A Mystery Doppelganger in Schmoke's Office

March 30, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- It's poignant and disheartening, for exurban Marylanders, to see the way Baltimore continues to dissolve before our eyes. More crime. Worse schools. Fewer residents. Tawdry political scandals. Fiscal chaos.

These disasters might have been avoided if Kurt Schmoke were still around.

It's a fact that someone resembling Mr. Schmoke still occupies the mayor's office, and is occasionally seen being driven around town in his low-profile Jeep. This person is seeking another four-year term, and the voters, for lack of a persuasive alternative, will presumably give it to him this fall.

But appearances can be deceiving. The Schmoke-like substitute in the Jeep isn't the same man. The Kurt Schmoke for whom so many of us had such high hopes a few years ago has vanished, along with major-league baseball, the urban middle class, and the dew on the rose. Is he dead? Nobody knows. But his city sorely misses him.

The old Kurt Schmoke was not only intelligent, well-educated and polished, but he was a risk-taker. He spoke out, sometimes unpredictably. He won national attention by proposing the de-criminalization of certain drugs -- a bad idea, perhaps, but one worth debating and one that it took courage to push.

That Kurt Schmoke gave serious thought to running for governor in 1994 against an undistinguished field of Democrats. He could have been the most appealing candidate of all. But he abandoned that idea, and soon after disappeared from the public stage, leaving his double to perform the mayor's ceremonial duties and endorse Parris Glendening for governor. Meanwhile, Baltimore crumbles.

It would be nice to think that the old Kurt Schmoke would slip back into town sometime soon, send his understudy off on a long vacation, and quietly gather up the reins once again. Baltimore really could be salvaged, and it's hard to imagine a public official better equipped to do it than Mr. Schmoke.

How to begin? Here's a suggestion. For starters he could take a look at the interesting prescription offered by Jack Kemp for rescuing the District of Columbia from the fiscal tar pit into which Marion Barry et. al. have led it. Neither Mayor Barry nor Congress had the wit to embrace the Kemp proposal, but it could readily be adapted for use in Baltimore.

Mr. Kemp proposed, basically, that no federal income tax be levied on individuals or businesses in the District. A local income tax would remain to help support local government operations. The entirely reasonable idea was that this incentive would bring such a stream of middle- and upper-income people back into the city, and job-providing businesses as well, that the cycle of decay would be broken.

Baltimore is a different situation, and there's no chance that even Mr. Schmoke's good friend Bill Clinton would favor exempting its residents from federal taxes. But what about his good friend Parris Glendening, who owes his election to Baltimore's votes? He's supposed to be a realist, as well as a policy wonk. If Mr. Schmoke unequivocally got behind a radical tax-exemption plan for the city, the governor would have a hard time ignoring him.

In the 1993 tax year, Baltimore residents paid state income taxes of $211 million, or about 7.5 percent of the state's total revenue that year from the personal income tax. (Another $105 million or so, the local share of the combined state and local income tax, was collected by the state from these same city taxpayers and returned directly to the city government.)

Sure, $211 million is a lot of money, unless you're building a football stadium or something. And if the state were to grant city residents a complete income-tax exemption, that's about what it would cost annually. But other factors would offset part of the cost almost immediately, and the potential long-term gain would be enormous.

Middle- and upper-income taxpayers, especially the childless elderly, would be immediately lured back into the city. This would increase real-estate values, and therefore property-tax revenues as well. City income-tax receipts would soar too, very quickly making it possible for the state to cut back on direct assistance to the city. In the long run, all Marylanders would gain.

Plenty of legal, constitutional and political reasons can be advanced why this couldn't be done. But of course it could be done, if strong leadership from Baltimore made an articulate case for it.

Kurt Schmoke's stand-in won't ever make that case. The idea of cutting taxes to make a stronger community is alien to his conventional mind, and to the minds of the people who seem to do his thinking. But if the old Kurt Schmoke returned from wherever he's gone, he might have the heart to give it a try. It's radical, perhaps, but it could turn around both his city and his career.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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