Marylanders are living on the edge.
Daily we read of budget cuts, layoffs and furloughs. We are bombarded with stories of people who are homeless, workers losing their jobs and families whose lives are being turned upside down. In such troubling times, our political leaders have a unique opportunity to brighten the future for all Marylanders.
Be assured, Maryland will surface from the recession. The service part of the state's economy is likely to continue to grow, but remember, entry-level salaries in this sector mean a lower tax base, more employees without company health insurance benefits and a greater demand for already scarce affordable housing. Many households will face greater pressures just to pay for energy and food.
The statistical snapshot of poverty is already grim: One in six Marylanders now lives in or near poverty, up from one in nine a decade ago. Without meaningful intervention now, the potential of household poverty tomorrow is staggering.
Programs that have traditionally addressed the needs of the poor are being squeezed. Federal assistance to the states has been slashed, while the number of programs mandated by the federal government has increased. There are not enough concrete federal efforts nor dollars to make up for a decade of deficiencies.
Maryland has made some progress to address the issues of basic human need. Yet, to reduce the soaring deficit in social programs, a much greater resolve is needed at federal, state and local levels. Maryland itself must make a greater investment in human capital to assure that the future of our businesses, our communities and our state is strong and vibrant. Now is not the time for the state to abdicate its responsibility for funding social programs, especially as reliance on them surges. Leaders must continue to press the federal government to match money for mandates but must not shift the state's economic burdens to local governments.
There is some reason for hope. The last major overhaul of Maryland's tax structure, which has served us well, occurred 25 years ago. State legislators have now embarked on their own study of tax reform after tabling the Linowes Commission report. We encourage our legislators to be bold and seize the opportunity to place Maryland on solid ground into the 21st century.
The Maryland Alliance for the Poor, a coalition of groups that advocates on behalf of Marylanders lacking the basic necessities for a decent life, believes the state has an obligation to provide services effectively and efficiently to its citizens in a manner that places the least burden on those least able to pay. We believe there are fundamental principles on which tax reform must be based:
* A new tax proposal must produce significant new revenue. Painfully evident in these difficult economic times, Band-Aid approaches do not serve long-term needs. The state must adopt long-term objectives toward solving problems and revamp the tax structure to produce sufficient revenue to meet these objectives.
* The net effect of tax restructuring must be progressive. Certain taxes are easier to levy than others. Basic to a fair tax system is that the share of income paid out in taxes be according to one's ability to pay. New funds must be generated carefully, with mindful attention to the net effect on moderate and low-income wage earners. A more progressive tax system must include a more progressive income tax structure.
Other proposals we believe advance these goals include extending the renter's tax credit program (currently available to the elderly and handicapped) to low-income households and exempting from state income taxes families and individuals with incomes up to 125 or 150 percent of the poverty level. Providing a sales tax credit is yet another option.
* Tax reform must provide for the needs of all Marylanders. From the Washington suburbs to Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore and the Baltimore metropolitan area, Maryland citizens have the same basic needs. A tax reform proposal must enable local government to provide essential services.
We pray elected officials and citizens have the foresight and determination to set Maryland on the right course. Equitable tax relief and reform are the essential guideposts to mark this path. Meeting the needs of our most vulnerable citizens must be at the forefront of the difficult decisions to be made in the months ahead.
Lynda E. Meade is director of social concerns for Associated Catholic Charities. Shelly Hettleman is director of government relations of the Baltimore Jewish Council.