Maryland needs fewer laws, not more

Marta Mossburg says the General Assembly should repeal harmful legislation regarding taxes, gun permits and energy

January 03, 2012|Marta H. Mossburg

We have way too many laws to track or enforce.

News reports say 40,000 new state laws will take effect this year alone across the country, many of them mind-bogglingly inane, like the banning of happy hour in Utah.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, it's hard to get through the day without committing a felony that you didn't know about amid the 4,500 or so federal laws and regulations on the books. The title of Harvey Silverglate's book, "Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent," says it all.

So, instead of launching full bore into creating new ways to tax, regulate and otherwise grow the state code and the amounts of money and time businesses and individuals must spend complying with laws, Maryland legislators should take a breather this year. Spending 90 days repealing and amending bad laws would be a much better use of their time, would make the state freer, more hospitable to new residents and business, and potentially save billions in the process.

Here are a few laws they should prioritize throwing in the legal dumpster and/or modifying:

The estate tax. Dying in Maryland is a bad idea from a tax perspective. Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., levy an estate tax and/or an inheritance tax. Maryland and New Jersey are the only two that impose both — no doubt a major disincentive to retire here for the wealthy, whose taxes the state so desperately needs to help cover its $1 billion deficit.

One of the worst aspects of the tax is that it kicks in above $1 million, whereas federal estate taxes start above $5.12 million as of this year. While either amount may sound like a lot of money, death taxes can be devastating to farming families whose wealth is tied up in land and who do not have the cash to pay the government without selling acreage — which has already been taxed throughout the lifetime of the family member who owned it.

Del. Kathy Afzali, a Frederick County Republican, last year and again this year has proposed legislation to bring Maryland's law in line with federal exemptions as well as to reduce the tax rate for agricultural property and business. Gov. Martin O'Malley endorsed the idea last year. She said, "Honestly, my wish is to repeal estate taxes completely for all, as I believe it immoral for government to collect off of any heirs after their parents have been paying taxes their entire lives." Incremental change is better than nothing, however, and her legislation would start to make Maryland more fair for those whose livelihood depends on owning land.

Handgun permit laws. Maryland forces residents to prove they are in imminent danger before extending a handgun permit to them. This means, for example, that a woman who is threatened by a spouse or boyfriend would not be able to get a permit to defend herself unless she had been previously attacked (hopefully, not fatally).

This item of state law is the subject of a federal lawsuit, Woollard v. Sheridan, but legislators should not wait for the court to decide whether individuals have a "good and substantial reason" to exercise their Second Amendment rights. Del. Michael Smigiel, a Cecil County Republican, has prefiled legislation that would require the state to assume the person applying for a permit has a good reason to do so, which would prevent many people from being victims waiting to happen.

Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2009 and renewable energy portfolio standard requirements. For those who worship at the church of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, doing so should be done at any cost. But forcing Maryland to cut greenhouse gases by 25 percent from 2006 levels by 2020, as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act and regulations require, would demand major changes to where and how people consume energy and the price they pay for it, with almost imperceptible benefit to the environment.

For example, as Lord Christopher Monckton, science adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, pointed out recently, "If you were to shut Maryland down entirely, our emissions would be taken up by China in less than a month." The cost: $7.3 trillion by 2050, according to his calculations.

Solar and wind power have also proven unreliable. And mandates for them create terrible unpredictability for traditional power generators, which must fulfill demand when those sources fail. Creating a framework for affordable, reliable energy should be the state's chief energy goal. Legislators should make that a top priority this year — along with eliminating other laws, like those mentioned above, that violate basic constitutional rights and create economic hardship for the state's most productive residents.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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