One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business and civic leaders. R. Robert Linowes is a zoning attorney from Montgomery County who chaired the Maryland Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure. The commission's report calls for major changes in the tax system and more than $800 million in increased taxes.
Q.Why does the commission think the State of Maryland needs to raise so much more revenue?
A.Well, let me start by saying that we started out with the idea of being revenue neutral. We thought what we'd do is focus in on changing the tax structure to make it more progressive. As we started getting in reports from our various consultants and as we conducted our various hearings and had interviews with people around the state, it became apparent that there were some very serious needs that were not being fulfilled in all parts of the state. This included both the suburban communities, as well as the more rural communities, including both the so-called "wealthier" jurisdictions, as well as the poorer jurisdictions. So, as a result of that, we shifted to trying to determine how revenue could be raised to meet those needs being as fair and as equitable as possible.
Q.The commission has recommended making local governments "accountable" to the state for the new aid they would receive under the commission's plans. Do you think the state does a good job of monitoring that accountability in local governments?
A.I think the state would be the first to tell you that it doesn't do as good a job as it would like to do and it doesn't have the authority to do the kind of job it would like to do, but I think that the state [school] superintendent with whom we have spoken and the chairman of the State Board of Education with whom we have spoken are quite ready and anxious to proceed on this basis.
We want the money used in the classroom, we want the money used where it can do the most good. We want the money to be used to teach the children, not to be used for new administrators, or new perks or any kind of facilities or that sort. That money is to be designated to be used so that text books are adequate, paper is adequate, equipment is adequate.
Q.You sound almost as if you're preaching a little bit? You've really become a believer?
A.I haven't just become a believer, I became a believer in this as I went through it over the three years and believe me, I am a believer. I'm convinced that this is right; I'm convinced that this should be done; I'm convinced it's in the best interests of the state of Maryland. I've lived her for 42-44 years. I've grown very fond of the state, I've gotten to know the state and I think the state deserves better than it has now and I think it's the responsibility of our elected officials to do something about it and not sit on their hands.
Q.The commission wants to expand the sales tax to cover many services that are not now taxed, including things like auto repairs and dry cleaning. Why did the commission not include lawyers, doctors and other professionals in the sales tax? Some people suggested that's because they have very powerful lobbies in Annapolis.
A.If they had attended any of the meetings of the commission, they would have heard very long and extended debates. The reason that was not done at this point was primarily through the recommendations of our various consultants. They said not to do it now because it would penalize industries that are mobile and could easily move out of the state . . . The lawyers don't have to have an office in Maryland in order to practice. They have to be admitted to the bar, but they don't have to have an office. Neither do accountants, neither do engineers, neither do architects. What we said was, "At this point, let's not impose that tax, but it should be reviewed regularly and at such time as any jurisdictions in the region consider imposing such a tax or impose such a tax, that we should impose such a tax at the same time."
Q.Some people suggest that this is the worst time you could have brought this report out, just because of the depressed economy. What do you think of that?
A.Well, I think that's very interesting, because when we first started we were told this was silly, this was unnecessary because we had a big [budget] surplus and there was no need for an additional look at the revenue. So when you have prosperity, you don't need the report, because there's money there and when you have a recession or downturn, you don't need the report because there's not money. The fact of the matter is you need these kinds of resources whether you're in a recession or in a period of prosperity.