Legislators, Mad at Press, Make Readers Pay

May 03, 1992|By MICHAEL J. DAVIES

We owe readers an apology.

In exercising our First Amendment rights to criticize editorially the performance of the General Assembly during its last session, we offended some legislators. In retribution, the assembly has slapped you, our readers, with a 5 percent tax on this and other newspapers.

Toward the end of the session, legislators pointedly said they intended to take punitive action against the press for its drumfire of criticism. "You'll pay for this," was the message.

Sadly, but more accurately, it is our readers who are paying, effective last Friday.

This is a delicate issue for the newspapers of Maryland. It can appear that we are whining because of a new tax against us, especially as The Sun editorially supported a well-conceived plan to raise more revenues.

But this isn't a dollars-and-cents issue for The Sun. It is principally about our readers' ability to find out what is going on in Annapolis.

In some other nations where the press was supposed to be free, in reality it has been controlled through the state-controlled allocation of newsprint and through taxation and bureaucracy. Like those governments and many others over the years that have tried to intimidate the press through heavy taxation and regulation, the Maryland General Assembly apparently doesn't put much stock in the free exchange of ideas.

Further evidence of the legislature's punitive intent is the fact that special tax exemptions were created for free-distribution newspapers, publications that usually take no editorial positions weak ones.

At the beginning of the legislative session, The Sun and other newspapers, understanding the state's need for increased revenues, reluctantly advocated a tax on over-the-counter sales of newspapers.

However, Maryland newspapers, large and small, adamantly opposed a tax on home-delivered newspapers and purchases from racks because it is clear from the experience of other states that it would cost more to administer than the tax would generate in new revenues. Other states that have considered such a tax either rejected the levy or rescinded it. Imagine the state attorney general dunning 12-year-old newspaper carriers because they haven't filed this month's tax return.

State tax officials advised the General Assembly not to tax home delivery or rack sales for that precise reason. Legislators understood, and it appeared that an agreement had been struck.

However, stung by newspaper criticism of their miserable performance and desperate for a tax plan, legislators at the last minute did, indeed, tax our readers.

The tax on newspapers is similar to the new "gas guzzler" tax that was supposed to raise millions of dollars in revenue next year, but will raise little, if any, new money.

It's one more example of the General Assembly's inability to understand the consequences of its actions.

In addition to being a possible net loss for the state, the new reader tax is, in The Sun's opinion, clearly unconstitutional. While government can tax newspapers, it can't use its taxation powers for punitive reasons.

That's clearly what happened in Annapolis last month. In 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Gov. Huey P. Long's attempt to tax newspapers in Louisiana, saying it was designed to punish newspapers whose editorials opposed the governor.

Additionally, because the new law taxes paid newspapers such as The Sun, yet doesn't tax free-distribution newspapers, it again appears to be unconstitutional on its face.

It is outrageous that readers are forced to pay increased taxes because The Sun offends politicians. What are they going to do next year if we criticize them again? Raise the tax that you will have to pay even higher?

The Sun supported an intelligent plan to raise taxes. In our opinion, this new reader tax is neither intelligent nor constitutional.

The General Assembly should undo the damage as quickly as possible.

To that end, we and other newspapers in Maryland will be enclosing letters in future newspaper bills explaining what the General Assembly has done and urging readers to write or call their representatives to change the law.

Readers shouldn't have to pay the government because newspapers exercised constitutional rights to free speech.

Michael J. Davies is publisher of The Baltimore Sun.

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