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Why do Annapolis leaders do these things? Because they can

This year, the most curious moment of the legislative session was not the budgetary train wreck on its fractious final day but at a most unusual rally a week before. A crowd of wind energy activists converged on the State House. Surreal chants of "All we are saying is give wind a chance" permeated the air. Gov.Martin O'Malleywas there to greet them, like a minister addressing the faithful.

Of course, reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of the governor's unsuccessful wind energy proposal. But the timing of the rally struck me as especially curious.

Why would state leaders elevate this boutique, quixotic proposal over more immediate priorities impacting the lives of Marylanders, like the state budget? Then it occurred to me: Because they can.

Indeed, "because we can" was the Democratic establishment's de facto mantra during the 2012 session.

Because we can is why state leaders refuse to set spending priorities, choosing instead to declare everything a priority and expecting citizens to sacrifice more.

A January Gonzales poll found 96 percent of Marylanders felt they were taxed enough, or too much. Still, Democratic legislators voted to raise income taxes and double the flush tax, tried to increase and expand the sales tax, and — most perplexing of all — threatened to raise gas taxes while Marylanders choke down $4-per-gallon prices at the pump.

"Because we can" allows state leaders to misrepresent the facts to suit political ends. Mr. O'Malley has increased state spending by 22 percent — from $29.4 billion in fiscal 2008 to nearly $36 billion in fiscal 2013 — since becoming governor. But that hasn't stopped him from claiming $7.5 billion in phantom cuts (he grew spending at a rate less than he wanted to, but still grew it) as justification for new taxes.

"Because we can" also explains why the establishment manipulates the political process to sharpen its advantage. The majority party rammed through a partisan congressional redistricting plan, the unapologetic objectives of which were to shore up Democratic incumbents and bump off the senior GOP congressman.

And, as citizens opposed to certain laws learned to use the Internet to bring them to the ballot, several progressive legislators launched a very undemocratic effort to neuter the referendum process. They wanted to require that all of a petition signer's personal information be printed by hand, effectively eliminating the Internet's role in signature gathering.

This mindset explains why the majority treats the state's penchant for political corruption like a relative hidden in the attic. This year, a former county executive was sentenced to prison for taking bribes, and a longtime state senator was sanctioned for not disclosing $250,000 in secret payments to lobby state government.

A 2012 State Integrity Investigation funded by three nonpartisan organizations documented Maryland's vulnerabilities, giving the state a D- and ranking it 40th out of 50 states for its ongoing corruption prospects. A gubernatorial spokeswoman dismissed the weighty report as "sketchy" and "flawed."

Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Millerfamously said of the state's minority party: "We're going to put them in the ground. We're going to bury them upside-down, and it'll be 10 years before they crawl out again." The "because we can" mindset is sad proof of Mr. Miller's and the majority party's success.

Governance in Maryland reflects the arrogance, unaccountability and reform aversion you would expect in a one-party monopoly regime. While coalitions of Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats can compete and impact policy locally, no effective counterweight to the liberal tax-and-spend establishment in Annapolis exists.

Consequently, government always grows, people subsidize it through higher taxes, the majority claims "progress" was made, and nothing ever changes in Annapolis.

So, what can Marylanders unhappy with the status quo do?

For starters, reformist legislators of both parties should cooperate to demand improved transparency and access to information, such as by designing more user-friendly websites that will empower citizens to stay better informed and ask the right questions. Even U.S. PIRG — mother ship to the liberal MaryPIRG — gave Maryland tepid marks for how it discloses state spending information.

Of course, the only real solution is reinvigorated two-party competition in Maryland. Perennial one-party rule truncates debate, deters new ideas, elevates a clique of special interests and lobbyists, and breeds diminished accountability among our leaders.

Only a real realignment will bring real reform. Otherwise, just like at the wind power rally, Marylanders can expect the same rhetorical hot air, year after year.

Larry Hogan, a former state cabinet secretary, is the chairman of ChangeMaryland.org and the founder and CEO of a group of companies headquartered in Annapolis. His email is lhogan@hogancompanies.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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