Taxpayers Want What They Are Paying For

R. Robert Linowes

November 18, 1990|By R. Robert Linowes

MARYLAND VOTERS signaled a fiscal restiveness in the Nov. 6 elections. But a close look at the results does not indicate that the state is in the throes of taxpayer revolt.

Clearly there is growing concern around the state about taxes -- primarily property taxes. Yet, these concerns were not so overwhelming as to cause the electorate to approve caps on even that major source of local revenue.

Indeed, property-tax caps were rejected in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties. And in Montgomery County, the least burdensome restriction -- which authorized a removable cap not exceeding the Consumer Price Index and provided no cap at all on new growth -- was approved.

There is a message here and we need to exercise some caution in how it is interpreted. As I see it, the new animus has less to do with taxes per se than with what the taxpayers are getting for their money. In a deeper sense, there is a suspicion that the system for raising and distributing state moneys is neither fair, nor in step with the times.

If you ask anyone whether they want to pay more taxes, the answer is going to be ''no'' every time. But if you ask Maryland taxpayers whether they want better education for their children, the vast majority will answer a resounding ''yes.''

They will pay more taxes so long as the burdens are shared fairly and standards of accountability are provided. The same holds true for improvements in transportation and to the infrastructure. Voters recognized these as essential to the well-being of their communities -- and a quality of life that is enhanced by a capacity for collective growth.

Only when the taxpayers feel they are treated unfairly or that their moneys are not well spent or properly accounted for, do they resist. Taxpayers, after all, are consumers of public services. If they do not believe they are getting what they need and pay for, or that the system is not equitable, they simply won't buy.

This message was being telegraphed well in advance of the balloting. Widespread concern about property taxes was expressed in the public hearings held by the Maryland Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure.

Underlying these concerns was an unmistakable conviction that the manner by which these taxes are administered -- and in many instances against the people upon whom they are imposed -- is regressive.

For example, the property tax imposed on the taxpayer has no relevance to a property owner's income level. Second, the method by which assessments are imposed is so complicated that it is all but impossible to determine whether one is being fairly and equitably assessed. Third, the requirement that payment be made in a single amount, rather than by installments, presents an undue burden to the elderly and others with fixed or lower incomes. These and other inequities need to be corrected.

In my view, the people of Maryland want their state to continue to be a leader in every way -- but particularly in education, transportation and other vital public services that define a quality of life consistent with the opportunity. They are willing to pay for that franchise, provided the burden is just and fair and buttressed by full accountability for how the money is used.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that the future of Maryland depends upon a well-educated work force and a quality of living that is not only sought, but more broadly available, eminently affordable and thoroughly accountable. These are the ingredients of a truly competitive Maryland for the decades ahead and for generations to come.

Maryland's tax structure is not broken, but its tax system doesn't work as well as it could -- or should. The Nov. 6 vote was not about rebellion. It was a referendum on the future -- part warning, part wish. How we respond will determine whether a great state can be even greater.

R. Robert Linowes, a Montgomery County attorney, is chairman of the Maryland Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure.


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