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March 26, 2004

Something For Nothing

Tony Soltero

One of the most pronounced human tendencies is the intractable desire to get something for nothing. We start early - as children. Christmas isn't important to us because it's a major religious holiday or because it's an opportunity to spend time with family - kids like Christmas because they get a big haul of loot.

As teenagers, we skim the Cliffs Notes. As adults, we're forever searching for the Pizza-and-Donuts Exercise-Free Guaranteed Weight-Loss Plan.

Most of us eventually grow up and realize that there's no free lunch.

And then we have a few Republican politicians.

At the national level, we have George W. Bush piling up $500+ billion budget deficits because he believes that we can have a war and a dozen tax cuts and a Medicare bill that happens to be as unproductive as it is expensive. Fly now, pay later.

Fortunately, we can't accumulate deficits at the state level. But that simply means that Annapolis politicians need to be more creative when they're playing Santa Claus.

Our current government has certainly proven to be up to the task.

Governor Robert Ehrlich galloped into Annapolis on the well-worn "No New Taxes" white horse. No need to worry about the state's schools, roads, libraries, and bond rating - all of that can be covered without having to resort to those icky taxes. Something for nothing. Who says you can't have it all?

It appears that an unfortunate amount of Maryland voters bought into this fuzzy math. We want top-notch schools, quality highways, and safe streets. And all we needed to do, we thought, was pluck a few dollar bills from that big, lush money tree in the backyard.

Well, perpetual adolescence is nice and all that, but eventually Dad cuts off your allowance. Maryland does NOT have the money to cover its educational and transportation needs. Surprise! Surprise! So now we're into the debate on how we're going to fund this shortfall.

House Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) has crafted a plan that's at least realistic about the need for the state to raise revenues, and he's even found room to cut the property taxes that were raised last year (and approved by our anti-tax crusader in the State House). Mr. Busch believes that quality public schools and safe, well-maintained roads are something worth paying for.

It's not a perfect plan. It calls for a sales-tax increase, and such taxes invariably hit those who can afford them the least. But it's at least a pragmatic start. Something flexible politicians, those who care about the state's quality of life, can work from.

Governor Ehrlich, on the other hand, is paralyzed by his dogma. His party has become so beholden to Not Raising Taxes (give or take the occasional property levy) that it's willing to compromise everything else - the state's fiscal solvency, our children's educational opportunities - in service of an ideology. He's threatened to veto Busch's proposal, not because it can't work, but because it doesn't conform to Republican political correctness. How productive is this? What good does this kind of attitude do for Maryland?

If you wind up spending your tax cut (and more) on a new front-end alignment because the county didn't have the funds to fill in the potholes on your street, are you really ahead on the deal? Is it that important to be "right?"

To be fair, the Governor does have a proposal of his own. He believes that the best way to fund our schools and roads is by introducing slot machines into racetracks and other locales.

Never mind, of course, that slot machines (and other forms of gambling) tend to attract unsavory elements, thrusting the government into a de facto alliance with dubious characters of questionable ethics and integrity. Never mind that the promotion of gambling flies in the face of the Republicans' (undeserved) image as the Party of Morality. Never mind that the slots initiative is sullied by special-interest politics. Never mind that even the most optimistic projections don't project the slots to raise nearly enough funds to cover the budget.

But I think I understand why the Republicans are so attracted to slots. People who play the slots are trying to strike it rich by getting lucky. They're trying to make money without having to work for it.

In essence, they're trying to get something for nothing.

Something for nothing. It's the Republican way.

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