Much ado about little

January 02, 2008

Taxes in Maryland are going up this week. It's regrettable, but certainly no worse than any other price increase. Government has to be paid for the same as mortgages or milk. At least there's comfort in knowing that higher tax rates will allow the state to avert a projected $1.7 billion budget deficit next year. And everyone will be getting a bit more for the money - more aid for schools and colleges, more help with health care costs, better roads and transit.

Yet even as the new rates settle in (changes to most, such as the income tax, are already in effect while the extra penny in the sales tax arrives tomorrow), a bit of uncertainty is still hovering in the air. That's because a lawsuit filed by Republicans seeking to undo the bills approved by the General Assembly during November's special session remains pending before the courts.

It's fair to oppose new taxes - although tax opponents are usually loath to own up to the adverse impacts of such a stance - but there's been ample opportunity to express dissent. There was plenty of debate in the House and Senate. Amendments were offered, some adopted and some not. Votes were taken. Ultimately, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the various pieces of legislation into law - in front of witnesses, too.

But the lawsuit would seek to scrap all of it for the flimsiest of reasons. The entire case centers on an obscure provision in the state constitution that says lawmakers in one chamber cannot adjourn for more than three days without a vote of assent from those of the other.

Leave aside whether that happened or not in this instance; why is this even a requirement? Here's the historic context: It's meant to prevent members of the Senate or House of Delegates from leaving town before the government's business is done. That was never at issue in this case. It's much ado about nothing. Republicans might as well be litigating the stock of paper used for bills or the Senate's opening prayer.

Instead, a House clerk will soon be deposed to review in minutiae internal legislative rules and procedures. What a colossal waste of time and government resources - except, of course, for the chance to score political points. The circumstances of the case are clear enough. The Senate adjourned because - drum roll, please - it had nothing to do until the House took action.

Throw out an entire special session's work and reopen the deficit because of the equivalent of an undotted i or an uncrossed t? Aren't Republicans the first to complain about lawsuit abuse? Apparently not when a legal sideshow furthers their cause.

The legislature's actions last year on taxes were far from flawless. Like the GOP, we would hope to see a reconsideration of its decision to apply the sales tax to computer services, for instance, because we believe lawmakers acted rashly with that particular measure. But that's a decision that should turn on the merits of the proposal, not on a technicality.

If Republicans want to be relevant as a dwindling minority in Annapolis, let them engage their peers and the general public on policy and not in such trivial pursuits. Obstructing government is not a position, it's just acting as a nuisance. Marylanders deserve better.

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