"The best things in life are free," goes the saying, but politicians in Annapolis must not be counted among life's best things because they sure aren't free. To get their attention costs money -- usually in the form of a generous campaign contribution.
Unfortunately, only about 1 percent of Marylanders contribute to the coffers of state lawmakers, according to a 2002 University of Maryland report. That means that a wealthy but tiny minority buys great access to lawmakers, while, too often, the rest of us are ignored.
Why should I care? After all, I'm only a high school student, plus I live in wealthy Potomac, where I'm sheltered from most of the effects of problems in state government.
But I do care, because Maryland's broken campaign finance system is making the state a poorer place to live for all of us. Maryland is facing a $1 billion budget deficit, and massive corporate tax evasion is one reason why.
This spring state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer announced that two-thirds of the biggest corporations in the state -- firms that include Wal-Mart, Citicorp and Comcast -- pay no state income tax, even though the intention of Maryland tax codes was that they would pay a 7 percent tax on their profits. But corporations have found loopholes in the state's tax laws that allow them to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, and lawmakers are reluctant to move to close the gaps. As a result tax-dodging corporations are partly to blame for the fact that more Montgomery County students are attending school in trailers and that class sizes are growing too.
Public parks also are not being cleaned as often as they should be, and some environmental laws are not enforced because lawmakers may be disinclined to upset their corporate sponsors. Critical land conservation efforts were cut by $110 million, or 75 percent, last year, which will mean more sprawl and a dirtier environment for everyone.
Next year I plan to apply for admission to the University of Maryland-College Park. Tuition costs there rose 20 percent last year and are expected to increase by almost 11 percent this fall. This will be a hardship for my parents. Why should they suffer because big businesses are avoiding their tax responsibilities?
It will be hard to close corporate tax loopholes because big businesses have so much clout with lawmakers. But Progressive Maryland has a plan for campaign finance reform that could limit that clout. Its plan calls for a voluntary, publicly funded campaign finance system so that candidates will have a choice of using private or public funds in running for office. To qualify for public funds, candidates would have to collect a large number of small contributions within the district that they wish to represent and within a specific time period. If elected, these publicly funded candidates wouldn't be beholden to special interests. They would feel free to crack down on corporate tax cheating.
Public funding of campaigns already has been implemented in Maine and Arizona, and is working well in both states. Next year, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) and Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery) will introduce legislation similar to that enacted in those two states and that is modeled on the Progressive Maryland plan.
I have lived in Maryland all my life, and I can't imagine living anywhere else in the country. I don't want to see Maryland wither because tax cheaters refuse to fund vital government services. Public funding of campaigns would help make Maryland as great as it should be.
-- David Doh
will be a senior this fall at Churchill High School in Potomac and is a summer intern
with Progressive Maryland, an alliance
of religious, community and labor groups.