Gov. Martin O'Malley descended the elegant marble staircase of Maryland's State House last week to repeat his administration's insistence that 83 percent of taxpayers will pay no more under his wide-raging tax reform plan than they do now.
No one, he said during his eight-minute speech to the General Assembly, then convening in special session, had laid a glove on his claim. No one, in other words, had shown that his numbers were wrong, a snare and delusion to rally support.
Of course, the governor and the legislators he addressed knew it would be a tough sell whatever the numbers show.
Outside the building, a few unbelievers paraded with signs, demanding: Hands off my wallet. At this moment, the governor and a handful of citizens were set off against each other in an instructive tableau. Those citizens who assembled outside the State House last Monday were inclined to define taxes as theft.
They were not interested, one assumes, in attempting to answer this question, asked of me recently by another interested citizen: Whatever happened to the idea that paying taxes is a privilege, a part of the social compact, a process by which massive community needs can be met by the pooling of community resources?
A privilege? Yes, of course. This is not to say that government ought not to be run efficiently and prudently. Legislatures ought not to pass massive spending bills, even on public education, without identifying a way to pay for them. Having failed to find such a source years ago - and compounding the failure with a costly tax cut that taxpayers hardly noticed - is the reason the Assembly is now meeting in special session. Inside the State House, the governor urged Marylanders to realize that government cannot continue to address the state's needs unless it retires the $1.7 billion, built-in, year-after-year deficit. Taxes must go up.
Mr. O'Malley hung his hat on the 83 percent number and on a plan he says will retire the deficit equitably and leave a reformed tax system capable of supporting the state's needs.
His proposals are on the table now in the state capital, where legislators of both parties must decide whether to accept his assertions about fairness and the nearly break-even plan - and help him sell it.
One member of the Assembly groused last week that the only consensus among the assembled legislators is that they ought not to be in Annapolis at all. A special session was unnecessary, he insisted. This is the kind of querulous assertion that lower-level legislators love to make - and can, because they do not have leadership responsibility.
The consensus ought to be precisely the opposite. A special session to deal with a pressing problem is exactly why the Assembly must be in Annapolis until it finds a solution. No one, probably including the governor, expects the session's work product to match his proposals in every particular. Some may be adopted. Some may be rejected. All will be tweaked and amended.
Critics say the governor ought not to have convened a special session until he had the votes to ensure passage. But that charge ignores the complexity of the issue at hand. The votes are there for some proposals and not for others. The dynamic will be this: Some legislators will have to vote for things they don't like much to avoid losing what they do want - and know their constituents want.
Having the votes lined up, moreover, cannot be an advertisement of good government. It suggests a plan hammered together in back rooms by powerful, essentially undemocratic processes and then forced on legislators without a chance for debate and discussion.
That approach would amount to an unseen hand on the system itself - let alone the taxpayer's wallet.
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.