Clayton Mitchell: The Taxing Republicans Strike Again

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By Clayton A. Mitchell, Sr.

A good friend told me last October, “If you vote for the Democrat candidates for County Commissioner, your taxes will go up”. He was right. I voted for Democrats and now Queen Anne’s County property tax and income tax rates will increase this year. Unfortunately for my friend, it was an all Republican county commission that raised our taxes.

On Election Day last November, the five rookie Republican county commissioners enthusiastically rode to the beaches of victory on the Tea Party tidal wave. During the recent national post-bailout zeitgeist, “Smaller government and lower taxes” was the Republican mantra. This message was highly successful in Queen Anne’s County. All Democrat candidates for local office (save one – the incumbent Register of Wills) were soundly defeated. The local Democratic Party was “shellacked” by their alleged conservative opponents. However, when these five honorable gentlemen were vested with actual power, they soon discovered that the avocation of campaigning was much easier than the business of governing.

I have no doubt that each Commissioner had honest intentions and genuine initial fiscal objectives. After all, they won a landslide victory and obtained a mandate for their proposed austere financial agenda. Upon taking office, the County Commissioners immediately appointed a task force to study the Queen Anne’s County budget and to recommend deep budget cuts as a catalyst to slash the fat and waste out of the county’s government programs. After caucusing and months of study, the task force recommended approximately $12 million of budget cuts and no new taxes.

For a brief time in the county there existed a conservative Camelot - the conservative domain over the local government was plenipotentiary. It seemed like the Queen Anne’s County Tea Party voters finally found their nirvana. But it only seemed that way.

The Commissioners and their task force took the proposed budget and program cuts on the road and sought public comment. At the public meetings, the Commissioners quickly discovered that conservative-style governing was easy if it wasn’t for the pesky constituents and their varied reasonable (and unreasonable) expectations of entitlement. Parents demanded fully funded public schools with a well-rounded curriculum including music, arts and athletic programs. These demands, however, were anathema to the November conservative mandate and the task force’s “no new tax” balanced budget recommendations which necessitated a bare bones budget for the public school system.

The august task force members, however, were not assigned to make public policy recommendations - only fiscal ones. The task force members were instructed to enumerate ways to balance the county budget without raising taxes. The task force’s mission was successful. The question that remained was whether the newly-elected County Commissioners would spend their substantial political capital to carry out their mandate, keep their campaign promises and implement their task force’s recommendations.

In June, the time came for each Commissioner to make an actual decision and cast a vote on a budget with real world ramifications. Suddenly, the mission of cutting public service jobs and programs was not a mere abstract ambition. In a small community like Queen Anne’s County, public officials and constituents are not anonymous strangers – they are literally friends and neighbors with no more than one degree of separation from any other county citizen. Notwithstanding the conclusive and absolute conservative Election Day victory, the Republican panel voted to raise Queen Anne’s County property taxes rates by eight (8) cents and county income taxes by twelve percent (12%) in order to fund their first budget.

The citizens who supported the current Commissioners prior to the election immediately reacted. According to the July 1, 2011 Star Democrat, “Jim Flaherty, president of the Taxpayer's Association of Queen Anne's County, commended county employees for their work at reducing spending, but also said that if the commissioners were ‘truly balancing the budget, then you wouldn't be coming to me and my wife, and every other taxpayer in this county, for more money.’” The stew of underlying discontent is already brewing.

Without passing judgment on the merits of the Commissioners’ decision, and notwithstanding any electoral mandate or anecdotal example to the contrary, I assert that as a general rule Republican public officials have never and will never cut the scope and size of government and cut taxes. History does not support an alternative conclusion. The Nixon Administration, the Reagan Administration, the two Bush Administrations, the Ehrlich Administration and the 2011 Queen Anne’s County Commissioners did not do it. As of now, any Queen Anne’s County Commissioner who criticizes Governor O’Malley for balancing the State budget in a similar manner engages in duplicity. I fully expect the local conservatives to blame the current county fiscal situation and the new Republican taxes on George Bush – oops, I mean – the prior Democrat-controlled Queen Anne’s County Commissioners. It will be business as usual.

The public needs to emancipate itself from the superstition that Republicans are regularly engaged in the practice of cutting the size of government and lowering taxes. Like the Democrats, they improvise government in accordance with constituent demands and their respective special interest pressures. Real government reform requires a reorientation of the voting public’s expectations for the scope of government’s role in our lives; this is the only way program spending cuts and lower taxes will become a simultaneous reality. Without a cessation of the public’s demand for government services, neither political party will act to materially diminish the government’s size.

Notwithstanding the recent Tea Party victories, the general public still believes in its heart that it is entitled to more government largess – and the political left and the political right continue without reservation to fulfill their constituent demands. Consequently, the next time my good friend extols the intrinsic virtues of his “small government / lower taxes” political party, I can remind him with reaffirmed certainty, “Don’t vote for the Republican County Commissioner candidates or your taxes will go up”.

Clayton A. Mitchell, Sr. is an attorney in Stevensville and regular contributor to Center Maryland.
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