A taxing issue: getting things done in government can take longer than might be expected

January 18, 2012

It seems in Maryland politics, there are occasional issues that linger beyond their usefulness. Back when I was a kid, well into my teens and possibly even later than that, Maryland was the only state that didn't require dump trucks to cover their loads.

It's a basic safety issue. When a truck hauling loose materials like gravel, or sand or salt or whatever is cruising along a roadway at 35 to 55 mph, there's a possibility of spillage. This can be substantially reduced by covering a dump truck full of whatever with a heavy tarp. Indeed long after Maryland had steadfastly staked out the position that requiring loads be covered would result in the end of businesses like building and mining that rely on dump trucks, every other state in the union had required such coverings. Thanks to the invention of a simple device that pulls a tarp over a dump truck bed, building and mining had continued in 49 other states even as Maryland refused to enact a law requiring loads of loose materials be covered.

Then one year it finally passed, amid more fanfare than would have been expected for such a basic safety regulation.

There's a similar tale about Maryland being the last state with a motion picture censor board, but there are other fish to fry this week, namely the issue of Harford County being one of the few places on earth that doesn't charge a room tax when people stay at a hotel, motel or bed and breakfast inn.

Because of the way Maryland government is structured, certain localized regulations are controlled by the state legislature rather than the counties or towns. For example, liquor license regulations vary greatly within Maryland, but liquor laws are state laws, with each county having its own specific set of local-only state liquor laws, which, by legislative tradition, are the exclusive bailiwick of the delegates and senators a particular county sends to Annapolis. That's why in some counties, you can buy beer in the grocery store, but not in others.

Similarly, certain taxing authority is the realm of the state, including motel room taxes. The deal is if every senator and delegate serving a particular county agrees to a county-only state law, the law carries; if there is a single dissenter, the bill dies. This legislative mechanism is known as local courtesy.

For the past several decades, generally a single senator or delegate has expressed opposition to the enactment of a room tax for Harford County, effectively ensuring our guests would be able to visit tax free. It appears the dynamic is about to shift, as there is increased support for a room tax among the business community, including some parts of the local lodging industry, but there's a catch. The catch is room tax money, or a substantial share of it, would be used to pay for county tourism promotion efforts. There are some fine arguments in favor of this, notably that because Harford County spends relatively little money on tourism, it receives very little in state matching money for local tourism promotion efforts.

To me, though, a room tax is something that should be used to ease the tax burden on the people who live in Harford County (or Aberdeen, if it ends up being an Aberdeen City tax).

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for tourism promotion. I just think this is the kind of thing that is done more efficiently by the folks who benefit directly from it. While I have confidence that government is good at things where you can see the results — building and maintaining roads and bridges, educating children, operating water treatment plants — it is less efficient at intangibles. A government tourism office might regard as successful an effort that results in an article being published in a national magazine about a tourist spot in Harford County, whereas a business whose public relations arm accomplished this would want to know how much revenue could be attributed to it.

And yes, I'm aware tourism offices generally ask the same questions, but I'm suspicious of the answers because they're often based on formulas where you plug in certain data and get fairly glowing reports.

Over the years, Harford County has toyed around with public-private ventures responsible for tourism promotion, but these have largely floundered in part because of diminishing private sector financial support. I've long suspected this is because businesses don't feel like they're getting their money's worth.

Even if a government tourism promotions operation were effective in the extreme, it's generally my belief that government programs need to stand and fall on their own merit and effectiveness. Similarly, a particular tax should be levied not because the revenue is going back to support the business being taxed, but because more public good can be done with the money than harm is done by taking it.

If a tourism office adds to a local economy, it makes sense to have one, regardless of how it is paid for. If a room tax will help pay for paving roads and keeping parks in good order without driving motel visitors away, it is a good idea. To date, I've been convinced a room tax is a good idea. I'm leaning against a government-funded tourism office (the argument that everyone else has one doesn't carry any weight with me), but I could be convinced otherwise.

In any event, the room tax issue will be among the many to come up with the local group representing Harford County this winter and spring in Annapolis. It remains to be seen if this is the year for it. Then again, we did eventually get a law requiring loads of, for example fertilizer, to be covered when they're transported on public roads. Maybe we can expect a little less fertilizer and a little more public policy this year in Annapolis.

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