printed 02/28/2020

State legislation that would expand the Maryland sales tax to include previously exempt services has implications that go beyond the usual tax-related grumbling.

Aside from requiring consumers and others to pay 5 percent on attorney’s fees, Realtor’s fees and on the cost of having the grass cut, it also hits home for businesses and associations that have kept their payrolls manageable by contracting for services rather than handling them in-house.

Philosophically speaking, there’s no difference between taxing the sale of a bar of soap and having to pay taxes on the plumbing service that hooked up the shower. Things get taxed because they exist, and not, in most cases, for a specific reason. Ultimately, it’s just one more expense that consumers will have to cover, no matter how government tries to explain it.

But that’s not the point. The more important issue is that the money derived from this sales tax measure would help pay for an education spending overhaul that might not work.

Known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the education spending bill is based on recommendations from the Kirwan Commission, whose work was commendable and often insightful. But this consideration of the future also overlooked the not-so-distant past — the Thornton Commission of 2002.

A Washington Post editorial observed this week that the Thornton Commission declared that more spending and a more equitable way of distributing that money would lead to world-class schools. It did not. Why, then, is the legislature’s Democratic majority so convinced that the Blueprint will work when Thorton didn’t?

It isn’t that teachers don’t deserve better pay, which they do, or that all Kirwan’s conclusions are wrong, which they aren’t. At issue is the question of whether school systems can implement these recommendations in a way that will work.

In the meantime, legislators are rushing to raise billions through an awkward upheaval of the sales tax system without knowing, for certain, if the public will be getting what it’s paying for.

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