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C. Fraser Smith: Locking out funds removes flexibility

If you’re wondering how the governor and assembly leaders got legislators to approve a really unpopular gas-tax increase, think “lockbox.”

Presidential candidate Al Gore used the term in 2000 to show his determination to avoid cutting Social Security. Gov. Martin O’Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. used it to convince senators and delegates they could survive a vote for the tax — what their constituents disliked almost as much as more taxes was the idea of ponying up at the pump while politicians were poised to skim it off for more government.

The idea of putting the money out of reach seemed to work. The governor’s bill passed with room to spare.

But is lockbox government a good way to go, a model for other difficult issues?


Need options

If religiously adhered to, it robs government of the ability to its job. You want decision-makers to have options, flexibility, room to maneuver (in a good way) — to govern. That’s what the Transportation Trust Fund has offered over the years. In good times, it built roads and bridges. In less good times, it bailed us out of recessions, great and small — and the Great Bungle: a massive public education bill that committed Maryland to $2.5 billion more in spending that was passed without a revenue source.

That lapse came at the dawn of the economic downturn. It was a two-part perfect storm — dramatically reduced ability to pay ever-increasing bills. (Sounds like what happened to many households … but I digress.)

Nevertheless, Sen. Jim Rosapepe of Prince George’s County, a thoughtful analyst of government and politics, calls the lockbox “a reasonably good idea.” Yes, jokes were made about how easily the box could be opened. It was nonetheless reasonable to show consumers that legislators were listening.

There would be, to be sure, a key to the lock. If a governor declared a fiscal emergency and if three-fifths of the General Assembly agreed, the Transportation Trust Fund could be used again as a kind of readily accessible, early-stage rainy day fund.

This element of flexibility in the Maryland system may be one of the reasons Wall Street analysts keep giving Maryland a Triple A credit rating, the highest available, Fewer than 10 states have it. Maryland has had it for decades, meaning that roads and schools and waterworks can be built for less — lower cost borrowing, that is.

So, the assembly attempted to thread the needle. Its leaders thought a quasi-sequester was needed, making the money available for the stated purposes while leaving it available in an emergency.

The real test

Great care was needed in the wording here. If the box seemed too easily opened, what do you really have? Maybe a box but no real lock.

“The test will be,” said Todd Eberly of St. Mary’s College, “if the people are comfortable and on board with the direction Maryland has taken, Democrats will continue to hold the overwhelming majorities they have, and opening the lockbox will be no problem.”

But if grabbing the money is too easy, Republicans might knock off a few Democrats in marginal districts. The absence of a real lock would then have real meaning politically. The ability to reach the supermajority — a three-fifths vote — will be more difficult if possible at all.

Voters would be adding the lock.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Daily Record Fridays. His email is [email protected]