Of rocks and hard places

January 15, 2008

There's a standard question in opinion polling that asks people if they'd be willing to pay more in taxes if the money is spent on education. Typically, the vast majority say yes - as many as three out of four.

And it's possible they're all now suffering a temporary bout of buyer's remorse.

At least that's what Gov. Martin O'Malley's sinking approval numbers suggest. To describe Maryland residents as unhappy with their current governor is a rather sizable understatement. According to the Sun poll, his approval rating is hovering around a dismal 35 percent. When two out of three people don't think you're doing so hot, that's bad. The last governor, the fellow Mr. O'Malley ousted in 2006, never received such low marks during his four-year term.

And what has people so upset? In the same poll, respondents said taxes were their top issue, a rarity in Maryland opinion polling. Specifically, most think the taxes approved during last fall's special session were unfair.

But here's the rub: Mr. O'Malley's $1.3 billion tax package went a long way to solving Maryland's structural deficit - the gap between spending and revenue in future years. And the chief cause of that imbalance? A historic boost in public education aid.

One can only assume voters expect the Thornton plan - which has had overwhelming public support - to somehow pay for itself. Mr. O'Malley's critics carp that he need only restrain the growth of spending. But, of course, that's just another way of saying cut the budget. That's not what voters want either.

Remember William Donald Schaefer? In his second term as governor, he slashed spending by a far lesser amount and that policy quickly became so unpopular that Parris N. Glendening won by running against that legacy. If Mr. O'Malley had cut the budget by $1.7 billion (the size of next year's projected deficit), he'd not only have low approval ratings, he'd have a mob of angry citizens marching on the State House nightly.

Mr. O'Malley suffered the political misfortune of being the guy to set the books right. Maryland residents are belatedly paying the still-reasonable price for the government spending they wanted (and the state needed). Would Marylanders now support a tax cut financed by cuts in education? Certainly not.

The lesson in this? Too bad there's no such thing as a free lunch. If there were, the approval ratings for its inventor would soar high above the State House dome.

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