Solution or Problem: Which part are you?
I'm writing this from a fourth floor balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Families are spread out on the sand below; children are frolicking in the wind-whipped surf. The Maryland Association of Counties summer conference is in full swing.
It's those same families my thoughts turn to today. Maryland's $1.5 billion dollar structural deficit is not news to readers of this column; it's been well-covered before. What hasn't gotten quite so much coverage is the solution.
The Democrats, led by Gov. Martin O'Malley, seem intent on revenue increases as the answer, listing a whole host of tax possibilities as the way to solve most of the problem. Last Wednesday, Governor O'Malley's Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, published a report suggesting that Maryland is missing out on millions of dollars in potential annual revenue from slot machines at horse-racing venues.
I guess Secretary Perez and his boss thought this revelation might finally alter the balance of power and convince House Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) to shift from slots-hater to slots-lover overnight. Not very likely.
It'd be easier to sell seal-flavored popsicles to Eskimos than it would be to change Speaker Busch's mind on slots, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth trying. The Democrats have already had their fill of budget cuts, worrying that much more than the $280 million already announced will begin to erode their support from unions, homeless advocates, and other progressive special interest groups.
My favorite special interest solution was the "greening the budget" press release from Progressive Maryland. Their logic confounds, as usual. They opine that increasing spending on the environment will reduce the burden on the budget. Only a progressive could produce magic like that!
Ocean City is even weighing in on the state budget crisis. I'm down here to moderate a panel discussion on the public health impacts of residential growth at a gathering of county elected officials from across the state, but I've still gotten out and about a little.
The hotels that line the boardwalk all have fancy signs facing the street. Most of those same signs carry a message for county officials gathered here.
Many of those signs read "No Slots in MD." The message belongs to the Ocean City Hotel and Restaurant Association. Several years ago, they went together to oppose slots, fearing that slots placed at Ocean Downs race track might negatively affect the beach resort.
What they won't tell you is that their fear is that the restaurants will lose patrons, not that they have any moral objection to slots. That would seem a little silly, what with those flying billboards touting the Hooters and Big Kahuna nightly bikini contests, and the 50-cent draft beer all night banners. This is OC, after all, not a church revival camp.
These same hypocritical hoteliers will rail against a sales tax or hotel tax as a way to raise revenue, too. They all want the services that taxes bring; they just don't want any of the negative consequences that might impact their own businesses.
Well, too bad. Frankly, they ought to be as concerned about the hundreds of thousands of Marylanders who visit their resort and patronize their hotels as they are about their own bottom line. Increasing the tax burden on our residents will create a situation where people may no longer be able to afford that summer jaunt to the shore.
Adding slot machines to horse tracks just makes sense. People go to horse tracks to gamble right now. Sure, some people, who cannot afford to, will play slots. Those same people are already playing the state-sponsored lottery. They'll continue doing so.
Secretary Perez' report points out that people who live in Maryland are voting with their feet, spending hundreds of millions on slot machines in Delaware, West Virginia, and New Jersey.
No, it's not déjà vu. Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich produced reports proving the exact same point, over and over again. Hundreds of millions of dollars and four years later, the essential truths are exactly the same.
Horse racing is on the decline. Horse farms, which consist of thousands of acres of open land, are in jeopardy of turning into residential subdivisions all over our state. Good horses, jockeys, and trainers are leaving Maryland to race where the purses are higher, and the races are more interesting.
Those families sitting down there on the sand don't see the fiscal tidal wave building offshore. They're blissfully unaware that in January, instead of cutting the cost of government, the General Assembly will be looking to raid their wallets and purses to the tune of $800 million to $1 billion.
To be fair, I should assign the blame where it's due. The Democratic leadership is intent on tax increases as a solution; the Republicans are rolling out a budget balancing plan that merely reduces the rate of increase.
The Republican plan would limit growth in state government to 3.5% and includes a limited slot machine proposal. The plan eliminates the structural deficit and creates a surplus by Fiscal Year 2011. The Republican proposal does not include tax increases.
When those same families leave the beach, they'll go back inside that hotel where the owner would rather see a family flattened by the fiscal tsunami than they would see slot machine at horse racing tracks.
That means that the hotel owners are a part of the problem. Which are you?