Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.
NewsOpinionEditorial

The $47 million deal

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemMaryland General AssemblyKevin Kamenetz

In Annapolis, decisions are rarely made by accident. For better or worse, those who labor in the Maryland General Assembly are creatures of politics, so their behavior is predictable: Legislators look out for their districts, leadership rewards those who fall in line, and dissenters are often left with table scraps.

Recently, it has come to the public's attention that much of the $47.5 million made available this year for school construction projects by the recent alcohol tax increase is going to schools in districts where senators and delegates supported the tax increase. One nonprofit website, MarylandReporter.com, even published a map to demonstrate this to be true.

While we are no fans of divvying up public works projects like they were swag (need, equity and cost-effectiveness would seem like slightly better criteria), it's also hard to find this terribly shocking. The whole point of having a one-year budget for school projects tied to the tax was to provide lawmakers an extra incentive to pass it.

That was not exactly a well-guarded secret. When Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was recently questioned by Comptroller Peter Franchot during a Board of Public Works meeting on why so many of his county's latest school projects are on the county's west side, he acknowledged as much. The delegation chose the projects, he noted, to give preferential treatment to tax supporters.

Admittedly, that's not much comfort for families living in the districts of lawmakers who declined to support the legislation raising the sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent. After all, those residents have to pay the tax when they buy liquor, just like everyone else.

But there's another side to this coin. Such considerations are the lubrication by which the legislative process turns. Without those sweeteners, the tax increase might not have passed, and then no Baltimore County schools — home of a tax supporter or not — would be getting help at all.

Notable, too, is that this is for one year only. The amount of money involved is relatively small compared to billions of dollars in outstanding school construction needs statewide, and comes with some sensible limitations. In Baltimore County, for instance, the revenue amounts to $7 million, not nearly enough to build a school.

The money could only be used for projects that were already designated a high priority by the school systems and the Interagency Committee on School Construction, which oversees the state's capital spending on schools. The legislation also gave priority to projects that address older schools and those serving poor communities.

Had lawmakers made this a permanent arrangement, or if the projects financed by the tax were unworthy, this would have been truly outrageous. Readers may recall that groups advocating the alcohol tax increase initially wanted the revenue to help broaden health care coverage and provide services to the developmentally disabled, both especially pressing needs for the state.

Yet here's what would happen in a legislative body that abstains from politics: nothing. Lawmakers would never make the difficult votes. They wouldn't be able to turn to their constituents and say: Yes, I voted for a tax increase, but look at what it bought us — a performing and visual arts center at Annapolis High School or a weight room at Wilde Lake High School or a new roof on Randallstown High School.

Problems arise when legislators go too far, when too much money or too much politics is involved and too little merit. In other words, when a sweetener becomes a truckload of wasteful pork. Such moments of excess happen, but this isn't one of them.

Of course, it's far easier to be "shocked, shocked" at discovering that politics played any role in deciding how tax dollars are spent and rail against the usual suspects. But in reality, self-interested people don't always work toward the common good without a little personal incentive in the mix. It's important to be aware of it so that it doesn't lead to abuse, but in this case, the self-interest is a tool to achieve the common good and not the other way around.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Laws and LegislationJustice SystemMaryland General AssemblyKevin Kamenetz
  • Maryland's unfriendly business climate kills another 1,000 jobs
    Maryland's unfriendly business climate kills another 1,000 jobs

    Maryland is incredibly unfriendly to business with its heavy burden of regulations, high taxes and an out-of-control minority business enterprise extortion process that enriches a few African-Americans without hiring the inner city minorities it is designed to assist ("The Bechtel blame...

  • Don't let Maryland turn into Illinois [Letter]
    Don't let Maryland turn into Illinois [Letter]

    On the same day that The Baltimore Sun publishes "As recovery continues, Maryland households fall behind" (Oct. 11), the newspaper also prints an article about the trucker shortage ("Trucker shortage looms large as Baltimore port eyes growth").

  • Spending cuts aren't cheap [Letter]
    Spending cuts aren't cheap [Letter]

    A reader argues that overspending is the problem in Annapolis ("Maryland's spending problem," Sept. 29).

  • Maryland's spending problem [Letter]
    Maryland's spending problem [Letter]

    Dreary job reports coupled with the news that Maryland is projecting $405 million in less revenue for the current fiscal year and the next has caused the O'Malley/Brown cheerleaders at The Sun to put on the pompoms and go into full attack mode ("Apocalypse? Not now," Sept. 26)....

  • Politics as usual on state budget numbers [Letter]
    Politics as usual on state budget numbers [Letter]

    Having spent 47 years in state and local government, I have a pretty good feel for impending fiscal year budget problems ("Apocalypse? Not now," Sept. 26). The very quietly issued projections for the next fiscal year for the state budget are concerning. That the state has already,...

  • High taxes = lost jobs = deficit [Letter]
    High taxes = lost jobs = deficit [Letter]

    Why doesn't The Sun ask Gov. Martin O'Malley if taxing the businesses that left the state or did not locate here in the first place because of the high taxes had anything to do with declining tax revenue ("The budget apocalypse that isn't," Sept. 26)? That will be the...

  • The budget apocalypse that isn't [Editorial]
    The budget apocalypse that isn't [Editorial]

    Our view: Are new revenue estimates a reason to look for spending cuts? Yes. Are they a repudiation of the O'Malley fiscal and economic legacy? Hardly

  • Why seniors leave Maryland [Letter]
    Why seniors leave Maryland [Letter]

    As a retiree who held his first job at age 11 and who worked and paid into Social Security for 50 years and into Medicare since it's inception, that obnoxious diatribe by William Smith is an affront to retirees everywhere ("Who needs those lazy retirees?" Aug. 19).

Comments
Loading