Opinion: Bottle Tax Won’t Fix Imagination Deficit

As Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake delivers a preliminary budget for the city today, the focus seems to be on efficiency. Changes to the city’s health budget, cuts to the liquor board, “cloud computing” for city offices and a laundry list of other initiatives are being introduced in an effort to bolster Baltimore City’s year over year budget issues. One thing left out of the text: the increased bottle tax proposal, which has been touted as a mechanism for enabling school reconstruction. If passed, the current 2 cent tax on bottled beverages would be raised to 5 cents. Politics / HL Menken enthusiast (and former school teacher) @MMMcDermottt has a few things to say on the matter. Enjoy!

Bottle Tax Won’t Fix Imagination Deficit

When it comes to fixing Baltimore’s crumbling school facilities, we don’t have a money problem. We’ve got an imagination problem. As usual, the answer to fixing anything education-related is to ask everyone to check their pants pockets for loose change. But it doesn’t work. Partly because of the inability to properly manage the money that actually comes in, and partly because no money in the world can fix the social ills that are at the root of a school’s failure.

I’ll concede that there’s a monumental difference between fixing school buildings and fixing schools. You can’t replace a window with teacher meetings. You’re not going to update the plumbing with student interventions. You need cold, hard cash. Or so it would seem.

If we’re to listen to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, school facilities need money for massive improvements, and the only way we’re going to get it is by raising the rate on the bottle tax – one of the most criticized taxes the city’s seen since, well, the last time the bottle tax was introduced (and then abolished after public uproar in ‘70s). But these are different times. If elections are any indication, Baltimore’s constituency is much more docile. It’s simply surrendered to the status quo.

Ask the average person on the street who their district council rep is. Or state delegate. Hell, their U.S. senator. The answer you’re likely get back is all the explanation you need for why someone like Rawlings-Blake makes it into office: Voters have simply given up on the process. When that happens, softheaded, uninspired legislation like the bottle tax happens. Now, Madame Mayor is grandstanding for a three-cent per bottle increase (more than doubling the existing tax).

To make matters worse, she’s reenacting the classic villain scene to do it, all but threatening to tie the success of our students to the train tracks if citizens don’t pony up more cash. The truth is, we don’t need more cash – not from a bottle tax anyway. We need more cash from conservation, from smarter facilities management, and through more creative solutions that break the city from its fetish for chewing on the teats of Baltimore’s remaining tax base.

The facts are there: the bottle tax missed its mark, pulling in nearly a million dollars less than it had proposed. The reasons? The city’s inability to adequately collect the taxes and, more logically, the fact that this town just isn’t that big. Thousands of residents live within a mile or two of the county lines. From Hamilton to West Hills, Mt. Washington to Morrell Park, people have options. And those with the sense, the inclination, or the means to use them, will.

Typical boneheaded politics. If a tax doesn’t work, let’s double or triple it. Ever watch a horse at the track slowly fall behind the pack? What’s the jockey do? He whips the glue out of it, hoping to nudge the poor beast to the finish line. Now, Rawlings-Blake is riding bareback upon the shoulders of Baltimore – and she’s swinging a riding crop fashioned from our own apathy.

Which leads me back to our schools and the chief problem. It’s not a lack of money, it’s lack of brainpower. Where is the mayor’s imagination? And how much of her inability to come up with solutions is tied to what I can only imagine is an ego as large and as unpleasant as a garbage truck clogging the side street of progress. She has many critics. But they’re smart critics with big ideas. Start with the contenders she defeated in the mayoral primary. Jody Landers’ property tax plan, modeled off of DC’s, was designed to bring property taxes in line with those in surrounding counties while severely penalizing slumlords and absent owners. And Otis Rolley’s private/public partnership school model – one that’s worked in places like DC and South Carolina – could have provided the seedling steps for not only financing a school facility rehabilitation program without painful tax increases, but also providing a steady stream of revenue for decades.

It’s a shame. Madame Mayor comes from good stock. Her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, was an innovator, named Policy Leader of the Year by the National Association of State Boards of Education in 2003, just before his passing. If Rawlings-Blake’s policies are any indication, that same thinking has apparently skipped a generation.

Now, Baltimore has a mayor whose claim to fame was keeping the city from collapsing into the Jones Falls during a snowstorm. She’s a maintainer, not an innovator. If we were to harness Rawlings-Blakes’ passion and imagination, we couldn’t power a potato clock. Even Sheila Dixon, for all her warts, had ideas. (Unfortunately, some of those ideas included how to use donated gift cards from the needy for personal shopping sprees.)

If we’re to improve schools – and school buildings – it won’t come through bottle taxes. It comes by tapping the talents of our students. Vocational programs are on the rise – as they should be: they may well be the one thing that ultimately resuscitates public education in America (but that’s a diatribe for another day). Put our children to work in service of school rebuilding. Under the tutelage of a master instructor, I see no reason why students couldn’t make general repairs to school buildings. Rejigger the HVAC system. Install a few windows. Repair crumbling drywall – all as part of their actual instruction. On-the-job training with benefits that extend far beyond their face value.

Of course, we’ll also have to break some bad habits; the school system is an abyss of waste. Even after the North Avenue housecleaning that Andres Alonso’s administration purportedly undertook when he first came on, I believe there’s a lack of accountability when it comes to cost savings within actual facilities. Drive by a school in the middle of the night. How many lights do you see ablaze within? Look at a school in the middle of winter. How many windows are wide-open? Simple conservation efforts could save the school system significantly.

