The Linowes report: a touch of idealism and a call to think big

Thomas W. Waldron

November 27, 1990|By Thomas W. Waldron

LET'S CLEAN up Chesapeake Bay, rebuild our transportation system and improve education. While we're at it, let's soak the rich and give everybody a break on their property taxes.

In a nutshell, those are the goals of the report of the so-called Linowes Commission, a document that took three years to hatch and will be formally adopted tomorrow.

The well-written report displays an idealism that is generally missing from State House discussions.

"It is in the interest of every Marylander that the entire state be in sound economic health . . . . It is in the interest of every Marylander that every child in our state be given the opportunity for a decent education . . . . A body cannot function without a heart and Baltimore is Maryland's heart," reads part of the report's introduction.

The report then recites a litany of Maryland's problems: inadequate education funding in some parts of the state, deteriorating transportation systems, unhappiness with soaring property taxes, and a tax system that is skewed against poor and middle class taxpayers.

Finally, the commission lays out a set of principles: tax people according to their means, help poorer subdivisions, raise revenues to meet looming needs such as prisons and AIDS, and expand the tax base to include some things that have escaped taxation.

So far, so good.

The problem is getting from here to there. The commission has proposed four major changes.

* Increase the income tax rate, and aim it generally to hit the more affluent.

* Force local governments to reduce property tax rates.

* Begin a 2 percent annual tax on cars and boats.

* Raise the sales tax rate to 5.5 percent and apply the tax to two dozen services, ranging from dry cleaning to lawn care.

While no one will complain about lowering property tax rates, the other proposals will be long shots. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said nobody really wants to raise the sales tax. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. said he would like to put the whole thing on the back burner. About the only legislators supporting the proposals are from Baltimore, which has, by far, the most to gain.

The report couldn't have come at a worse time, politically. The commission was appointed in 1987, when the state was enjoying surpluses and the economy was surging. As the commission issues its report, the country is nearing a recession and Maryland has a deficit of more than $200 million, forcing painful budget cuts.

And many people believe the results of the recent election show that the people are in no mood to pay more taxes. Linowes disagrees. As long as taxpayers understand the need for new taxes and can see where the money is going, they won't object, he says.

In the middle of all this is Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the man who appointed the Linowes Commission three years ago. Last week, when he discussed the report for the first time, Schaefer seemed only vaguely aware of its contents. And while he did say tax reform should have happened a long time ago, he wouldn't discuss specifics.

But Schaefer has been leaving very big clues about his feelings on taxes and the need to improve government services throughout his first four years in office. Over and over, the governor has said that he is overwhelmed by the needs of the state. Everywhere he goes, he says, people bombard him with requests for help. And again and again, he complains how mandated programs eat up too much of the budget, leaving him with little money to start or expand programs.

For a man who likes to think big, what better goal then a complete revamping of the state's tax system? It could be a great battle.

Thomas W. Waldron has covered state government for The Evening Sun for the past four years.

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