The Good News and the Bad
Budget surpluses are good things. Heck, they're great things. It's always nice to get a little bump in our paychecks. It's quite a satisfying feeling to finally get those credit cards cleared out, at which point we vow to never run them up again, at least until that new portable DVD player enticingly coos our name from the Best Buy shelves.
Retiring our debts and spending less money than we take in is good for our financial solvency, but ultimately it's about control - when we don't owe anybody any money, we can pretty much do what we want with our lives.
It is in that spirit that I must extend props to our state government for turning in a $1 billion surplus over the past year. Maryland is one of the few states in the Union that's not staring at a massive financial crisis, debating over whom to squeeze, where to cut. We've got money, and as a result, we're in control.
And yes, Gov. Robert Ehrlich deserves his share of credit for getting us into the black. He's certainly not the only one - the General Assembly has an enormous amount of input into our budgets and our expenditures - but Governor Ehrlich has proven to be the rare Republican who's displayed some evidence of fiscal responsibility.
Compared to his party mates in the White House and on Capitol Hill, where runaway deficits are king and fiscal profligacy seems to be a moral imperative, our governor has been downright disciplined. If not for his regressive neanderthalism on education and most social and civil rights issues he'd actually make a pretty solid Democrat.
Objectively speaking, Governor Ehrlich has been a fine steward of public money. But there's a little problem here, and it's the kind of recurring problem with disingenuousness that's dogged Mr. Ehrlich throughout his tenure as governor.
The governor's office claims to have generated this surplus "without raising taxes" and is prepared to spin the surplus this way as part of his re-election campaign.
This claim, of course, is patently false. Under this administration we've been introduced to the flush tax, new property taxes, a massive hike in car registration fees, and significant tuition increases for University of Maryland students. Governor Ehrlich's Republican supporters remained strangely silent throughout this flurry of new levies.
Now imagine if a Democrat had done these things - the same people singing Governor Ehrlich's praises today would instead be upbraiding him for burdening the state's citizens in this manner.
I don't fault the governor for doing what he did. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with raising certain taxes if that's what it takes to get the state on solid financial footing. But I would have, at least, gone easier on the college students, who, after all, are our future and don't deserve to enter their working lives saddled with mountains of debt.
What's bothersome is the coy attempts by the Republicans in the State House to call these tax increases something they're not, just to score cheap political points. As the expression goes, "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining."
Bob Ehrlich balanced our budget like any good Democrat would have, though a Democrat would have raised the taxes in a far less regressive manner. But that's okay; we've now got a healthy surplus, and now the debate shifts from "What services must we cut?" to "What's the best use of this extra money?"
Some might say tax cuts are in order. That's fine as long as we don't follow the Bush path of tax-cutting ourselves right back into deep, intractable deficits. We can shore up education and infrastructure. We can clean up the Chesapeake. We've got lots of possibilities; let's just not throw the money at Wal-Mart, please.
And there's another element to the debate now.
Do we "need" slot machines anymore?
Remember that slots were sold to the Maryland public as an easy, if somewhat unsavory, way out of the state's financial woes. But with the financial situation taken care of, the pragmatic rationale for slots has faded away, leaving us able to evaluate slots on strictly their intrinsic worth and merits. And as has been well documented, slots only serve a few narrow, special interests, and open up a dependency upon a questionable industry.
The good news is that we don't need to go there anymore. I give Governor Ehrlich and the General Assembly a lot of credit for proving that slots aren't necessary to get the state's budget in order.
Let's hope next year's legislative session takes that into account, and spends its time looking for productive uses of this surplus, rather than catering to the slots lobby.
After all, we're in control now.