Tax roulette in New Hampshire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 1999, 12:00am

IF there is one thing the hardy folk of New Hampshire hate more than anything, it is taxes. The state was the first of the 13 colonies to declare its independence from the British yoke, and has cemented its libertarian traditions ever since, as indicated by its state motto: 'Live Free Or Die'.

It is ironic that the New Hampshire primaries are considered a bellwether test of how each party's candidates will do in the race for the White House, since the state is not terribly representative of greater American opinion.

Sometimes it is a wonder that Washington manages to persuade the maverick population to pay their federal taxes. One thing New Hampshirites have always refused to pay are state income taxes: with Texas and Alaska, it is one of only three states to have no levies on income.

But that might be about to change. When governments vote new taxes on to the heads of their unfortunate citizens, it is not usually front-page news, but a decision by the New Hampshire Senate last week was perfectly historic.

Following an acrimonious 12-hour debate, the body narrowly voted to approve, for the first time, a state income tax of 3.5 per cent plus a new personal property tax. With the state House also having approved an income tax (albeit of four per cent), Governor Jeanne Shaheen is put in an unenviable dilemma.

Like most of her predecessors, she was elected on a pledge of not raising taxes, and has threatened to veto the bill. But if she does, that will leave the state's crisis-hit schools system short of US$900 million (about HK$6.9 billion) and on a life-support system.

That the legislature would even allow the phrase 'income tax' to pass its lips is a measure of the state of the fiscal emergency. Ever since the state's Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the current system of funding education - a sliding-rate local property tax - leaders have been scratching their heads trying to devise a way to plug the gap.

But the preferred option of income tax opponents, including the governor, throws up a lesser-of-the-two evils argument familiar to all too many states. The only alternative plan is to raise the cash largely by legalising casino gambling - not an attractive proposition for those who cherish the state's natural beauty.

Casino gambling, once legal in only Nevada and Atlantic City, New Jersey, has in the past decade spread like winter flu across the vast majority of states, as local governments have become addicted to the cash cow of betting tax revenue. Most of them can no longer imagine balancing the budget without it.

So what will New Hampshire's people choose in order to save their schools? A lighter pay cheque, or a few tacky slot-machine halls here and there? Governor Shaheen bets, probably rightly, that they would rather stomach an influx of gambling - but it remains to be seen whether legislators will give way.

After the discovery of a new world of anti-depressants, America was sarcastically known as the Prozac Nation. But in the past 12 months, there can be no doubting that it has metamorphosed into Viagra Nation.

One year after it was introduced to the US, the little blue pill - whose name came from a marketing man's concoction of 'virility' and 'Niagara' - is enjoying its birthday party.

After the first flood of sexually-challenged males stopped charging down their doctors' doors, the furore cooled. But it has racked up nearly US$1 billion in sales, holds 90 per cent of the impotence remedy market, and has been prescribed eight million times.

Along the way, 132 men have died after taking the drug - although the jury is out on whether their untimely demise was caused by the passionate heat of the moment or because of Viagra's dangerous effects on men with heart problems. A few women have also taken advantage of the craze to take part in the great American pastime of litigation - suing drug maker Pfizer because they claim Viagra turned their husbands from limp lettuces into philandering cheats.

Quite apart from its medical miracles, Viagra has entered the nation's cultural lexicon.

It also gave Americans the bizarre spectacle of former presidential candidate, Bob Dole, a spry man of 75, telling the world about his experiences with 'erectile dysfunction' in a commercial plugging Viagra for Pfizer. With his wife Elizabeth looking to win next year's race for the White House, who knows? Viagra might even become a campaign issue.

Some call it the Y2KRIP problem. Thousands of Americans are facing an unexpected expense at the cemetery because they never thought they would live to see the new millennium.

Many families carve group tombstones, which not only show the names of the spouses and offspring who have already died, but leave spaces for those relatives yet to bite the dust.

But many of the people whose resting place still awaits them rue the day they carved their name, followed by the birth date and a death date which reads 19--, ready to be filled in at the right moment. They never expected it, but they lasted well into their 90s, or even 100s, and will almost certainly make it to 2000.

Like an unfixed computer, they could leave the 19-- and die with a clearly incorrect gravestone. Or they could fill in the date with resin and carve over it, but that does not look good. The most expensive option will be to recarve the entire stone.

Let us hope they have a good life insurance policy.