Is it a tax or a fee? This is the favorite rhetorical game of most politicians, and Republican former Gov. Bob Ehrlich tries to use it in the above clip. Trying to separate his and incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley's records on spending and the budget, Ehrlich boldly tells CNBC host John Harwood that "We didn't raise taxes."
A clearly well-prepared Harwood retorts: "Flush tax?" Ehrlich explains that the flush tax was a user fee, not a tax, and that since it went to a dedicated fund for the Chesapeake Bay, it doesn't count as a tax.
Harwood then asks about a tax on health plans. Ehrlich says the plan passed over his veto.
"Taxes are a major issue in this campaign," Ehrlich says. "And the records of the two governors are not comparable."
The interview covers two of the three areas where Ehrlich supposedly raised taxes as governor. The third — property taxes — went unmentioned.
The Maryland Democratic Party pounced on the clip and began accusing Ehrlich of lying. They even went late-'90s VH1 on everyone and made a pop-up video.
Let's start with property taxes. In 2003, Ehrlich voted as a member of the state's Board of Public Works to increase the state's property tax by 4.8 cents per $100 of assessed value. He had originally endorsed the increase, then backed away from it before ultimately voting for it. The increase was necessary to pay off the state's debt.
At the time, Ehrlich promised to repeal the increase in January 2004. That didn't happen, and multiple other attempts to roll it back failed. He finally got it slashed slightly in 2006 as he was running for re-election.
The so-called "flush tax" was implemented in 2004. (And yes, 6-year-olds, it refers to flushing the toilet.)
Homeowners whose sewage flowed to one of the state's 66 water treatment plants pay a $2.50 monthly fee in to a fund that would go toward upgrading the plants. Ehrlich proposed that element of the plan, but opposed a $2.50 monthly surcharge on homeowners who owned septic tanks. Democrats inserted that into the legislation, and Ehrlich signed the bill anyway.
Lastly, there's the HMO tax. The 2 percent tax on premiums was passed by Democrats in the General Assembly over a veto by Ehrlich.
And those are just the big three. Liberal Maryland blogger Steve Lebowitz has also been trumpeting this document from the state's non-partisan Department of Legislative Services which lists all the new fees and taxes implemented under Ehrlich. From a recent article in the Washington Post:
Ehrlich also raised more fees than any governor in the past 25 years. His philosophy was that they were better than broad tax increases; government should charge for services, as a business would. As such, people who sought to register a car or business, visit a state park, or use a slew of other services paid more. Ehrlich's approach extended to public universities, where tuition increases compensated for what he said the state couldn't afford.
When we contacted Ehrlich's campaign people, their argument relied on three parts: that taxes are fundamentally different from fees; that the property tax rollback absolves him of his original vote; and that the HMO tax shouldn't count since it passed over his veto.
While the difference between taxes and fees matters to bureaucrats, it doesn't matter to the wallets of Marylanders. And if he was opposed to the property tax increase, he shouldn't have voted for it. (The other two members of the Board of Public Works were yes votes, meaning it would have passed otherwise.) We can absolve him of responsibility for the HMO tax, though.
Even if you agree with Ehrlich's argument about fees being different from taxes, and even if you think he shouldn't have to bear the burden of the HMO tax, he still voted to increase property taxes. And that's enough to make his statement Total Malarkey.