Added powers given limited OK by House

Measure would allow comptroller to arrest those who don't pay taxes

February 13, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

After a spirited debate, the House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a measure that would allow the state comptroller's office to arrest anyone for not paying taxes.

The delegates rejected an amendment to exclude income taxes from the comptroller's arrest authority, with some proponents of the legislation saying all taxpayers should be required to obey the law or face serious consequences.

"You can't just collect some of the taxes and not the rest of them," said Del. Herbert H. McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican. "Let us give [the comptroller] the tools to do his job."

But some lawmakers said they are concerned that the bill would give Comptroller William Donald Schaefer unnecessarily broad authority to arrest people, including "grandma and grandpa" for not paying their income taxes on time.

If enacted into law, the measure will make Schaefer the most powerful state comptroller in the nation, according to the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers.

"This legislation deserves the Frankenstein's monster award for this year," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican. "We are about to create a super taxman and super tax cops."

Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, the House minority whip, proposed the amendment to exclude from the bill Marylanders who are delinquent on personal income taxes. The Eastern Shore Republican said the comptroller's 15-member police force should continue to focus on alcohol and cigarette smugglers who try to evade tax laws, rather than expanding to income tax delinquents.

"There's no urgent need to expand this to the income tax," Schisler said.

As lawmakers debated the measure, the comptroller's office issued a news release boasting of the success of agents in arresting two cigarette smugglers on the Eastern Shore yesterday.

The arrests - which involved 8,680 cigarette packs valued at $34,893 - bring the number of smugglers caught by Schaefer's agents to 102 since June 1, the office reported. From all of the arrests, the agents have seized 78,112 packs of contraband cigarettes valued at $314,010.

But this kind of enforcement authority falls short of the powers Schaefer would like his officers to have. Current law limits the arrest powers of his agents to six areas: taxes on alcohol, tobacco, motor carriers and motor fuel as well as other revenue laws related to transient vendors and motor fuel and lubricants.

The legislation under consideration would expand the officers' arrest authority to include all "matters within the authority and jurisdiction of the comptroller."

The House and Senate passed the legislation last year, but former Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed it because he thought it was "overly broad and unwarranted."

This is at least the fourth time Schaefer has sought the expanded arrest powers. The measure twice died in committee in 2000 and 2001.

Schaefer's office has said that the new authority is not designed to target the average income taxpayer. Officials said they are aiming at such offenders as corporate scofflaws who owe substantial tax money to the state.

McDonough argued on the floor yesterday that the only ones who would seriously be hurt by this legislation would be those who could not afford to defend themselves in court. Although Schaefer says he is targeting major tax dodgers, McDonough said they are the ones who can avoid prosecution.

"When the big boys have a problem, they go to their attorney and say, `Make it go away,'" McDonough said. "You better read about the implications of this bill."

The House is expected to take a final vote on the bill tomorrow before it moves to the Senate for consideration.

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