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Sometimes it pays to be poor - but not really

April 01, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

Maryland’s state budget, when it passes, will inspire wails of outrage from our local delegation. It always does. But this year a majority of Washington County residents might be inclined to agree, although not for the reasons the delegation would want.

Although its final version has not been established, it appears the state budget this year will be balanced on the backs of the wealthy.

That’s a cliché you don’t hear very often. Normally, we are balancing the budget on the backs of the homeless, the elderly, the needy, or some other terribly disadvantaged subgroup.

The rich have taken it on the chin from a PR standpoint over the last few years, but maybe all the extra cash they’ve raked in during this time will ease the pain.

In 2010, the recovering economy generated $288 billion more than in 2009. Of that, 93 percent went to the top 1 percent of America’s wealthiest people, the ones earning more than $325,000.

And 37 percent of these new earnings went to a mere 15,000 households, ones that worry along on an average annual income of $23.8 million.

So what about the rest of us, the 99 percent? Our income went up as well — by $80 a year. So the top 1 percent gets a raise of $40,000, the rest get $80.

It appears that the state budget will include an income tax increase on the top 1 percent, and even those unfortunates who don’t qualify for “Top 1” status, but still make better than $100,000 a year individually or $150,000 for couples.

In Washington County, the median household income barely breaks $50,000, about $20,000 lower per household than in the rest of the state.

This is why, on the face of it, Maryland’s budget is such outstanding news for Washington County — its main tax increases are targeted toward people who don’t live here, i.e., the rich.

If our delegation is outraged as per usual over the state budget, it shouldn’t be — Washington County taxpayers will get off easy. According to the state comptroller’s office, barely more than 2,000 returns cracked the $150,000 income level. In a county of 150,000, that’s great news.

Except there’s this: What have our leaders, locally and at the state level, been doing all these years to increase our standard of living? Apparently, not much.

Our delegation should be outraged at this budget, and it should be outraged because it showed in such a good strong light how feeble our incomes are. What have our lawmakers done about this? What of Del. Neil Parrott, who campaigned on a platform of jobs? The last word we’ve heard from him on jobs is on some long-ago discarded campaign sign. He’s too busy chasing gays and immigrants around the state to help out the local economy.

And one wants to applaud the attempt of Del. John Donog-hue to soften the blow of having teacher-pension costs transferred to the county, by pleading poverty — our salaries are so low that we can’t afford to pay what most normal counties can.

But poverty should never be a badge of honor. We are falling, however, dangerously close to that ignoble standard.

Every time a state lawmaker says there’s nothing he can do as an individual, our trust is failed. Any time a County Commissioner says that a warehouse job is good enough, our trust is failed. Whenever we hear that a per-capita income of $26,588 (nearly $10,000 below the state average) is all the average person in Washington County can expect, our trust has been failed.

Elected officials who are baffled about how these numbers can be changed need to consider one more: The number of people over the age of 25 in Washington County with a four-year college degree stands at less than 19 percent. That’s about half of the state average.

There’s little doubt then that our schools are our best hope.

This is perhaps what the John Bohanans of the world don’t understand when they put the downtown University System of Maryland center under the microscope. We need extra assistance because we are starting at a much lower point.

This is what the people who put the Mount Aetna Farms biotech park under the microscope need to understand. We cannot afford to dull momentum toward a prospective technology center because part of the problem in this community is that we so often become transfixed over details that sort of matter, but not really.

The main complaint over Mount Aetna Farms and similar big-picture proposals in this county over the years is that “someone’s gonna get rich.” In Washington County, it is about time someone did.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His e-mail address is timr@herald-mail.com.



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