Tax panel taking low profile until after election

September 14, 1990|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Hoping to keep tax-restructuring recommendations out of the political arena until after the Nov. 6 general election, the chairman of the governor's commission on taxes has been meeting privately with individual commission members to devise what could become the final report.

Moreover, a meeting of the Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure that had been tentatively scheduled for next week for "consideration of final recommendations" was quietly canceled, and no future meetings are scheduled until Nov. 8.

Timing that meeting two days after the election is no coincidence, admitted R. Robert Linowes, chairman of the 17-member commission created in October 1987 by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The panel is to review the state's entire tax structureand make recommendations prior to the 1991 General Assembly session.

From the outset, Mr. Linowes said yesterday, he insisted the report be "as apolitical as possible and outside the political arena for this election," and said Mr. Schaefer agreed.

"We further recognize that, of course, these are political issues," he said, but added, "We wanted the opportunity for as dispassionate and as objective a review of this material as possible before it is placed in the political arena."

Since the commission's last public meeting in July, the Montgomery County lawyer said he has been meeting privately with each of the commission's members, either one-on-one or in groups of two or three.

He said the private meetings were necessary so members would feel free to discuss certain approaches to complex tax issues but still be free to change or even reverse positions -- free of public pressure -- if new in formation came to light.

"It is a very tough question as to how you can have these unfettered discussions without misleading people," he said.

When Mr. Linowes accepted the unpaid position as chairman three years ago, he promised: "Our meetings will be open, and we will report to the governor periodically on our progress. We will not hesitate to promote public awareness and dialog where it is helpful."

Reminded of those words yesterday, he said, "At the time I took this job, we had an entirely different program proposed. ... Our schedule was aborted because of lack of funds."

The commission had hoped to do a variety of expensive studies and to hold two sets of public hearings all over the state -- one to hear the concerns of citizens and the other to discuss commission proposals.

But the General Assembly, wary of what the panel might propose, slashed its budget, making certain studies unaffordable and forcing the panel to reshuffle its schedule. When the first and only set of hearings was held this summer in Rockville, Annapolis and Baltimore, those testifying had no specific panel proposals before them on which to comment.

All they knew, based on the commission's interim report and Mr. Linowes' own comments, was that the panel was looking for ways to make the tax structure more equitable and also to redistribute the state's wealth to help fiscally strapped Baltimore and other have-not jurisdictions.

Mr. Linowes said he has personally appeared before numerous groups to try to explain the direction the commission is headed.

"But in all candor and fairness, this is not the way we expected to go," he said. "Because of the constraints we were faced with, we really had no other choice."

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