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Hard lessons for the techies

The Baltimore Sun

Geeks of the world, arise!

You have nothing to lose but your isolation - your illusion that government has no relevance for you. Your immunity to politics is over. You might even have to make campaign contributions.

Now, you really understand that epic American warning: "You snooze, you lose - unless you have a lobbyist."

With virtually no representation in Annapolis (and, probably, no idea who represents you in the House of Delegates or state Senate), your industry was hit last fall with a new service tax totaling an estimated $200 million. If nothing is done to change things, that much revenue will be collected from you every year.

There had been talk of a tax on services during last year's special session, but you thought it was all about tanning salons and mufflers and health clubs. The General Assembly turned to you virtually in the dead of night for the same reason Willie Sutton chose to rob banks: In the new service economy, your world is where the money is. Not to mention, you were essentially undefended.

Sure, the meter would have been running for a lobbyist sitting through hearings that might or might not have mattered. But he or she almost surely would have saved you a bundle. Several other groups were targeted but fended off the blows.

Now you're picking up the pieces. You and your representatives worry about reduced profit margins, a nettle of complicated tax law and regulations and the loss of talent to states that don't tax your services. You and your representatives might have been able to do a public service, explaining to the lawmakers that the world has changed, that you weren't crying wolf as so many of your corporate fellows have done over the years.

You needed the gunslingers, the experienced students of the game who know how to kill or pass a bill the way you know ... whatever it is you know.

In the last few weeks, you've discovered that you have much to learn, and to teach:

You may want to tune in to the legislative process when your bottom line is at stake.

Not everyone sees how much the global village shapes and reshapes your world: how easily computer operations can move to another state or another country, and how much less it might cost to do some computer business in India, for example. Other businesses threaten to leave Maryland when taxes are threatened, but you might actually do it.

The General Assembly can act with dazzling speed when it needs to find $200 million to avoid hitting the voters with that amount of taxes.

Lobbyists and coalitions and associations are good things, aspects of the democratic process available to you. You are a special interest!

In fact, as it turns out, you're quick studies. You've formed an association. You've rounded up a passel of other business groups to support you.

In recent weeks, Gov. Martin O'Malley has indicated he thinks the bill was a mistake and the law should be repealed - if the Assembly can identify another source of $200 million for the treasury. (Are you listening, alcoholic beverage industry?)

And you have hired one of the most successful lobbyists in Annapolis, D. Robert Enten, to handle your case. In addition, you have secured the services of Steve Kearney, a former top aide to Governor O'Malley who will help you package your plea for repeal.

You say you're willing to pay your fair share, but that 6 percent on a service heretofore untaxed is too much.

Apparently there are many who buy your argument. One of several bills pending in the Assembly has at least 72 co-sponsors in the House, where only 71 are needed for passage.

These days, nearly every voter has at least one computer. These voters probably think you're going to pass along the tax on your services. This makes them your allies.

Legislators see the synergy. It's called grass-roots support.

Don't you love the democratic process?

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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