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Linowes Let's Not Renege


There is hardly anything to say about Maryland's nee tooverhaul its archaic tax system that hasn't already been said. The job that remains is for the Maryland General Assembly to pick a solution to give the entire state the opportunity to achieve new excellence -- equitably and accountably.

The Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure, which I chaired, has done its job. Three years of study produced a framework for improving the system for raising and spending tax revenues. The recommendations were embodied in a legislative proposal introduced by Gov. William Donald Schaefer during the last session. Believing last November's election signaled taxpayer restiveness, the General Assembly sidestepped action and consigned the whole matter to that hotbed of tranquillity, "summer study."

The commission held no claim to ontological certitude. Clearly there are other ways to go and plenty of room for modifications to the recommendations. However, its members remain persuaded that the core proposals are essentially correct. And while there could be alternative approaches, there should be no illusion that the problems to be addressed are different from those the commission identified. These will become more daunting in the absence of a palpable solution:

* Maryland's lower- and middle-income taxpayers are bearing a disproportionate share of the tax burden than wealthy taxpayers;

* Disparities between the state's wealthier and poorer jurisdictions are widening;

* The poorer jurisdictions are increasingly unable to meet thbasic needs of -- and responsibilities to -- their constituents;

* Under Maryland's present tax system, the inability of poorer jurisdictions to provide necessary services is exacerbated by economic conditions and increased needs.

The commission has attempted to distribute its message broadly to the people of Maryland. We were determined that if we could provide some of the answers to the problems, they should be subjected to public discussion. That debate began last year with hearings around the state and continued through our fall report and the legislative initiative earlier this year. Nevertheless, the only way the problems will be solved or ameliorated will be through legislative action.

If the legislature fails to address these problems, accepting some of the solutions or providing its own, it will have to accept full responsibility. Its members have an opportunity to act as a real statesmen -- assemblymen and senators -- for the good of the entire state rather than for parochial self-interest.

The message must be that all of Maryland must be healthy if the state is to achieve its full potential in the competitive world that lies ahead. That means having a more uniform excellence in the education, transportation, infrastructure and economic well-being of each jurisdiction. To do this, there must be an acceptance by the legislature that, for the state as a whole to achieve greatness, it requires the full cooperation and support of all its components. A cancer in one part of the body politic affects all parts.

Improving all of Maryland militates for improving its tax system. Ultimately, it will also require new resources. But they must be more fairly derived and distributed. The commission's proposals addressed these questions head on. What was lost in the discussion is that the commission also recommended new performance standards and accountabilities, which have been RTC sorely lacking to date.

It is said that we are now living in an increasingly borderless world. At the state level, we have new interdependencies and new needs that transcend the conventional boundaries that separate our subdivisions. Maryland's rich diversity of life -- and of opportunities -- are being eroded by the growing disparity in the quality of life among our jurisdictions. Maryland's tradition of caring for all its citizens is being challenged by the new obligations of our distinctly common venture.

The state's long-term social and economic future will be made more secure by completely remaking our tax system according to what people can afford to pay. Mere tinkering at the margins of the current system is bad economics. In the end, that would prove more costly for everyone, including the politicians.

The commission has acted. The governor has acted. It is now time for those who make up the legislative bodies to act.

R. Robert Linowes is a Montgomery County attorney.

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