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News Opinion Editorial

The $47 million deal

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
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