Linowes' Historic Destiny

Barry Rascovar

December 02, 1990|By Barry Rascovar

REMEMBER THIS name: R. Robert Linowes. His Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure has just produced the most controversial report to hit this state in recent times.

Foes call it a ''tax-and-spend'' document. Mr. Linowes calls it a ''tax relief'' effort.

Either way you look at it, the release of this report has propelled Mr. Linowes into a prominent state role, one that he is likely to occupy for a number of years to come.

This influential and well-respected Montgomery County lawyer and civic activist has a daunting task in front of him: educating legislators and groups around the state to the complex details of his commission's report.

Few of the panel's recommendations may be enacted next year. In the following years, though, Mr. Linowes could see substantial portions adopted -- given perseverance and an eventual end to the economic recession.

What the Linowes panel suggests is more sweeping than simply raising the sales and income taxes. It wants government to re-examine priorities and focus efforts on areas of greatest importance: education, transportation, property-tax relief, helping the poorest counties and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Viewed that way, the proposed tax increases gain credibility: $359 million for direct classroom improvement; $374 million for more roads and mass-transit lines; $187 million to lower property taxes for every home owner; $102 million to ensure basic services in poor counties, and $16 million for the bay cleanup. These are annual allocations that would grow in the years ahead.

The initial instinct of many legislators was to dismiss the recommendations as a ''mission impossible.'' No lawmaker is going to press for higher taxes after voters angrily tossed out a bevy of incumbents because of their alleged ''tax and spend'' practices.

Nor are legislators about to sanction a major spending increase when the state faces a potential deficit exceeding $300 million.

But there are other aspects of the Linowes report that could be dissected and approved in the coming General Assembly session without raising taxes. And as pressure builds for more roads, better schools, etc., the logic of the commission's suggestions could prove persuasive in 1992 or 1993.

For instance, the panel stressed the inequity of the current tax structure that places a too-heavy burden on the middle class. Rearranging tax laws so the rich pay more -- and the middle class receive tax relief -- could prove a popular State House theme.

The Linowes package is enticing for many segments of thpopulation and for most of the counties.

Prince George's County, for instance, would end up with $55 million in new school aid, $26 million for local roads and a 22-cent cut in its property tax rate. That's an extraordinarily enticing barrel of pork for that county's powerful legislative delegation to bring home -- especially when most P.G. voters wind up with a tax cut rather than a tax increase.

The amount of the new school aid should prove appealing to education interests, too: $27 million in Baltimore County and $28 million in Anne Arundel County, for example.

Those lobbying for more roads, mass-transit alternatives and overdue road repairs should rally behind the transportation aspects of the report.

And, of course, Baltimore City interests will enthusiastically endorse Mr. Linowes, since that impoverished city winds up with a total aid package of $150 million.

If these groups can be welded into a unified force; if Mr. Linowes recognizes the long-term nature of his crusade, and if the state's financial storm ends, the commission's recommendations could pick up surprising momentum.

Reconfiguration of the tax package seems inevitable. Parts may be acceptable only if they are ''venue neutral'' or raise a fraction of the extra funds recommended. But the commission report at least gives the legislature and the governor a blueprint for pumping new money into schools, highways and other pressing needs.

If legislators can do that and give a significant number of middle-class Marylanders tax relief, the Linowes plan could emerge as a winner in Annapolis. It won't happen overnight, though. Mr. Linowes had better be prepared for a long and trying battle. It can only be won with persistence and patience.

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