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July 2, 2008

The Lords of Annapolis

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Happy 4th of July. One of the main reasons we sought our independence from England was taxes. The only thing is – that this long after we won our independence – we are still fighting over taxes.


The food fight over taxes in Maryland has been perpetual ever since 1634. In the last 60 years, the constant annoyance over taxes and mismanaged state budgets has snowballed into a migraine headache of Sisyphisian proportions.


The Maryland General Assembly perpetually rolls the tax rock up the hill only to have it roll back down over top of us because of profligate spending – setting us up to repeat the procedure over and over again.


An editorial in the March 28, 1947, edition of the Democratic Advocate newspaper printed in Westminster, reported that July 1, 1947, was when the Maryland Retail Sales tax first went into effect.


The editorial said, in part: “Gov. Lane does not like taxes either, but as long as you have colleges to take your money and plenty of it through your money, you are to have taxes. But we do need money for our public schools, for our medical centers and surely for road building… The opposition to the sales taxes by our merchants was 100 per cent and feel very blue over the outcome.”


Meanwhile, an article in the Democratic Advocate, June 27, 1947, stated: “With the beginning of Governor Lane's new fiscal program of July 1, Carroll County will start to receive $531,108.73 additional in State revenues annually for the cooperation of its government functions and relief of taxation at the local level.”


This was a trend that has certainly not been sustained in recent years by our General Assembly. Contrast the 1947 revenue sharing plan with the special taxing session of our legislature last fall in which the structure of taxation in Maryland increased tax revenues going to Annapolis and decreased tax revenues going to municipalities and counties.


According to news reports, while the General Assembly raised taxes by $1.5 billion, tax revenue to local counties throughout the state was reduced by roughly $375 million.


This of course wrecks havoc on local governments which are caught in the middle between the state legislature and local citizens who are crying foul, mad as heck and with no stomach for local tax increases to make up the difference.


According to a history of taxation in Maryland written by Karen A. Hare, and Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, from 1634 until 1781, what we now know as property taxes were paid to the Lords Baltimore. Originally it was two shillings per hundred acres and it was later increased to four shillings per hundred acres.


Nowadays, the taxes are paid to the lords of Annapolis, and we all just got that tax bill to celebrate Independence Day.


Indeed, early on, unusual, odd, and onerous taxation policy riled local citizens in Maryland. In the late 1750s, a double tax was imposed on all Catholics in Maryland. The French and Indian War proved quite expensive to wage, and the thought was that Catholics in Maryland “would be secret supporters of the Catholic French.”


According to Ms. Hare and Dr. Papenfuse, “the first successful taxpayer's revolt in Maryland occurred in 1765 when Parliament attempted to impose a stamp tax on all the colonies to help pay for the French and Indian War…


“The tax, which was to paid on all public documents and newspapers, led (the publisher of the Maryland Gazette) Jonas Green to publish his paper as a supplement to the last issue before the tax was imposed, thus technically avoiding the tax… Parliament retreated and the tax was removed.”


The first statewide property tax in Maryland was enacted in 1777. “All real and personal property in the state (excluding food, clothing, and tools) was originally assessed at a rate of ten shillings per 100 pounds…”


Of course, the concept of paying reasonable taxes for roads, schools, and public safety is fairly well accepted by most fair-minded citizens. The rub among many is how the taxes are spent; and how accessible and accountable elected officials are as to what are appropriate levels of taxation and upon what priorities the tax dollars are applied.


The state of Maryland has had a long history of, well – spending our tax dollars in an interesting manner. As is often said about the Maryland General Assembly, we have a spending problem – not a revenue problem.


When taxation began to be centralized into the control of the state and away from local government is a matter that will be eternally debated by economic historians.


Arguably, the first step toward centralization began when, according to the history written by Ms. Hare and Dr. Papenfuse, the office of the “State Tax Commissioner established in 1878, who also took over the function of assessing the value of corporate stock that had, until that time, been carried out locally by boards of county commissioners.”


It has been all downhill ever since. The struggle between local government and the state has been torturous and storied ever since – and could fill volumes of scholarly texts.


To compound the problems in recent months, the current softening of the economy and reports that the raised taxes have caused changes in the spending habits of Marylanders to the point that tax revenues going to state coffers has actually decreased since the tax increases were enacted.


There is an old axiom that there are only two sure things in life: taxes and death. Of course, this does not take into account the eternal purgatory the average Mom and Dad are feeling in Maryland as they are increasing squeezed to death in the middle.


As the cost of gasoline, electricity and food continue to escalate; increases in taxes have only poured salt in our wounds as many have begun to understand that old axiom that we are being “taxed to death.”


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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