Maryland's unhappy residents [Editorial]

"If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." That little nugget of truth, also known as the "law of the instrument," can be applied to more than just tool selection. When it comes to some closely-held beliefs, people tend to see circumstances as frequently proving them correct — even when they do nothing of the kind.

At least that might explain why a recently-released Gallup poll finding that 47 percent of Maryland residents would choose to move if they could — the third highest percentage among the states — is being cited by many as evidence of failed tax policy. What the state's anti-tax crowd may lack of political muscle, they certainly make up in fidelity to their point of view.


And it isn't just Republicans or conservatives offering the usual anti-tax screed to explain every signal of dissatisfaction. That was Attorney General Douglas Gansler who mentioned the Gallup poll and attributed the results to high taxes in the televised debate among Democratic candidates for governor last week in College Park.

But here's what the poll actually found. When Gallup asked people if they'd leave if they could, between one-quarter and one-half of residents in every state said yes, for an average of about one-third taking that point of view. Beating out Maryland for the states with the greatest wanderlust were Illinois and Connecticut at 50 and 49 percent, respectively.


So why were Marylanders more willing to leave? Fortunately, the pollster actually explored that topic with those who said they planned to move. By far, the leading reasons were that they would move for work or to be with family or friends. The third leading reason was because of weather or location. All other explanations ran well behind, with taxes (8 percent), quality of life or cost of living (7 percent each) and schools (6 percent) rounding out the pack.

We would grant you this: The dissatisfaction with taxes was higher in Maryland than the 50-state average by 5 percentage points. But if the poll suggests Maryland has a problem with unhappy residents, we would also point out that the same survey found those anxious to leave had less dissatisfaction with schools, a sign that perhaps those tax dollars are generating some positive reaction as well when they're spent on public education.

In no state were taxes the top reason why people move. They just weren't. Hawaii, a high-tax state, was at the top of the poll results with the lowest percentage of people wanting to leave (for obvious reasons, one assumes). Mississippi, a low tax state, was in the top-10 of states where people are anxious to leave.

Still, this probably isn't an especially good barometer with which to judge Maryland or its tax policies. Given that this particular poll was conducted between June and December of last year and the two-week government shutdown last October was in the middle of it, a certain amount of unhappiness might be expected. Surely, no region of the country was hurt worse by this exercise in political foolhardiness — or left with more doubts about the future.

Indeed, a certain amount of disaffection is practically built into Maryland, particularly the Washington suburbs where the presence of the federal government brings job-seekers, politicos and other temporary residents who come and go with the latest election returns but often pine to be elsewhere — or at least don't set down roots here. And the state's aging workforce — the number of Maryland residents age 65 or over is expected to grow from 599,307 in 2000 to 837,124 next year — is likely a factor, too, as more people naturally look to warmer climes to retire.

We can't change the weather. We can't force Congress to budget rationally (as much as we'd really, really like to). And we can't make anyone refuse a job transfer or decide not to retire in Florida. But what we can do is try to meet the needs of a majority of the people who live here, raising taxes when necessary to provide vital services like schools and public infrastructure, and cutting them to stimulate economic growth when that's a sensible strategy, too.

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