Marylanders willing to pay more tax if money is spent well,Linowes says

November 17, 1990|By C. Fraser Smith

R. Robert Linowes, whose commission has come up with a proposal for a drastic restructuring of Maryland's tax system, says last week's election makes him think the plan will be well-received -- despite taxpayer anger that helped change the face of politics in Maryland.

Mr. Linowes says voter antipathy for taxes has been overstated and misread.

"This has not been a no-new-tax, no-additional-tax election in Maryland," he said. "In three counties, the [tax cap] issue was on the ballot. Two counties [Anne Arundel and Baltimore] voted it down, and the third [Montgomery] voted for the least restrictive of four proposals. They not only chose the least restrictive, but one which allows an override by the County Council."

A number of bond issues were approved during the election as well. There was no wholesale rejection of government spending, Mr. Linowes argued.

These results -- coupled with what his commission heard from 147 witnesses during three hearings last summer -- led the Montgomery County zoning lawyer and business leader to predict that his commission's recommendations would be "accepted and supported" after an initial period of "restraint."

He said the recommendations are intended for consideration in the next legislative session. Though the legislature usually prefers to chew over such a significant set of proposals, Mr. Linowes said he hopes action can be taken immediately.

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who is in charge of the Schaefer administration's legislative agenda and who has been briefed on the report by Mr. Linowes, said even if it takes several years to get some or all of such controversial proposals through, the process needs to begin immediately. Otherwise, it could be postponed until the end of the incoming legislators' four-year terms, when the politics of an approaching election would make any tough decisions tougher.

"I hope we can at least focus on the issues, have extensive debate," Mr. Steinberg said. "Is it what everyone thinks it is? Could there be amendments [to make it more palatable]? Just to duck it negates the responsibility the electorate gave us."

The report is scheduled for a final vote by the 17-member commission on Nov. 28 and, after that, delivery to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Mr. Linowes said he did not know if Mr. Schaefer plans to ask the legislature to act in the 1991 legislative session -- but he said he hoped that that would be the governor's course.

"We think by and large the citizens of Maryland are willing to pay more taxes provided the burden is fair and equitable, provided the money is used for necessary purposes and provided there are standards of accountability for the use of the additional money," Mr. Linowes said in an interview.

Already, he said, he has informed state education officials that his commission's recommendations on taxes will include a detailed set of accountability standards to be passed along with any tax increases.

"I've given them a pretty good idea of where we're coming from. I said to them, and I said to the teachers' union: 'You don't deserve any more money until you're prepared to show performance,' " he said.

Mr. Linowes said he believes that the outcry that has arisen over the tax increases engineered in states such as New Jersey will not be repeated in Maryland because Governor Schaefer, who appointed the commission, has approached the matter prudently and thoughtfully.

"I think the election results support our position, that people in the state of Maryland continue to want services. They want good services, and they are willing to pay for them provided that the money is used properly with full accountability."

People have a right, he said, to be angry about the property tax system -- not because it takes an inordinate amount of their money, but because the system is confusing.

Marylanders pay less in property tax on average than property owners in other states nationally, he said. But the "Mickey Mouse" process that reassesses a third of the state's houses each year leaves individual taxpayers unable to determine if they are being treated fairly. The report recommends major changes in this process, including a return to annual assessments that are based on 100 percent of a property's value.

Mr. Linowes also emphasized what may be one of the report's biggest selling points: that it does not propose to "take resources from any jurisdiction."

"We will not penalize any jurisdiction because it has been able to provide means of paying for services," he said.

He said he was surprised and encouraged to learn during the commission's hearings that the people who testified were willing to pay

more in taxes.

"The indications we had were that there is a recognized need for additional resources for specific purposes: education, transportation, bridges, helping less fortunate jurisdictions. They just said, 'Don't take away what we have. Find other resources and other means.' "

Not everyone will agree with this assessment.

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