Gary's television ad is politics at its worst


POLITICAL ADS could not meet the truth in advertising standards imposed on the selling of commercial products.

Most political advertisements, particularly those broadcast on television, qualify as well-crafted propaganda that is intended to deceive rather than enlighten.

The television commercial for Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary that premiered last week easily falls in this category.

His crudely crafted ad attacking Democratic opponent Janet S. Owens states that she and unidentified "liberal special interest" groups want to remove the county's property tax cap and increase local income taxes.

Aside from its unnecessarily hysterical tone, the ad employs guilt by association to tar Ms. Owens.

Ms. Owens has yet to advocate the dismantling of the property tax cap in any of her campaign appearances or literature.

Although the commercial doesn't name the group that is supposedly in favor of raising taxes, we can assume the cryptic reference is to the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

While it is true that the teachers' union opposed the property tax cap when it was added to the county charter in 1992, the organization has not taken a position on whether to repeal it.

Demonizing the opponent

What is the real purpose of such deliberately crafted deception?

In this tax-adverse environment, Mr. Gary and his campaign staff want to demonize Ms. Owens as a politician intent on raising taxes.

Conventional political wisdom is that if a candidate can be shown to be favorably disposed to raising taxes, he or she will be defeated. After all, the roster of retired politicians who dared to be frank on this politically volatile issue is long.

Unfortunately, the electorate needs politicians who confront the nation's fiscal issues in a forthright fashion.

Not only does Mr. Gary's cheesy commercial look as if it was produced by a bunch of amateurs who just finished a used-car commercial for late-night cable, it poisons the well for all future elected officials -- including Mr. Gary himself.

The commercial equates raising taxes within endangering civic life as we know it. Why else would the ad end with the phrase "or risk it all with Janet Owens."

Risk what?

Risk what -- the possibility of having a rational discussion of how to balance residents' demands for local government services and their willingness to pay for them?

In the next four years, Anne Arundel County will reach a fiscal crossroads. Officials will have some very tough choices if the government is to continue its current level of public services.

Chances of a recession are greater than they have been. Even if the economy continues to perform well, the county budget cannot remain stagnant. The population is growing, the infrastructure is aging and demand for services is increasing.

Mr. Gary knows this all too well. Why would he risk painting himself in a corner later on the tax issue? Broadcasting this ad will make any rational discussion of the county's tax situation unnecessarily difficult.

'Read my lips'

He runs the risk of doing to himself what President George Bush did in 1988. Mr. Bush probably regrets ever saying, "Read my lips, no new taxes."

As politically unpalatable as raising taxes may be, there are times when modest increases are necessary, particularly if the citizenry wants to maintain a certain level and quality of public service.

Mr. Gary's television commercial only feeds the notion that public services are free.

With a barely perceptible rate of inflation, real property tax collections will remain stagnant.

That means if the county wants to reduce the backlog of school repairs, hire more police officers, repave roads or give county employees a modest pay raise, it will have to generate more revenue than the current rate of taxation provides.

With the cap on property taxes, the only other method available is raising the rate of the county's portion of the state income tax from its current level of 50 percent to 60 percent.

Gary's implication

By alleging that Ms. Owens will raise the so-called "piggyback" tax rate, Mr. Gary is implying that he won't.

You don't need a sophisticated econometric model to predict that sometime in the next four years, the county executive -- whether it be Ms. Owens or Mr. Gary -- will submit a budget that calls for raising the county income tax rate.

If the executive doesn't, there will be fewer cops on the street, more potholes, more kids in crowded classrooms and a growing list of schools in need of repair.

An election is a perfect time for a thoughtful debate on the county's level of service and taxation.

Unfortunately that discussion won't happen as long as Mr. Gary continues to air these deplorable ads.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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