A chance to have it both ways in Annapolis

March 28, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

THE ONE-MAN tax overhaul advanced by House Speaker Michael E. Busch pays for much of the Thornton education plan, begins to balance the budget long term, avoids the tragedy of slots and - hold onto your wallet - costs the taxpayer next to nothing.

What's not to like? The T-word. It terrifies politicians who fear losing their jobs more than doing their jobs.

An analysis, uncontested by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, puts the cost for an average Maryland family at $20 a year. Savings in the property tax, raised last year by Governor Ehrlich, offset most of the increased costs because of a proposed penny increase in the sales tax.

Poor Marylanders get a bigger refund; the wealthy pay more.

You would think that all 188 legislators in Annapolis would be rushing to embrace this plan. They're not. They're publicly or privately accepting the governor's view that slot machine gambling is the only way to avoid more taxation - and that voting for more taxes is a political death warrant.

Most of them know that slots revenue won't solve the education-funding or the budget-balancing problems, particularly in the short run. But Mr. Busch needs the attention of legislators and taxpayers for a minute or so while he makes his case. Mr. Ehrlich just says no - no to anything with the word tax attached to it. "No" actually conserves on valuable bumper space. Everybody knows what "No" he's talking about.

And the assembled representatives of the people seem afraid to explain, as if mere discussion could be toxic. They're listening to one of Mr. Ehrlich's best lobbyists - Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who speaks walk-the-plank political language.

Mr. Miller says he'd be on board for a fight over more taxes if he thought either house could muster enough votes to override the governor's promised veto. Since that's not likely, he says, legislators are being asked to take a tough vote and then lose their seats to the No Tax Claque.

This is called the Needless Political Death Quandary: If you vote for the Busch plan, you've voted in favor of more taxes, exposed yourself to defeat by Democratic or Republican challengers - for nothing! You don't get the tax and you set yourself up for defeat. Why would you do that? Because it's the right thing? Please.

The questions were ricocheting all over Annapolis last week as Mr. Busch's plan was narrowly approved in the House. The speaker was doing a good job of making his point to those few legislators who were listening. Most of them weren't, a veteran staff member said. They're not any more capable of staying the course for a detailed discussion of a proposal's merits than the harried taxpayer. They think people won't support a tax increase, so they won't either.

One Democratic legislator said he's being asked to imagine how it feels to be twisting slowly in the wind.

"I don't have to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said, "but I'd like to see a few road signs telling me where we're headed. Mike Miller has a point."

Democratic and Republican lawmakers were looking at one of those critical moments that seem to come along about once a generation in the Assembly, a moment at which individual lawmakers look into their civic souls and try to answer this question: Am I here to do what is right for the state, or am I here just to be here because I like feeling important and living large?

Mr. Busch is asking people to do the responsible thing. Is it political? Sure. His plan takes more from the rich than from the poor, a precept associated with Democrats but long accepted in Maryland and the nation by both parties.

With some relish, no doubt, his plan reduces a property tax increase approved by the "no new taxes" Republican governor - and it points out how many hundreds of millions of dollars in new fees have been applied by Mr. Ehrlich. It's always a matter of balancing the politics with the policy. And there's far more policy than politics in the Busch plan - in some ways, because of the T-word, it's anything but political.

So, 188 good men and women can take care of the state's business - if they have the fortitude to accept the part of their job that demands leadership, truth-telling and self-effacing public service.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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