Linowes sees his message -- raise taxes -- finally getting through

November 18, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith

The man who would make Maryland taxes fairer -- and, yes, raise them -- found himself on the edge of the economic and social precipice last week.

He was driving onto the College Park campus of the University of Maryland to deliver a lecture. He saw students demonstrating and teachers declaiming. He heard them denouncing the budget cuts -- $40 million in two years at an institution that had been earmarked for massive budget increases.

R. Robert Linowes, chairman of a commission that studied Maryland's tax structure and recommended a massive overhaul, found himself in agreement with the demonstrators.

"Our university is being decimated," he said. "We were making such great strides, headed toward becoming one of the greatest public universities in the country. Now we have to backtrack."

Nor was that the only doomsday sign on Mr. Linowes' horizon.

"Look what's happening to our public schools. Can you imagine that in Montgomery County they're talking about classroom sizes of 30 and35 when it was heresy here to talk of classes of 25? This recession is hurting everybody," he said.

Although the legislature has shoved his commission's proposals back beyond the back burner, Mr. Linowes said during an interview that the signs he sees are beginning to register with everyone. The need for fairer -- and, yes, higher -- taxes is sinking in, he said.

"I think we're further along. Of course, the legislature would prefer not to raise taxes. But there is a realization that there isn't much more that can be cut. There isn't much more suffering that can be endured," he said.

Stronger legislative leadership is needed, he said. Gov. William DonaldSchaefer has favored a Linowes-like proposal in the past but is moving now to balance the budget by cutting aid to local governments that, in places such as Baltimore, are closing schools, libraries and firehouses.

"I think the governor has given us leadership," Mr. Linowes said. "But it's been ignored and it's been turned aside up to now."

"If the legislature doesn't realize the need for changes in the tax structure and the people there aren't willing to take the &r leadership, I don't know what else can be done. I am afraid you get the kind of government you deserve."

He said he believes that the Linowes Commission study, developed at a cost of $250,000 from 1987 to 1990, could be sold politically.

If he were selling a comprehensive tax restructuring to a reluctant legislature, he said, he would argue that Marylanders are ready to listen.

"For the first time, people realize there ain't a Santa Claus or an Easter Bunny to save us. For the first time, they realize that Uncle Sam is not providing means to do it and that we can't continue to borrow our way out," he said.

He would try to sell his plan, or a variation of it, on its original terms, as a fairer approach and as an increase in funds that Maryland must have to deal with urgent problems that have been neglected, from schools to the crumbling roads, sewers and other infrastructure.

The income tax must be made more progressive, the sales tax must be increased and broadened, and a number of other levies must be considered, he said.

"Our commission's goal was a fairer tax structure that would provide means for those who are best able to bear a larger burden to bear one. Those who have the ability to pay should pay," he said.

"It's not a fair distribution and not an equitable system," he said.

Mr. Linowes, a wealthy zoning lawyer who has been active in the civic and business life of Maryland and the District of Columbia, said he hopes the association of his name with taxes has not become a liability. But some legislators see any link between Mr. Linowes and new proposals for raising revenue as fatal.

"I'm here, and I'm not reticent about saying what I have to say. If they don't like what I have to say, it's just too bad. They're not going to fire me," Mr. Linowes said. Then he added, "I don't think I'd run for governor the next time."

What he worries about now, he said, is the possibility of half-measures, that "a patchwork will be used to treat the cancer."

He said he shuddered to hear that legislators' only proposal had been a penny increase in the sales tax. The goal of fairness would be vitiated by that approach, he said, since sales taxes hit the poor and the middle class much harder than the wealthy.

"What concerns me is that the Assembly might take the path of least resistance. What we must do is spread the burden," he said.

Mr. Linowes said he also fears proposals that would shift tax-raising authority to the counties, leaving the wealthier ones to raise taxes as they see fit while poorer ones remained dependent on state aid.

"What that does is encourage the disparities that already exist between counties. Where do they get the money, and how much would we have to pump in to handle the disparities that would be created by this one action? If you increase [local taxes], you're just aggravating the problems," he said.

He sees in such proposals something of a sink-or-swim approach.

"What it means is you're going to have more sinking than are able to swim. The economies in even the wealthier counties have been badly hit. Montgomery County has been facing a $180 million deficit. How are they going to cover that?"

Growth is not the immediate answer, he said. He said Marylanders should prepare themselves for three to five more difficult years.

"In my own planning, I figure we'll be in recession for another three years. It will take five years before we see perceptible change," he said.

Mr. Linowes said he hopes Marylanders and their elected representatives are ready to move out of "the euphoria" they have indulged in for the last decade.

"What will they do? I don't know. I want to believe they will face reality," he said.

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