I HAVE TO confess this: When my registration renewal form arrived last week from the MVA I decided not to buy a new Chesapeake Bay license plate. It wasn't a political statement. It was just that the solicitation came at the wrong time. Too many bills; too little money.
More than that, I remembered what happened last time, when I put the registration renewal form aside, promising myself I would pay it later and then lost it under a pile of bills.
First I was pulled over and given a warning. Then, the same day, I was pulled over and ticketed. Next time, I vowed, I would pay right away. So I tossed the application for the new tag in the trash and opted for the low-cost renewal instead. No fancy plates.
But even while I was writing out the $27 check for the registration fee, I knew I was making a mistake. The state is offering citizens a chance, for $20 extra, to get rid of the old, generic-looking, black-and-white license plates and instead sport politically correct commemorative plates -- which are a very attractive blue and white, and have reeds of some sort growing up from the bottom and a great blue heron perched in the middle.
The state name -- "Maryland" -- is centered over the bird, and along the bottom is the slogan, "Treasure the Chesapeake." (As in, "I contributed -- you didn't.")
For $100, plates with the letters "BAY" are available, and for $500 you can get personalized numerical combinations on your bay plates to show that you care even more about the environment than the people who paid $20.
Anyway, I worry that those of us who don't have the new license plates, like those who still smoke cigarettes, will be shunned. Will other drivers watch and wait to see whether we empty our ashtrays in parking lots or irreverently toss Styrofoam cups out -- the back windows? Will they stare when we leave the supermarket to see whether we are carting home microwave dinners in plastic grocery bags? Will people stop us in the streets and ask whether we work for Westvaco?
The state hopes to raise $1 million from this license plate campaign to go toward environmental efforts to keep the bay clean. I have no doubt it will. Maryland has raised more than a quarter of that amount already, and the plates have only been on sale since Jan. 1.
This is all good. Still, the success of the bay license plates brings up a larger issue -- fear of the T-word. Politics in the '90s has become less a test of commitment to ideals and social vision than a contest among candidates' PR teams over who can come up with the most creative ways to raise revenue without uttering the word "taxes."
Much of the blame for these marketing theatrics goes to Ronald Reagan, who told the American people, even when fiscal reality didn't support it, that they could indeed have more services and pay fewer taxes.
A decade after his revolution began, disdain for government is so institutionalized that political leaders from Capitol Hill to Ellicott City find themselves apologizing for needing money to provide essential services. As a result, the nation is slipping fast into a bake-sale mentality to fund the programs it values.
When Maryland decided it needed a new stadium complex, for example, legislators engineered a special lottery and targeted the money for construction. It was a revenue-raising gimmick, sure. But even those who didn't like the stadium idea were enticed -- and so it became a game, literally, to make giving money to the state seem like fun.
So too with the bay license plates. The money will inarguably go toward a worthy cause. But I doubt people would contribute as willingly if they didn't get something in return -- if the $20 were simply added to their registration renewal fee or, worse, to their state tax obligation. For Americans of the 1990s, consumers weaned on the rhetoric of Reaganomics, the simple concept of taxes -- giving part of what you earn, and trusting governments' ability to dole out the money for the greater good -- now seems like a dusty bit of 1940s idealism.
So with the recession deepening, and the perennial political paranoia over re-election, I expect there will be a lot more of these PTA-style fund raisers to pay for the things government wants, and needs, to do.
Perhaps the state will expand the political options, designer politics sort of, for a new generation. For those worried about the quality of education, there might be a license plate that touts "The City that Reads," with the money going to Baltimore's public schools. Or for the business-minded, one that says, "Cherish the Chamber," with the money going to downtown redevelopment. Or one that rebukes the governor and helps revitalize rural areas: "Maryland -- No Outhouses Here." But there are wider vistas. Maybe official, state-made T-shirts with proceeds targeted to various programs and services, sporting logos like "I Helped the Homeless," or "Maryland Means Clean Air."
Who needs taxes when funding government can be such fun?