Dispatches from the front lines in the deficit war

November 11, 2007|By C. FRASER SMITH

The Democratic Party's Senate caucus was full of grumbling last week about Comptroller Peter Franchot, who called Gov. Martin O'Malley's tax reform package a "pounding" for the poor.

At the same time, Mr. Franchot was stepping away from the governor's proposal to require taxes of some mega-corporations that currently pay no taxes in Maryland. Mr. Franchot had absented himself from the Budget and Tax Committee's effort to craft an acceptable loophole-closing bill.

Democrats were baffled by Mr. Franchot's absence from the corporate tax debate, because he has styled himself a staunch liberal. His office, moreover, is responsible for collecting taxes. A recent study showed that nearly half of Maryland's largest for-profit companies did not pay corporate income taxes in 2005.

One widespread speculation explaining his silence on the issue: The officers of these corporations often make substantial campaign contributions. Maybe the comptroller was looking ahead to his next campaign.

Several senators thought Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler should investigate Mr. Franchot for failing to do his job. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. - chuckling - said he was sure Mr. Gansler would be happy to oblige: Even now, Mr. Franchot and Mr. Gansler are viewed as rivals for their party's gubernatorial nomination in some future election.

As he was out promoting his tax reform program, Gov. Martin O'Malley met with a group of Garrett County officials looking for several million state dollars to combat a serious pest invasion. Gypsy moths were, in effect, chewing up dollars - denuding trees, potentially erasing the brilliant fall foliage, a major tourist attraction.

The governor responded by asking for a show of hands: "How many of you are in favor of smaller government?" he asked, according to various accounts. Only two hands went up, one of them belonging to Republican Sen. George C. Edwards.

Mr. Edwards later said that state employees in the room were unlikely to oppose their governor.

Mr. Edwards was standing with his GOP colleagues in Annapolis, who are having a fine time opposing Mr. O'Malley's call for tax increases. Lest anyone think his position in Annapolis might hinder gypsy moth suppression, Senator Edwards said he thinks more timber could be safely cut to raise funds for that effort.

The no-higher-tax heat arises in many forms as the General Assembly wrestles with Mr. O'Malley's plan. Democratic Sen. James Brochin, for example, announced last week that he would join the Republicans in their opposition to the governor's revenue-raising and tax-reform plan.

Governor O'Malley's men suggested that Mr. Brochin is the poster boy for a craven and profligate (not to mention spendthrift) Assembly, one whose members voted repeatedly for expensive government programs or tax cuts that weren't affordable and now decline to pay for them.

Mr. Brochin, who is consistently voting for Republican efforts to defeat the governor's plan, says he's willing to pay the bill if government economizes and stops supporting things such as state aid to independent colleges. He's from a legislative district in Baltimore County that marginally favored former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over Mr. O'Malley.

Last week, I quoted an acquaintance who asked why no one stops to think of paying taxes as a privilege. What he meant is that taxes are, as a wise man once said, the price of living in a democracy.

You will no doubt be surprised to learn that not everyone agrees. I offer this proof in the form of an e-mail last week: "Fraser Smith, you are a pathetic fool, and a doddering socialist. `Paying taxes is a privilege'? Moronic!"

I understand that paying taxes is no one's favorite pastime - not even mine. But I am in favor of the millions to search out and destroy the gypsy moths. I'm for paying our education bills. I'm for the dollar tax on cigarettes, because it prevents more teenage smoking - and because the state tends to pay for a lot of the resulting cancer.

I'm for giving state employees a paltry 2 percent cost-of-living allowance. It might help us hang on to some of the medevac helicopter pilots now leaving for the private sector. Recently, one of these pilots completed eight months of training at a cost to the state of $159,000 - and left for a private-sector job.

To let that continue unaddressed, I would suggest, really isn't smart (if not moronic).

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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