Public prefers taxes, not cuts,poll indicates Combination of cuts,new taxes is preferred.

February 24, 1992|By John W. Frece and Sandy Banisky | John W. Frece and Sandy Banisky,Staff Writers

Citizens to legislators: Raise taxes and stop slashing state programs.

That's the clear message from Marylanders surveyed in The Sun Poll.

"People are seeing the state of Maryland going down the tubes," said John Gregory, a 48-year-old Perry Hall Middle School math teacher who was among the poll's respondents. "To prevent that from happening, I'd be willing to have them take a little more and get us going in the right direction."

Despite pressures brought on by the recession, two-thirds of the poll's respondents said they would rather see the General Assembly adopt a combination of budget cuts and tax increases than try to balance the budget exclusively through deep cuts in government spending.

Voters such as Baltimore nurse Renita Johnson would prefer to pay more than to see new reductions in health care for the poor, aid to schools and housing for the needy.

"I thought about it, and I thought: If it means these things won't get cut, then yes, I'll pay higher taxes," said Ms. Johnson, 23.

Katherine Jones, 35, a Frederick lawyer, said, "When you're in a recession, and you see what this has done to your neighbors and possibly could do to yourself, you'd like to see taxes raised and the money spent well."

The Sun Poll of 1,210 Maryland registered voters, taken Feb. 10 to 15, found most Marylanders don't intend to punish legislators for voting to raise taxes.

But the majority gave Gov. William Donald Schaefer poor marks for his handling of the fiscal crisis.

In follow-up interviews, voters criticized his spending and accused him of squandering the budget surplus he inherited on big-ticket projects.

Again and again, they pointed to the new Orioles' baseball stadium in Camden Yards as a symbol of wrong priorities.

Fifty percent of the voters rated the governor's handling of the state's financial situation "poor." Thirty-four percent said it was "fair." Only 1 percent gave him "excellent" scores.

Mr. Schaefer was philosophical: "They don't like me as a symbol. They have to blame someone," he said of his dismal rating from voters. "Anyone in office, whether it's a governor or a president, has a tough time now."

Over the past 1 1/2 years, as the national economy staggered, the State House has been struggling to bring order to a budget gone wildly out of control.

Government agencies have endured five rounds of cuts in state spending, amounting to $1.1 billion.Every emergency fund has been drained. Every department has been hit. More than 3,500 state jobs, most of them vacant, have been eliminated. Local governments, hit with the double whammy of state cutbacks and their own drops in local tax revenue, have laid off workers, shut libraries and trimmed services. And legislators are seeking ways to cope with mounting deficits.

Several people who were polled said Marylanders' problems are just too severe to sustain further cutbacks.

Ms. Jones, a Legal Aid lawyer who said she was speaking only for herself and not Legal Aid, said: "If the general population is seeing anything like what I see, they have to understand it costs money to keep people afloat, to keep people in their homes, to keep food in their mouths, to keep the electricity on."

She said she would be more likely these days to support a candidate who would raise taxes. "If legislators arbitrarily cut themselves off from that option, they're just not using their brains."

Indeed, the poll found that legislators who have been wringing their hands over the political consequences of raising taxes apparently should stop worrying.

Nearly half the voters polled said they would actually be more likely to vote for a legislator who votes to raise taxes, if the legislator says the additional revenue is needed to maintain government services. Only 30 percent said they'd be less likely to vote for a legislator who approved a tax increase.

Marylanders said they'd be willing to pay more taxes if the money went to schools, the drug war, housing for the homeless or programs for poor children -- with approval ranging from 74 percent to 89 percent.

Support for a tax increase coupled with budget cuts came from a majority of those polled in every region of the state.

Among those Marylanders who say they are still opposed to raising taxes, there was a common theme: State government is too big and -- despite the assertion by the governor and many legislators that state spending has been slashed to the bone -- there's still room to cut more.

"I really feel we could still do the job and take cuts in the budget, that there's excess, that there's fat all around," said the Rev. Dallas Bumgarner, 50, pastor of Elvaton Baptist Church in Millersville. "A year or two down the road, if we're still in a crunch, then I might reconsider [supporting a tax increase.]"

But voters like Mr. Bumgarner were in the minority. And Mr. Schaefer, who has been proposing tax restructuring and increases for two legislative sessions, called the poll results "a 100 percent vindication of what I have proposed in the past two years."

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