Putting the Cart before the Iron Horse

March 21, 1995

Owners of the EnterTRAINment Line have issued an ultimatum to the Maryland General Assembly: Pass special legislation exempting the company from the admission and amusement tax levied by Westminster and Union Bridge, and forgive a back tax bill of more than $300,000, or we close the business.

Clearly, the firm's intent is to force the legislature's hand, although the threat diminishes an already weak argument that the company should not have been taxed in the first place.

EnterTRAINment's owners have contended that because their company is a railroad involved in interstate commerce, federal law and regulations prevent local governments from imposing taxes and levies on the business.

The towns counter that EnterTRAINment operates an amusement that happens to take place on a railroad and is subject to the same amusement and admissions taxes paid by bars with live entertainment, video arcades and movie theaters. EnterTRAINment rides often include dancing, music and dinner on adult rides, as well as storytellers and other entertainers during holiday trips for children.

The courts -- not the General Assembly -- would be the appropriate forum for deciding the proper application of the law. Maryland's Tax Court was scheduled to hear this case last week, but EnterTRAINment asked for a postponement until after the current legislative session.

With the exception of Carroll senators Larry E. Haines and Timothy B. Ferguson, other legislators have been avoiding this issue. Sen. Barbara Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, is reluctant to report the bill out of committee and pre-empt the judicial process. Like others, she is wary of crafting legislation to benefit a single company, which is what EnterTRAINment is seeking.

The EnterTRAINment owners would have been better off to argue their case in the judicial forum first, in front of the tax court. If the company's interpretation is deemed correct, a legislative showdown won't be necessary. If the tax court rules against EnterTRAINment, the owners can then seek legislative relief. We agree with the towns' position, but in any event, this argument needs to be heard in court first.

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