Tortoise Glendening Plods into the Tax-Cut Race

January 29, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Massachusetts to Virginia, those great laboratories known as states are experimenting with sharply new approaches to government and governance. If only Washington -- Newt, Bob and Bill -- were as serious about making immediate changes in how government works!

Downsizing is all the rage. So is re-thinking the roles and responsibilities of state and local governments. Most of all, the name of the game is cutting back on taxes.

Gov. William Weld in Massachusetts has won praise for slashing government programs and reordering priorities.

Gov. George Pataki of New York has pledged to cut income taxes 25 percent in his term and spur a ''revolution'' in government.

Gov. Christine Whitman of New Jersey wants to pursue the nomination for vice president by cutting state income taxes 30 percent for most taxpayers in just two years. She cut 15 percent last year and wants a simlar cut this year.

Gov. George Allen of Virginia promises $2.1 billion in tax cuts by slashing existing state government programs.

And in Maryland, Parris Glendening has begun what he says will be a four-year overhaul aimed at cutting spending substantially and then cutting income taxes.

Only Mr. Glendening among the re-engineers is a Democrat, a Tsongas-style centrist at that.

So far, his message has been what might be called progressively conservative: He wants to start husbanding state resources so the money can be focused on a smaller number of programs deemed to have the greatest potential for spurring job growth and prosperity.

But he's not a Republican budget-slasher. That's where the Maryland experiment differs from the other East Coast revolutions.

So far, results from the Republican governors are mixed. Mr. Weld in his first term succeeded in cutting spending, cutting taxes and eliminating a big budget deficit.

Mr. Pataki will have a tough time living up to his pledge: He's facing a $4 billion deficit in his very first month. He's got to cut $5 billion from his budget in the next two months to achieve just the first of his multi-year tax-cut goals.

Ms. Whitman has won praise for her tax-cutting, but she's done it jTC by siphoning billions from the state workers' pension fund and slashing education aid for wealthy districts. Not surprisingly, property-tax rates in New Jersey have jumped in many jurisdictions and almost assuredly will do so again this year or next.

Mr. Allen has yet to reconcile his twin desires to cut taxes sharply while also building $2 billion in new prisons. On top of that, Virginia's much-cherished public university system is a prime Allen budget target, a move that could ultimately lower the caliber of public higher education there.

Mr. Glendening may have the easiest job of all. If he can throttle down spending by a handful of percentage points, he should be able to eliminate the state's ''structural'' deficit in a few years, paving the way for a big tax cut. No traumatic evisceration of government may be necessary, though he seems determined to change the shape and scope of the bureaucracy.

In a sense, Mr. Glendening is the tortoise to the Republican governors' hares. He is content to plod along, slowly reordering government agencies and restraining spending. Meanwhile, his GOP counterparts are --ing for the tax-cut marker, figuring the first ones there get all the political glory. And yet, at the end of four years -- the real finish line -- these early tax cuts might not look so positive.

Are tax cuts worth it if they lead to sharply rising property-tax rates? The net result could be higher, not lower, taxes.

Are tax cuts worth it if public schools go into decline, or high-quality public colleges and universities show signs of mediocrity?

Are tax cuts worth it if they simply mean bigger and bigger state deficits every year?

What's most interesting about the Glendening experiment in Maryland is that it features a Democratic governor working with a cooperative Democratic Senate and Democratic House.

In all the other cases, Republican insurgents captured the governor's mansion in upset victories and are trying to use that momentum to bulldoze their way to a quick political victory. And in most of these states, the Republican governor must deal with a Democratic legislature or a legislature with a large, partisan Democratic contingent.

Mr. Glendening has no need for a bulldozer. As long as he proceeds incrementally in his quest for fundamental reforms in state government, he isn't likely to encounter insurmountable obstacles in the General Assembly. And yet, four years from now, the sum total of changes could far surpass the Republican ''revolutions'' elsewhere in the East.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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