No taxes vs. more taxes - the debate continues

My last post on the impending tax increases in Maryland, "How Much Is Enough?", generated a strong response from a reader on another blog as follows:

"Come on, Mr. Miller. Ehrlich created a billion dollar structural deficit, which we will feel in next year's budget. Under his aegis, college tuition increased more than forty percent and from driver's licenses to water there were a plethora of fee increases.

"The difference between Ehrlich and O'Malley is that Ehrlich raised taxes disproportionately on working families.

"As for taxes, you get what you pay for. Have you been visiting our public school buildings lately? They are in a horrible state: from leaking roofs to wear and tear of forty years. That demonstrates that we have not been investing enough to properly maintain our capital assets.

"You might be aware that building damage grows exponentially. Failure of timely repairs are fiscally irresponsible.

"I don't blame the Ehrlich administration for this but the unreflective anti-tax propaganda that prevents us from properly maintaining the tax payer's capitol investments.

"I do agree that we need to hold our local and state governments more accountable. When our schools are leaking water and the walls are crumbling then we are not making the necessary investments.

"Of course, it is easy to campaign on something for nothing. Unfortunately, that is not a rational approach to public policy but demagoguery."

Why do those of us who don't believe in being forced to throw good money after bad get labeled as demagogues? I think it's common sense and an entirely appropriate position for a citizen to take in response to an inefficient and ineffective government. Here is my response:

Thanks for offering your perspective. Let me respond to your comments as best I can:

- Most objective budget analysts say the structural deficit is the result of an antiquated tax structure and spending mandates without any designated revenue streams to support them. The Thornton Act falls into the latter category. As for the antiquated tax structure, there doesn't appear to be any effort in progress to evaluate what kind of tax structure is appropriate for a state such as ours where the knowledge economy is predominant. I would like to see some attention to tax policy as a whole rather than this scattershot approach to raising taxes and grabbing revenue wherever they can be found.

- Governor Ehrlich was faced with a $400 million budget deficit and the requirement by law to balance the budget. He reduced the budget of the state university system, and the regents in turn, not Governor Ehrlich, raised tuition to cover the shortfall rather than look for efficiencies in their own operations. In later years, however, when the economy permitted him to restore funding to 2003 levels, the regents still raised tuition. In fact, the regents have raised tuition regardless of the government's funding stream every year since 1995. For example, from 1995-2002, state aid to the University of Maryland at College Park increased 54%, but system-wide tuition increased 53.5% while inflation was 22%. It appears that they felt the need to match each government funding increase with a corresponding and equivalent tuition increase. The fact is that the regents are going to attempt to raise tuition regardless of who is in office. Now Governor O'Malley is demanding that the state university system cut its budget but is forbidding them to raise their tuition in order to make up for the loss in revenue. Ironically, when tuition caps were brought up during Ehrlich's administration, he was attacked for even proposing such an idea. "The idea of a tuition cap is a fundamentally bad idea," Maryland University System Chancellor Brit Kirwan said. Is it still a bad idea under Governor O'Malley or is there another agenda at play here?

As a taxpayer, I applaud the Governor for forcing the state university system to examine its expenses and make reductions wherever possible. As a father with a daughter at the University of Maryland at College Park, I have mixed feelings. I'd love to see tuition rates stay stable or even drop because my wallet is feeling it, but as a citizen I recognize that if I'm using the service, I should be paying for it. Paying for something I use is consent; paying into a general fund where I have no visibility and the spenders have no accountability to me for how they spend it is force.

- I have never advocated something for nothing -- if I've done nothing else in offering my opinions, I hope I've demonstrated that demagoguery and knee-jerk conservatism is not my style. In fact, I'm critical of conservatives who demand limited government and lower taxes but offer nothing in return to address very real problems such as health care and education, two of the "kitchen table" issues upon which I campaigned last year. My advice to conservatives is:

1) Don't just say no - offer a better idea. People believe in collective action to solve problems - if not government, then propose a workable alternative.

2) Pursue excellence in government, even limited government. Demand openness, accountability and results.

3) Serve your community with your time, talent and treasure. Be personally invested in the plight of others.

4) Tackle the "kitchen table" issues that affect families in the real world. Get off of Wall Street and onto Main Street.

I admire thinking and deliberation in the formulation of policy, and that is in short supply in the "no taxes vs. more taxes" discussion. I come from the philosophical mold of Thomas Jefferson, who opposed giving too much power to government because of the threat it poses to individual liberty. He said, "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." On taxes, he also said, "To take from one, because it is thought his own industry... has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who... have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it." That is the philosophical foundation from which I begin the discussion on the appropriate role of government and by extension how much we should pay for it.

I believe in limited government not because government is inherently bad but because it is burdened and broken by the weight of too many expectations. Government should be entrusted with preserving order and doing justice, and otherwise should encourage and foster the power of the people, individually and collectively, to change the world for the better. Let government do what it does best, and let the people do the rest.

To that end, my contention is that there are solutions to the problems that face us other than raising taxes, but they haven't been tried, at least not in this state. I highly recommend the book, "Governing by Network" by Stephen Goldsmith and William D. Eggers. It describes how government should work in the 21st century and it's a practical how-to guide that addresses the challenges and opportunities of government's transformation from centralized control over public programs to facilitating services through networks of nongovernmental entities. It also offers several case studies for review, so it's a practical guide to transformed government. I even have a Powerpoint presentation on the topic that I'd be happy to send you if you want a preview before purchasing the book. Heck, I'll even buy it for you, I'm that passionate about the ideas it promotes. Just say the word!

I agree that the condition of our schools in some parts of the state is criminal, yet no one is being held accountable. A third of the state money spent on education goes to the city of Baltimore and Prince George's County, but we've seen little change or progress - after decades of increased revenues, they are still the worst and second worst school systems in Maryland. That should be unacceptable to us. Why is my opposition to giving a government with this track record another dime until they innovate, execute and deliver results "unreflective" or irrational?

We are shareholders in this government, and we ought to be outraged at what little is being delivered to us for the increasing tax revenues that have been taken from us. At some point, the money will run out, either because they can't tax us beyond our ability to survive or people will move elsewhere. How can we declare our fealty to working families while hitting their pocketbooks with gasoline taxes at a time of record-high gas prices and sales taxes which liberals have traditionally decried as regressive and harmful to lower income people? That's not "anti-tax propaganda," that's real life. I don't have enough faith that this significant increase in taxes is going to lead us to an equally significant improvement in our quality of life. If that makes me a demagogue, so be it.

The bottom line is that I'm not saying "no new taxes" in isolation. I'm saying don't throw good money after bad. Figure out why we're not getting the results we should be getting and fix the problems. That's not only not too much to ask - it's my right and obligation as a citizen to demand it. I'm paying for this government and I want my money's worth.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond.