The cheapskate candidates

O'Malley's and Ehrlich's tax returns reveal that they — and possibly, we too — consider charity an afterthought

August 31, 2010|By Jason Poling

If the past three years are any guide, the man who gets elected governor in November will be an extreme fiscal conservative — with his own money.

It was revealed this weekend that over the past three years, Gov. Martin O'Malley's family donated a total of $20,000 to charity. No doubt the recipients of the O'Malleys' largesse were grateful for their gifts. But on an income of over $300,000 per year, that works out to just over 2 percent.

Yet if the O'Malleys' giving was embarrassing, the Ehrlichs' was shameful: $30,000 over three years, on an income of some $2.5 million. In other words, a family making nearly a million dollars a year gave away barely 1 percent of their income.

During the period covered by these tax returns, people were selling things they valued so that they could provide assistance to victims of the Haitian earthquake. Three fine international relief agencies are headquartered right here in Baltimore, and I can't imagine that the O'Malleys and the Ehrlichs were unaware of how they could help World Relief, Catholic Relief Services or Lutheran World Relief. But they didn't — at least not to a degree commensurate with their means.

No doubt the governors' families made other gifts that they couldn't deduct. Although helping a friend out with their medical bills, for instance, is noble, you can't write it off. But even if you make the generous assumption that they gave as much away in informal charitable gifts as they did in the kind they can claim to the IRS, these families would still have given away a percentage of their income in the low single digits.

I don't know what kind of ethical counsel the O'Malleys and Ehrlichs have been receiving on the issue of generosity, but the Christian tradition (to which both adhere) has usually taught the practice of tithing — giving away one-tenth of total income. Some teach that the entire tithe should be given to the church, others that it should be given to a range of charitable organizations. Some teach that the 10 percent figure is a firm command, others that it is a useful guideline.

But all would say that if 10 percent is a good target for an ordinary middle-class family, it is well less than what might reasonably be expected of the wealthy. One would think that a fan of progressive taxation like Martin O'Malley would expect that people not only pay more in taxes but give more in charity the wealthier they become — not just in actual dollars, but in the percentage of income given away. And one would think that a fan of smaller government like Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would be active personally in enabling private charities to do the work he'd want them, rather than government, to do.

What's most disturbing to me about these figures is that these two savvy politicians did not think it would be embarrassing to go into the gubernatorial race with this as their record of charitable giving. If they thought that voters would have a problem with their lack of generosity, they would have written a number of fat checks for crass political reasons alone.

But they didn't, and the fact that they didn't is an indictment not only of them but of all of us as well. If we voters are not outraged by our past and future governors' lack of generosity, if we are not angry that the people who spend our tax dollars so freely are so stingy with their own, then we have capitulated to the notion that we as a society care so little for our neighbors in need that what we ought to give freely must be taken from us through taxation.

The Rev. Jason Poling is Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville. His e-mail is

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