High Noon in Annapolis?

April 03, 1992

Isn't it time for Maryland House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, D-Kent, and Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, to turn fists into handshakes and avoid the kind of showdown that can only lead to budget deadlock? Precious little time remains to shape a state tax and spending plan. The two men ought to be quietly negotiating -- not issuing ultimatums.

If the two leaders were to stop posturing and start searching for common ground, Maryland's continuing budget crisis might end in a hurry. There is ample room for accommodating both sides in the proposals being bandied about, including the latest, slimmed-down tax offering now on the floor of the state Senate.

We continue to favor steps to broaden the state's 5 percent sales tax to encompass more middle-class services; to end loopholes in the sales tax coverage; to make the income tax more progressive, and to impose far higher "sin taxes" on cigarettes, liquor, wine and beer. A nickel increase in the gasoline tax also is essential to spur the state economy through more road-building in heavily congested regions.

All of these objectives are within reach of the House and Senate negotiators. They are not that far apart. Flexibility must prevail. If the Senate insists that a new 6 percent bracket for incomes over $100,000 be made temporary, why quibble? The same with the corporate tax hike proposed by the House. We'll know in a year or two if the state can truly afford to forgo these added revenues.

Nor should legislative negotiators get bogged down in specific sales tax exemptions: the broader the sales-tax coverage, the fairer it will be for all Marylanders. Surely, the lawmakers can see the equity in such an approach.

Conferees also have to agree on an aid package for the city and counties. If the counties are to gain the right to hike their piggyback income tax by 20 percent, a disparity grant must be approved for poor subdivisions that gain little from the higher tax. And this equity grant should be large enough to prevent a wider chasm from developing between the state's haves and have-nots.

There is no reason Messrs. Mitchell and Levitan cannot hammer out a sensible tax plan that has enough support in both chambers to assure passage. But time is running out. We urge these two men, who have displayed far more statesmanship and courage than other so-called leaders in the Assembly, to strike a budget deal today. They could be flirting with disaster if they let this deadlock persist into the weekend.

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