Schaefer TV speech reveals tax strategy: Let others do talking

December 22, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith

A year ago, shoving aside all advice to the contrary, Gov. William Donald Schaefer demanded an $800 million tax increase. He wanted to do more than balance his budget. He wanted to address unmet social needs. He promised a new, fairer tax structure.

Almost no one bought it.

"He got battered," said Delegate J. Anita Stup, a Frederick Republican who rode into the General Assembly in 1990 on the still-cresting wave of anti-incumbent, anti-government sentiment.

A year later, with mistrust of government undiminished, Governor Schaefer has gone before Marylanders with a different approach.

While he says the needs are greater and the deficit deeper, the message he delivered on prime time television last Tuesday did not include a call for new or higher taxes. A man well-known for imposing his own view, Mr. Schaefer asked only that the voters consider the problems and reach their own conclusions.

This time, other people did the talking about taxes for him. Many remained adamantly opposed to paying more. Some doubted that the problem is as severe as Mr. Schaefer says. But this time, he had allies.

* State Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, said he thinks the state will have to have more revenue after it makes what he called "symbolic" budget cuts. The car phones will have to go, along with some cars -- and some of the people who drive the cars.

But the senator assumed in his remarks that Maryland must have new or higher taxes. When the symbolic and the substantive cuts are made, he said, the state will still face a $500 million-$600 million deficit. His own preference: a one or two-year surcharge on income tax.

* Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, clearly disappointed that taxes had not been mentioned by the governor, said he hoped the state would have the benefit of some leadership on this difficult issue. The suggestion that Mr. Schaefer had not quite measured up to the mayor's expectations was understandable -- but the governor may well have provided what Mr. Schmoke wants by declining to discuss taxes.

* The wife of an unemployed electrician asked, "How are you supposed to spend money if you don't have a job? I don't have any money, so how can I spend it?" At the same time, her husband said he was resigned to seeing a tax increase.

Frederick's Delegate Stup hears similar talk from people who do have jobs. The problem, she said, is fear of the economic future. "If they have fifty bucks in the bank," she said, "they're afraid to part with it."

Mr. Schaefer spoke somewhat gloomily about the need for optimism, for collective problem-solving and for a redefinition of state government.

A master of marshaling public opinion when he was mayor of Baltimore, Mr. Schaefer has isolated himself in Annapolis from a legislature more responsive to the public than to the chief executive. Last year when he was promoting the big tax program, his own lieutenant governor, Melvin A. Steinberg, deserted him.

Frank Traynor, the governor's press aide, said Mr. Schaefer had no objective when he spoke on television last week beyond giving the public needed information. "He felt a moral mandate," Mr. Traynor said, "to speak directly to the citizens, many of whom had questions he personally had to answer for them: How did we get into this mess? How can we get out? What are the challenges for the future? How can we handle recovery?"

By Friday, Mr. Traynor and his staff had taken 315 calls in response to the speech, he said, adding that the calls fell into three categories: a third wanted to thank him for answering their questions; a third had ideas for saving money; a third wanted to know about the likelihood of new or higher taxes.

"Clearly, there's no mandate for a tax increase," Mr. Traynor concluded.

In the Assembly's leadership circles, legislators are telling Mr. Schaefer they agree that more taxes are unavoidable. Yet, a House leader told him: "We couldn't get more than 50 votes if we were holding a gun to people's heads."

"Right now," says Delegate Stup, agreeing with this view, "I'm not inclined to support any taxes. People are still telling me no. But that could change overnight, depending on what is cut."

Calls for optimism aside, she said, public opinion will swing toward taxes if people feel the financial problems as directly as the governor does.

Though Mr. Schaefer has had his moments of anger, generally he has seemed almost tranquil -- almost willing, despite his own preference for raising revenues, to accept the will of the voters. -- He has been sympathetic to the legislature's personal and political fears.

An aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said Mr. Schaefer has spoken of the task before him as if it were a mission.

He told the members of his Cabinet one day: "I wondered why all these bad things were going on and it came to me: Maybe I'm the one who's going to lead us out of it . . ."

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