Tax talk swirling both ways

The Political Game

Spin: As the governor and other state leaders vie to `frame the issue' of the House proposal, the dizzying pronouncements also have a big, bad ring.

March 30, 2004|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

SUPERLATIVES and hyperbole were thick inside the State House last week as Republicans and Democrats sought to control the sound bites after House Speaker Michael E. Busch proposed his $670 million tax increase.

It's understandable that the message maestros were so energized. "Call it `spin' or the more dignified `framing the issue.' The meaning and the effect are the same,'" wrote Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, in an online legislative diary he keeps. "The party that succeeds in spinning or framing the issue in the public's mind will prevail."

Busch got the first crack last Monday, arguing that his mix of a 1-cent sales tax increase, a temporary higher income tax bracket for the wealthiest 3 percent of Marylanders, and a more expensive car-title tax -- along with property tax decreases for all and lower income tax bills for the poorest state residents -- was a "reasonable and responsible" way to pay for future education needs. The proposed net increase in taxes is $670 million a year.

Within hours, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was unspinning the spin. At a 7 p.m. news conference, the term "billion-dollar tax increase" had premiered. By ignoring the property tax cut, Ehrlich could accurately, if incompletely, observe that the combined taxes that Democrats had proposed raising totaled more than $1 billion.

By Thursday, another message had emerged.

Democrats were proposing "a $1.1 billion witch's brew of taxes," complained Del. Herbert McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, during final House deliberations, that amounted to "the largest single tax increase proposed in state history."

"We are probably here, with this, implementing the largest tax increase in the state of Maryland, if not ever, then in a long time," said a slightly more cautious Del. George C. Edwards, the chamber's minority leader.

Is this true?

The tax increases passed by the House amount to less than 10 percent of the state's $11 billion general fund, which pays for most state operations. By contrast, an income tax increase adopted by the General Assembly in 1967 added 30 percent to the state general fund, according to Warren G. Deschenaux, the assembly's top budget analyst.

It's true that the tax increase may be the largest dollar amount ever proposed -- in dollars not adjusted for inflation. But calling the tax increase the largest ever is just as accurate as noting that Ehrlich is the author of the largest budgets in Maryland history. No other governor has spent as much as he has -- something that, because of inflation and growth driven by formulas such as projected student enrollment, can generally be said of each successive governor.

For that matter, if the governor's slot-machine gambling proposal is adopted, he would be implementing the largest new tax on a business in the state's industry. The plan passed by the Senate would keep at least 51 percent of the estimated $1.6 billion in slots revenues just for public schools, with another 15 percent to 20 percent going to the state's administrative costs and the horse racing industry.

Yesterday, Busch started to play the game himself. The property tax reduction approved by the House, he said during a television interview, was "the largest in state history."

`Follies' show produces volley of friendly favors

Just because lawmakers are prohibited from raising money during the 90-day legislative session, don't think that lobbyists and other interest groups aren't able to curry favor in other ways.

Lobbyists aren't allowed to take legislators out for personal meals, but they're permitted to buy dinners and hold receptions for entire groups -- committees, county delegations, even the entire Assembly.

And then there's tomorrow night's Legislative Follies, the annual show of comedy and antics in which lawmakers and other officials get a chance to poke fun at each other and blow off steam before the session's intense concluding days.

This year's event -- held at St. John's College and titled "The Lord of the Ka-Chings," after Ehrlich and his slot-machine gambling push -- provides plenty of opportunity for lobbyists to help.

Backstage food is being provided by William Rickman Jr., owner of the Ocean Downs harness track and the racetrack to be built in Allegany County. Backstage drinks are courtesy of the Beer Wholesalers of Maryland.

Other big donors include Honesty Gourmet Caterers Inc. (the Upper Marlboro firm is cutting its rate to provide food at the main reception) and lobbyist Daniel T. Doherty Jr., who represents such groups as the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association and Maryland State Dental Association.

Comcast and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield have given $1,000 and $500, respectively, and the Association of Maryland Wineries will provide wine at cost.

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