Of all the problems in the world, Maryland is fixated on gambling and pit bulls?

The special session is a distraction from big issues like the economy and out of control pension costs

August 14, 2012|Marta H. Mossburg

Maryland politics is like a badly dubbed movie where actors' mouths move out of sync with the sound.

Big debates are happening in the nation about big issues, including what it means to be an American and how to pay for our way of life.

President Barack Obama ignited a firestorm in the media and in homes around the country last month when he said, "you didn't build that," giving credit to government for entrepreneurs' success. Voters in San Diego and San Jose, Calif. dramatically slashed previously sacrosanct government employee pensions by overwhelming margins in June to help keep their cities solvent. Thousands lined up last week at Chick-fil-As around the nation to show appreciation for a company some prominent national politicians said they wanted to block from their cities because its founder believes in traditional marriage. And Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as a vice presidential running mate last week means the economy, national debt and the future of entitlement programs will be at the center of political debate in the remaining time before the election.

But you wouldn't know it living here. Gov.Martin O'Malleyis still blaming former PresidentGeorge W. Bushfor the Great Recession on national television like a wind-up toy. And he just called legislators into a special session — supposedly a prerogative reserved for emergencies — to debate whether to expand gambling.

And while legislators are at it, they will also debate how to handle liability for pit bull attacks and other issues of alleged consummate importance to the future of Maryland. It is as if the governor and legislators are busy planning a bachelor party for a wedding that has been called off.

This is a state that thousands leave each year. Thousands more flee high-tax, high-regulation counties including Baltimore City and Montgomery County for more hospitable places like Frederick, Carroll, and Harford Counties. It's a state that has been losing jobs for 4 months in a row despite the previously impenetrable backstop of the federal government.

And this is a state whose pension system — which the Pew Center on the States ranks as one of the worst-funded in the nation — earned a .36 percent return over the past year, and 5 percent over the past decade while predicting an annual 7.75 percent return. In fact, the pension system board is so confident in its projections, members voted in July to affirm that rate of return despite all evidence it is as impossible to achieve as disgraced financier Bernie Madoff's fake perpetual profits.

Those are issues worthy of a special session, not least because a growing number of cities around the country are considering bankruptcy to escape overwhelming public employee pension burdens. Three in California alone have declared bankruptcy since late June. And high-tax states including California and New York are hemorrhaging people just when they need new jobs and the taxes generated by them to dig them out of chronic deficits.

Governor O'Malley denies these are problems. Instead, he blames the Bureau of Labor Statistics for faulty jobs numbers. "With all our economic indicators demonstrating positive trends, we would not be surprised if the Bureau of Labor Statistics once again significantly revises these preliminary numbers," he said in a July news release. He also personally attacked Larry Hogan of Change Maryland for publishing federal data showing people migrating out of Maryland, but he did not address why people are leaving. Ridiculing the messenger may be good politics. But it will not improve the job prospects for those living in a state still struggling to return to pre-recession employment.

And while gambling may increase employment slightly in Maryland, it will not improve state finances unless the governor and legislators stop promising to spend more than the tax base can support. Until then, expanded gambling is just one more false messiah waiting to be proven wrong by next year's budget.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com.

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