No Help for the City

January 15, 1992

Baltimore City officials must feel like abandoned orphans in the State House these days. Everywhere they turn, someone else is sticking a knife in their backs. Even their friends aren't doing them any favors.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a devout city-lover, tried to help Baltimore in his state of the state address by announcing his plan for a diversion of 10 percent of the local piggyback income tax levy to the subdivision where each taxpayer is employed. This reformulation for distributing tax revenues would aid Baltimore and counties with big employment centers.

But the governor failed to consult with anyone in the legislature or other top government officials beforehand. Nor did he give details or specific dollar figures. This oversight proved fatal. The plan may have set a new record for early burials in Annapolis: it appears to be dead before arrival.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller could hardly wait for the governor's speech to end to mislabel the plan a "commuter tax" and declare his flat opposition. Helping Baltimore City never was mentioned. Mr. Miller's objective, once again, was to undercut the governor's legislative program.

Then Comptroller Louis Goldstein weighed in. The longtime tax collector, who jealously guards his turf, apparently was offended by the governor's failure to confer with him. Mr. Goldstein took the unusual step of sending letters to legislators warning of the dangers of the Schaefer plan, mentioning a phantom $200 million tax loss to the state.

And finally, Sen. Laurence Levitan, who runs that chamber's budget committee, said legislative leaders have ruled out the "commuter tax" idea.

So we know what these officials are against. But what are they for? How do they intend to give relief to the city and Maryland's poor counties?

The silence has been deafening. City legislators at least have a substitute proposal, similar to one endorsed by the Linowes commission, that would redistribute state aid to poor counties and the city based on a "disparity grant" formula. But no one seems to be listening to city lawmakers.

That is a mistake. Without the votes of city legislators and the support of the governor, coming up with a tax and budget-cutting plan to erase the state's $1.2 billion deficit will be virtually impossible. Some compromise must be found.

Beyond these political realities, state leaders have an obligation to act as statesmen in this time of fiscal crisis. Without new assistance from the state, Baltimore will continue to sink deeper into impoverishment, dragging the state down with it. Is that what Messrs. Miller, Goldstein and Levitan want? Now is the time for these state officials to end their destructive negativism and offer concrete, constructive plans for closing the budget shortfall and assisting the state's poorest jurisdictions. It is time for them to act like leaders.

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