States’ Problems Today Really Nothing New
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the longest-serving state
legislative leader in the country, understands as a historian the impact of
tough recessionary times on state governments. He also has learned that
firsthand, first as a legislator serving since the 1970s, and as the Senate leader
starting in 1987.
As the longest-serving legislative leader in the U.S., can you give us some
historical perspective on the situation the country is facing now?
“I just finished reading the book ‘George Washington,’ by (Ron) Chernow. … (In Washington’s) farewell to people …, he disparaged political parties and he said they are a major problem in governance. They were major problems in George Washington’s times, and adherence to same is a major problem in our current times.”
Political parties are a problem for governance?
“We find for example that a number of people adhering to doctrines, to political parties, have taken an oath of no tax increases before they are even sworn into office. Washington also, in his farewell speech to Congress, said that elected officials cannot have an aversion—he used the word aversion—to taxes, as you need revenues to support government. He was referring to a whiskey tax. ... He had to get on his horse and take charge of his troops and suppress a revolt that one of its political parties and its populism was forming against taxes. … The more things change, the more they stay the same with political parties and taxation.”
So was there a time when that wasn’t the case?
“When I first got involved in politics in the early 1960s …, continuing on up and through the 1970s, it was not so much what political party you belonged to, but what could you do to help the state and what could you do to move the state forward. People of both parties could come together and support a common agenda to move the state forward. Now in the last two decades, … it appears to be the obligation of the party who’s not in power to vote against and to do everything possible to thwart the agenda of the party in power so that the party out of power can become the party in power, rather than working across party lines for the benefit of the common good.”
Do you believe it began on the federal level and has filtered down
to the states?
“Very much so. … Dwight D. Eisenhower, who presided over a (Democrat-controlled) House and Senate, was asked to define democracy. He defined it in one word: cooperation. No matter who, if it’s a Republican or Democrat, as president of the United States, leaders in other party should find a way to work with that president, especially if the ideas help move the country forward. … We had a Republican governor not so long ago. Although I opposed him politically when he ran and I opposed him when he ran for re-election, I helped to pass his agenda.”
What’s it going to take to fix the political problems we face?
“It’s going to have to be a sea change; it’s going to have to be a major turnaround in the terms of the thinking of the American people. (Author Thomas) Friedman talks about a new party. I hope it’s not a new party. I like the existing parties. I’ve been involved with both parties and I work well with both parties on the floor of the Senate. I respect my Republican minority. I like each and every one of them individually. I respect their views.”
From your long tenure as a legislator, what do you see as the biggest challenges states are facing?
“The number one challenge the states are facing right now is the federal government. ... If the Super Committee doesn’t come up with an agreement, then it’s going to be a 30 percent cut in Medicaid and Medicare, and states are going to have to cut back accordingly. Our colleges are going to have to cut back; the money states are receiving in terms of medical research is going to be decimated. So much of what happens in the future depends upon the ability of our Congress to reach an agreement.”
How did previous recessions affect states and how did they deal with it?
“In the ’90s, ’90-’91-’92, we had very tough times. We raised the millionaires’ tax and put it in place only for a three-year period of time and then we had it lapse. We raised the gas tax. At the same time, we made significant cuts. Not to say that we haven’t done it this time as well.”
What can we learn from times in which states had a lack of money for programs?
“The secret is cooperation. For example in the ’70s when we had this time, in the ’90s when we had this time, we had Democrats and Republicans working together to solve the problem. When I passed the gas tax (in Maryland) in 1992, both Republican leaders in the House voted for the bill. No Republican (today) would even dare vote for a gas tax increase no matter how deserving or how much it might benefit their area (because of the primary elections).”
What do states do when they are cutting into the bone and can’t provide services?
“We come up with a mix of revenues as well as cuts. … Franklin Roosevelt said taxes are the dues you pay to belong to society. You have to make certain that they’re not excessive, that they’re not penal, that they don’t punish any one group. You need revenues to pay your teachers, to pay your policeman; you need revenues to build roads build schools. … Taxes should be the last resort, but they’re a factor that should be on the table to solve problems.”
What advice would you give to newer legislators?
“Honestly and truly, I’d study history. Study the workings of other states. Read the various publications … involving state legislators. I have our Department of Legislative Services clip stories on how to improve the legislative process and how other states involve the legislative process. In doing so, I’ve studied how states have changed the rules to make the body work more efficiently. … You study how other things are done and find ways to improve on it.”