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Fun and games in the General Assembly's special session

November 18, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

Let me get this straight. Maryland lawmakers are voting for higher taxes with the exception of Montgomery County?

When did the Earth turn on its axis to the point that it's balmy on the poles, snowing on the equator and Montgomery County has discovered a tax it didn't like?

This extra-special session of the General Assembly has left me a bit confused at times, but it has taught a valuable lesson. The legislature must, simply must, switch to a system where lawmakers meet year 'round. Really, it is such wicked fun to watch that it is borderline criminal to deprive us of the amusement for nine months out of the year.

For the record, the tax that had Montgomery County lawmakers so bent out of shape was a tax on rich people, of which Rockville and company have a few.

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Remember all that talk over the summer about how Maryland's income tax was basically flat instead of progressive and it needed to be rejiggered so the wealthy would pay a proportionally fairer share?

Nice thought.

I don't know whether wealth really trickles down to the little guy or not, but I do know this: Wealth doesn't trickle, it gushes into the campaign treasure chests of lawmakers who protect the interests of the well-to-do. Knowing on which side their bread is buttered and by whom, Montgomery County lawmakers were quick to rethink their "spread the wealth around" liberalism and ensure that our tax system remains just about as regressive as ever.

(For the record, the MC maintained that it feared a higher income tax on the wealthy would prompt people to move into Virginia instead of Maryland. So this must not be the Montgomery County, Md., that is always worried about too much growth, but a different Montgomery County.)

And once you factor in the sales tax increase, vehicle-taxing increases and tobacco taxes, this $1.5 billion budget gap will largely be closed courtesy of the working stiffs.

Wealthy people like to tell us that they already pay in spades and that new tax revenues have to come from poorer people because there are so many more of them. Great. This tax package ensures that more poor people will stay that way, so there will be plenty of people to raise money from when the next budget crisis comes around.

Another leg of the revenue stool going into the session was the thought that services should be subject to the sales tax, same as products. In other words, you pay sales tax on a shirt, so why not pay tax on the dry cleaning of that shirt?

It's hard to see the logic of why people who earn a living selling products should suffer a tax, while those who earn a living providing a service should not.

Unless you consider that lawyering is a service and the General Assembly has its fair share of lawyers in its population - then things become clearer.

Still, the camel did manage to stick its nose under the services tent in a way that was ever so much fun to watch in a Senate committee.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's tax plan called for a sales tax on fitness clubs and property managers.

Fair enough. But needless to say, gym owners and real estate middlemen came to the Senate loaded for bear. Fortunately, the brave senators stood their ground against this wave of sniveling lobbyists and - no, there's no way to type this with a straight face.

What they did, was cave to the lobbyists and ax the manager/gym tax and replace it with a tax on computer services, landscapers (since dropped) and video arcades - three groups that were not represented during the debate.

Keep that 411 in your hip pocket for the next time a lawmaker tries to tell you that lobbyists have no real effect on the system.

And one final joy came when the House Democrats handed up a list of $500 million in proposed spending cuts for the governor to consider - a move that was opposed by House Republicans.

Yes, I have those parties right.

But isn't it always the Republicans who are offering up a laundry list of proposed cuts for consideration by ... yes, it is. And isn't it always the Democrats who brush aside these cuts as window dressing and a waste of ... affirmative.

This tells you all you need to know about modern-day politics. If Democrats proposed to rescue a man foundering in a lake, Republicans would vote to let him drown, citing personal responsibility. If Republicans proposed to rescue a man from a burning house, Democrats would vote to let him roast, citing a right to privacy.

Both sides are completely incapable of recognizing that the other might occasionally have something bordering on a good idea. But boy are they both good at twisting their personal ideologies to spin gold into straw.

Slots are shaping up to be the same deal - when a Republican governor proposed the issue, Democrats dug in their heels. Now the roles are reversed.

A thinking person would believe that slots, budget cuts, services taxes or progressive income taxes are either a good thing or not and accordingly stick to his guns.

But where holding public office is concerned, it's becoming readily apparent that thinking persons need not apply. So all that's left for us to do it to watch - and enjoy.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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