Just as there are tax and fee increases that are justified and those that are not (paying for essential services is good, using the money for no-bid contracts to political supporters is not), decisions to reduce taxes or fees should face a similar test. Will the reduction help or hurt Maryland's economy, adversely affect the state's long-term structural budget deficit or shift the burden of paying for state services to those who should not (or perhaps cannot) bear such a responsibility?

By that measure, Gov. Larry Hogan's recently-announced decision to pursue $71 million in fee reductions over the next five years deserves to face some heavy scrutiny. The first clue that something may be amiss? When a proposed reduction in the state's fishing license fee isn't even supported by the Maryland Saltwater Sport Fishing Association — as The Sun's Erin Cox and Michael Dresser recently reported — then you know somebody has jumped the shark.

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Speaking of saltwater, it doesn't take three wishes from a bottle to figure out what's going on here. Mr. Hogan was elected last year complaining about taxes and fees raised by his predecessor, and it's clearly a high priority to roll back as many as possible before re-election season, regardless of their merit. Just as Mr. Hogan and his non-profit anti-tax organization, Change Maryland, tossed out some questionable numbers (a total of 40!) about tax and fee increases under then-Gov. Martin O'Malley, Mr. Hogan would obviously like to claim as many tax and fee reductions as possible when voters return to the ballot box, whether anybody sought those cuts or not.

This is governance by campaign slogan — and the emptiest kind at that. To his credit, Mr. Hogan isn't touching the centerpiece tax increases of the O'Malley term like raising the sales tax from 5 cents on the dollar to 6 cents or his hard-won fight to raise the state's gas tax and tie it to inflation. That Maryland currently enjoys a budget surplus or can embark on an ambitious road construction program has much more to do with the revenue generated by those decisions than it does with anything Mr. Hogan has done since taking office.

Decreasing fees may sound prudent and fiscally responsible, but it isn't always. If it means spending less money on hatchery production or fish conservation programs, do sportfishermen get much out of paying a few dollars less for a license? No wonder they are skeptical. When even gun owners are collectively yawning over a proposed reduction in the handgun permit fee, you know that a certain individual's political self-interest is in the driver's seat, not the public interest. It's telling that Mr. Hogan's top legislative aide admits one of the top criteria for choosing which fees to lower was whether they were raised while Mr. O'Malley was governor.

Here's one that really deserves a double-take: Governor Hogan is looking to reduce a residential utility surcharge by a paltry 15 cents a month. How? By pilfering $10 million that is currently designated for the Strategic Energy Investment Fund that is supposed to pay for job training to help local residents (Baltimoreans in particular) embark on careers in renewable energy. Is a 15-cent rebate really more important than lowering the city's astronomical unemployment rates? That priority just doesn't make much sense in the post-Freddie Gray era, particularly given falling energy prices.

Democrats in Annapolis are already making noise about these choices, and Mr. Hogan and his supporters will no doubt suggest that opposition is solely motivated by politics. But let's not fall into this classic Washington trap. Just as raising taxes and fees is not always bad, lowering specific ones is not always good. Tax policy is more complicated than that. It's telling that when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, he gravitated toward raising fees like vehicle registration in order to avoid raising taxes more broadly.

That doesn't mean some fees can't be lowered. There may be individual cases where high fees create financial hardship, discourage economic growth or aren't competitive with what is charged in surrounding states. Lawmakers have to make such choices all the time. Conversely, sometimes lobbyists in Annapolis seek to raise fees on behalf of their clients in order to finance expanded services for them. (Truckers are often fuel tax advocates because traffic congestion costs them more than higher prices at the pump, for example.) For good or bad, fee schedules shouldn't be reduced to a political scorecard — they should rise or fall on their own merits.

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