Tourist Train Tax Bailout Off-Track

March 03, 1995

By introducing legislation to exempt the EnterTRAINment line from amusement and admission taxes, Republican state senators Timothy R. Ferguson and Larry E. Haines have provoked an interesting debate: Whose interests should the legislators be looking out for -- a commercial enterprise that generates jobs and income or a couple of Carroll municipalities that depend on amusement and admission taxes to finance their budgets?

EnterTRAINment, a Carroll County-based railroad that provides scenic excursions, owes about $330,000 in back taxes that the previous owner neglected to pay. Although the state collects the tax payments, this is actually a local levy that the municipalities set. According to the Maryland comptroller's office, EnterTRAINment must pay the tax to Union Bridge and Westminster, where the train trips originate.

Leaders of the two towns make it clear that they are not prepared to forgo any taxes. Union Bridge, which has such a modest tax base that it holds pancake breakfasts to raise money for a new town hall, is owed $13,514. Westminster, meanwhile, awaits payment of $315,500.

While both towns want their back taxes, mayors Perry L. Jones of Union Bridge and Kenneth Yowan of Westminster do not wish to put Carroll County's second most popular tourist attraction out of business. They have offered to work out payment schedules and acknowledge that the railroad is a vital employer.

Senator Ferguson's argument that exempting the railroad from taxes is in keeping with last election's anti-tax message is far from convincing. Union Bridge's 5 percent admissions tax was hardly the impetus for a taxpayer rebellion. In fact, exempting EnterTRAINment means that theaters, video arcades and others that pay admissions taxes will want similar treatment, meaning that town residents will have to make up the deficit.

Although the authors of this legislation may think themselves well-intentioned, the measure would undercut the fiscal well-being of the two local municipalities. Towns have the right to decide their method and level of taxation within limits allowed by the state. This bill violates that principle by exempting a single taxpayer. It sets a bad precedent.

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