In Annapolis, you can have your cake and compute it too

April 13, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

At the end of a legislative session, every bill is connected to every other bill. - Anonymous

A keen observer, Anonymous. The universal linkages of legislative life are on display almost every day in the state capital, but never more so than on the hectic last day of the 90-day annual session. It's springtime for strange bedfellows.

I give you this year's sweet nexus of cake and computers.

We are talking the repeal of a tax on computer services and an effort to make the Smith Island cake Maryland's official dessert.

No way, you insist.

Ah, but hear me out.

It started last November during a special session of the General Assembly, when the computer industry left itself vulnerable to legislators in search of $200 million to bridge a budget cap.

The cyber guys had no lobbyist. Thus, legislators hung a new 6 percent sales tax on work done by the men and women who keep computers up and running.

After a moment to absorb the shock, the outcry was frightening.

Legislators discovered that almost everyone has a computer. Who knew?

Cynics among us predicted that the computer jocks would try to pass the tax on to their customers. It was a little like the increase in utility bills: Everybody felt the pain. This is not thought of as a good political situation.

Not only that, but computer services turned out to be a substantial part of the new high-tech economy.

Maybe this is why the tax would have raised $200 million a year.

The sky was going to fall. You think I'm kidding? Didn't you know that computer service people are hyper-mobile? They can pick up and leave Maryland in (what else?) a nanosecond.

So, in the interests of saving the Free State, if not the free world, the tax had to be repealed.

A group of computer-savvy businessmen set a land speed record for moving up the Annapolis learning curve. From no representation at all, they secured the services of Gov. Martin O'Malley's former communications director, Steve Kearney.

Their job was to show legislators what a horrible, if not politically fatal, mistake they had made.

A new computer association was tasked with proving that the computer service people weren't crying wolf, a favorite Annapolis game. It's an easy one: One simply declares, "Tax us and we're out of here."

By the end of the legislative session, the association was lending its list of offended geeks - senatorial district by senatorial district - to the governor's legislative team, by now working furiously to kill the tax.

The computer geniuses also became part of the rush to visit the tax on another group of hapless Marylanders, the 6,000 or so million-dollar earners who could be sacrificed with little collateral damage. Millionaires had been the targets from the beginning last fall, but their representatives in the state Senate scotched a plan to levy a higher tax on their earnings.

This was impressive, of course, but it might not have been enough without the cake connection.

As I said, we are not talking just any cake. We are talking Smith Island cake, the multilayered confection much admired by all. This is a cake with history - and leverage.

One of its admirers, Del. D. Page Elmore, had seemed on his way to (ahem) a sweet political victory, when a snag arose.

The state Senate had given the cake quick approval for the designation of official state dessert. In the House, though, Delegate Elmore's bill was met with disdain. The House Health and Government Operations Committee chairman, Del. Peter A. Hammen of Baltimore, had serious business to confront.

But then came interconnectedness.

Delegate Elmore, a Republican, found himself at the outer reaches of party loyalty: Republicans were opposing repeal of the computer levy perhaps because they knew some other group was likely to take the hit, maybe even millionaires - some of whom are said to be Republicans.

Mr. Elmore was offered an opportunity. If he would vote for repeal of the computer services tax in the House Ways and Means Committee, his bill might pass. House Speaker Michael E. Busch thereupon hand-carried Delegate Elmore's bill to passage, 111-27.

There's been vote trading before in Annapolis, friends, but this one takes the cake.

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

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