As the economy mopes along in the continuing (if unofficial) recession, there is still no lack of proposals to raise taxes and even to tie tax hikes to creating jobs, the No. 1 priority, according to most public officials.
The rationale is simple: We take a bit of money from a lot of people, put it all together, then give the money to other people to build things we need.
Searching for a job creation plan, Gov. Martin O’Malley is now promoting spending on infrastructure — roads, bridges, transit, school buildings — as a way to bolster job creation. Maryland has spent more than $1 billion in recent years on capital projects, but as bond debt has hit a ceiling, the ability to finance such projects has been pared back.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding is now recommending big hikes in the gas tax and vehicles fees to raise $870 million for highway and transit projects: 15 cents a gallon on gasoline and a 50% increase in registration and other fees.
Business Groups Split on Taxes
Business groups such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Baltimore Committee have long backed higher spending on transportation — along with a lockbox in the Maryland constitution to keep the money from being spent on other things. But other business groups — particularly the trucking industry, already socked with hefty new toll hikes and a sour economy — are balking.
Another task force is recommending doubling the $30 annual flush tax on sewer and water use because the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund does not have enough money to keep upgrading sewage treatment plans and septic systems. Groups concerned about budget cuts in social services want to put the sales tax on Internet sales and consumer services.
But there is little evidence that there’s much stomach for tax increases at the State House. No Republican would vote for them, and getting Democratic votes for a major tax hike demands all the considerable influence the governor can wield. Many people remember the $1.4 billion in tax hikes passed by a special session of the General Assembly in November 2007, but few recall how hard O’Malley had to fight to get a majority for some of those increases. And that’s when the economy was steaming along.
Spending more on roads, bridges and restoring the bay are worthy causes, even necessities in the long run. Raising taxes in the short run to pay for them may be a bridge too far, except for the most liberal Democrats in the legislature.
Robey: Traffic Cop at Redistricting’s Core
Howard County Sen. Jim Robey played a very visible role on the congressional redistricting the legislature passed last month as the chairman of the special Committee on Reapportionment and Redistricting. He’ll play the same role for legislative reapportionment in January.
But essentially Robey was returning to his old role as a traffic cop. He co-chaired the three-hour joint committee hearing, chaired a brief voting session and then brought the measure to the floor.
The process was really in the hands of the governor and a five-member advisory committee O’Malley appointed that included the Senate president and House speaker. The legislature served as the rubber stamp.
When the bill actually got to the floor, Robey read a script drafted by staff describing the bill, a fairly routine procedure for most legislation. When you’re the floor leader for proposed laws, you don’t just get up and wing it. But in reality, the floor leader for all the redrawing of lines required by the changes in population found by the Census was Senate President Mike Miller.
Robey read that the advisory committee “conducted itself in an open and transparent manner.” In fact, that was only true of the 12 public hearings it held around the state. When it came to decisions on new lines, the committee met behind closed doors. Since the committee was not created by law or executive order, it was not bound by the state open meetings law.
The day he introduced the plan, O’Malley called it “fair and balanced,” but it was ultimately designed to protect Democratic incumbents and oust 10-term Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. The redistricting takes away reliable blocks of Republican voters of Carroll and Frederick counties, and replaces them with hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters in Montgomery County.
Few counties are as sliced and diced as Anne Arundel was (see the Anne Arundel column), but many Howard County citizens will find themselves in new districts. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ 7th Congressional District retains much of western and northern Howard County, but many people in eastern Howard County were taken out of Rep. John Sarbanes’ 3rd Congressional District and put into the 2nd Congressional District, represented by Dutch Ruppersberger; Sarbanes picks up some people now represented by Cummings.
There’s an interactive map on the Department of Planning web site that allows users to type in their street address and ZIP code to find which district they’re in. www.mdp.state.md.us/Redistricting/redistrictingIMap.shtml
Ulman Corrects Misstep
When adept politicians make a misstep, they change course quickly and walk away from the proposal that people didn’t like. That’s what happened last month when Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Del. Frank Turner tried to dump the current countywide election of seven school board members and replace it with a system electing five by districts and two appointed by the executive.
Since the school board is created by state law, the Howard County delegation to Annapolis held a public hearing on the proposed legislation Oct. 11. A few people from the African-American community supported it, because electing board members by district was more likely to produce the diversity on the school board that the proposal was aimed at. That’s among the reasons that Turner had proposed board election by districts a decade ago.
Single-member districts tend to help minorities get elected. Del. Shane Pendergrass recalled that when she first ran for the Howard County Council 25 years ago, the council was just going from at-large election to election by districts, and she wasn’t sure that was a good idea. However, it turned out OK.
A council elected by district has tended to be no more parochial than one elected at-large, since most issues overlap district lines. There’s a ready argument to be made for election by districts.
But aside from a few supporters of school board election by districts, there was vehement opposition to taking away the right of citizens to select some of the school board. The opposition came from left, right and center, from current school board members, from past members, from Democrats and Republicans.
Process Moved too Fast
Susan Buswell suggested that the delegation “apply the brakes to this speeding train.” Buswell brought a unique perspective to the process, since she was first appointed to the school board by the governor in 1973, then elected to the board, and then served in the House of Delegates.
Current board member Brian Meshkin had some of the harshest criticism, calling the proposal “un-American.” “It’s all about politics,” Meshkin said, and threatened a petition drive to overturn the law if it passed.
When Ulman appointed a commission in August to study school board election, Meshkin was quick to suggest it was just a power grab by Ulman, a charge that was initially scoffed at. But when the proposal emerged, there was no more scoffing. As current board chair Janet Siddiqui pointed out, even average voters came to “realize that their voting rights have been taken away from them.”
The morning after the hearing, Turner promptly pulled the bill. “This debate points to some of the frustration that many individuals experience on a daily basis,” he said in a press release. “Achievement gap, possible loss of voters’ rights, geographic under-representation, economic disparity, recruitment of candidates, district vs. at-large seats and appointed seats were thoroughly discussed and I believe that the citizens are more aware of these complex issues as we move forward as a county.”