Stateline Leadership and Education Governors

By Pipho, Chris | Phi Delta Kappan, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Stateline Leadership and Education Governors

Pipho, Chris, Phi Delta Kappan

GOVERNORS have used their clout in this legislative session to push for some big changes in education. Some have made progress with their proposals, others have found the political terrain rough and unpredictable, and in a few instances the outcome is still in doubt. In all cases, though, the ability to compromise with the state legislature has been an essential part of the mix. There might even be some unspoken competition to be the first governor to reel in a prize policy catch of something as big as a statewide voucher program.

Back when this type of strong education policy leadership was rare, a governor who got actively involved in education could pick up the title "Education Governor." Today, a "hands-on" interest in education on the part of the governor is often assumed, and only rarely is it seen as a liability. While it may be a stretch to call all of them Education Governors, there is little doubt that education plays a central role in decisions about managing state government. In at least one state this year, these education issues have intersected with budget and tax concerns and a century or more of political history.

Leadership in the Granite State

The New Hampshire citizen's traditional loathing of broad-based taxes, coupled with a school finance system tagged as unconstitutional by the state supreme court, has boxed Gov. Jeanne Shaheen into a corner. Like every other gubernatorial candidate in recent memory, she had to take the "no-tax pledge" in her last two campaigns; she won both of those races, a rare event for a Democrat in New Hampshire; and the court gave the state an April 1 deadline to put equity into a funding system that has over 90% of K-12 expenditures coming from local property taxes. All of these pressures form the sides of the box in which the governor finds herself.

So far this session, in early March, the 400-member House, which is controlled by Republicans, passed a 3.5% income tax by four votes, with 60 Republicans voting in favor. The first Democratically controlled Senate since 1912 passed its own version of an income tax a few weeks later. But just before the deadline, the House rejected the Senate version. Some say the governor's threat of a veto put pressure on the Democrats in the House to vote no on the second go-round. The state needs, by some estimates, $1 billion of new money to meet the court order, and raising this kind of money can't be done easily without some form of income, sales, or statewide property tax.

Since 1972, New Hampshire's largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader, has been the conservative voice leading the state's anti-tax forces. Any candidate who wishes to gain the endorsement of the paper must take a pledge to oppose any sales or income tax. In former times, this also would have included a statewide property tax, but Gov. Shaheen has at least tentatively included a statewide property tax in her plan, along with a new 5% capital gains tax, an increase in the cigarette tax, and the introduction of video slot machines in four state racetracks. A counter legislative plan is still trying to revive the 3.5% income tax and couple it with a statewide property tax. Meanwhile, the legislature is looking into every corner for new tax ideas, such as a 2% tax on rental cars.

Some political observers feel that the anti-tax mood is shifting in the state and that some Republicans in the House sensed that or else they would not have voted for the income tax back in March. Some even speculate that Gov. Shaheen is popular enough with the voters that she could break the no-tax pledge and get elected again in two years.

Meanwhile, the hoopla surrounding New Hampshire's Presidential primary has started, and there is a danger that in the "say anything to get a vote" climate, some out-of-state candidates will demand the right to take the anti-tax pledge just to gather enough support to look good in other state primaries.

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