Kicking the can in Annapolis: Will you play along?

October 26, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

Slots are a bad idea whose time, according to the polls, has come. Support for more gambling is on the rise. Anybody know why?

A combination of boredom and exasperation, perhaps? We're tired of seeing government pinned to the wall by a single issue? There are legislators who want the whole thing over with so other problems can be addressed.

But, of course, the real motivator is the economy. The state is cutting its budget deeply as the recession (officially declared or not) chokes off sales and income tax revenue.

It's the mistaken belief that slots revenue will be a gusher, a deficit eraser, a measure that will eliminate the need for tax increases. It's those of us who would like a free lunch.

Well, my friends, you're still going to have to pay for lunch - or go without.

Having been unable to settle the question, Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly punted. They kicked the whole thing to us. We get to vote Nov. 4.

Our representatives in Annapolis gave us a major public education program without agreeing on a way to pay for it. Expenditures under the Thornton aid formula keep growing. The plan resulted from an attempt to equalize educational spending, classroom by classroom, across the state. But it only passed when Montgomery County legislators won additional millions in aid as the price of their vote for the package.

The cost of that altogether admirable program will continue to outpace revenues. Five or six years of half-measures pushed the problem down the road.

In Annapolis, it's called "kicking the can," a game kids play. For kids, the game is the thing. For adult lawmakers, kicking the can avoids the game of governing. And there are winners and losers.

But the idea is to keep the can moving until after the election. If you do, you don't have to address the built-in, ongoing deficit. But when you finally stop kicking the can, you might have to define the problem honestly - and find a way to deal with it. Few are advocating such a move. Too risky. Might have to ask people to pay more taxes, particularly now, when the economy is shrinking bank accounts and threatening jobs.

Mr. O'Malley made an admirable first step about a year ago. He brought the General Assembly into special session. Taxes were raised. But they should have been raised more. Once again, the price of votes for the package was favors to legislators. Special interests killed efforts to broaden the sales tax base, and friends of the wealthy stopped a high-income levy.

Years ago in Annapolis, there were a few legislators who adopted a kind of macho ethic when it came to what they call "hard votes." They were not afraid of issues that put them at risk when election time came. Some of them paid the price.

A 1984 vote to modify a pension program that was too expensive forced some legislators to deal with the anger of groups such as teachers and state employees who were understandably upset about the loss of generous benefits voted by the Assembly.

Wall Street was saying then that Maryland had to rein in those benefits or lose its AAA bond rating. A bare majority agreed to do the right thing (after many had done the wrong thing by granting an expensive pension plan). Several legislators were defeated as a result of their support for pension reform.

Something similar would likely happen today. Mr. O'Malley's approval rating fell drastically after the tax-raising session last year. People want straight talk - until it hurts them. But we probably can't kick the can forever.

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

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