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O'Malley on march in search of gold

The Baltimore Sun

With two episodes down, the suspense is mounting: Where oh where is that $1.7 billion going to be found?

Gov. Martin O'Malley has turned the looming state budget deficit into quite the reality show. It's part Amazing Race, with the governor, pie charts in tow, traveling the state and uncovering clues to that elusive pot o'money that will balance the budget, and part Deal or No Deal, as he tries to sell a plan laden with trade-offs to citizens, businesses and legislators alike.

I haven't seen any pretty models bearing briefcases full of bucks yet, so it's still something of a mystery where all the new revenue is going to come from to balance the budget. Can there really be that many tan-orexic, massage-addicted, gym-rat smokers who make more than $700,000, rent rather than own their homes and plan to buy a new car next year?

Those would be among the losers of a plan that O'Malley said will generally benefit Marylanders, all of whom would see their property tax rates go down and most of whom would also have their income tax rate similarly drop. The catch would be that the sales tax would increase - from 5 percent to 6 percent - and apply to additional businesses: tanning salons, massage parlors, property management services and, rather gallantly for the gym-going O'Malley, health clubs.

But not, he quickly pointed out, hair salons or oil changes.

That, at least was what could be discerned yesterday, as O'Malley continued the serial unveiling of his deficit-bridging plan in bite-sized, piecemeal fashion. He's opted not to unload the entire, mind-numbing, eye-glazing package in a State House boardroom, but, at least for the first two days of the roll-out, in so-called "kitchen table" discussions.

As with his first one on Wednesday in the Anneslie neighborhood just north of the Baltimore City line, yesterday's kitchen table beckoned from a suburban enclave, Ellicott City in Howard County. By going to neither a slum nor a million-plus-dollar condominium, O'Malley drove home one of the points of his plan - that it would spread out the pain and not unduly burden middle-class homeowners.

Steve and Penny Broughn, 60- something retirees, opened the doors of their green-shuttered house to O'Malley, presenting a tableau of what passes in our minds if not in reality of the prototypical American family. Their adult son and his 8-year-old daughter and several friends joined in ushering the governor inside. Just another day in Ellicott City, apparently.

It was some pretty savvy stagecraft - the governor, his sleeves rolled up, sounded entirely reasonable as he explained his plan; his audience looked appropriately concerned, their brows furrowing as they listened and nodded along. It was a political ad come to life and could serve as a case study of the so-called "permanent campaign" as waged by no less a practitioner than Bill Clinton.

And this is a campaign - raising taxes (even as you lower some of them) takes as much of a sales pitch as any candidate. How else do you muster political support for so bitter a pill as most Americans view taxes?

The casting was a political operative's dream. Here, in the richest county in the richest state, was a family that surely would welcome property and income tax relief but accept the increased sales tax as part of the deal.

"I go to the gym. We buy a lot," Penny Broughn said. "I don't have a problem with the sales tax. You can't have all these wonderful things we have without paying for them."

It's hard, if not impossible, to sort out the net effect of the increases and decreases in O'Malley's plan. His pie charts say almost 84 percent of Marylanders will pay less once you balance the income and property tax reductions against the sales tax increases.

But, as they say, your actual mileage may vary. You still have to account for the multiplicity of variables - from whether you smoke (cigarette taxes would go up), if you buy a new car (titling fees increase), work for a company that "adjusts" your salary to accommodate its taxes (corporate taxes would rise) or move into a higher income bracket (and get taxed more heavily). Will you splurge and spend whatever the money you saved on property and income taxes on a weekly massage that, with the extra sales tax, will wipe out any savings?

I couldn't even begin to figure out my own balance sheet. But perhaps that was because I got distracted by that shoe ad that ran on the same page of The Sun yesterday as the continuation of the story on O'Malley's plan. Hmmmm, what is the benefit of buying those silver platform peep-toe pumps for $59.99 now, when the sales tax is still 5 percent, versus in the future with a possible 6 percent sales tax?

Never mind. I see for the next episode of So You Think You Can Balance the Budget, a news conference this morning at a dance club in Baltimore, the governor's people are recommending that the media wear flat shoes, preferably sneakers.


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