The budget show

December 09, 1991

Maryland taxpayers are caught in a frustrating bind. Despite the enormous federal tax cuts of 1981, they are not paying less in real terms than before the Reagan revolution. In fact, the cut in personal income taxes was more than offset by a steep rise in Social Security payroll taxes and increased state and local taxes that came about because, as the feds went on a borrowing binge in the '80s, fewer federal dollars trickled down to the states.

In recent months, Americans have felt increased tax pressures and a decrease in services simultaneously, and they attributed it to waste in state and local spending. But having booted out the tax-and-spend rascals last November, Marylanders are discovering the problem was indeed broader.

With the state budget pared to the bone and a sixth round of budget cuts totaling another $220 million on the horizon, a special legislative panel has taken the budget show on the road, asking citizens what they want, what they need and, most important, what the state should do.

The first of five scheduled hearings hinted at consensus: 50 people testified about the devastating impact of budget cuts on health and education programs, and on housing and mental health services, whose viability is now in question. Similar testimony was given at a hearing on the Eastern Shore last Thursday, and we would not be surprised if the same sentiment dominates the remaining hearings. All Marylanders have been touched in some way by the fiscal erosion.

While it is clear that the state desperately needs more money, and that the national deficit makes the federal government an unlikely partner, it is still a big political risk to support a tax increase of any kind. Even so, on Thursday Governor Schaefer tackled the issue, suggesting that he would support tax increases and hinting that another round of budget cuts will make the tax alternative more attractive than a budget ax that lays waste to state programs and services. He's right: Maryland needs a tax increase of some sort just to stand still.

The budget road show is not a call for big tax-and-spend programs, but for citizens to face fiscal facts, hammer out collective priorities and give lawmakers the mandate they need to translate them into rational public policy. Voters have been seduced for a decade into believing they need not pay for the services they demand from government. Whatever else happens, that era is over.

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