen. Jackie Cilley, of Barrington, played the middle, saying she’s open to discussing a broad-based tax, even though she isn’t advocating one. Bill Kennedy, of Danbury, said he wants an income tax to reduce property taxes, period.

This means Democrats will have a full set of choices come primary day, which is exactly the way it should be. The possibility that candidates and voters could be denied the right to discuss any revenue-generating plan is undemocratic.

Unfortunately, that possibility is more likely than ever now that the House and Senate have agreed on the language of a constitutional amendment that would outlaw an income tax.

The House came around to the Senate’s opinion that the suggested amendment was so sloppily constructed that it would invite a generation of litigation to determine things like what constitutes “a new tax.”

These problems still exist in the Senate’s rewrite, but the broader question is why would the Legislature want to deny New Hampshire residents the right to choose their tax structure?

If, sometime down the road, people believe an income tax is the best way to fund state government, then they should have the ability to make that determination.

New Hampshire is a vastly different place than just a few decades ago, when it was legal to drive with open containers of alcohol and Martin Luther King Jr. Day everywhere else in America was Civil Rights Day here.

Times and attitudes change. Kindergarten is no longer frowned upon; same-sex couples can marry.

Who knows? Public opinion may someday embrace a restructuring of New Hampshire’s government that includes an income tax.

Whether you consider that evolution or devolution, the choice should always be available.