Rehrmann tax-cut idea stirs interest CAMPAIGN 1988

November 23, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

CHALK ONE UP for Eileen Rehrmann. The two-term Harford County executive jump-started her 1998 campaign for governor this past week and in the process sent a resounding message to Gov. Parris N. Glendening that he faces an aggressive, creative opponent in the Democratic primary.

Her call for eliminating the state property tax suddenly puts this heretofore unnoticed issue on the legislature's agenda. It is a new twist on the 1994 tax-cut proposal of Republican candidate Ellen Sauerbrey that almost got her elected.

A big difference

But there are sharp differences. Ms. Sauerbrey's proposal for a 24-percent income-tax reduction would have required sweeping budget cuts and would have left the state in a deep deficit crater as soon as the good economic times turn to recession. Her Republican plan also could not be accomplished without the Democratic legislature altering the income-tax law -- an unlikely prospect.

In contrast, Ms. Rehrmann's property-tax rollback would cost only a fraction of the Sauerbrey plan. The governor can do it without General Assembly approval. And it contains an important safety net for the state: Any future governor, at his or her discretion, could opt to reinstate the Maryland property tax levy to help balance a future budget.

While the Rehrmann camp would love this issue to propel their candidate directly into the governor's mansion, it won't happen that way.

Maryland is different from Virginia, where Republican James Gilmore's call to end the hated personal property tax on cars made the difference in that state's recent election for governor.

What Ms. Rehrmann gains from her tax plan is vastly increased visibility and prestige. She, not the governor, has now set the agenda. Indeed, Mr. Glendening finds himself -- for the moment -- on the defensive.

Does he ignore the Rehrmann proposal in his budget and hand her a tailor-made campaign issue next summer.

Or does he defuse this issue by embracing a portion of her tax-rollback plan, though this could validate Ms. Rehrmann's fiscal expertise for voters?

Either way, the governor winds up helping his Democratic primary opponent. He's been outmaneuvered.

Taxes will play some role in the campaign. Latest estimates indicate a state surplus of at least $311 million this fiscal year. Spending that money -- for school construction or health programs or tax rebates -- will be much discussed during the General Assembly session that starts in January.

Business development

Ms. Sauerbrey still is pushing her 1994 program. She urges the governor to accelerate his 2-percent-a-year income-tax reduction with much of that surplus cash. A high income-tax rate remains ''one of the biggest drags on business development,'' she said last week.

To date, Mr. Glendening has taken a prudent course on taxes and on spending. But with such a huge surplus on hand, he may have to come up with another tax-reduction plan in early 1998 to mute the Rehrmann and Sauerbrey challenges.

At a breakfast meeting with business leaders last week in Baltimore, the two candidates for governor demonstrated beyond question that Mr. Glendening faces two tough, tenacious foes.

Ms. Rehrmann's tax-cut surprise may be the start of a primary campaign filled with surprises designed to keep Mr. Glendening off-guard and to raise public acceptance of the Harford County executive.

Republicans, meanwhile, have reason to cheer Ms. Sauerbrey's polished performances before business and community groups. She comes off sounding gubernatorial in outlining a sweeping array of changes she would make in Annapolis.

Voters may yet decide to keep the governor they already know nTC rather than the candidate they don't fully trust.

Good economic times may do the trick for Mr. Glendening. Historically, this is a state of ''middle temperament,'' whose citizens seem to like prudent moderates with a mildly progressive streak.

But Governor Glendening won't have an easy time in 1998. Eileen Rehrmann's property-tax broadside last week and Ellen Sauerbrey's on-going conservative crusade to ''change the long-standing culture in Annapolis'' could haunt him all year.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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