Ready for the last election

March 02, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

BEWARE OF GENERALS still fighting the last war, and politicians still fighting the last election campaign. They aren't preparing for the next battle, which will be waged on different terrain, using different weapons and employing vastly different strategies.

Casper Taylor is looking back at the 1994 election and projecting that the 1998 election for governor will be fought on similar issues. Parris Glendening is making the same mistake.

These potential foes in a Democratic primary are running scared, believing that an incipient tax revolt could sweep Democrats from office. That's why Governor Glendening switched positions to propose a vastly underfunded income-tax cut. It is also why House Speaker Taylor constructed his own vastly underfunded income-tax reduction plan.

They want to beat Republican Ellen Sauerbrey at her own game. Ms. Sauerbrey nearly became governor in 1994 by promising a 24-percent income-tax cut. They fear she could ride that same one-note campaign to victory in 1998.

Don't count on it. Tax cuts are not a burning issue these days. Poll after poll cites the public's lack of enthusiasm for tax cuts as a government priority. What people do care about are education and crime, and a balanced budget.

When the University of Baltimore surveyed 810 Marylanders in January, it found overwhelming resistance to tax cuts if it meant lower spending on education (80 percent opposed), law enforcement (65 percent opposed), medical aid to the poor and elderly (81 percent opposed), or the environment (63 percent opposed).

Tax cuts, the central bone of contention in 1994, don't excite voters in 1997.

Times have changed. Marylanders no longer fear for their jobs. The local economy is picking up. Personal income is rising. The property-tax revolt has disappeared. People seem to recognize that big tax cuts could come at the cost of services they enjoy.

Last week, Standard and Poor's renewed Maryland's triple-A credit rating, praising this state's diverse economic base, low unemployment, good transportation infrastructure, well-educated and productive labor force and diversified employment opportunities. Nary a word about Maryland being a ''high-tax'' state.

Mr. Glendening deserves credit for reining in spending increases over the past two years. He seemed on track to eliminate Maryland's worrisome structural deficit in which the state each year spent more than was coming in. This year's budget even showed a surplus.

But then he tacked on an income-tax cut. That changed the picture dramatically. It stripped away $450 million in future annual revenue. Structural deficits reappeared, growing bigger and bigger in the years ahead.

Another tax cut plan

Not to be upstaged, Mr. Taylor tried to unite House Democrats behind his own tax-cut scheme last week. This, too, enlarges the structural deficit -- by a cumulative $600 million over four years.

Even if the governor finds a way to double the levy on cigarettes or the House speaker gets support for a telecommunications impost, the structural deficit remains. Money from those sources doesn't come close to offsetting the loss to the state treasury from a major income-tax reduction.

There are just two ways to compensate: Reduce government spending to accommodate the eventual loss of $450 million a year (the Sauerbrey plan called for an eventual loss of $1 billion per year), or find new tax sources as an offset.

Messrs. Taylor and Glendening are discovering how tough it is to do either. Every new tax proposal prompts howls of protests from affected groups. Yet it is even harder to cut a half-billion dollars in state spending without creating a furor. The public likes the status quo.

These two officials are searching for a way out of this morass. Their gubernatorial ambitions depend on it. But even if they finally agree on a revised tax plan, it faces extreme peril from a skeptical state Senate.

Senate President Mike Miller seems determined to add his slots-at-the-races idea to the tax-cut mix. Since the governor says any gambling bill is off-limits for the year, such a move would end serious tax-cut talk. That may be Mr. Miller's ulterior motive.

It could serve a useful purpose: Everyone would have nine months to reassess the political situation and the public's mood. Perhaps by the 1998 General Assembly session, lawmakers will come to their senses and align their priorities with those of state voters.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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