Maryland needs tax study this year

Urgent: Changing needs, growth and unpaid bills demand sober analysis of our tax structure.

February 14, 2002

YES, IT'S that T-word. We need a tax study. We're like a family that hasn't redone its budget for a decade: We've got kids in college, a parent who needs more medical care and some of our credit card debt never goes away.

Let's count some of the specific reasons for this fiscal stock-taking.

The Thornton Commission recently reported that more than a billion dollars of new state money would be needed to equalize spending in classrooms from Oakland to Princess Anne.

Legislative analysts say Maryland faces shortfalls in revenue of up to $1 billion. And those shortfalls are inevitable unless the Assembly injects reality into the "fictive forecast" offered by the outgoing governor, Parris N. Glendening.

Mr. Glendening scoffs at this assessment, but others in Annapolis say we can't afford to accept his assurances. And he won't be in office to explain how or why he miscalculated.

Mental health clinics throughout the state are in financial trouble -- not because of mismanagement but because they're underfunded.

The state's Medicaid program always seems to be generating huge deficits and rolling them into the next year. Meanwhile, expanded eligibility is bringing more and more Marylanders under the umbrella of state-sponsored care. Mr. Glendening put $367 million more into the plan this year, but the analysts say $100 million more is needed.

Are there other needs? Transportation? Welfare? Aid to local governments?

How should they be met? A higher sales tax?

These are among the questions posed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who has dared to speak frankly about taxes even in 2002, an election year.

He has proposed House Bill 1, which calls for a tax study that, ideally, could provide a fiscal roadmap for the new governor and the new Assembly to be chosen next summer and fall.

Some who examined the administration's budget this year had two words of reaction: "Poor Kathleen." Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- or whoever becomes governor -- will have no cupboards to raid when budget-balancing time comes next fall.

The urgency of the situation is reflected in the $5 million that has been taken this year from reserves for the state's emergency medical system, which supports the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Mr. Taylor's study would have to show what alternatives exist for replacing this money and other sums taken to balance the year's spending plan.

At a hearing last week, the speaker answered questions from lawmakers, who sat like teen-agers hearing an embarrassing and unwelcome lecture. The anti-tax forces were outspoken, as always. How much easier and safer politically it is to oppose even a study than to speak honestly about the cost of services most Marylanders say they want and expect from government.

Let's have more efficiency, by all means. Maybe the state has hired more people than it can comfortably pay in the coming years. The study could tell us whether this is true.

But it is simply dishonest to legislate grand social services, fail to adequately budget for them and then cut back in the name of efficiency -- as if the providers were operating on fat, as if government can't ever get things right. Legislators and governors have to start standing up for the programs they pass. They like the glory, but they wish to avoid associating themselves with the costs.

Maryland must continue to grow, and to provide a safety net for its citizens in difficult times. Now it must also try to provide protections in the event of more terrorist attacks.

Taxpayers want to hang on to more of the money they earn, but a study of where those tax dollars are needed is nothing more than a renewal of the state's fundamental commitment to the broader community.

Mr. Taylor's resolution, ominous as it may seem to some, comes in the best traditions of careful and conservative Annapolis stewardship. And, in fact, Democrats and Republicans have done a better job of husbanding resources than they are generally given credit for.

House Bill 1 provides another opportunity for them to act responsibly.

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