Free money -- not

August 13, 2002

BOTH LEADING candidates for governor promise the equivalent of a free lunch: new and improved services that many of us won't have to pay for. Our taxes won't go up.

Who will pay, then? Smokers and gamblers. They'll pay for better health care with the proceeds of a cigarette tax increase. They'll send more money into classrooms by feeding slot machines.

Arguments can be made for both of these approaches. Maryland already sponsors plenty of gambling. And a higher tax on a pack of smokes means fewer teen-agers get themselves addicted. They can't afford to.

The deeper revenue streams can be used for good purposes: The higher cigarette tax will cover more Marylanders who have no health insurance, for example. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend recently said she's for that.

Her opponent, Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., wants to avoid higher taxes by turning to slots. That source will produce enough money to pay for some of the increase in state aid to public education, he says. Hundreds of millions could be raised in this way.

Ms. Townsend opposes the gambling gambit. Mr. Ehrlich says no to a cigarette tax increase.

But both are playing the free lunch, free money game.

They want us to believe we can have better schools, better health insurance coverage, a prescription program for seniors and aid to veterans even as they acknowledge financial problems that would seem to rule out more spending.

Both candidates say they will offer more detailed blueprints for managing Maryland's budget soon. Will they also call on us to renew our commitment to enlightened, progressive community and to the services we get from government? Will they go on pretending these services can be sustained without wide public support?

Every time governors or legislators look to gimmicky revenue sources -- slot machines and cigarette taxes included -- they promise something for nothing. They reduce our stake in government programs by suggesting they have no legitimate cost. "No new taxes" becomes the dominant value.

At some point, real leaders will stand up to say, "If you want better schools, health care for all and less traffic congestion, smokers and gamblers can't do it alone."

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