No major tax rollbacks?

Is Mike Miller telling it like it is or drawing a line in the sand on taxes?

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told some reporters this week what most State House observers have long suspected — we should not expect some sweeping reduction in taxes during the upcoming legislative session. He also produced a spirited defense of the tax increases approved during Gov. Martin O'Malley's time in office and predicted that the so-called "rain tax" may be altered but is unlikely to be repealed.

There are any number of reasons why Mr. Miller is to be taken seriously on these matters, the first being that he is the longest serving Senate president in state history, and the canny Prince George's County politician, who turned 72 today, didn't get that title by accident. But an even more compelling reason is one of simple math — while Republicans made modest gains in legislative races, Democrats still have a firm grip on both the Senate and the House of Delegates, and that gives Mr. Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch a considerable say in setting the agenda when the General Assembly reconvenes on Jan. 14.

Even so, it's a bit impolitic to declare a major tax cut dead on arrival when the chief proponent of such an effort hasn't even arrived in Annapolis let alone decided exactly what kind of tax cut he has in mind. To suggest Larry Hogan made cutting state spending and taxes the centerpiece of his campaign for governor is to understate his position. It was the centerpiece, the tablecloth, the place settings, the candles and the gravy boat. The rest of his platform was, well, there really wasn't anything.

It is entirely possible that Mr. Hogan may yet reduce spending substantially, perhaps more than is needed to address a potential $900 million shortfall over the remainder of the current fiscal year and the next. After all, he has enlisted the assistance of former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall who, as a state lawmaker, trimmed his share of state budgets for Democrats and Republicans alike. And the state constitution gives governors wide latitude to make such reductions; legislators can only further cut a proposed state budget, not augment it.

Still, it's fair to harbor doubts. Heck, even Mr. Hogan has said not to expect major tax cuts this year. There is the deficit to address (caused in no small measure by the reduction in federal spending that cost Maryland $1.2 billion last year, according to a recent nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts report), and the governor-elect has acknowledged that much of the $1.5 billion in waste, fraud and abuse his campaign supposedly documented was listed in error. Moreover, as we've noted in this space before, lawmakers are likely to balk at fully repealing the stormwater remediation fee since some local governments have no other means to finance federally-mandated anti-pollution projects (aside from raising property taxes, which is an option that would be just as unpopular as any "rain tax").

Rolling back the major tax increases of the O'Malley years, whether it's the penny on the sales tax or the more recent increase in the gas tax — particularly after Democrats have already paid the political price for raising them in the first place — is going to be a challenge for Mr. Hogan. Indeed, Mr. Miller's defense of those decisions was compelling, if a bit tardy given Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown's electoral fate. They made it possible to maintain a lot of government services from public education and school construction to street repair and basic health care for the poor that might have been badly hurt if Mr. O'Malley and the legislature had not been willing to raise taxes and fees.

That Mr. Miller stated this reality in a manner that might be seen as gruff, partisan or uninterested in any political honeymoon with the incoming Republican governor would be to badly misread the State House dynamics. Mr. Miller has known Mr. Hogan, a fellow Prince George's Countian, for the governor-elect's entire life and speaks glowingly of his personality, if not always his politics. The Senate leader naturally gravitates toward a pro-business, politically moderate view. It is the House and its more progressive leadership that will be Mr. Hogan's tougher obstacle — he must negotiate with them while simultaneously appeasing the far-right of his own party.

Mr. Miller has sometimes been likened to a bull in a china shop, but on this occasion, he's just being candid. And here's our prediction: Mr. Hogan won't make a big fuss about it either. He knows a potential ally when he sees one.

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