January 18, 2011
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
Be careful not to get on the wrong side of your legislator or he might pass a law just to get back at you. We are being treated to an example of the temptations of power this year as one legislator has introduced a bill that doesn’t change a set of rules for everyone but rather singles out only one institution that happens to be in his town and has annoyed him. Rep. Frank Sapareto of Derry introduced HB1201 for the sole purpose of creating an exception to state law and taxing Pinkerton Academy. The law doesn’t tax anything else, create a new category of taxation, or change the rules under which the other cities and towns of New Hampshire operate. It merely says that notwithstanding provisions of current law, this one school, singled out by name, has to pay property taxes. Other similar schools are still exempt from property taxes and the bill would affect no other institution. The motivation for this dispute is the annoyance of Rep. Sapareto and a few fellow legislators with decisions of the school. Pinkerton Academy is a privately run school that serves as the public high school for the town of Derry. Under state law, it and similar institutions are known as public academies. Mind you, the Sapareto bill doesn’t change the rules for public academies in general, just for this one school. Like many other public high schools, Pinkerton accepts kids not just from Derry but from neighboring towns as well. Like Derry, the neighboring towns pay tuition to the school. The school is run by a board of trustees with tuition payments set by contract rather than by a school board with recourse to tax revenues. Sapareto is annoyed that Pinkerton accepts students from anywhere else, recently telling the press that “if only Derry kids went to Pinkerton there would be no need for this bill.” I suppose if your town had a ten building multi-acre campus for your school, you might not want to share either. But the legislature is not the private playground of people looking to pass bills that affect only them. Derry is free to enter into a contract with the school, as it has. Rep. Sapareto is free to object to the decisions that are made by the school board or to object to the terms of the contract. But if he loses, he is not free to come to the legislature and use the rest of us to reverse decisions he lost. Let me reiterate: this bill doesn’t change the laws of the state for everyone. It changes the laws of the state for one school in one town. Similar schools are unaffected. Rather than change a law, the Sapareto bill creates an exception for one school because he’s annoyed about the political outcome. This is simply an abuse of power. We all know it would be insane to pass a bill saying “notwithstanding any laws to the contrary, Charlie’s taxes are only $12.” The Sapareto bill is equally abusive. By the way, the bill is worse than I’m making it sound (and I hope I’m making it sound ridiculous). Not only does the bill say this one institution has to pay taxes, it also dictates what Derry must do with those taxes. Normally, property taxes go into the town budget. That would be the case with any other institution taxed. But in this case Sapareto also would stipulate under state law that the revenue from this one special tax (do we call it the Pinkerton Fee or the Sapareto Tax?) must be used to reimburse the school district for higher tuition payments that Pinkerton will have to charge so it can pay the tax. Here’s where Rep. Sapareto is at his sneakiest. For Derry, it’s a zero-sum game. The town receives the tax revenue, then sends it to the school district, which uses it to pay the higher tuition Pinkerton has to charge because of the new tax. But the higher tuition rates will affect all four sending towns. Those towns will pay higher tuition rates, with only Derry receiving offsetting revenue. Derry gets more money. Chester, Hampstead and Auburn get the bill. If we let officials pass legislation to settle their own private frustrations, the law becomes more and more abusive. I hope everyone interested in public policy will talk about this bill and cheer it on its way to the ash heap that ought to be the resting place of this sort of abusive nonsense.