Give O’Malley credit for courage on taxes

Robert McCartney
Columnist February 4, 2012

When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) worried before his State of the State address Wednesday that the speech seemed too long, an adviser said he needn’t fear.

It’ll go quickly, the aide said — because the audience of state senators and delegates wouldn’t interrupt to applaud.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The prediction proved all too true. The General Assembly in Annapolis gave O’Malley’s ambitious but costly agenda a tepid response, and who could blame it? What legislator wants to vote to raise five kinds of taxes and fees, as the governor asked? Not to mention making Maryland the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to approve same-sex marriage.

“He’s got a battle on his hands on almost every front. If any of it passes, it will be by a small margin,” said a leading Democratic legislator from the Washington suburbs, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending the governor.

Before we all jump on O’Malley for overreaching, however, let’s pause and give him some credit for political courage. He’s a rare liberal — or “progressive,” as he prefers — willing to confront squarely the key contradiction that increasingly threatens to paralyze U.S. government.

That dilemma is, of course, the reality that American voters want to enjoy the benefits of government services without paying for them. It’s behind the yawning federal budget deficit and the ideological stalemate in Congress.

Liberals have been on the defensive about taxes, overall, since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. So it’s invigorating to hear O’Malley offer an unashamed argument for the need to pay more if you want quality education, mass transit, new roads and a clean Chesapeake Bay. “For the last 30 years, there has been a real swing of the pendulum, an electorally successful push to rally people against government, to frame all fees and all taxes as the plague, as evil things that are done to us by evil people,” O’Malley said Friday in a lunch interview in Annapolis.

“While it might be good for whipping up a crowd, or even getting you through an election or two, it never built a bridge. It never sent a child to school. It never helped someone save a life in an emergency room,” he said.

The Republican minority is lambasting O’Malley with criticism that higher taxes will kill jobs. That argument is too narrow, he says. Companies like low taxes, yes, but they also want to invest in places with good schools and roads.

“There are many factors that go into making a state economically strong,” O’Malley said. “Taxes are one of those factors, but overall, it’s about quality of life.”

By all accounts, the toughest tax for legislators to swallow will be O’Malley’s proposal to start applying the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline. That would add about 18 cents to the cost of a gallon, phased in over three years.

For me, raising the gasoline tax is a no-brainer. The state desperately needs money to maintain and improve roads and mass transit, not to mention build the light-rail Purple Line. A higher tax would also discourage gasoline use, thus combating global warming and reducing dependence on imported petroleum.

“One of the toughest realities for us as Americans is getting our heads around the true cost of gasoline,” O’Malley said. “I think the only hope for changing that is to talk about it.”

It’s a gutsy stance, but is it also foolhardy? As he nears the halfway point in his second and final term, O’Malley knows that his enthusiasm for taxes could threaten his legacy and hurt his chances in a possible future presidential bid.

“Being an avowed, easily defined liberal in 2016 could be a problem, especially if you have a second term of [President] Obama,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.

A Washington Post poll published a week ago put O’Malley’s approval rating at a healthy 55 percent, but he doesn’t think that will last as voters absorb his message.

“Those numbers on the job approval, I expect they’ll take a huge hit, given the difficult things I’m asking of people. That’s what happened before. It’s what always happens” when politicians seek higher taxes, he said.

In O’Malley’s first term, after he pushed through a sales-tax increase, his approval ratings dropped to as low as 32 percent, or what he called “George W. Bush levels.”

O’Malley had the last laugh, though: He easily won reelection a couple of years later. Legislators should ponder that before they discard O’Malley’s agenda. What’s scary in the short term might pay off down the road — not only for politicians, but also for the state.

For more of Robert McCartney’s columns, go to postlocal.com.

There’s been a push to frame all fees and taxes “as evil things that are done to us by evil people.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley

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