Aside from the self-destructive and Walter F. Mondale, politicians don't generally run on a promise to raise taxes. They're more inclined to run from that prospect. So health care advocates probably shouldn't expect to hire extra mail sorters for all the candidates returning pledge forms committing themselves to a proposed "dime a drink" liquor tax increase.
Members of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative are probably aware of this. They've not even bothered with the governor's race and instead directed the campaign entirely at those running for the House of Delegates and state Senate. There are primaries in hardcore Democratic districts where such a pledge might actually make a difference.
Why? Not because candidates necessarily want to raise taxes but because a lot of Marylanders aren't happy with cuts in government services of the last two years. Responsible people worry there aren't enough tax dollars available to ensure decent health care for the poor, services for the disabled and drug and alcohol cessation programs.
The alcohol tax proposal is probably the most important piece of legislation to be largely ignored by the General Assembly this past session. That state taxes on spirits haven't been raised in 55 years is shameful. Maryland's unusually low alcohol taxes have effectively helped foster alcoholism, drunk driving, spousal abuse and other social ills by enabling excess consumption.
Right now, the state is facing a sizeable budget deficit next year, the product of a record economic recession and a slow recovery. No matter who is elected, leaders in Annapolis will face a familiar choice — cut spending or raise taxes.
If taxes are determined to be the most acceptable course of action (and the demands of rising health care costs alone may necessitate it), is it better to see a modest increase in a sin tax that's been left untouched for decades or a return to those taxes that have been raised before (income, sales, real estate, etc.)?
Naysayers will likely insist on budget cuts, but most of the reasonable trims have already been made in recent years and the state is limping by in fiscal 2011 on the backs of employee furloughs and cuts to local aid. Next on the cutting block is likely to be health care and aid to education, both K-12 and colleges, which together constitute a majority of the budget.
Once those cold, hard fiscal facts set in, a lot of Marylanders (aside from tavern owners and liquor wholesalers, perhaps) will wish they'd elected pledge signers. Just don't expect too many candidates to commit to raising taxes of any kind — or otherwise confront this state's budget reality in a responsible way — between now and November.