Bleeding from the budget ax, Baltimoreans packed a state budget hearing yesterday to voice a novel plea: Tax me, please.
About 800 people showed up at the Polytechnic Institute last night to tell a panel of legislators how to resolve Maryland's budget crisis. It was the third of five such hearings legislators are holding around the state before grappling with a $1 billion-plus shortfall over the next 18 months.
The crowd was dominated by advocacy groups and institutions, but parents, residents, religious leaders and students also took their turn at the microphone to make the same case: Maryland can't afford to keep cutting programs for people.
"I'm here to tell you that I want you to raise my taxes," said Edward Sommerfeldt, a longtime Baltimore resident who teaches at Coppin State College. As a state employee, Mr. Sommerfeldt said he has already had to give up five days of pay -- but is willing to pay more for health and education programs.
"These cuts won't heal," said George Buntin, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Please, do the right thing."
Legislators said the message was similar to what they had heard in the two hearings held earlier this week in Rockville and Annapolis. Last night, with 153 people signed up to speak, anti-tax voices were few and far between.
The need to make education and children's needs a priority came up again and again. Tax reform was the catch phrase. The crowd, swollen with about 300 members of the church-based group Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development (BUILD), was vocal and often angry. And everybody had a story to tell.
Scott Ross, a 17-year-old student at Southwestern High School, said he had to spend class time copying notes from the blackboard because his school can't afford enough textbooks.
Jaclyn Gaines, executive director of Health Care for the Homeless, told of the triumph of finding an affordable home for a homeless man who now faces eviction because of a cut in state aid to the poor.
John L. Brown, a teacher in city schools, told legislators of a foreign language class with 54 students and schools that get painted once every 17 years. He passed around a poster with photos showing peeling paint, leaky faucets, faulty electrical fixtures and missing floor tiles.
Eamon Pac, a 7-year-old from Gardenville Elementary, said his school needs more computers -- and a fair shake from the legislature.
"Everybody knows that in Baltimore City and in some of the counties in our state, the children who live there get way less money from our government than kids who live in other, wealthier places in Maryland," said Eamon, standing on a chair to reach the microphone. "I wish things could be more fair."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he has been surprised by how few speakers at the hearings have opposed new taxes. But he said that message may change as the hearings move into the more rural communities of the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland. Hearings will be held on the Eastern Shore today and in Hagerstown Monday. Mr. Miller said legislators plan to meet with the governor Tuesday to shape their plan.
"I think there's more of a sentiment now to relieve pain," Mr. Miller said. "But I don't believe that there will be a sentiment for a tax increase until the General Assembly goes through the process of cutting the fat."