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As Long as We Remember...

January 18, 2008

Governing by Fiat

Roy Meachum

Back on October 26, I offered readers this observation: "From here the omens are not good for the governor's session that opens Monday. Martin O'Malley hoped calling the legislature in would lead to answers for Maryland's staggering deficits. I don't think it's going to happen." I was wrong.

My problem derived from a false assumption. I believed fiscally responsible General Assembly members, Democrats and Republicans, could exert enough influence to scuttle backdoor conniving by the governor and Senate President Mike Miller. They couldn't.

It seemed to me highly unlikely, given the general state of the economy and political reality, Mr. O'Malley and his cohorts would ram through measures that hit every Marylander hard in the pocketbook or wallet.

Throwing everything else aside, for the moment, rushing through a 20-percent increase in the sales tax should have been subjected to due process: in this instance, hearings and full debate.

With the country teetering on the edge of what could very well be a deep and hard recession, robbing the working class in such a brazen fashion deserved, at least, a pro forma gesture. I am not so naive as to believe elected officials attempt to truly reflect their constituencies' views.

But bumping up the sales tax by such a large margin scarcely ranks with bills that limit or expand governmental authority, which is what most legislation is about. The manner a hurried-up, yalla-yalla session was intended to shut out the voices of democracy. We were subject to government by fiat.

In case your Latin and legalese are rusty: fiat means sit down and shut up, it comes from the assumption of total control. Normally fiats are issued by popes, dictators and absolute monarchs. In this instance, it comes from Democrats who enjoy a powerful majority in Maryland. Any party member that protested risked being sent into total darkness.

Republicans were expected to jump up-and-down in the style of small children. Their pitifully small number of seats in the General Assembly renders them singularly weak, unless a split in the majority enables them make a real difference.

We are no closer to a truly bipartisan legislature than when Republican Bob Ehrlich took temporary possession of the governor's mansion. He had lots of Democratic leadership muscle to get there, which makes more mystifying the rampant partisanship that characterized his single term.

Perhaps the GOP's Mr. Ehrlich and his chief political strategist, Democrat Paul Schurick, genuinely assumed the slim electoral edge amounted to a mandate; they tried for four years to turn Maryland's government upside down. They had a nearby example in Washington, where the Republican president who barely squeaked into the Oval Office began immediately to roar as if he had been elected chief executive for life.

In case Mr. Schurick's name rings no bell, when William Donald Schaefer's second and mandatory last term ran down, his chief aide switched to the GOP's gubernatorial campaign. Not unnaturally, the media and other observers assumed the hiring signaled, loud and clear, the powerful politician's opposition to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She lost, but so did Democratic politicos expecting some form of accommodation. They are now out for blood.

Whatever the reason, Governor O'Malley and Senate President Miller, pulling along House Speaker Michael Busch, figured attention to the state deficit required a meeting devoid of such niceties as quitting at a reasonable hour. The daily meetings could run until the wee hours of the morning when leaders knew bushed opponents might say yes to get rid of them and their arguments.

What the boys never achieved was approval to install one-armed bandits, as slots are called. Joined by other legislators, Mr. Busch would not go along. The best they could pull off was placing the issue on November's ballot where it is assumed the public would roar its approval, especially after gambling interests stage a whiz-bang show.

As you must know, General Assembly Republicans decided to petition the court and let a judge decide whether the Democratic leadership had breached a technicality. This was the means by which they hoped to embarrass the governor and challenge Democratic measures, both taxes and other means to part citizens from their income.

While expressing sympathy for their position, Carroll County Judge Thomas Stanfield denied their attempt to nullify the special session on the basis that the Senate stayed away too long; the upper house did not meet for five days while the House of Delegates played catch up. The argument was that the boys and girls of the Senate stayed out too long. The Republicans received rebuff but have now appealed to a higher court.

When I was a child, Louisianans paid taxes down to one-tenth of a cent, called "mills" (millieme). The light aluminum coins gave illusions we had enough change to buy a nickel ice cream cone. Frequently not.

That story is meant to illustrate that I learned early that death is the only other thing certain. We must pay taxes, as we must die. On the other hand, we have a great responsibility to question how they are imposed. History insists.

The Revolution really began when colonists, thinly disguised as Indians, threw a shipload of tea into Boston harbor to protest taxes imposed on their favorite beverage by the parliament in London. Late-night in Annapolis strikes me about the same. We lost our representation in the special session when the so-called Democratic leadership decided to govern by fiat.

And to hell with what we think!

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