Hayden Confronts Reality

February 25, 1992

It is tempting to stick pins in Roger B. Hayden, to mock the Baltimore County executive for flip-flopping by supporting new taxes, to charge him with political misrepresentation for claiming that his campaign pledge to hold down taxes referred to the property levy and not income or sales taxes.

That noted, it must also be said that Mr. Hayden is heading down the right path. He is shaking lose from anti-tax absolutists and searching for a balance between pared-down government and properly funding schools, police, fire and other necessary services. He is doing a George Bush switch on the local level.

It is a pragmatic approach that residents of the metropolitan area apparently prefer. The Sun Poll released this week showed that Marylanders are more willing to pay taxes to fund essential services than was previously believed.

Baltimore County faces a $14 million deficit this fiscal year and triple that in the next budget. Unless the gap is confronted, the county won't have money to hire new teachers or fund vacant education slots to serve the 4,000 additional children coming into the system.

Mr. Hayden, a no-show in Annapolis for the first half of this legislative session, is now calling on the state to allow local governments to increase the piggyback tax they receive from Maryland's income tax, or to get new money from a penny boost in the sales tax. Support from Baltimore County would add steam to the piggyback option already building in some quarters in the State House.

Ironically, the man Mr. Hayden drove from office, Dennis F. Rasmussen, while not known for scrupulous management, took a controversial stand two years ago in calling for greater control xTC for the locals over their purse-strings. In 1990, he suggested increasing the piggyback tax to local government while lowering the property tax, a more regressive source of income. For his plan and other actions, he got drummed from office.

Mr. Hayden isn't even proposing a corresponding drop in the property tax, just added sales or income tax revenues. His mid-session S.O.S. to the legislature smacks of weather vane policy-making or some needed post-election enlightenment.

The executive will be condemned by some for proposing higher taxes after painting himself into an anti-tax corner and commended by others for having the courage to change course in a storm. His approach is indicative of lessons evolving in this hard recession: Local government must get leaner, more disciplined and fiscally more viable.

However Mr. Hayden arrived at this intellectual juncture, a better balance between cutting and spending is the right way to go. Before long, he must make known a long-term strategy to fund local government -- a duty the legislature shares.

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