Why Should We Aid These Deadbeats?

COMMENT

July 16, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

Helping a constituent is a long-standing tradition in American politics.

Legislators have transformed this service into a high art, hiring staff whose only job is to navigate folks through government bureaucracies.

In the most benign form of service, lawmakers can pressure recalcitrant bureaucrats to fill potholes or fix broken sidewalks, pick up trash that has been rotting along a roadside or repair a school bathroom.

In its more insidious form, constituent service can mean government officials giving special treatment to a crony, a large campaign contributor or a powerful business.

Getting a legislator to admit that he or she is working on behalf of a special interest is like getting children to admit they raided the cookie jar. When legislators begin log-rolling for special interests, heroic platitudes about looking after the public interest begin to fly.

During the last session of the General Assembly, Carroll's state senators Larry E. Haines and Timothy R. Ferguson took up the cause of the EnterTRAINment Line, the tourist excursion railroad company, under the guise of helping a struggling business. The company was in arrears for more than $300,000 in amusement and admissions taxes to the towns of Union Bridge and `f Westminster. EnterTRAINment had failed to pay taxes beginning August 1989. Although the ownership had changed in 1993, the new owners, headed by Donald S. Golec, were liable for the back taxes.

Proclaiming that they were helping an overtaxed, beleaguered small business, the senators introduced legislation that would have not only exempted EnterTRAINment from future taxes but would have also wiped out its past taxes, interest and penalties. Hitching the EnterTRAINment's tax abatement campaign to the public's general dislike of taxes, Mr. Ferguson said an oppressive big government was forcing EnterTRAINment to pay "unjust" taxes.

"If I have to reduce taxes, that means that somebody's not going to get that revenue they really want," he said.

We have since discovered that EnterTRAINment's new owners and management weren't just stiffing Union Bridge or Westminster out of their taxes. They weren't bothering to pay any of their bills.

The source of EnterTRAINment's financial problems are not wholly clear at this point, but the company had not been current with its bills for more than a year. Some creditors required EnterTRAINment to give them a payment in cash before providing any services.

Since the company has yet to pay one dollar in its back taxes, there must have been other causes for the financial hemorrhaging.

Politically, Mr. Haines and Mr. Ferguson have a great deal of egg on their faces. In very simple terms, both of these senators were promoting the interests of an irresponsible, mismanaged corporation over the interests of the residents of Union Bridge and Westminster.

The company owes Maryland Midland Railway, which hauled the excursion trains, back bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. Would the two senators inject themselves into that dispute on EnterTRAINment's behalf? Obviously not. They correctly would argue that the dispute is between two private parties and should not be the concern of the General Assembly.

The same analysis is true for the quarrel over back taxes. These taxes are amusement and admissions taxes that Union Bridge and Westminster levy on bars that provide music, video arcades, movie theaters and other entertainment-related businesses.

For a cash-strapped town such as Union Bridge, which holds monthly pancake breakfasts to pay off the mortgage on its new town hall, EnterTRAINment's tax payment is one of the largest the town receives. Even for Westminster, which is a much larger town with a more sizable tax base, the amusement and admission taxes were a significant revenue source. Earlier this year, Mayor Kenneth Yowan estimated EnterTRAINment's tax levy was equal to adding about 12 cents to the city's tax rate of 83 cents.

In effect, Mr. Haines and Mr. Ferguson were asking Union Bridge and Westminster residents to subsidize EnterTRAINment. Towns sometime give businesses tax abatements in hopes that the business will succeed and eventually become a large taxpayer. This was not the case with EnterTRAINment. If Mr. Haines and Mr. Ferguson had their way, the company never would have paid taxes to the two towns.

The logical question to ask is: Why this company? Why not exempt all other town businesses that pay the admissions and amusements tax? Why stop at amusement and admissions taxes? Let's exempt all business from taxation!

The reality is that if business doesn't pay taxes, individuals must pay them. Right now, most individuals feel as though they are paying more than their fair share.

There never was a good reason for the legislation exempting EnterTRAINment from past, present and future taxes. Fortunately, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairwoman Barbara Hoffman recognized that fact and killed the bill in committee.

Both Mr. Haines and Mr. Ferguson contend they are champions of the people. When they went to bat for EnterTRAINment, they were engaged in constituent disservice; they didn't have any concern about the welfare of the Union Bridge and Westminster taxpayers.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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