Tap-dancing around tax issue in Md.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010

When it comes to picking their next governor, Maryland voters get a clear-cut choice on the crucial issue of taxes. Unfortunately, it's over which style of campaign deception they wish to endorse.

Both candidates have laid out slippery, misleading positions that avoid hard questions of how to pay the state's bills, especially for transportation and pension costs.

Former Republican governor Bob Ehrlich promises to cut the state sales tax, but he won't spell out how he'd plug the resulting hole in the budget. He dodges responsibility for having supported a property tax increase when he was governor. He gives a "blanket" promise not to raise taxes if elected, but he also proposes pension changes that would probably lead to local tax increases.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is pushing for expensive light-rail projects in the Washington suburbs (Purple Line) and Baltimore (Red Line), but he hasn't detailed where he'd find the money. He hasn't told voters which programs he'd cut to overcome a $1 billion deficit foreseen for next year. There's a pretty good chance he'll want to raise the gasoline tax or other levies if reelected, but he won't discuss specifics while waiting to hear from a pair of commissions that conveniently issue recommendations only after voters cast ballots Nov. 2.

Why does this happen? Why won't politicians talk clearly and candidly to the electorate about managing the public's money?

One big reason is that our elected leaders have learned through painful experience that voters will punish them for being straight. The electorate childishly resists making grown-up choices about bearing the cost of government. It complains bitterly that the roads are overcrowded or the subway is broken, but it's appalled by suggestions to raise the gasoline tax to pay for improvements.

Although it happened more than a quarter-century ago, Exhibit A is what happened to Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential challenger in 1984. Mondale, displaying equal portions of courage and masochism, said publicly that he'd raise taxes to control the federal deficit. The incumbent, Republican Ronald Reagan, buried him in a historic landslide. The national debt kept expanding.

In a more recent example, from the Washington region, Republican Bob McDonnell won the Virginia governorship a year ago even though Democrat Creigh Deeds warned that McDonnell's plan to find new money for roads was unrealistic.

Today, sure enough, McDonnell is having a hard time delivering on his promises. In particular, bipartisan resistance just forced him to postpone pushing for his signature measure to raise transportation revenue by privatizing the state's liquor business.

In Maryland this year, Ehrlich hoped to copy McDonnell's success by ruling out a tax increase. He went further, with a proposal to actually lower taxes, chiefly by trimming the state sales tax from 6 cents to 5 cents per dollar.

The sales tax proposal is especially disingenuous, in two ways. First, Ehrlich knows it would be extremely unlikely to win approval from the Democratic-dominated General Assembly. Second, he won't detail how he'd pay for it, apart from predicting optimistically that it wouldn't cost as much as people think.

I'll give Ehrlich credit for candor on two points. He admits that he'd trim some state school funding, even though that would hit especially hard in vote-rich Montgomery and Prince George's counties. He has also made serious proposals about how to deal with a $33 billion, long-term shortfall in public employee pension and health benefits.

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