Lobbyists ply lawmakers with helping after helping of 'don't-tax-us'

January 30, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Don't tax us, said the cable TV lobbyist. It will only hurt the middle class and the poor who watch us the most.

Don't tax us, said the liquor lobbyist. It will only reduce consumption, and that will mean less revenue, not more. Besides, a drink now and then still has medicinal qualities.

Don't tax us, said the newspaper lobbyist. That will only force small newspapers to do their printing outside the state and drive some free newspapers out of business.

Don't tax us, said the cigarette lobbyist. Why should one product carry such a disproportionate share of the tax burden?

Don't tax us, said the anti-tax group. Maryland taxpayers are already taxed enough.

For hours yesterday, a small army of lobbyists -- a few of them volunteers, but most of them paid professionals -- took turns appearing before a joint hearing to comment on dozens of tax permutations from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, legislative leaders, and a long list of rank-and-file senators and delegates.

At issue are bills that would raise the state's sales tax rate, close sales tax exemptions, or expand the sales tax base to include currently untaxed services.

Other bills would raise income taxes for wealthy Marylanders, increase taxes on various businesses and boost "sin taxes" on alcohol and tobacco. Several bills would permit Baltimore and the 23 counties to raise their local "piggyback" income tax rates from 50 percent of what the state collects to a maximum of 60 percent.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and House Ways and Means Committee set aside eight hours yesterday and another eight today to hear anyone who had anything to say about raising, or not raising, taxes.

But the first day's turnout was relatively small and fairly predictable. It consisted mostly of tax bill sponsors and the lobbyists who were paid to oppose them.

Other interests were also represented. Teachers and advocacy groups for children, for the retarded, and for drug and alcohol abusers all said they could live with higher taxes if the money went to the programs on which they depend.

Del. Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, and Baltimore County gadfly John O'Neill bracketed the day's discussion. Mr. Davis pushed for passage of the broadest tax increase of the day, a soup-to-nuts plan that would raise $734 million in new revenue and continue or expand government programs damaged by the recent free fall of state tax revenue.

But Mr. O'Neill, the vocal president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, flatly told lawmakers to live within the money they have, and criticized them for taking so long to decide what to do.

"We see no need for any tax increase," he said.

Others fell in between. Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Maryland Chamber and Economic Development Associates, stuck the toe of the state's largest business organization into the icy tax waters, but not very far.

He cautioned the assembly against permanent tax increases or tax restructuring in the midst of a recession. He said the most that state businesses could withstand was a "clearly temporary tax" -- a surcharge of no more than 10 percent on personal and corporate income taxes.

Some witnesses grumbled privately that yesterday's hearing was too broad and included so many bills that there was no way to explain, much less discuss, how a specific measure would affect a business or industry.

Several witnesses said they feared legislative leaders would concoct their own plan in private and begin pushing it through the legislature without benefit of further public hearings.

"It's a pain in the neck," said Dennis C. McCoy, a lobbyist representing tobacco, liquor and newspaper interests and one of at least 74 witnesses who signed up yesterday.

Their turn did not even begin until two dozen legislators had spent three hours explaining their bills.

"You know the people you are talking to are numbed by so much information from so many people," Mr. McCoy said. "You're not talking about the specifics of bills, but concepts. [But] it's the specifics that often damage your client."

Ways and Means Chairman Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, said he was not surprised by the small turnout, saying most of the issues have been discussed in public before.

"Time is getting short. We've talked and talked and talked, and looked and looked and looked. Now it is time for us to decide," he said.

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