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As Long as We Remember...

June 1, 2005

True Colors

Tony Soltero

Sometimes it appears that our governor's deepest wish is to turn the progressive, prosperous, and highly educated state of Maryland into some sort of Mississippi-on-the-Chesapeake. He claimed to be a "moderate" when he was running for office, only to rush to his true far-right roots the instant he planted his behind on the chair adjoining his State House desk. Sounds like a certain national elected official we all know, but never mind.

And the governor seems to be proud of this. Our General Assembly passed a few bills that carry on Maryland's fine tradition of progressivism, the kind of tradition that makes us such a vastly different place than, say, Alabama (or, as some call it, "Talibama"), and Gov. Robert Ehrlich not only obstructs these bills, but he crows and brags about it. I mean, come on, veto ceremonies? With marching bands in the background and major campaign contributors standing by his side? How tacky is that?

Anyway, let's move on. While it's a shame that our "moderate" governor felt the need to pander to the noisy but comparatively small Pharisee crowd with his veto of the medical-care bill (misleadingly labeled a "gay marriage" bill by said Pharisees), I've already gone over that one, so there's no need to revisit that at this point. If he wants to carry water for James Dobson's Republican Taliban, that's his choice. And it was a bit disappointing, but not particularly surprising, to see him take care of Wal-Mart the way Wal-Mart's taken care of him. Ya dance with who brung ya, I suppose.

But the most dispiriting veto of all was the one of the minimum-wage bill. Governor Ehrlich claimed that he was protecting small businesses and low-wage jobs, which is the typical argument against these kinds of initiatives. It's also a highly misleading one, fraught with false choices and easy reductionism.

With the minimum wage what it is today, a low-wage worker cannot afford many of the basic necessities of life, especially given the price of housing around here. Health care is all but out of the question. And if the low-wage worker has a family to support, his children are lucky to eat one meal a day, and often go to bed hungry.

So the choices for those on the bottom economic rungs of society are (a) work and starve, or (b) not work and starve. Our leaders love to talk about jobs, but tend to scatter when the subject turns to actually paying people for performing these jobs. Why work if it gains you almost nothing? Where's the incentive? We can't be all stick and no carrot if we claim to be a civilized society.

Compounding this situation is that the very nature of low wages usually force both parents out of the home to scrounge for whatever crumbs they can, assuming they can even keep the family together given the severe economic pressures they face daily.

I thought that conservatives, honest conservatives, strongly believed in the ethic of the stay-at-home parent. There's a lot to be said for that, to be sure. Yet these conservatives support an economic structure that makes such an arrangement all but impossible for the most vulnerable families! Compassion and help for the poor is a key Christian virtue, but apparently it's not a Pharisee priority.

So these low-wage jobs might be useful for padding government employment statistics, but they provide precious little for those who actually perform these jobs. And make no mistake; it is the hardworking people who perform these low-wage jobs who enable the rest of us to enjoy the high American standard of living that we've come to see as an entitlement.

The maids who clean our homes and offices; the sanitation workers who pick up our trash; the fast-food workers who put together and serve up our Whoppers; the big-box retail associates who reach up to those high shelves to retrieve those plastic laundry baskets made in China; the delivery boys who carry our new leather sofas into our living rooms; the landscapers who spiff up our homes' curb appeal - we couldn't function without them.

Admit it. What's wrong with ensuring that these dignified, hardworking people have access to the basic necessities of life - food, livable housing, and healthcare? Nobody's suggesting they deserve Ferraris, but a roof that doesn't leak sure would be nice.

Okay, but what about the small businesses? Wouldn't they have trouble competing if they had to pay their employees a living wage?

Well, there are lots of things governments can do to help small businesses. Keeping budget deficits under control, which helps keep interest rates low, is immensely beneficial to the mom-and-pop operation that often needs to borrow cash to expand. Actively enforcing anti-trust laws to enhance competitiveness, level the playing field, and eliminate barriers to entry is another action a government can take.

This, of course, means ceasing all these pandering subsidies to Wal-Mart, which has done more to crush and destroy small, local businesses than every minimum wage ever enacted. That's the great irony in Governor Ehrlich's string of vetoes. Some sort of national health insurance would be nice, too, to relieve businesses from that expense. That's a big reason so many automakers manufacture their vehicles in high-wage Canada.

But Maryland leaders can take another simple, straightforward action that results in a win-win for all parties involved. The state government can simply extend small businesses a tax break to offset the wage increases. That would enable the low-wage worker to get a little bit of breathing room without the employer incurring any extra overhead. And since higher-paid workers are less likely to strain state social services, the tax break would pay for itself. And who knows, it might enable some parents to stay home with the kids if they wish to. What a concept!

We are a high-wage state, for the most part, and that has a lot to do with the quality of life we enjoy in Maryland. Is it too much to ask that the dedicated men and women who earn a living scrubbing toilets and waiting tables be able to share in that quality of life? They could be making a lot more money dealing crack cocaine. They've chosen honest work instead. If we don't tangibly reward that, we have no business calling ourselves a civilized society.

There's no reason for us to become Mississippi.

Let's make the phrase "working poor" an oxymoron.

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