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Editorial: Taking the long view on legislation

As Americans work through the human tragedy and political fallout of the Boston bombing, one of the ripple discussions has centered on whether the attack should slow a push for federal immigration reform that had been gaining momentum.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has been a vocal leader in the efforts to head off any forward movement on a proposal crafted by a group of four Republicans and four Democrats. The proposal, whose authors still have confidence will pass, was rolled out the same week of the bombing. Broadly, it would reform the visa system for legal immigrants, require employers to use an electronic database to hire only workers who have legal status and provide a means to citizenship for the roughly 11 million immigrants in the U.S. who do not have legal status.

Grassley made the point, though, that the bombing should dissuade any optimism for the bill. On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee member said, according to The Guardian: “The tragic events that occurred in Boston … [are] reminders that our immigration system is directly related to our sovereignty and national security matters. I’m advocating that we carefully review the immigration laws and the administration policies in place.”

Grassley may be right and his point is a fine one to debate, but there is a broader issue worth noting here. To do their job well, legislators — federally and at the state level — have to maintain some sense of perspective and distance from current events. That’s no small task given that one of the ingredients of a successful political career is an ability to respond to the emotional whims of voters, but distancing oneself is essential to create effective, meaningful laws.

The most recent example in Maryland is this year’s passage of a gasoline tax increase. The hike raises the gas tax by about 20 cents within the next five years, generating $3.2 billion for transportation projects. Prior to that, the 23.5-cent-per-gallon tax had not been raised since 1992. In fairness, the state has turned to the Transportation Trust Fund to remedy shortfalls in the general fund, but even if that hadn’t happened, Maryland would still be in need of additional dollars for long-term projects.

Take a minute to think about that. It took 21 years for the state legislature to act on an issue that has been creating headaches for commuters and severely hampering economic development efforts. To be sure, construction costs have risen in the past two decades, but the state mechanism to pay for those increases has not kept pace.

There are many reasons why the delay occurred, but one certainly has to do with events that overtook decent, well-thought-out legislative proposals. In the past few years, gas prices have surged (in early 2004, the state average was about $1.50 per gallon; the peak was in 2008 at $4.05 and the average now hovers about $3.50).

During those recent years, fiscally conservative lawmakers have argued (again, not entirely without merit) that Maryland residents could little afford a tax hike when prices were already sky-high. That delayed passage of the tax for a few more years — time that could have been used to rebuild infrastructure funds, create construction jobs and get Maryland’s infrastructure back up to par.

This, ultimately, is the challenge for smart, ethical legislators: Can they do what’s right in spite of public pressure and emotion-stirring events?