Citizens seem baffled, not unlike their leaders

January 29, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Annapolis dentist Joseph I. Shevenell says he knows what he thinks, and he thinks the state should tighten its belt and avoid raising taxes.

Then why, Dr. Shevenell, did you raise your hand when your state senator asked whether he should vote for higher taxes?

"I went along with raising taxes because I didn't want to see the services cut to the degree they would be if they didn't raise some money. But I'm personally not in favor of raising the taxes," Dr. Shevenell said.

It's the kind of mixed message from constituents that is filling legislators' mailbags this year.

Dr. Shevenell was one of several dozen voters from the 30th legislative district who accepted Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad's invitation to a question-and-answer session last week. Only this time Mr. Winegrad was asking the question: What should I do? "Don't raise our taxes."

"Don't cut our services."

"Trim government waste."

"Don't touch education aid."

"We think government is too large."

"Can you do something about my problem?"

The conflicting advice has confused lawmakers and paralyzed decision-making in Annapolis, as legislators wrestle with a budget deficit that could reach $1.2 billion unless they do something about it.

After months of hearings and trial ballons, legislative leaders are developing a comprehensive budget and tax plan. But they're giving the issue one more public airing.

Starting at 1 p.m. today and stretching through 9 p.m. tomorrow they have blocked out 18 hours to hear what anyone -- individual, organization, elected official -- wants to say about taxes.

They hope the unusual two-day extravaganza will convince them they can develop a politically acceptable tax and budget cut plan, or tell them that their original instincts were correct: No matter what they do, they're in trouble.

Many lawmakers feel imprisoned by the cold, harsh budget numbers before them. And most feel they can't explain the state's complex financial problems to an electorate already suspicious that government wastes money and raises taxes whenever it runs out of cash. Many are looking for what House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, calls the "no-pain alternative." But that's the only choice they won't find on the menu.

Mr. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, was so baffled over how to vote that he invited Dr. Shevenell and 70 or 80 other constituents to a free-wheeling discussion of budget issues last week. More than 30 showed up and stayed for more than three hours.

While the group included a few longtime Winegrad supporters, it was fairly representative of his comfortable Annapolis-area district: a wholesale car dealer, a doctor, a nurse, the owner of a tire company; a law student and paraplegic; the owner of an oyster house, a grocer; a retired college president, a real estate agent, a housewife, a developer; a couple of neighborhood association leaders and an Annapolis alderman. All but two were white. Most were Democrats.

Mr. Winegrad said he wanted to give the group the same budget information he had and ask them what they would do in his place. He even had the legislature's chief budget adviser brief the citizens just as he briefs legislative committees, walking them line-by-line through the same complex budget documents.

Then Mr. Winegrad put the issues to a vote: Would you support a tax increase? Do you favor expanding the sales tax base or raising the rate or both? Or neither? Should Marylanders who earn more than $100,000 have to pay a higher income tax? Should a huge increase in education aid scheduled for this year be cut back because of the poor economy?

Mr. Winegrad said he was surprised at some of the responses.

* A 2-to-1 majority were like Dr. Shevenell: reluctantly convinced that some sort of tax increase, coupled with deep spending cuts, is necessary to balance the budget. Only four members of the group said they opposed higher taxes under any circumstances.

* Most agreed that spending on aid programs to the counties and Baltimore City mandated by law were out of control and had to be cut sharply, even if that meant that giving local governments authority to increase "piggyback" income tax rates.

"We'd have a greater impact at the polling place" if taxes and spending are handled locally, rather than at the state or federal levels, Dr. Shevenell said.

* They also thought the rich should be taxed more. They supported a proposal to add a 6 percent income tax bracket for those earning $100,000 a year or more. The top rate now is 5 percent. One member of the focus group even suggested an even higher bracket for those earning $300,000 or more.

* A slight majority favored raising the sales tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent, but the vote was about even on proposals to expand the sales tax to some business services now exempt. At least two taxpayers complained that some businesses were being singled out for taxation, while others were getting a free ride.

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