State tax package gets mixed reviews

Opinions: Some Marylanders are willing to bear the burden of higher taxes

others favor slots or cutting programs.

General Assembly

April 01, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

At first glance, Jeff Hazard would seem to be a tailor-made opponent of the $670 million tax increase that cleared the state House of Delegates last week.

One day soon, the 30-year-old Baltimore man will probably earn a big enough salary at his corporate job to see dollars sliced from his paycheck with the higher tax bracket lawmakers have in mind for well-off Marylanders.

What's more, Hazard and his wife, Kristie, are expecting a baby any day. So they will be shelling out a load of money, plus sales tax, on all kinds of new purchases.

But that's OK, he says. He is against slot machines and thinks the wealthy have an obligation to help public schools and the poor. So he is willing to pay for his principles.

"The hit to me doesn't seem like it's going to be that much compared to the benefit it could make across the board," says Hazard, whose monthly bills include a mortgage, car payments and college loans. "I prefer something like that over the slot machines."

A three-hour drive northwest, Gene Carithers, 76, of Cumberland differs. A retired assembly line worker who lives on pension and Social Security checks, he says the state takes more and more of his money with less and less to show for it.

He is still fuming about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed $30-a-year "flush tax" on sewer use so is not embracing the prospect of higher sales and income taxes.

"Everything is going up, especially around here," he says.

In interviews across the state, Maryland voters expressed a range of views on the tax package -- one of the largest in state history -- that House Speaker Michael E. Busch is attempting to push through the legislature. The measure contains $1 billion in new sales and income taxes, offset in part by a proposed decrease of more than $300 million in state property taxes.

Some of those interviewed said slot machines are a better source of money for struggling public schools. Others said the state takes enough of its residents' money and should focus on cutting wasteful programs.

The strongest support for the tax increases was in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, where some said they are willing to bear the burden if it means keeping slots out of Maryland.

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, is the legislature's most vociferous foe of slots. Ehrlich, a Republican who has pitched slot machines as the best salve for the state's fiscal woes, has threatened to veto the tax package in the unlikely event that it clears the Senate.

Some Marylanders interviewed last week grumbled about the politics of the tax squabble.

`So political'

"It seems like [Busch] is -- I don't want to use the word `blackmailing' -- but why did he have to tie it with the gambling thing?" says Marlene Bowen, 52, of Arnold, a former state tax auditor who keeps books for her daughter's Eastern Shore dental practice. "It's so political. I don't like that."

A Sun poll of likely Maryland voters found 36 percent favoring tax increases to close the state's large budget shortfall and 20 percent willing to accept a combination of higher taxes and program cuts. Those were the highest numbers since the poll was first conducted two years ago.

"This is still a Democratic state for the most part," says Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., which oversaw the telephone poll of 1,200 Marylanders in early January.

"And in difficult economic times, people are more concerned about basic government services and support of education and therefore they'll at least be open-minded to protecting some of those crucial priorities."

But he noted that Baltimore and the Washington suburbs often part ways politically with the more conservative Eastern Shore and Southern and Western Maryland. That was borne out in phone interviews last week.

Carol Denison, 54, of Prince George's County, a recently retired computer programmer, says she can afford the proposed increase in the sales tax to 6 percent from 5 percent, but she frets about those who can't. She has been volunteering at a tax-preparation office for the poor and sees how every penny helps.

"I think it hits the poor more than it should," she says of the sales tax. "If [state officials] really need the money, just go ahead and increase the income tax across the board."

Most people, Democrats and Republicans, said they had no objection to the proposed temporary increase in the income tax rate, from 4.75 percent to 6 percent, for taxable income exceeding $150,000 for individuals and $200,000 for households. Most Marylanders -- 97 percent of them, to be exact -- don't make that much.

Money's worth

But several people said they are reluctant on principle to see any more tax money flow to a state bureaucracy they view as too big and free-spending.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.