It's time for some grown-up politicking

March 30, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MICHAEL E. BUSCH hears the bitter language outside his State House office and says he can live with it. The language says Maryland's House speaker is tearing apart his Democratic Party. It says voters are fuming over the $670 million tax increase he is trying to force upon them and will take retribution at the ballot box. Busch shrugs his shoulders. It is time, he says, for politicians to behave like grown-ups.

This is sometimes a foreign concept. Pandering is easier. The governor of Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., does this by loudly promising no new taxes and imagining nobody can figure out the shell game he is playing. And maybe he has a point.

In Ehrlich World, a fee is not the same thing as a tax. In Busch's world, the money still comes out of people's pockets. In Ehrlich World, no one is supposed to notice the financial pressures he creates for local governments across the state. By Busch's arithmetic, all government funding kissed off by the state will have to be absorbed by local jurisdictions.

"I see O'Malley down here complaining, and I see Duncan," Busch was saying now, meaning Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "But we're talking about $300 million in cuts to local government. The responsibility falls to these county executives. Do the voters understand what's going on? Probably not. A lot of them haven't focused yet. But the politicians, where are they? Why aren't they down here telling the governor what his budget will do to their counties?"

Jim Smith can answer him. The Baltimore County executive, who is facing about $21 million in diminished state aid, said yesterday, "I've tried to talk directly to the governor. I've called his office and offered help. I'm told he will meet with me."

When?

"Some time after the session," Smith said.

After the session? When the budget's finished?

"Yeah," Smith laughed ruefully. "I mean, that makes no sense at all. In my mind, anyway. I don't know how this works in his mind. I do know that he wants to solve everything with the slot-machine money, and slots money wouldn't even kick in for a few years. So he's got to have more plans than that. But I don't know what those plans are."

And so here is Busch, sitting in his office just off the House floor, slumped in a chair with his jacket off. He knows the precariousness of his position. Nobody wants higher taxes. As the front-man for a tax increase, he is the target of anger. He says his office takes maybe 15 calls a day from voters. Most, he says, voice support for him.

"But people call who are your friends," he says. "I'm not sure the calls here reflect the general public."

He also hears the language of colleagues on both sides of the political aisle. The Republicans proclaim this a bright new political day because voters will express their revulsion over any tax increase. House Democrats voted for the increase - but not in sufficient numbers to overcome a promised gubernatorial veto.

And, across the State House hallway, there is State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, calling the tax vote "an exercise in futility" and backing Ehrlich's alternative - a vote for slot machines.

"Miller," says Busch, shaking his head slowly. "He's propping Ehrlich up. Miller's like a boxing manager, saying, `Come on, kid, you can do it. I know you're getting bloodied, but get out there and fight another round.' But it's all slots. Meanwhile, Ehrlich hasn't articulated, in any way, shape or form, how he's going to take care of next year's shortfall. Does he have a secret the rest of us don't know? Because none of us wants to go home saying we didn't do it right."

As Busch figures it - and nobody from Ehrlich's camp has challenged the number - the $670 million tax package (which includes money for the Thornton education plan, cuts property taxes, and hits the wealthiest earners the hardest) would cost the average Maryland family $20 a year.

It includes a 1-cent sales tax increase. "The last time I looked," Busch said, "Maryland was 45th or 47th in the country in sales tax. The surrounding states are all higher. We don't tax food or medicine. The last time we raised the sales tax was 1977.

"Listen, I didn't put this [tax plan] together to drive the Democratic Party off a bridge. My home county [Anne Arundel] is pretty conservative. But, I'll tell you, I gave a speech in Arnold, and I told them, `I'm gonna vote for taxes over slots,' and they loved it.

"This was two weeks ago. I said, `This is the first time I've ever been applauded for taxes.' These were people living in $300,000 homes, who tend to vote Republican. They get it. You want quality education, you want to take care of your police and firemen, you have to pay for it somewhere along the line."

No matter how much this governor wants us to believe otherwise.

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