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Political Animal

You're Gonna Get It

By Brian Morton | Posted 5/28/2003

The giveaway season just keeps on giving.

The federal deficit is skyrocketing past record levels, the president is vowing to sign what will amount to an $800 billion tax-cut handout to the wealthy, and here in Maryland, our own Bobby Smooth has told his corporate buddies that they can keep running their shows out of Delaware post-office boxes in order to keep them from paying taxes here.

How does that work? The guv wanted to ram through slot machines to keep people from taking their gambling dollars to Delaware, but at the same time, he's more than happy to let businesses set up a racket to operate from "The Home of Tax Free Shopping" so they won't have to pay taxes in Maryland (including Baltimore's Most Earnest Alternative Weekly--we'll let you know if we remain employed).

Let's say it again--nobody enjoys paying taxes. But that's sort of like saying nobody likes paying for anything. Sure, the beer always tastes better when it's free, but there ain't no Santa Claus, there's no free lunch, and you gotta pay for what you get. That's life for grownups.

Yet there seems to be some sort of belief among those with that weird right-wing chromosome that says we can have nice roads, decent schools, a quality higher-education system, effective police and fire departments, a clean bay, and homeland security and not have to pay for it. "It's your money," they say, as if it's not your government as well. Governors--even Republican governors--all over America are having to raise taxes, because the enduring ability of any chief executive named Bush to make the economy hemorrhage jobs is a constant, no matter what decade it happens to be. And here in the progressive state of Maryland, we elected a man who thinks that letting corporations freeload is a great idea, but cutting programs to the needy is just something that happens when you don't let him have what he wants.

Perhaps Mayor Martin O'Malley put it best when he said, "When all of us get our higher property tax bills next year, we need to remember that the governor who promised he wouldn't raise our taxes raised our taxes, but preserved corporate loopholes."

Just to make sure it all stays in the family, it's kind of a hoot to find out that the governor's wife, Kendel Ehrlich, works as a lawyer for Comcast Corp. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently pointed out Comcast's use of 400 Delaware shell subsidiaries to avoid paying its taxes. Leona Helmsley may have been the "Queen of Mean," but she sure had one thing right: Only the little people pay taxes.

Even state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who endorsed the first President Bush and who remains a pal of Maryland's new governor, had harsh words to say about Ehrlich's knocking the budget out of balance with his veto last week of a few modest business-tax hikes. Ehrlich told his department heads to slash 7.5 percent across the board from all of their budgets that start July 1, and Schaefer told The Washington Post, "There's going to be a lot of people hurt at 7.5 percent. You can't do that."

As always, when corporations get off light, the people who wind up paying the price are the ones with the least amount of say in the matter: the poor. Conservatives constantly talk about savings through the reduction of "waste, fraud, and abuse" because it sounds good, and one man's waste and abuse is another family's life-saving assistance program. Back in April, former Congressional Budget Office employee and University of Maryland, Baltimore County teacher Roy Meyers told The Sun, "The idea that the structural deficit can be eliminated entirely through spending cuts is one that is often proposed by state politicians but rarely followed over the long run. . . . I don't think there's any evidence at all that states--at least systematically--improve the efficiency of programs during recessions. The typical decision process is to look for easy cash. And the easy cash is often in programs that help the politically weak."

In the end, thanks to Ehrlich's veto, the counties will look for ways to keep providing the services that the state is cutting, the state's universities and community colleges will jack up tuition and reduce the number of students, and there is always the prospect of impending layoffs. Of course, one of Ehrlich's promises back when he was campaigning against the "tax and spend" previous administration was "no layoffs of state employees." Which means, in political shorthand, county employees are Somebody Else's Problem.

Already Senate President Thomas "Mike" Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, both Democrats, are threatening to override Ehrlich's veto come January, but this could set off a carousel of legislative retaliation that could carry all the way through to the next gubernatorial election. After all, how many times can the legislature pass a budget with reasonable tax increases while closing tax loopholes like the Delaware scam to see Ehrlich ax them each May?

One of our all-time favorite H.L. Mencken quotations says, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want--and deserve to get it, good and hard." It looks as if the time has come when we're getting what we asked for.

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