General Assembly: Ceremony Or Substance?

| January 26, 2011 | 1 Comment

Our first week in the General Assembly was more ceremony than substance.  The inaugural receptions, lunches and dinners fostered good will, friendship and a desire for bipartisan cooperation.  They also helped to pass the time, because until the Governor submits his budget and committees hold bill hearings, there isn’t any legislation to debate.

This week, the General Assembly began to slowly shift its focus from social events to business.  Committees held policy briefings, and delegates with pending legislation worked hard to frame the coming debates to their advantage.

The way some politicians use language to camouflage issues rather than clarify them has always amused me.  Tax increases are never just tax increases; they’re, “revenue enhancements”.  It sounds so much nicer.  “Illegal aliens” became “illegal immigrants”, then “undocumented immigrants”, then “immigrants”, and now “new Americans”.  Apparently, nobody’s been able to come up with a phrase that makes giving taxpayer benefits to people here illegally and taking jobs from Americans sound good, but they’re working on it.

There was a lot of “debate framing” and camouflaging going on this week.  For example, delegates in favor of an alcohol tax increase presented it as, “just a dime more a drink”.  They lamented that Maryland hadn’t increased its alcohol tax “in decades”, and promised all proceeds from the alcohol tax would go to a trust fund for mental illness, developmental disabilities and drug treatment programs.

That doesn’t sound so bad; but there’s a bit more to the story.  Liquor taxes are charged by the gallon, not the drink.  This tax applies to anyone who purchases wine, beer or liquor, not just bar patrons.  The proposed tax would increase the cost of liquor from $1.50 to $10.03/gallon (564%), wine from $0.40 to $2.96/gallon (640%), and beer from $0.09 to $1.16/gallon (1,189%).  What does this mean for the average person?  A six pack of beer and a bottle of chardonnay would each cost a dollar more, and a 1.75L bottle of vodka would go up $4.00.  Those prices don’t included Maryland’s 6% sales tax on beer, wine and liquor (raised in 2007) which consumers pay on top of the higher tax.

The lament that alcohol taxes haven’t been raised in decades rings a bit hollow.  Just about every other tax has been raised.  In 2007, Maryland raised income, corporate, car and sales taxes (which include alcohol sales.)  The Tax Foundation ranks Maryland 4th in total tax burden per person.  Here’s a possible compromise: lower all the taxes raised in 2007, and we’ll consider raising the alcohol tax.

Perhaps the most common way to positively frame a tax increase is to promise to put it in a “Trust Fund” to use for a good purpose.  Unfortunately, there has been very little “trust” in Maryland’s trust funds.  Since 2003, over $2 billion dollars have been taken from both the state and local government portions of the Transportation Trust Fund for other purposes.  Ironically, the people who want to raise gas and alcohol taxes to put in “special funds” are also the ones who’ve voted to raid them .Only a constitutional amendment that protects the integrity of our trust funds could keep them from doing that again.  Unfortunately, supporters of the gas and alcohol tax increases haven’t been willing to commit to such a constitutional amendment.  They’ll use the good purpose “to enact” the tax, and then use the funds for other things.

It’s enough to drive a person to drink.  Cheers!

Herb McMillan represents Annapolis, Arnold, Broadneck, Edgewater, Mayo, and Galesville in the Maryland House of Delegates. You may contact him at [email protected] or (410)-841-3211

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