Based on my mathematical prowess (I went to Baltimore City Public Schools, so bear with me), I’ve determined that if every one of the city’s 170+ schools were to turn off just one 60W light bulb for 12 hours every day, it could save the system roughly $4,000 a year in electricity.  If they did that with a hundred light bulbs, you’re looking at close to half a million dollars. Just by turning the lights off when not in use. Perhaps that’s what Mayor Rawlings-Blake is doing: She’s left the light bulb above her head off to conserve energy.

21 thoughts on “Opinion: Bottle Tax Won’t Fix Imagination Deficit

  1. Unfortunately, Landers’ tax proposal will never see the light of day because the people who contribute to SRB’s coffers are the slumlords who are opposed to the higher vacant tax. The bill died in the state legislature because she flip-flopped her position on it (she supported it as City Council President).

    1. Now we’re on a discussion of campaign reform. If it were up to me, each candidate would be given a standard subsidy from an elections fund from which to run their campaign. No donors, no patrons, no quid pro quo. That said, yes, there’s no doubt in my mind that SRB’s got plenty of room in her policy bed for donors and lobbyists. 

  2. My girlfriend works at Baltimore City Schools at North Ave and the housecleaning was through. And too much. They are severely understaffed there in the administration. I don’t think it is fair to blame SRB for the school problems as I think she’s trying to figure out ways to get more revenue to keep school buildings in good shape. Many are, unsurprisingly, falling apart. The main problem appears to be the fact that their is culture of fear at Baltimore City Schools and people are in constant fear of losing their jobs due to capriciousness at the top of the ladder. 

    1. Josh, do you know what the admin-to-pupil ratio costs are? While I don’t have the numbers, I imagine Baltimore still ranks at the top of the state for the amount of per-pupil funding spent on administrative costs. Some of it is no doubt due to the high costs of dealing with an inordinately large population of special needs/at-risk students. But not all of it.

      I have no problem with SRB finding new revenue for schools. The problem is, it continually falls on the backs of an already over-taxed citizenry. I taught at Douglass, and I saw the disrepair firsthand. But I also saw the gratuitous waste. There were new textbooks that sat in book rooms unwrapped for years because teachers didn’t know they were there.

      As far as fear of losing a job – well, all I can say is the BTU is one powerful org, even under Alonso. As with any union employee, it’s actually pretty hard to lose your job. I have stories.

  3. I find the bottle tax to not be an overtaxion. Cents per bottle to me is not gratuitous. 
    Is the union the same for teachers as admins? Because I have stories too. 

    1. All depends on your buying habits. You buy a case of something, and it can add up pretty quickly. Especially if you’re lower income. It’s a regressive tax. 

      But this is all beside the point. The real argument here is, if the city didn’t piss away money and used a little more creativity to identify new revenue/smarter ways to spend it, we wouldn’t need the tax in the first place. Just because it appears negligible doesn’t mean that it’s not a terrible idea.

        1. As I read it, it was all bottled beverages, excluding milk, juice and two-liter sodas. I didn’t see anything about cases, but that’s certainly worth mentioning if it’s true. Do you have a link?

  4. I guess I don’t really see what’s being added to the conversation by just having the opinion that people should have better ideas about things in general. I don’t think that that is in any way a controversial opinion.  That schools, the administration, and the city are all supremely screwed up is also not seriously denied by anyone.  However, what ideas are to be used is indeed important and, well, the bottle tax is the best they came up with. That is sad, agreed. They do need better ideas and different ideas. But, what?  

    1. Well, I threw out a couple options to get the conversation started. Simple, executable options. We get a few more folks doing the same and you’d be surprised. Problem is, I’ve seen no evidence that SRB is listening to anyone. Certainly not her critics. 

  5. People, people! We’re forgetting about the single most important consumer product directly affected by this policy – MY GODDAMNED BOTTLED BEER. Then again I’ll just drink out of cans, I’m still largely unaffected by this regressive nonsense

    Oh also get prepared for them to extend the sunset provision on this thing at some point, without question that’s in the pipeline

    1. I’ve seen some try to defend the tax as some kind of vice tax, which, by in large is one of the dirtiest, low-down, most condescending tricks ever pulled on a populace by pols. 

      1. I’m pretty sure that it absolutely is not “one of the dirtiest, low-down, most condescending tricks ever pulled on a populace by pols.” Whether it is a trick or not. Sorry.

        1. Ann, you and agree on few things, with the exception of pit bill advocacy, so I’ll address it from that angle. The thinking that drives a politician to enact a tax to “save the public from itself” is derived from the same part of a politician’s brain that thinks that forcing certain breed owners to carry insurance for their pet will somehow dissuade them from owning one.

  6. I can’t reply to your message Matt? You did tag me in FB for my opinion. I didn’t say I agree or disagree with you that it is a trick or even a dirty trick, no need to “dumb it down” for me. I just was saying that in the history of politics i don’t believe this comes close to making it to the list of “dirtiest, low-down, most condescending tricks.” Thanks.

  7. And for that I’m thankful, Ann. I absolutely wanted your opinion – especially because I had a feeling we’d differ on it.

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was dumbing it down. Certainly wasn’t my intention. Whether I agree with you or not, I can respect where you’re coming from and the reasoning that got you there. My only intention was to draw an analogy where it made sense – and where it could make an impact.

    And you’re right. There are dirtier tricks in the book. But this one ranks up there for me.

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