Taxes and Slots are Issues Ripe for Decision

Posted on October 30, 2007


Gov. Martin O’Malley is a new governor. But taxes and slots are not new issues in Maryland politics.

In the Maryland General Assembly, you can’t expect action on a major issue in one session. It takes at least two or three years of consideration before legislators are ready to act. That’s good. You don’t want rash action on important issues.

On taxes, I can remember former Del. Don Robertson, then House majority leader, telling a meeting of Democratic precinct leaders in the 1980s that the Maryland income tax was not progressive. The state conducted a major study of the tax system in 1994. Years went by. Little was done. The issue became more urgent in recent years, as pressures increased for money to address the needs of a growing state.

Slot-machine gambling was suggested as the easy answer and the quick fix. Gov. Parris Glendening said no way, not on his watch. His answer was the right answer at the time. Then came Gov. Bob Ehrlich. Ehrlich’s answer to the revenue question was slots. It was the wrong answer, or at least not a complete answer. The legislature considered slots, but refused to move precipitously on a proposal that was green on the vine.

Now we’ve reached a point where Maryland’s structural deficit can no longer be ignored. Both the tax issue and the slots issue have been around for years. They’re old friends, or at least old issues, well-known to legislators and most of the voters.

Even when political issues are ripe for a decision, there can be a missing ingredient. The missing ingredient is leadership. Someone has to be willing to make a decision. Someone has to be fearless, fearless enough to take the risk of possibly failing.

Enter Martin O’Malley. Smart. Seasoned by two terms as mayor of Baltimore. Fearless, but mature enough not to be impatient. He considers. He consults. He hesitates. He puts together the best proposals he can. Legislators can think of all kinds of reasons to delay. It is always easier to do nothing than to do something. Inertia is a powerful force. Some are immobilized by fear.

The tax issue is an issue ripe for picking as the General Assembly convenes in special session. In the private sector, it might be called “low-hanging fruit.”

The slots issue is nearly as ripe, but it’s a little higher up, a little harder to reach. Maybe legislators will dare to pluck it during the special session, or maybe they’ll wait for the regular session. That’s the way I see it. –Bernie