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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Charles M. Arlinghaus: Instead of whining, let's debate taxes


Today the political circus comes to town. As the House Ways and Means Committee begins two days of meetings about state tax policy, we may finally be able to put an end to the whining and screeching that passes for political debate in this country.

The Ways and Means Committee discusses taxes. Its name is the old British designation for revenues, taxes and fees -- the ways and means of funding the spending that government undertakes. As such, its mandate is to look at taxes, whether they are too high, whether they should be changed in some way.

Should the Ways and Means Committee discuss ways and means? Of course it should. Oddly, a number of conservatives in the state have been annoyed by this. They oppose an income tax, but rather than wanting an open debate about it, they object to any discussion of it. And if a discussion is to take place, they object to supporters of an income tax being on the agenda. This is nonsense.

First of all, the tax committee should discuss taxes. Second, if the committee invites presentations, those presentations should be from a broad spectrum. The committee sensibly invited three national groups. One is the left-wing Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. ITEP has written that New Hampshire needs an income tax. The group is partially funded by liberal George Soros.

That a liberal billionaire funds liberal groups ought not to shock people. That the liberal presenter at a tax conference wants an income tax also is not news. The other two national groups on the same panel are the American Legislative Exchange Council, the organization of conservative state legislators, and the Tax Foundation, which is less ideological but whose work is constantly used by those of us on the right. One right, one left, one center.

The rest of the program is similarly balanced. Unfortunately, some conservative criticisms of this event sound either demagogic or nervous. They object to the left even being allowed to speak. They end up objecting to actually having a debate, which makes them seem embarrassed about their own positions.

I completely disagree with that approach. I don't want an income tax, and I'm happy to talk about it. Rather than objecting to anyone having a debate on the subject of income taxes, business taxes, excise taxes or anything else, we should look forward eagerly to an opportunity to explain our position.

You only object to the debate when you think you'll lose. I am confident in my positions and want the opportunity to explain them to a broader audience. I believe that I will persuade more people than not. Let's talk taxes. I think taxes are too high, and I want to talk about it. In July I wrote a report for the Josiah Bartlett Center titled "A Rising Tide of Taxes and Fees," and I want to talk about it. Often.

Silly criticism and whining by my conservative friends isn't the only problem with the debate. Our friend Joe McCarthy has reared his ugly head again. In an interview, Ways and Means Chairman Susan Almy accused her critics of "McCarthyism." When confronted about the silly criticism over ITEP speaking and where it gets its funding, Almy ended up calling her critics conspiracy theorists and discussing how Sen. Joe McCarthy's accusations ruined people's lives in the 1950s.

Until that point, she was right. She pointed out that almost every think tank or policy group survives on contributions from ideologically similar foundations or individuals, including the other organizations making presentations at today's hearing. She also asked rhetorically if the Legislature is only allowed to listen to the right, which was an accurate criticism of the most strident conservative critics. But then she joined those critics in silliness by dragging the McCarthy corpse out of its vault.

By and large, Rep. Almy deserves credit for organizing a good briefing for her committee. She's been up front about her own opinions about an income tax and about other taxes. More important, the list of speakers is largely balanced. You or I may not have picked the exact same people or scheduled two days worth of talking, but it is in general a good opportunity to make specific points about tax competitiveness, tax burdens and tax changes.

I think the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy has the wrong idea for New Hampshire, but it has nothing to do with which foundations they apply to for grants. An income tax is a bad idea whether George Soros wants one or not. Let's have that debate, but let's leave George Soros and Joe McCarthy at home.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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