The wages of sin . . .

Neil Solomon

March 17, 1993|By Neil Solomon

THE notion of tax accountability has a rich American heritage. Will Rogers, in filling out his IRS tax form in the 1930s, listed as a deduction: "Bad Debt, U.S. Government -- $40,000."

While tax accountability is not a new concept, it is undergoing a rather controversial transformation under the new administration. The Clinton administration is talking about tax accountability as "shared sacrifice," believing American taxpayers are willing to pay their fair share to reduce the federal deficit.

That assumption is not far-fetched. Numerous national opinion polls show a majority of us will, indeed, accept higher taxes to set the economy right again.

In the midst of this dialogue comes an opinion poll from the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research, which asked a sampling of Maryland adults this question: "Do you think state taxes on alcoholic beverages should be increased to fund additional programs to prevent and treat alcoholism." A majority answered, "Yes."

The Maryland findings are like those of polls conducted by CNN, Gallup and others that have tracked public reaction to President Clinton's budget proposals. Each identifies a serious, long-standing problem confronting Americans. Each asks people if they would pay higher taxes to address the problem.

The Maryland poll found 71 percent of the respondents favored increasing taxes to address alcohol abuse, while a recent Gallup poll showed 64 percent favor Mr. Clinton's plan of higher taxes to reduce the deficit.

What is going on here? Where is the knee-jerk reaction to tax increases that led George Bush to regret ever muttering the phrase, "Read my lips"?

The answer is that people will pay higher taxes if they feel there is a sense of fairness in the increased levies.

The Maryland poll addresses raising taxes only on those who consume alcoholic beverages. This is a group of people who -- because of their actions -- might contribute to society's alcohol-abuse problem. A similar philosophy is applied to raising taxes on cigarettes.

Some people will read the Maryland poll as a blanket endorsement of tax increases to achieve appropriate social goals. If people favor increasing taxes for alcohol abuse prevention, why not for AIDS prevention and efforts to curb gambling abuse and domestic violence -- all clearly worthwhile programs desperately looking for additional funds?

The danger here is that all of this good will about increasing taxes might be misconstrued. It might lead governments to believe that raising taxes is the way to solve our many social problems. Elected officials and bureaucrats might abdicate their responsibility to control government's size. The Maryland poll isn't a blank check for raising money to fight Maryland's major drug problem -- alcohol. It is one option for increasing revenues to confront alcohol abuse. It is a potentially useful tool.

But in reviewing this poll, our elected officials should heed the words of former Rep. Les Aspin when he received the Defense Department's proposed budget for 1985. He wrote the secretary of defense:

"Before we give you billions more, we want to know what you've done with the trillions you've got."

Neil Solomon, former Maryland health secretary, is volunteer chair of the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission.

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