Marylanders concede budget solution may be taxing


ANNAPOLIS -- What does a taxpayer really want?

That's the question plaguing lawmakers as they sift through contradictory responses to Gov. William Donald Schaefer's call for higher taxes.

Telephone calls to legislative offices and the governor's office in the 24 hours after the State of the State address were overwhelmingly anti-tax, according to staff.

But there also were reports that some Marylanders had praised the governor for taking charge of the state's fiscal crisis. They called for support for government programs that could be doomed if taxes are not raised or if drastic cuts are not made elsewhere in the budget.

"When you talk to them, it is very apparent they don't want taxes, but they don't know what the solution is," said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

Consider the caller to the State House switchboard who told the operator: "I like the speech, but I don't want to pay tax on my cable TV."

Meanwhile, a new survey of registered voters conducted by the University of Baltimore seemed to support the conclusion that the public -- when asked to go beyond a simple anti-tax stance -- has few solutions for Maryland's lingering budget problems.

Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed by the university's Schaefer Center for Public Policy favored raising taxes to balance the budget, while 30 percent preferred cutting services and 23 percent chose "some of each."

Other findings included:

* More than half think the state's economy will get worse over the next year.

* About 63 percent said they believe state government wastes a lot of money, while another 32 percent said the state wastes some money.

* Fifty-seven percent believe state taxes are too high, considering the level of services they receive.

* Only 20 percent said the state sales tax is too high, and 70 percent said they would support a 1 percent sales tax increase.

Mr. Schaefer has said he wants to keep the sales tax at its current 5 percent rate but expand the base to include dry cleaning, auto repairs, data processing and a variety of other services.

But survey respondents said they overwhelmingly disapproved of broadening the sales tax to non-prescription drugs, groceries or day-care services -- items Mr. Schaefer did not include on his list.

The survey represents a random sampling of 512 registered voters throughout the state, said Don Haynes, director of survey research for the Schaefer Center, and has an error rate of plus-or-minus 4 percentage points.

While the tax issue often is framed as an either-or proposition, Mr. Haynes said, the survey suggests that people prefer a combination of taxes and spending cuts.

"It's not that people want their taxes raised," he said. "No one out there wants their taxes raised. They're saying that in this economic context, some kinds of tax raise may be appropriate."

But anecdotal evidence suggests that the poll is on target in its depiction of a confused electorate, said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's.

Mr. Maloney said he was in Ratsie's Pizza in College Park yesterday and overheard a heated discussion about the speech and the issue of taxes. The diners seemed to be glad someone was taking charge, and said they could support taxes if the money were not wasted.

"Everyone is for taxes if it is for the right thing," Mr. Maloney said.

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