Odds and ends number 68

First, the bad news. I’m not liveblogging the Turning the Tides 2013 conference today. I’ve found in my experience that I do better coverage of events by taking notes by hand and putting it all together in summary form after the fact. I’m certain that some other quarters will have live coverage but I didn’t even bring my laptop.  (Yes, I did but I’m not liveblogging.) Just look for the scoop here tomorrow.

But I am there, so this is something I wrote up earlier this week in order to cover this space while I’m away speaking with the conservative movers and shakers from around the state and country. It’s going to be a little shorter than the average O&E but I don’t think you’ll mind too much. You can consider this the General Assembly edition.

Most of you know the Maryland General Assembly session (known here as the ’90 Days of Terror”) began on Wednesday. Pundits (along with some of the Eastern Shore delegation) predict the same depressing mix of tax increase proposals, refusals to cut spending, and infringements on liberty which have punctuated sessions for the last several years. But an alternative agenda was proposed by Maryland YR president (and Red Maryland blogger) Brian Griffiths:

During this General Assembly session we urge the Maryland General Assembly to:

  • A 3% across the Board reduction in state spending;
  • Reduce the State Sales tax to 5% on all items;
  • Establish an across the board flat tax for all residents;
  • Streamline the Executive Branch to eliminate redundancies;
  • Reject any and all additional tax hikes, including the proposed gas tax increase and the proposed $1 increase on tobacco products;
  • Reject legislative proposals to curb the citizen participation through the referendum process;
  • Remove barriers to start of hydraulic fracking in Western Maryland;
  • Reject legislative proposals to provide onerous restrictions on property rights;
  • Reject pie-in-the-sky renewable energy proposals that are of limited to no benefit to providing clean energy, such as the O’Malley Offshore Windfarm proposal that will serve to benefit O’Malley donors.

It’s an agenda I find relatively appealing. Chances of passage with the current makeup of the General Assembly: near zero, unless perhaps people camp out at the Delegates’ and Senators’ homes and offices. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us who care about the issue are also forced to work for a living. Talk about throwing a wrench into the political process!

It also doesn’t help when state leaders don’t do their job and appoint department heads to conduct the business at hand. Maryland has labored without a Transportation Secretary since July and Change Maryland’s Larry Hogan has had enough:

For six months, there has been a leadership vacuum in addressing massive structural problems with the transportation grid itself and the financing mechanisms needed to pay for it. Addressing transportation challenges is a key priority of this general assembly session, yet the governor inexplicably dithers on naming a cabinet secretary and defaults to raising gas taxes as a panacea.

Perhaps the Governor wants to find another female who was a state employee for a quarter-century as former Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley was. Could it be he’s looking for brownie points by seeking a lesbian minority female? Whatever the case, Change Maryland is rightfully blasting him for not making this a priority. It’s not like he didn’t get notice since Swaim-Staley announced she was leaving two months beforehand.

Whoever gets the nod at MDOT will have to put up with crazy ideas like this one, a proposal Matthew Newman blasts at Old Line Elephant. Next thing you know, they’ll try to make Maryland Route 90 into Ocean City a toll road. (While it is a useful route into the northern part of Ocean City, I’ve often wondered why it’s not a four-lane highway like U.S. 50.)

Another crazy idea would be raising the cigarette tax. I have to give a hat tip to Virginia-based political consultant and blogger Liz Mair, who noted this piece in a message to me. It’s more about Michigan than Maryland, but a related Mackinac Center for Public Policy post by the same authors (Michael D. LaFaive and Todd Nesbit, Ph.D.) states the following:

We also modeled for Maryland the impact of a recently proposed 50 percent hike in its excise tax, from $2 per pack to $3. If such an increase were enacted in Maryland, the proportion of smuggled cigarettes consumed by its smokers would leap from 26 percent of the total market to 52 percent, and would actually result in a net decline in tobacco tax revenues.

These findings are troubling enough, but even more disturbing is what appears to be an increase in criminal activity related to illicit tobacco smuggling. In just one egregious example from last summer, a Maryland police officer in Prince George’s County was sentenced for running illicit cigarettes while using his duty firearm, uniform and patrol vehicle.

Now I’ll be interested to see what the fiscal note for the cigarette tax bill says about revenue once it is introduced (as of this writing it had not been.) But there was a bill pre-filed to increase penalties on those who “smuggle” over $50 worth of cigarettes into the state without paying Maryland tax. (In theory, the law as it is right now states 2 packs or $5 worth of other tobacco products. Needless to say, it’s not strictly enforced.) The same duo posited that about one of every four cigarettes in Maryland is smuggled in, compared to roughly one in ten back in 2006. In that time frame, the state went from ranking 24th in the country to 13th. If LaFaive and Nesbit are correct, Maryland would surge to fourth in the country if they adopted a $3 per pack tax and over half the cigarettes in the state would be considered bootleg.

So if a cigarette tax increase is passed, I can guarantee you retailers along the first few miles of U.S. 13 into Virginia will see plenty of Maryland license plates in their parking lots. And why not, when the tax savings would be an astounding $27 a carton? Even putting a price point of about $15-20 a carton under Maryland prices would be incentive aplenty (and additional profit for the retailer.) That’s well worth the quarter-tank it might take to run 35 miles back and forth to the Virginia line – that Royal Farms right on the border will likely become the leader chainwide in cigarette sales, and the Dixieland convenience store with “The South Starts Here” emblazoned on its sign right across the road will also prosper if Maryland succeeds in raising its tax rate to just outside the top five in the country. (Virginia, on the other hand, has the second-lowest at 30 cents a pack.) Will Maryland law enforcement resort to tobacco-sniffing dogs on traffic stops in Worcester County? Even Delaware may become attractive given a potential $14 a carton savings.

Sometimes I believe the General Assembly loses all common sense when they come together – how else can you explain such bad law and lack of thinking? On that note, I wrap up another edition of odds and ends.