Public confusion on taxes

January 14, 1992

If state legislators are looking to constituents for guidance on tax and spending issues, they're out of luck. A University of Baltimore poll shows that Marylanders are deeply divided on these questions. Slightly more than a third want to raise taxes; slightly less than a third want to cut services and most of the rest want to do both. How's that for a murky mandate?

Or take another survey, undertaken by the Maryland division of the American Automobile Association, which found that nearly as many club members favor a rise in the gasoline tax as oppose it. No clear signal there, either.

Marylanders, it seems, are as confused and torn by the options as are their elected representatives. Yet senators and delegates in the State House will have to come up with a solution to the state's $1.2 billion shortfall during the next three months. That's what they were elected to do.

Most Marylanders, though, don't have much faith that their legislators are up to the job. In the UB poll, a whopping 85 percent said government efforts to solve problems are only fair or poor. And 63 percent of poll respondents said that state government wastes a lot of their money. Public confidence in government and elected officials continues to sag.

There are some helpful hints in these results if legislators get serious about cutting spending and hiking taxes. The favored tax to raise is the sales tax; the programs favored for cuts are parks, arts and local government. Respondents also gave strong evidence that a new income-tax bracket for high-income earners would gain wide acceptance.

Still, these poll results leave state lawmakers in an uncomfortable position. Respondents in the UB poll are sending mixed signals. But maybe that's exactly what should be happening. It means state senators and delegates will have to summon the courage to do what is best for Maryland's fiscal stability -- and, in the end, that is the only way for elected officials to reverse the dreadfully poor public perception of the state legislature.

This could mean making deep and unpopular cuts in programs that used to be regarded as sacrosanct. It also could mean voting for higher taxes if that is the only way to avoid Draconian cuts in essential state programs. Either way, a sizable portion of the public will object. That much is clear from the UB poll. So for once, members of the General Assembly will have to rise above petty politics and act like statesmen, casting their votes without regard to the clamor and protests that are sure to surround them.

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