No-taxes pledge questioned

The Political Game

Fees: A state taxpayers group finds that many legislators who signed a vow voted otherwise.

September 28, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr.'s fondness for fees instead of taxes has placed many of his Republican General Assembly friends in a pickle.

The Maryland Taxpayers Association says 22 of 33 current senators and delegates who signed an anti-tax pledge during their campaigns - all but five of them Republicans - violated the commitment multiple times because they voted for bills supported by Ehrlich.

A "no-new-taxes" governor, Ehrlich nonetheless backed a $2.50-a-month charge on sewer customers and septic-tank owners to pay for sewage plant upgrades and a two-year automobile registration increase of $47 or $72 - depending on vehicle weight - to pay for roads. The governor also introduced a budget-balancing bill that removed certain federal tax breaks for Marylanders, and a bill closing corporate tax loopholes.

Each of those, said Richard Falknor, executive vice president of the taxpayers group, violates a promise stating "I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."

Ehrlich never signed the document.

"This is partly a trust issue, not just a tax issue," Falknor said. "According to our calculations, the tax burden [of the adopted bills] for this fiscal year and the next four is about $1.9 billion.

"I know the other side is going to argue that it's not a tax, and that Glendening made us do it," referring to the former governor who many say did little to curtail spending as state revenues were shrinking. "If you are a free-market person, a low-tax person, that's not persuasive with us."

Lawmakers, of course, were not happy to be singled out.

"I didn't consider those taxes," said Del. Terry R. Gilleland Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who was labeled a three-time offender. "We need safer roads and we need a cleaner bay, and I think the voters understand that. ... I think the voters see the difference between common sense approaches to government and something that is a flat-out tax."

Del. David G. Boschert, another Anne Arundel Republican and triple violator, was more defiant: "I don't recall me raising any taxes. I'm keeping to my pledge."

Four-time violator Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, says his district is home to a large sewage treatment plant, and residents support cleanup efforts.

"You're probably better off not signing these things," said Stone, who says he has a near-impeccable record opposing taxes since elected to the As- sembly in 1962.

"They never highlight the people who didn't sign and voted for taxes," he said. "I had some reservations before I signed it, because I didn't know these would be the ground rules."

Falknor is not yet committing to using the information in the 2006 election.

"We're two years away, and we are great believers in redemption," he said. "If somebody stumbles, they have two years to show us they have better minds."

State gets a poor grade on disclosure by lawmakers

A study released last week by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington gave Maryland a poor grade for the amount of information it discloses about outside financial interests of legislators.

Maryland received a "D," losing points because, among other things, the state does not require lawmakers to disclose how much income they earn in jobs outside the General Assembly, and because disclosure filings are not available electronically. Still, the state's disclosure ranking was 18th-best in the nation.

The vast majority of Maryland legislators have outside jobs. A position in the Assembly is considered part-time employment, and the state clings to the notion that laws are passed by a citizen legislature, which keeps in close touch with the needs and desires of average residents.

Financial reports that lawmakers file annually list jobs that they and their family members hold; their stock and real estate holdings; and relationships with companies that do business with the state.

Nearly 23 percent of Maryland lawmakers serve on committees where they make decisions that could impact their outside employers, the study found. Generally, the state allows lawmakers to vote on those kinds of issues - the exception are those unusual cases where a vote directly sets the lawmaker's salary or other compensation.

Maryland ranks near the top in one category: It is seventh in the nation for the proportion of lawmakers with jobs in other units of government, such as with a county or a school board. (The ranking rises to fourth when spouses are included.)

Many of those examples are well-known: House Speaker Michael E. Busch is an Anne Arundel County parks department official; Del. Adrienne A. Jones, the speaker pro tem from Baltimore County, is that jurisdiction's fair practices and community affairs director; Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore is a city schools administrator.

"Maryland is so compact, you've got people who can commute to Annapolis and still work in local government," said William Somerville, the assembly's ethics counsel.

Four years ago, Maryland's law changed, Somerville said, to place greater restrictions on other government employment by Assembly members - "just to remove any appearance of impropriety when a government legislator is hired for a government job," he said.

So most of the dual-government-income lawmakers are grandfathered in.

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