Sunday, November 18, 2007

Why Progressives Should Not Punish Legislators Who Voted for the Slots Referendum

In two of the most critical, hotly contested votes in at least fifteen years, Maryland’s state legislators recently voted to send the issue of slots to a referendum. Anti-slots voters howled with betrayal. Gambling bosses munched their cigars in glee and stroked the cash in their wallets. The forces of evil massed at the gates of I-95, poised to let loose the dogs of addiction and vice into the Free State. So naturally, liberals should punish the traitorous legislators who signed Maryland over to the armies of immorality. Right?


Here are five reasons progressives should not punish legislators who voted for the slots referendum:

1. A special session collapse would lead to more tax hikes and/or spending cuts later

Throughout the special session, Senate President Mike Miller repeatedly warned that failure to pass a slots referendum might lead to general impasse. If that happened, the legislators would have to take up deficit reduction again in the general session in early 2008. But since new revenue collections would be delayed from the end of 2007 to the summer of 2008, the hikes would now have to be about $500 million greater. The most likely source of further tax hikes would be related to the sales tax as Montgomery County’s delegation would no doubt block any further attempt to raise income taxes on the rich. Alternatively, spending cuts would inevitably affect education aid and state government staffing. No wonder labor unions were urging wavering legislators to support the referendum.

Would more sales tax hikes and reduced education spending really be in the interest of progressives? Of course not, so the legislators faced a “lesser-of-two-evils” choice. In fact, this pattern of decision-making was the hallmark of the entire special session.

2. Relationships with the Governor and the leadership are important

A politician’s effectiveness is to a great degree based on relationships with others, the pursuit of mutual gains and resulting negotiating leverage. In Annapolis, the most important relationships are with the Democratic leadership and the Governor’s office. The leadership has exclusive control of committee assignments, committee chairmanships and, by extension, bill appearances on the floor. The Governor has unusually tight control over budgeting as well as the giant apparatus of state government. Every legislator has to negotiate this set of relationships to accomplish his or her priorities as well as to meet the needs of his or her district. Politicians without relationships become pariahs, howling at the moon while the rest of the pack feasts on the night’s catch.

The slots referendum vote was, to this point, the most important vote in the Governor’s political career. It was also a test of the Democratic leadership’s ability to work together (not always an easy task between the two chambers) and clear the table of troublesome budget problems prior to the next round of elections. Any legislator who rejects both the Governor and the leadership in their hour of greatest need runs the risk of ruining their ability to deliver grants, aid, transportation projects and general services needed by their district. After all, should such a legislator later approach the Governor for help, he or she might well be the recipient of an icy glare and a cool, “Where were you when I needed you?”

Again we see a “lesser-of-two-evils” decision. Don’t blame those legislators who acted to preserve their effectiveness on other liberal priorities and constituent service.

3. No one demonstrated ideological purity

One of the great ironies of the special session is the behavior of some of Montgomery County’s “liberal” delegation. The tax hikes that encountered the greatest resistance among such members were the Governor’s increased income tax rates on Maryland’s wealthiest residents. Their opposition was based on competitiveness with Virginia, but why shouldn’t the same arguments apply to the sales tax or the tobacco tax? Why the selective outrage?

Some of the legislators who opposed slots worked to reduce the added taxes on the rich in the Governor’s income tax proposal and did not utter a peep of protest against the $730 million sales tax hike – yet they still call themselves “progressives.” If you are looking for ideological purity, you may find it in church, but you will not find any in Annapolis.

4. Slots will keep coming back unless they are defeated with a referendum

Slots have been on the verge of passing for years. In 2005, both chambers of the legislature approved slots bills but could not reconcile them. Anti-slots activists have known a painful truth for years: all it takes is a handful of changed votes to get a pro-slots majority in the legislature. Given the rates of turnover in state legislative elections, it is possible that sooner or later slots will finally pass.

Everyone knows that a vampire will not die until a stake is driven through its heart. Defeating slots at the ballot box may be the only way to destroy the creature once and for all.

5. Heed the people

There have always been two sets of arguments around slots. First are the economic arguments. Some consider gambling fees a voluntary levy (putting aside addictions) and therefore superior to involuntary taxes. Others say gambling revenues are at least matched by health and welfare spending (and more intangible costs) associated with remedying the problems of addiction. Second are the moral arguments. Some see gambling as a victimless crime, or not a crime at all, and say the state has no business outlawing it. Others criticize gambling as inherently immoral and destructive of our culture.

Those who argue against a referendum are implying that the citizens of Maryland are too ignorant to weigh the economic arguments and are too corrupt and/or weak-minded to evaluate the moral arguments. These sorts of decisions are beyond the capabilities of average citizens and can only be decided by those who manage to get elected. Is this really what progressives think about the masses?

Why should progressives fear democracy? If the reasons for opposing slots are truly superior, Maryland’s progressive community is more than capable of triumphing at the ballot box. And victory is entirely possible. While polls suggest that a majority of Marylanders favor slots, anti-slots activists are much more motivated than pro-slots voters. Liberals may very well win by getting out their vote in anti-slots strongholds like Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Ocean City. If that happens, perhaps those who voted for the referendum should be thanked by allowing the people to slay the monster once and for all.

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