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C. Fraser Smith: The political cost of raising taxes

Yes, of course, but political reality is a little more complicated.

Before some legislators do any voting on difficult issues, they will look into their hearts and make an assessment of the political costs.

We are talking, of course, about votes on tax increases. The Maryland General Assembly will be asked to vote on a number of revenue-raising measures this year — for schools, for roads and for various other things the state needs to keep pace with its sense of itself.

Will we be smart and offer our children the best possible education? We’ve made admirable investments with heartening dividends: We have the best public school system in the nation.

We need money to deal with highways — so there will be a plan to raise the gas tax or to add a sales tax on gasoline. The business community and the governor say it’s crucial for continued economic development and recovery from the recession. But, of course, it’s money from the not-so-deep pockets of the voters.

When the roll is called, legislators will be looking over their shoulders to see who might be gearing up to run against them in 2014.

Well they should be, but that doesn’t mean voting no. It means standing in front of the voters with explanations: This is why we have to do it; this is what you’ll get as a result; and this is what will happen if we don’t.

Taxes can be terminally toxic

Even so, the governor and the presiding officers — House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. — will have to help.

In the hallways outside the two legislative chambers Wednesday, a lot of the talk was about the difficulty of passing anything that requires a tax increase.

Messrs. Miller and Busch are calling for full engagement from the governor, suggesting that without it, the agenda’s in trouble.

“They want him to lead, except when they don’t,” said one legislator.

When they don’t is when the vote puts pressure on their members — the pressure that comes when you’re balancing what you know is right against the reality that taxes have become almost terminally toxic at the ballot box.

The fates, O’Malley said, have thrust these 188 Maryland legislators into the role of decision-makers at a time of difficult choices. They will, in effect, be defining the state. Will it be caring and compassionate? Will it be just and fair and equitable? Will it invest in the future?

To govern is to choose

With an agenda of considerable scope — ranging from tax increases to same-sex marriage — the governor’s speech came unaccented by rhetorical flourishes, as if to acknowledge the difficult choices ahead.

He is fond of saying to friends that to govern is to choose — painful sometimes. Now, in the second year of his second term, he’s asking the assembly to grasp that reality.

“We cannot kid ourselves into thinking that by failing to invest in the future we are somehow saving resources. … Failing to make decisions that are consistent with the best interests of the next generation … this, too, has a cost,” he said.

His budget, he said, “invests to create jobs”: 78,000 teaching jobs, 25,000 crime-fighting jobs and so forth.

So there will be a tangible payoff for the men and women who must make the choices O’Malley put before them.

A former legislator, in town for the speech, said the governor’s call for soul-searching runs up against the ego gratification of being a lawmaker — hearing people address you as delegate or senator or even chairman.

Despite the allure, though, some legislators reach a point where they ask themselves: What am I really doing here?

O’Malley has to hope that when that question arises, lawmakers will look into their hearts and see their responsibility.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.