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When going got tough, Munson came through for campus

April 08, 2002|BY Tim Rowland

When going got tough, Munson came through for campus

Sen. Don Munson has a habit of tying himself in knots every time there is a tough, controversial decision to be made. If you feel the need to take him to the woodshed over his vote in favor of raising the cigarette tax this week, save your energy - he's undoubtedly taken himself to the woodshed many times over.

But even if you are a smoker, even if you sell cigarettes, even if you are an anti-tax ideologue who would vocally oppose a tax on sawing someone's legs off, it might be wise to keep your peace on this one, because Munson did what he had to do.

This week, Sen. Barbara Hoffman, chair of the Senate budget committee put a gun to our senator's head and said this is the deal: Vote for the cigarette tax or lose $12 million for the university campus in downtown Hagerstown.

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Probably this was an idle threat. Certainly Hoffman had the power to take the scissors to the University Systems of Maryland line item. But along with Munson, the other person on the point for campus funding was Del. Sue Hecht, who will challenge Sen. Alex Mooney in a tough electoral scrap this fall. While Munson might have taken most of the heat for losing the campus, it also would have reflected poorly on Hecht - a member of the House budget committee - and it's hard to imagine Democrats in Annapolis would have stripped her of this very important prize that she can rightfully claim credit for in the upcoming campaign. Would Hoffman do something that would ultimately hurt Hecht and indirectly help Mooney? In my view, not a chance.

But it was a chance Munson couldn't take. He had already jeopardized and delayed the project years before by supporting an ill-advised back-door effort to build the classrooms out-of-town. Had he blown it this time, community leaders would have had his head.

For his part, Mooney - who experiences outrage for every beat of a hummingbird's wings - said it's "outrageous" that Hoffman put Munson in such a "terrible position."

Heavens, what does Mooney think this is, kindergarten? That Munson wouldn't get a cookie if he didn't take his nap? Please. This is called hardball politics and it originated with our Founding Fathers. If Mooney can't deal with it he shouldn't be in office. Munson's paid a nice chunk of change to make tough decisions - as opposed to Mooney, who apparently believes he's paid a nice chunk of change just to yak.

Hecht and Munson have carried the water on the campus project this session, while Mooney has barely lifted a finger, if he's done that. Mooney is one of those tired politicians who refuses to pay for a project, then throws a tantrum and cries "It's not fair!" when the Annapolis grownups threaten to take it away for lack of funding.

What's fair is that if a lawmaker want projects for his community, somewhere down the line he ought to vote for a way to pay for these projects. One of the most disgusting scenes in politics is the lawmaker who shows up front and center for the ribbon cuttings for local projects, then returns to Washington or Annapolis to vote against paying for them.

Although the tax and the campus were only indirectly tied, the long and short of it is this: If you oppose the cigarette tax increase, you oppose the university campus in Hagerstown. There is no other way to put it.

Munson's long-standing argument against raising cigarette taxes was that it would hurt mom and pop groceries in Washington County. Oh? Who, Momma and Poppa Sheetz? Munson does have a point that in a narrow county such as Washington it is easier to jump across state lines - and some people will for a while, at least, more as a matter of protest than practicality.

But remember, local moms and pops conversely should be helped by the fact that West Virginia has a 6 percent tax on groceries while Maryland has none.

You can make the cigarette-tax argument as esoteric as you want. Some say to the degree that a tax discourages smoking it saves millions in taxpayer-funded medical costs. Opponents respond in kind (rather coldly, I think) that smokers don't live as long so think of all the Social Security money smoking saves us.

You can play with numbers all you want, but perhaps this is an area where it's better to talk about people than about statistics. Most smokers I know want to quit. For a few, the price hike will be the last little shove they need to give it up. Kids on the fixed incomes of allowance may have a tougher time scraping together money for a pack. And they all will lead healthier lives because of it. Munson can comfort himself, perhaps, in knowing that the health and happiness of people is a little more real-world than theoretical tax-policy debates.

Certainly it would have been more dignified if Munson had simply stood up and told his constituency "I'm in favor of the cigarette tax because it raises revenue and saves lives - deal with it" rather than whimpering about what an awful, awful situation he'd been placed in.

Indeed, Munson should be proud of this vote. The campus would have been built by now if local House Republicans had showed similar pragmatism a couple of years ago when they refused to back a cigarette tax in exchange for the college.

The senator may have bent his conscience on this one, but when it came down to doing the right thing for the community he didn't break. Good for him. When it comes time to cut the ribbon on the greatest local legislative initiative since Citicorp, Munson and Hecht can take comfort in knowing that they put the community ahead of their own personal political gain, and that their spots at the podium have been well-earned.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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