Getting Serious about Tax Reform

June 17, 1991

After declaring a Schaefer administration tax package "dead on arrival" earlier this year, General Assembly leaders now are resuscitating the notion of tax reform. If deliberations proceed on schedule, there could be broad consensus on a tax package to present to the 1992 legislative session.

What a change in attitude! The cries of "no more taxes" from legislators have died down, perhaps because of the pounding Maryland's treasury has taken from the recession. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have spent much of the last six months scrambling to balance the state budget, which has been thrown into chaos by the continuing plunge in revenues.

The situation isn't expected to improve any time soon: A $150 million deficit already is projected for the fiscal year that starts July 1. This bleak outlook persuaded Messrs. Miller and Mitchell that even with big cuts in current spending, the state's tax structure is inadequate to fund the growing list of programs underwritten by Annapolis.

So the two leaders have instructed four legislative committees to undertake a major analysis of state spending, state revenues and state aid for local governments. Proposals are due Jan. 1, 1992.

It is encouraging that the Assembly's top officials are also requesting a close examination of "existing disparities between local jurisdictions." Maryland's poorest subdivisions are floundering, unable to give their citizens decent schooling or other public services that are taken for granted in most Maryland counties. Legislators have to find a way to narrow this gap between the rich and poor subdivisions.

An impartial review of the state's future financial requirements could stagger many lawmakers. When a tally is made of funds that will be needed to care for the poor, the homeless, substance abuse, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, troubled juveniles, the elderly, higher education, public safety, environmental programs, economic development and transportation, the total should be breathtaking. Changes in the state's tax structure, especially its large sales tax and personal income tax components may prove unavoidable.

The work of the governor's Linowes commission, which was so rudely derided by legislative leaders in January, now will be studied in detail. It is rich in thoughtful research and expert analyses of Maryland's tax system. Legislators ought to feel free to "crib" off the panel's work and use the Linowes recommendations as a starting point for their own deliberations.

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