Few enactments emanating from Maryland's General Assembly have gained as much intense and prolonged debate as the unfunded mandate placed upon Maryland's 10 largest jurisdictions to carry out stormwater management projects. Popularly known as the "rain tax," the legislation sought to compel the state's largest jurisdictions to implement new fees to pay for these projects. The controversy over the rain tax has continued unabated as each of the affected jurisdictions determines how to deal with this state mandate.
The variety of approaches local jurisdictions have taken to the rain tax shows the diversity of Maryland politics. What too few Marylanders realize is that there are more elected Republicans in Maryland than Democrats. Outside of the "Big Three" jurisdictions of Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George's County, Republicans control most county and local governments.
The rain tax was designed in no small part to force Republican dominated jurisdictions to raise taxes on their citizens.
Why? Because one of the most powerful brands that the Republican Party has is steadfast opposition to tax increases. We at Red Maryland have been talking about the necessity and power of party branding for years. Noted anti-tax activist Grover Norquist famously compared the GOP's anti-tax brand to the powerful brand of Coca-Cola. Voters who know nothing but party affiliation, a common circumstance in local elections, would be more willingly to vote for a Republican because they knew that candidate would, if nothing else, not raise their taxes. Opposing higher taxes always polls well and gains support across the political spectrum. It comports with a conservative governing philosophy of limited government, pro-growth economics and personal responsibility.
It is a brand that is time tested and voter approved.
So, while onerous and fundamentally unfair, the rain tax created an opportunity for Republican elected officials and candidates in next year's election to establish their anti-tax bona fides. Frederick County passed a one cent stormwater fee. Carroll County refused to pass any fee, drawing the ire of state officials. Harford County is contemplating repealing the small fee it passed earlier this year. Recognizing the power of anti-tax sentiment, even Democrat-dominated Howard County delayed the collection of the fee passed there. Several candidates running for state and local office have made repeal of the rain tax a high priority.
A good brand, though, can only take hold if there is consistency. Coca-Cola is one of the world's greatest brands in no small part because everyone knows what that next Coke is going to taste like and, if we like the product, we are never disappointed by the flavor. Political brands are no different. In this case, Republicans voting for higher taxes undermine the voting public's confidence that voting GOP will translate to lower taxes. As Norquist bluntly put it, "Republican elected officials who vote for tax increases are rat heads in a Coke bottle."
Unfortunately, in Anne Arundel County, a jurisdiction where Republicans dominate and anti-tax sentiment runs deep, the County Council passed one of the highest rain taxes in the state, over the veto of Republican County Executive Laura Neuman. Ms. Neuman is locked in a rough and tumble Republican primary with Del. Steve Schuh. Delegate Schuh voted for the rain tax as a member of the General Assembly but opposed the way it was implemented in Anne Arundel County, insisting the Frederick or Carroll County approaches would have worked there as well. The candidates' sparring over taxes and responsibility for the county's rain tax will be central to the outcome of the race.
The Anne Arundel County Council recently rejected an effort to repeal the county's rain tax, with two Republicans, Dick Ladd and John Grasso, voting with council Democrats. This vote is the quintessential example of the "rat head in a Coke bottle," which damages the Republican party's brand. This is especially disturbing, as Ladd ran in a contested primary emphasizing his anti-tax virtue, and Grasso, a former candidate for county executive, has openly expressed the opinion that county government is underfunded and is in need of greater revenue.
Republicans will have great opportunities in the 2014 election by taking full advantage of their anti-tax brand. The good work of Republicans throughout the state resisting the rain tax, however, is undermined by a few elected officials who are damaging the party's brand. The actions of these "rat heads in the Coke bottle" have an impact far beyond their own office or a single local jurisdiction.
Republican voters and leaders should demand better.
Red Maryland has strived to be the premier blog and radio network of conservative and Republican politics and ideas in the free state since 2007. Its posts appear regularly on baltimoresun.com.