The Wheel That Squeaks Not Gets No Grease


October 14, 1991|By TIM BAKER

Where is Maryland's higher-education lobby? The University of Maryland System has 130,000 students, 9,100 faculty members, 16,000 administrators and other employees, thousands of alumni and parents, and a prominent Board of Regents. These people live and vote in every legislative district in the state.

Don't forget the many constituents of Morgan State University and St. Mary's College. Add the executives and employees from the hundreds of Maryland businesses which sell goods and services to the state's 13 campuses. What about all the technology companies which need something better than second-rate research universities and a third-world work force?

Why haven't these groups arrayed themselves into a powerful statewide alliance to protect the interests of higher education in Maryland? Why have we hardly heard a peep from them while our public colleges and universities have taken a budgetary clubbing in the last 12 months?

Look at what other groups do. When the governor suggested cutting 83 state-police positions, the law-enforcement lobby sprang into action. Headlines blared. Talk shows squawked. Armed state troopers poured into Annapolis and glared down at their legislators from the galleries above the House and Senate chambers. The 11,700 members of the state's Fraternal Order of Police ran newspaper ads opposing any reductions in state, county or city police departments. After listening to the uproar, the governor and the legislature talked it over and agreed to cut somewhere else.

The state troopers know how to take care of themselves. Apparently, the people in higher education don't. In the last year the system has meekly submitted to five budget cuts, totaling $114 million, or 18 percent, which cumulatively have driven funding below the levels which existed before the ballyhooed 1988 reorganization. The system has cut 597 full-time positions and 766 part-time ones. It will now start to furlough its remaining employees and raise tuitions by 15 percent.

Students haven't marched on Annapolis. Professors, administrators and employees haven't jammed galleries and hearing rooms. Businessmen from Maryland's knowledge-based industries haven't complained. Alumni haven't objected. The regents haven't said a word.

Why not? Where are you? Wake up. Our chances of building a nationally renowned university system have just about disappeared.

Are the regents a bunch of political eunuchs who won't stand up to the governor? Do professors all live in ivory towers? Do the students spend all their time at fraternity parties? Aren't there any political scientists in the system who know how to organize political pressure?

Maybe a higher-education lobby needs a target around which to rally. OK. Here's something to mobilize the troops.

Every year the state collects some $200 million in corporate income taxes. But unlike sales taxes and individual income taxes, the corporate tax revenues don't all go into the state's general fund -- the pool of state money which the budgetary process annually divides among health, education, public safety, environment and other programs.

Instead, the state automatically diverts about 40 percent of its corporate income tax revenues into the Transportation Trust Fund, out of which comes the money for roads, the port, the airport and all other capital, operating and debt service expenses of the Department of Transportation. The gas tax and titling taxes pump over $700 million a year into the fund. But the diversion of corporate tax funds adds a lot -- $85 million in 1990 and $93 million in 1991. Next year, it might reach $100 million.

Apologists struggle to articulate a rationale for this diversion. They lamely explain that business benefits from a good transportation system.

Of course it does. So do farmers, workers, rich people, poor people and everyone else. Business also benefits from good schools, first-rate universities and a sound public-health system. But these programs must compete for their appropriations in the annual budget negotiations which divide up the money in the general fund. Transportation enjoys dedicated tax revenue streams.

No economic, fiscal or rational policy justification exists for the diversion of corporate income tax revenues into the state's transportation system. In fact, no other state does it. Maryland should finance its transportation needs exclusively with dedicated user fees like the gas tax.

The diversion began in the 1950s when the old Baltimore City Port Authority needed help. It's continued year after year -- not because it has a persuasive argument but because it's backed by a powerful constituency, the transportation lobby.

Of course, the transportation trust fund now depends on the corporate-tax diversion. If the state stopped it, the fund would go bust. But a rational economic policy would raise gas taxes to fill the gap. Maybe a few economics professors could explain these matters to House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., who has

personally stopped all attempts to increase the gas tax.

In the meantime, the political system fires professors, raises student tuition and also cuts back Head Start programs -- all in order to subsidize motorists.

That's enough political ammunition to arm any self-respecting group willing to fight for its interests. The only question is whether the people who ought to care about higher education in Maryland will, finally, rise to the challenge.

F: Tim Baker writes a column on issues of city and state.

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