It's bound to be a taxing session

Frank A. DeFilippo

January 02, 1992|By Frank A. DeFilippo

WHEN the General Assembly convenes next Wednesday, the noise you hear will be the voice of the people. And the people come in only two flavors -- those who favor a tax increase, and those who don't.

The 1992 session will be a jarring collision of events and ideas as well as a competition for public dollars between those who would benefit the most and those who resist supporting programs and policies from which they derive no benefit at all.

And caught in the middle of the muddle are lawmakers with problems of their own, Governor Schaefer and Henry "Hank" Butta's Commission on Efficiency and Economy in Government.

For openers, Schaefer's being battered for limning a problem without posing a solution. One reason Schaefer didn't discuss taxes in his hearthside chat was the lack of a consensus among legislators or the consent of House Speaker Clayton Mitchell, D-Kent, for a tax increase. And chances are that when Schaefer delivers his early-bird state-of-the-state address on Thursday, he still won't have Mitchell's assenting wink.

To compound Schaefer's problems, his administration will not present the 1992 budget to the General Assembly until the end of January. It's supposedly because of mechanical problems, but the delay (perhaps deliberately) denies legislators ample time to review the spending program.

Legislators, for their part, are preoccupied with reapportionment, the decennial exercise in legislative mapmaking that makes or breaks careers and ignores zip codes for marriages of convenience. So take a good look at your senator and delegates. They may not be around very much longer

The governor presents the new map on the session's opening day. Legislators may alter the plan, but if it remains unchanged by the 45th day, it automatically becomes law in its original form.

The tough sell is in the Baltimore area, where for the first time joint city-county districts are being proposed and a new minority district is being drawn along the Liberty Road corridor in Baltimore County.

As for Butta's commission, which is largely a state Chamber of Commerce undertaking, it is veering in questionable new policy directions. The commission's initial report contained a recommendation that license tag fees be increased by $8. The new money, the commission said, should be "dedicated" to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

There's the rub. Maryland historically has avoided dedicated funds. Dedicated funds are dangerous. They're downright undemocratic. They open the state budget to rip-offs and wholesale cherry-picking by special interest groups. They are mandated programs by another name. And mandated programs are largely the reason for Maryland's $1.1 billion deficit.

The big question this session is whether to increase taxes. Many lawmakers are still reading the 1990 election results as a tax revolt. And everybody with a calculator has a solution to the money problem. There is sentiment for an additional penny (a 20 percent increase) on the sales tax along with the plugging of exemptions in the law.

And there is some feeling that the income tax base should be broadened and made more progressive, which in turn would allow counties to increase local piggyback taxes.

The city, noting that 200,000 workers pour into Baltimore every day from neighboring counties, is promoting a change in the tax law that would allow piggyback taxes to be paid where money is earned instead of where wage-earners live.

Another fanciful idea originating in Baltimore is the imposition of a commuter tax that would be offset by giving the counties latitude to apply higher piggyback taxes.

On the Republican side, there's a road show composed of Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, the House minority leader, and that ubiquitous nag, John O'Neill, of the Maryland Taxpayers League. Sauerbrey and O'Neill are circulating an alternative plan that would pull back on government spending in certain areas and impose no new taxes.

But in the end, the voices of reason are saying the budget cannot be balanced by either cutbacks or tax increases but only by a combination of the two.

As for Schaefer, he's a victim of the unintended consequences of a recession he had nothing to do with. His television homily on the budget was a blooper. He's being satirized on calendars and on tape. The polls say he ought to call a cab. He's at it again with those nasty letters to constituents (some including photos taken surreptitiously of them redressing their governor). Finally, Schaefer's watching 45 years of public service go down the toilet largely because voters believe he spent us into a hole.

So during this session, unlike others, the people may have the final say on Maryland's fiscal policy. Which side will prevail nobody yet knows. Power to the people.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on Maryland politics. E

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