In praise of hypocrisy

Our view: Marylanders are better served by informed debate than by ideological purity when it comes to balancing the state budget

February 07, 2011

It didn't take long for certain State House tongues — not all of them Democratic — to start wagging after Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio's official Republican response to Gov. Martin O'Malley's State of the State address last week. The charge was hypocrisy in the first degree, and the critics believed they caught the Eastern Shore delegate in a classic "do what I say, not what I do" moment.

In her speech, Delegate Haddaway-Riccio suggested that with the state facing a projected $1.6 billion deficit, lawmakers should forgo the General Assembly's version of earmarks, the $15 million in local bond bills included in the capital budget each year. Such measures are held dear in Annapolis, as they allow delegates and senators to bring home bacon for their districts in the form of $250,000 for a food pantry expansion or $150,000 for lights at a high school stadium or other similar bricks-and-mortar improvements.

As it turns out, the House minority whip is well-acquainted with the practice, as she had several bills in the hopper herself. They included $250,000 to replace a museum bulkhead on the Miles River in St. Michaels and $250,000 for a local hospice. Admittedly, her explanation to Sun reporter Annie Linskey that she endorsed the local bills before she had seen the state budget is a bit leaky, too; the state has been grappling with similar-sized deficits annually for several years, thanks to an economic recession that's been in all the newspapers.

But if advocating for an end to legislative bond bills while simultaneously submitting a few worthy examples oneself is the height of hypocrisy, then a serious recalibration of one's pretense-o-meter is in order. The problem is not that it is inconsistent to criticize spending of taxpayer dollars by others but advocate it for oneself; the problem is that the serious issues of government spending so easily get sidetracked by political gotchas.

Would Delegate Haddaway-Riccio's argument have been more convincing if she had refused to participate in budget bills? All that would have proven is that she was either a freshman or a moron. Her constituents would be the chief losers, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum would be that much closer to falling into the river.

Ideological purity is highly overrated. A legislature full of zealots could not function, as conservatives would never endorse spending and their liberal counterparts would never back budget cuts. This is the disease that is threatening Congress this term.

Earmarks are not the cause of Maryland's budget problems. Nor, for that matter, is profligate spending in Annapolis totally to blame. The central cause is the worst global economic recession since the Great Depression and the painful choices that reality has forced on all states to either raise taxes or cut spending in order to balance their budgets.

It's not unfair to question whether the state might not be better served spending less on earmarks, if only temporarily; but that would be a substantive debate, not a hunt for hypocrites. Attacking the messenger is a convenient way for bond-bill-happy legislators to avoid debating the merits of Ms. Haddaway-Riccio's proposal. Still, if lawmakers want to cut spending, they'd be better off focusing less on the symbolic and more on where most taxpayer dollars actually go — on health care and education, multibillion-dollar line items in the operating budget, not scraps in the capital budget.

And while we're on the subject, legislators would also be better off discussing such matters in a less inflammatory manner. Marylanders are spending too much money on their salaries (sorry, couldn't resist) to get so little of substance in return.

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