The sales tax that sank a governor's ship

Baltimore Glimpses


AS expected in an election year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed no major new taxes or tax increases, and the 1994 General Assembly was only too happy to go along.

Perhaps some of the old-timers in Annapolis remembered what happened in 1947 to Gov. William Preston Lane, who asked for and got the legislature to give him the state's first retail sales tax.

Those pennies you shell out with every purchase are remembered as "pennies for Lane."

But they put Lane into political oblivion. The sales tax haunted the rest of his term, his campaign for re-election (which he lost), his retirement, his obituary and his place in history.

It was largely a bum rap.

When Lane came into office, he was confronted with the unhappy job of trying to find money to pay the mushrooming costs of post-World War II social services. Those costs rose from $37 per person in 1945 to $61 in 1950.

The legislators figured rightly that Lane, not they, would be blamed for the tax. In giving Lane the money, they also gave him the ax.

Lane faced Theodore R. McKeldin in the election of 1950. McKeldin promised to repeal the sales tax.

Here's where "pennies for Lane" seemed to make a difference. The slogan, according to some, came from the McKeldin camp. "And it worked," according to Bradford Jacobs, covering the campaign for The Evening Sun. "I saw it happen many times. Lane would be speaking at a rally, and people would reach into their pockets, dig out some pennies and literally throw them at him. It enraged Lane -- particularly when his wife and daughter wound up being targets, too. Some stores had a jar on the counter loaded with pennies for throwing, so the anti-Lane penny-throwers could stock up."

Baltimoreans, overwhelmingly of the Democratic persuasion in those days, too, gave McKeldin a victory margin of 47,000 votes. He won the state, too, no easy task for a Republican.

The sales tax was raised to 3 cents in 1959, to 4 cents in 1969 and to 5 cents in 1977.

That's about a 10-year interval between increases.

Which means we're about due for another one.

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