Lost Opportunity for the Tea Party and Progressives to Unite

Marc Kilmer May 16, 2012

So it looks like legislators are going to raise taxes and shift teacher pension costs onto counties in an expedited manner this special session. Both liberals and conservatives came to Annapolis to protest. These people on opposite ends of the political spectrum were sending messages that conflicted to legislators, but with a little work they could have been united. This special session really shouldn’t have been a conflict between liberals and conservatives; it should have been a conflict between the people and the political class.

Maryland Reporter has an interesting video on the dueling protests that greeted legislators on their first day of the special session. In general, those opposing the special session have it right: the state passed a balanced budget during the regular legislative session, but that balanced budget didn’t increase spending enough for the governor and legislators’ tastes. And in order to leverage more spending, legislators made cuts to programs that were important to people (education and first responders) knowing full well that cuts to these programs would increase public pressure to increase taxes.

Those supporting the special session fell right into this trap. Government employees predictably said that unless taxes were raised (and pension costs shifted to counties), they would see cuts to the programs that benefit them and their students. Instead of training their ire on the legislators who cut these programs instead of other, less defensible, state programs, they instead supported the very legislators who put their educational programs on the chopping block.

What’s disappointing is that the liberal groups who wanted more funding for education and the Tea Party groups that didn’t want increases in taxes didn’t join forces and call “shenanigans” on the special session. Frankly, there was a lot of common ground that these two sides could have found had they tried to work together.

First off, simply looking at the state’s spending would have shown there was no need to raise taxes in order to restore funding for education and public safety. As I pointed out in my piece on myths and facts about the doomsday budget, of the $250 million that would be raised from a tax hike, only $84 million would come from education and social service programs. The other $166 million was funding for corporate welfare and legislator scholarships and things that benefit state government employees. I doubt anyone except AFSCME would have been protesting if these $166 million in cuts were all that were on the table.

So, worst case scenario, there’s the need to find $84 million to pay for education. As I pointed out on this blog, that money could have easily been found in other areas of the budget. Cutting things like the Maryland Technology Development Corporation and subsidies to horse racing could have provided that money. I’m sure both Tea Partiers and progressives could have agreed on funding education over horse racing.

The other $262 million in education and public safety cuts would have occurred had the state not pushed funding a portion of teacher pensions onto counties. Finding this money is a little more tricky, but the governor budgeted $258 million for the state to buy and operate slot machines in its new casinos. Get rid of this perk for casino owners and you have your education funding restored.

Too often policy arguments turn into a version of team sports, where conservatives oppose something simply because liberals support it, and vice versa. On this issue, like so many others, that didn’t need to be the case. Conservatives and liberals could have found common ground and a common enemy – the entrenched political class in Annapolis. Could liberals and conservatives have worked together to fix this problem? Maybe, if both sides would have looked for real solutions and kept an open mind about both the state budget and the other side.

The person in the video opposing the special session claimed that the state could have gotten the extra $500 million by cutting the money allocated in the budget for illegal aliens. Since there is no money allocated in the budget for illegal aliens, that’s not possible, and engaging in this type of rhetoric is sure to turn off the liberals who have legitimate concerns about the education cuts that legislators have opposed.

For the liberals who were protesting, they needed to take an actual look at what was being cut and what the “doomsday budget” actually funded. They needed to blame legislators who cut certain education programs and county aid while funding slot machines and horse racing subsidies. They also needed to realize that in their support of the special session, they were advocating for things like the biotechnology tax credit and ensuring state workers pay less for their health insurance than do private sector workers. Are those issues really something Maryland liberals care about?

By the end of the special session, liberal Marylanders will get what they want. But there was no need to raise taxes to restore the funding that legislators cut in the “doomsday budget.” This was a perfect opportunity for liberals and conservatives in the state to unite to combat the political arrogance in Annapolis and the usual dirty tricks that are played in the budget. Maybe when legislators pull the same thing next year we’ll see if liberals and conservatives can unite to send a message that things in Annapolis need to change.