What Legislature Says And Does Are 2 Different Things

THE WAY IT IS

Schaefer Ideasok'd When Not Seen As His

April 28, 1991|By Jeff Griffith

Gov. Schaefer: "Do it now!"

The legislature: "Mock it now; do it later!"

Now that the legislative session is over, can we assess the impact of Schaefer administration initiatives on legislative behavior?

The answer to that question seems to be, "Not exactly."

Part of the problem is that the leaders of the legislature say one thing and doanother.

And part of the problem is that the workings of the system are so labyrinthine that sometimes we simply can't determine how individuals voted.

Four new taxes passed in the just completed session: an excise tax on cigarettes; a sales tax on cigarettes; a capital gains tax; a sales tax on certain institutional foods (the "snack tax").

By far the most controversial of these is the "snack tax." What this perhaps misnamed levy does is close a perceived loophole in the sales tax on food. Prior to its passage certain food sales, including those in institutional cafeterias in hospitals and colleges, were exempt from the sales tax on other meals bought in restaurant-stylesettings.

When first proposed by the administration, this tax evoked a barrage of criticism.

Said John Cade, an influential leader of the Senate's Republican minority, "We're not going to be bamboozled into buying a tax that isn't needed."

"It's already in a cold grave," said Senate President Mike Miller.

"If you tax . . . candy and potato chips, voters will remember your name," said House Speaker Clayton Mitchell.

Yet when the final budget bill passed, the legislative leadership pushed this tax increase through. Why was the idea so bad when the governor advanced it -- and so good this year? Interesting . . . ideas get better when they aren't the governor's anymore.

Although the scenario is difficult to track exactly, Carroll's six representatives, to their everlasting credit, all voted against this and the other increases. What gets confusing is that three -- Lamotte, Haines and Smelser -- voted for the overall budget, while voting no on the tax increase package. As incredible as that may sound, these votes are consistent, since a vote for the budget did not require avote for the tax hikes.

How can that be? The budget bill includedprovisions that tied certain budget items to the increases. Thus, one could vote for the budget and against the tax increases on the premise that the latter vote was simply a vote to cut those items intended to be funded by the increases.

That these apparently disparate postures can be reconciled is but another sign of how incredibly convoluted the budgeting process has become. And, perhaps, a sign of the extent to which the legislative leadership complicates things in orderto avoid the appearance of cooperating with the governor.

Ironiesabound. While the members of the Carroll delegation acted consistently, the overall behavior of the legislature was schizophrenic.

Virtually all of the state's delegates and senators openly opposed the proposals advanced in the now legendary Linowes Commission report. Yettwo of the new taxes adopted, the excise and sales taxes on cigarettes, were part of the commission's recommendations. Why were those taxes so bad when the governor proposed them but so necessary in the end?

Why was the comprehensive reform outlined in Linowes so bad, when the legislature appears poised to adopt elements of the plan piecemeal and willy-nilly?

Don't columnists love to ask rhetorical questions? Don't elected officials hate to answer them?

For some key players the dilemma came down to a choice:

"Read my lips" or "Eat mywords."

For Sen. Laurence Levitan, chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, the option was the gastronomic. In January 1990, the senator predicted a coming fiscal year that would be "pretty good," and explained the leadership had told the governor "we were not going to support a tax." In March, the senator, in supporting thepreviously unacceptable tax increases admitted, "We've run out of options."

Can we expect more tax increases?

Think, "Eat my words."

Can we expect a comprehensive tax reform that revamps our state's archaic and unfair tax system?

Read my lips.

What's your opinion? Please write to Letters to the editor, The Carroll County Sun, 15 E. Main St., Westminster, MD 21157-5052. FAX: 876-0233.

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