Enforce the law

February 23, 2003

MARYLAND LOSES tens of millions of dollars a year because chronic tax cheats don't pay what they owe - and then dare the state to do something about it. A bill now pending in the General Assembly would call their bluff.

In his capacity as tax collector, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer already has an enforcement team that can bring criminal or civil complaints. But he needs authority to seize records and arrest the scofflaws.

Many Marylanders don't pay their income taxes, and some businesses fail to forward sales taxes paid by their customers.

Currently, the comptroller's staff attempts to learn if a business is actually collecting the sales tax and "willfully" failing to send it to Annapolis. But the process can stall because it is then up to the attorney general or local prosecutors to pursue cases, and the manpower is not always available.

In one recent case, a county prosecutor declined to go forward as requested, saying he couldn't afford to detail a staff member for the necessary investigation - and would not seize records for the comptroller to examine.

Under the pending bill, Mr. Schaefer could obtain a warrant from the court: Records could be seized, and the alleged tax law violator could be arrested.

The comptroller's office attempts to work out payment plans short of going to court, but some individuals apparently believe they can't be apprehended or forced to comply, and they take their chances in court. Better to pay a lawyer than pay the large amounts owed, the thinking goes. But if they saw that other scofflaws had been arrested, the compliance instinct just might kick in.

That objective seems altogether reasonable - and with the court's supervision, the power is not likely to be abused. The law is there and should be enforced.

One legislator worried recently that "Grandpa and Grandma" might be jailed if they don't pay. Grandma and Grandpa, in all likelihood, do pay. And it's highly unlikely that the law would be used except in egregious cases - of which there are far too many.

Cheaters are an affront to all Marylanders who pay what they owe. The tax laws were strengthened in the late 1980s to discourage deadbeats - and they should be strictly and fairly enforced.

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