Josh Kurtz: Taxman

By Josh Kurtz

The fig leaf comes off Monday.

That’s when lawmakers return to Annapolis for a special legislative session of undetermined length for the expressed purpose of raising taxes.

Which, depending on your point of view, may be just fine. Without these tax hikes, education, social programs and aid to local governments will be hit by major cutbacks. So bring on the taxes, many people will say.

But policy arguments very often become hostage to political optics. And even if you support whatever tax increases Gov. Martin O’Malley and legislative leaders prescribe, you have to admit that the timing and the circumstances aren’t all that great.

Nothing has really changed since the legislature beat a hasty retreat out of Annapolis a month ago, its work unfinished after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on ways to fund the government. A month later, even those people who were there, let alone the public at large, can’t exactly diagnose what went wrong.

But somehow, in the heat of session, the talk of taxes was obscured — in the public’s mind, at least — by other factors, like debates over gambling and gay marriage and wind turbines. Sure, lawmakers were angling to raise taxes then, but those discussions were just part of the overall din of the session, one of many moving pieces of the hard-to-analyze legislative puzzle.

There will be no mistaking what legislators are there to do next week: raise taxes in the midst of perilous economic times — and probably nothing else. A tax hike enacted in a special session, as opposed to a regular session, won’t alter the bottom line on state spending or change the political realities that each individual lawmaker will have to face back home. But senators and delegates will be operating now in plain sight, without competing storylines to hide behind.

A vote to raise taxes in a special session may be no different than a vote to raise taxes in a regular session as a practical matter. But who said anything is practical, or logical, or orderly, in politics? In addition to being more exposed on the tax issue itself, lawmakers will now have to justify the cost of the special session, and explain why they were unable to complete their duties in the normally allotted 90 days.

House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller had already lined up the requisite votes to pass tax increases in their respective chambers last month, and chances are, they will do so again heading into next week’s session. They wouldn’t be scheduling a special session if they didn’t think they had the votes to pass whatever compromise O’Malley and the Mikes agree upon.

But watch carefully: Will some moderate Democrats squirm and balk when a vote to raise taxes can’t be offset by some legislative goody that’s usually delivered in a regular session? Are leaders assuming that the same coalition that was expected to support tax increases a month ago will hold? How much whipping can be taking place this week when no one knows what the final deal will be?

We don’t really expect gambling to be a serious part of the conversation during the special session next week. But look for advocates of expanded gaming to make some noise in Annapolis and in the media. And however pre-ordained things usually seem in the State House, a special session is its own breed of cat, and anything can happen.

Who pays politically if voter ire is higher than usual in the wake of the tax increases? With the next state election two years away, and voters’ memories short, it may be that there are no serious consequences for anyone.

But if you’re a Democratic legislator from a conservative district with some ties to leadership, like Jim Mathias, or John Bohanan, or Norm Conway, you’ve got to be nervous. One thing John Delaney’s Democratic primary victory over Rob Garagiola last month suggests — along with the high-profile Democratic dissidents who flocked to his side — is that dissent is a saleable position nowadays, and that there isn’t necessarily any political safety for those who go along to get along.

Without the burden of having to run for re-election, O’Malley probably doesn’t have too much to sweat when it comes to political fallout. He’s already banking on the “unafraid to raise taxes to pay for vital services” narrative in 2016.

But will any voter anger be transferred at all to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown when he’s running for governor in 2014? State Comptroller Peter Franchot, a potential rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, is sure to be chanting his anti-tax hike mantra a little louder than usual in the days ahead.

Miller, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other advocates of expanded gambling have to be on tenterhooks heading into this special session. There probably won’t be much tangible progress on that front next week — in fact, O’Malley is openly contemplating appointing a commission to consider the gaming issue, a move that would probably forestall any serious legislative action until this summer at the earliest.

(Did anyone catch Prince George’s Del. Melony Griffith’s opinion piece on health care in Sunday’s Washington Post? An ally of Baker’s, she’s proving to be one of the most effective critics of expanded gambling in Annapolis — and in Prince George’s. Is it possible that come 2014, when Baker is running for re-election, his toughest opposition won’t come from ministers, or the last vestiges of the Jack Johnson machine, but from a friend like Griffith?)

And what will the stance of Republicans, irrelevant in this process for all practical purposes, but still equipped with a potentially effective bullhorn, be during the special session? Do they show up and fight the good, if futile, fight on the House and Senate floor? Do they stand outside the State House on Lawyer’s Mall, reminding people how much the special session is costing and refusing their per diem? Or do they stay as far from Annapolis as possible?

Proponents of the tax increases, inside the State House and around the state, will express relief when the deed is done next week and will no doubt suggest that order has been restored. But nothing is so simple where the politics of taxes are concerned, and chances are that the special session won’t be so special for a huge swath of policymakers when all is said and done.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Generally Speaking (Part 2)

Generally Speaking (Part 1)

Charm Offensive

Bad Karma in Annapolis II — Limbo Edition

Heather Mizeur, Superstar

Striking Back at the Empire

Bad Karma in Annapolis

More Than a Protest Vote

Doug Duncan’s Next Act