Time to teach a lesson to the professors

November 26, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- If Parris Glendening is Maryland's own little Bill Clinton, as Barry Rascovar persuasively suggested last week on this page, then what's Maryland's General Assembly? So far it doesn't even faintly resemble the current Congress, but that could change.

Just because both houses of Maryland's legislature remain solidly Democratic, there's no guarantee they'll follow the wavering lead of a governor whose only apparent program is to get himself re-elected.

The rubber-stamp instinct is there, to be sure, but there is also considerable potential for independence, as well.

Imaginary Democrats

In Annapolis, a legislator's Democratic registration doesn't yet imply commitment to a discredited political agenda. It may only mean that he or she comes from a district where most residents still think of themselves as Democrats, even if they haven't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.

Speaker Cas Taylor of the House of Delegates comes from a district with a lot of voters like that. His district didn't go for Mr. Glendening in the last election, and the governor is even less popular there now. The speaker is no Newt Gingrich, but he knows how to count. So does Mike Miller, the president of the state Senate, who's no Glendening spear carrier either.

The leaders of both houses, along with much of the rank and file, are aware that Maryland is currently in the midst of a political-economic crisis which mirrors that of the nation.

And they know that Mr. Glendening's instincts, like Mr. Clinton's, are to dither and to temporize. This offers an opportunity for the legislature.

An early test will come on the question of a tax cut, an obvious first step if Maryland is to begin to correct its current status as one of the most highly taxed and business-hostile of the 50 states. Mr. Glendening has hinted that he will offer a tax-reduction plan of his own, but if he does, it is likely to be so puny as to be virtually meaningless.

Accelerated spending

Maryland's problem is that for most of the last 25 years it has increased state spending annually at approximately twice the rate at which its residents' incomes have grown. (The notable exception to this dismal trend was the eight-year administration of Harry Hughes, which combined the prosperity of the Reagan years with a policy of spending restraint, and left Marylanders with more money in their pockets.)

The fiscal chasm was deepened by the ruinous administration of William Donald Schaefer, now on the public payroll at the University of Maryland.

Mr. Schaefer, who liked to jet around the globe nattering about economic development, thought there were no problems higher taxes wouldn't cure.

A recent Loyola College study concluded that if during the Schaefer years Maryland had simply held the rate of increase in state spending to the rate of growth in real personal income, about 2 percent a year, the state budget would now be about $1.1 billion less. Each Maryland family of four would have saved about $900, and there would be no annual budget crisis.

But Mr. Schaefer, the man with the edifice complex, wanted to ''do it now.'' He wanted to ''help people.''

And as a result, when he left office last January Money magazine had just ranked Maryland's taxes -- for a hypothetical couple with a joint income of $79,000 -- as close to the most confiscatory in the nation.

And guess what? The people who create jobs noticed. Many went elsewhere.

Although it's not entirely his fault, on Mr. Glendening's watch the situation is likely to get much worse. As the federal government downsizes, Maryland jobs in or reliant on the public sector are going to disappear. Meanwhile, neighboring states are getting more competitive. They're cutting taxes, cutting spending, easing needlessly hostile regulations, and thus encouraging business -- including small business, which produces most new jobs.

Even 'Taxachusetts'

Maryland's situation isn't irreversible. There have been dramatic turnarounds in New Jersey and Wisconsin, and in what used to be called Taxachusetts, where Gov. William Weld has pushed through five tax cuts, slashed the state budget, and seen personal income and job opportunities rise as unemployment and welfare costs have fallen.

Maryland could easily be a magnet for business. It's a pleasant place to live. It has a skilled and educated work force. Maybe it will soon have the Cleveland Browns. But none of this will matter while state and local income-tax rates remain where they are now, 40 percent above the national average.

Former Professor Glendening doesn't seem to get that, any more than does Professor Schaefer. Like the Democrats in Washington, they think we ''can't afford'' major tax cuts, ''can't afford'' to downsize government. But really, if the state has any hope of ending its status as a national economic joke, it can't afford not to do these things.

In Annapolis, it would be great to see the General Assembly stand up and teach both professors that lesson.


Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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