Moving from promises to character in tax debate

December 14, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

WILL PUBLIC officials say no to new taxes whatever the damage to public education, public roads, social welfare, economic development and overall quality of life?

Is a race to the bottom unavoidable?

Those who say yes believe tax increases are a too-easy first resort. They're convinced that government, by definition, is fat. Voters will turn on anyone who dares to raise taxes. You could look it up.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, tried to overhaul his state's tax structure. He said a fairer system would help many Alabamians and raise enough new money to improve state services, already at or near the bottom on many national measures. By a crushing majority, the people told Mr. Riley: Forget about it!

Californians turned out former Gov. Gray Davis who, among other things, raised the tax on automobiles. They installed Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised to repeal that tax. Last week, the new governor kept his promise, giving up $4 billion in revenue he might have used to balance a budget already nearly $11 billion in the red.

In Maryland, GOP legislators continue to pressure Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. against anything that looks like a tax increase, so certain are they that furious voters will smite them if they do.

But is all this stress necessary? Maybe so. Maybe people are so sick of government that a deep dip in services is the only antidote.

But a poll taken for WYPR-FM by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies suggests that many in Maryland think increasing the sales tax or pushing up the income tax on high-end earners would be a reasonable way out of Maryland's $730 million deficit.

The poll results ought to be interesting to Mr. Ehrlich, who has said new or increased taxes aren't going to happen. He made a promise. He's going to keep it, possibly in spite of indications that a tax increase is prudent, needed and wouldn't be all that unpopular. In the same WYPR poll, 55 percent of Marylanders said they think he's on the right track as governor - but 29 percent thought otherwise. It's a large enough group to be worried about if close elections, let alone good government, are of concern.

According to the polling, a majority of Marylanders, 53 percent, would accept a penny more on the sales tax, raising it from 5 percent to 6 percent. Even 39 percent of Republican respondents agreed. A majority of the sample said they would consider a higher tax on higher-income Marylanders, a remedy imposed temporarily in the early 1990s by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Polltaker Patrick Gonzales says Mr. Ehrlich's implacable opposition to new taxes has changed the nature of the discussion. Having been so adamant, he cannot change his position without provoking what amounts to a "character" question, Mr. Gonzales says. It's not about taxes, in other words, it's about the governor's word.

It's a quandary. The polling data show how divided the public can be on such issues, supporting increased taxes and a governor who rejects that approach.

Mr. Ehrlich defeated his Democratic opponent handily in 2002, but many Democrats chose him because they were unwilling to support his opponent. His political job, therefore, is to make the sale by way of his performance in office.

He's aware of that chore. His effort to find a more progressive approach to prisoner rehabilitation, his decision to reduce the number of slot machine privileges he would make available to already wealthy racetrack owners and his pardon of a man wrongly accused of murder are designed to make him more attractive to this electorate, which has a tendency to vote Democratic.

In addition to support for tax increases, the WYPR poll has three of the leading Democratic contenders for president either tied with or ahead of President Bush in the who-would-you-vote-for-today horse race question.

Bows by Mr. Ehrlich to the Democratic reality are interesting straws in the political wind, but the big gusts will be generated by budget and tax questions. Is it more important to keep a political promise than to provide, for example, adequate protective services or health insurance for kids?

The questions are likely to become more compelling. With no new revenue source at hand-nothing new from taxes and nothing from slots - Maryland's race to the bottom is on.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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