RAISE TAXES Most Marylanders say alternatives are worse

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Citizens to legislators: Raise taxes and stop slashing state programs.

That's the clear message from Marylanders surveyed in The Sun Poll.

"People are seeing the state of Maryland going down the tubes," said John Gregory, a 48-year-old Perry Hall Middle School math teacher who was among the poll's respondents. "To prevent that from happening, I'd be willing to have them take a little more and get us going in the right direction."

Despite pressures brought on by the recession, two-thirds of the poll's respondents said they would rather see the General Assembly adopt a combination of budget cuts and tax increases than try to balance the budget exclusively through deep cuts in government spending.

Voters like Baltimore nurse Renita Johnson would prefer to pay more than to see new reductions in health care for the poor, aid to schools and housing for the needy.

"I thought about it, and I thought: If it means these things won't get cut, then yes, I'll pay higher taxes," said Ms. Johnson, 23.

Katherine Jones, 35, a Frederick lawyer, said, "When you're in a recession, and you see what this has done to your neighbors and possibly could do to yourself, you'd like to see taxes raised and themoney spent well."

The Sun Poll of 1,210 Maryland registered voters, taken Feb. 10 to 15, found most Marylanders don't intend to punish legislators for voting to raise taxes.

But the majority gave Gov. William Donald Schaefer poor marks for his handling of the fiscal crisis.

In follow-up interviews, voters criticized his spending and accused him of squandering the budget surplus he inherited on big-ticket projects.

Again and again, they pointed to the new Orioles' baseball stadium in Camden Yards as a symbol of wrong priorities.

Fifty percent of the voters rated the governor's handling of the state's financial situation "poor." Thirty-four percent said it was "fair." Only 1 percent gave him "excellent" scores.

Mr. Schaefer was philosophical: "They don't like me as a symbol. They have to blame someone," he said of his dismal rating from voters. "Anyone in office, whether it's a governor or a president, has a tough time now."

Over the past 1 1/2 years, as the national economy staggered, the State House has been struggling to bring order to a budget gone wildly out of control.

Government agencies have endured five rounds of cuts in state spending, amounting to $1.1 billion. Every emergency fund has been drained. Every department has been hit. More than 3,500 state jobs, most of them vacant, have been eliminated. Local governments, hit with the double whammy of state cutbacks and their own drops in local tax revenue, have laid off workers, shut libraries and trimmed services. And legislators are searching for ways to cope with mounting deficits.

Several people who were polled said Marylanders' problems are just too severe to sustain further cutbacks.

Ms. Jones, a Legal Aid lawyer who said she was speaking only for herself and not Legal Aid, said: "If the general population is seeing anything like what I see, they have to understand it costs money to keep people afloat, to keep people in their homes, to keep food in their mouths, to keep the electricity on."

She said she would be more likely these days to support a candidate who would raise taxes. "If legislators arbitrarily cut themselves off from that option, they're just not using their brains."

Indeed, the poll found that legislators who have been wringing their hands over the political consequences of raising taxes apparently should stop worrying.

Nearly half the voters polled said they would actually be more likely to vote for a legislator who votes to raise taxes, if the legislator says the additional revenue is needed to maintain government services. Only 30 percent said they'd be less likely to vote for a legislator who approved a tax increase.

Marylanders said they'd be willing to pay more taxes if the money went to schools, the drug war, housing for the homeless or programs for poor children -- with approval ranging from 74 percent to 89 percent.

Support for a tax increase coupled with budget cuts came from a major ity of those polled in every region of the state.

Among those Marylanders who say they are still opposed to raising taxes, there was a common theme: State government is too big and -- despite the assertion by the governor and many legislators that state spending has been slashed to the bone -- there's still room to cut more.

"I really feel we could still do the job and take cuts in the budget, that there's excess, that there's fat all around," said the Rev. Dallas Bumgarner, 50, pastor of Elvaton Baptist Church in Millersville. "A year or two down the road, if we're still in a crunch, then I might reconsider [supporting a tax increase.]"

But voters like Mr. Bumgarner were in the minority. And Mr. Schaefer, who has been proposing tax restructuring and increases for two legislative sessions, called the poll results "a 100 percent vindication of what I have proposed in the past two years."

The staunchest tax resister among the legislative leadership, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, doesn't find the poll results surprising -- or persuasive.

"With 21 years working with budgets, I'm firmly convinced what is best for the state is restructuring and cost containment" -- not just a package of cuts and new taxes.

And House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, said the poll results are suspect because they asked respondents to choose between "some taxes" and "deep cuts" -- and no voter would choose to cut services.

Although almost every other state is experiencing similar problems with plummeting revenues and rising costs for government services, some of those polled blamed the governor for Maryland's budget crisis.

They criticized Mr. Schaefer for not cooperating with the legislature and for his spending priorities.

"The only good thing I've seen him do is improve Route 50 to the Eastern Shore. That's because he's got a place down there, right?" said Sterling Tarr, 57, a retired Air Force technical sergeant from the Prince George's County community of Forestville. "The impression I've got is everything he's working for goes to Baltimore. I'm not alone in this part of the state in thinking that."

James Morris, 35, an Amtrak engineer who lives in Northwest Baltimore, said he approved of Mr. Schaefer when he was the city's mayor, "but now I think that some of the things he wants to do -- drastic cuts and everything -- it's just a way to pressure people to do what he wants to do."

"I don't think he's putting the finances in the proper places," agreed Renita Johnson, who lives in Northwest Baltimore and is an orthopedic nurse at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "Instead of putting it into housing for the poor, he's building a stadium.

"I understand that the stadium is being built with money from the lottery, but that money could have been put into other things. That stadium wasn't needed now, with so many people out of work, so many people poor," she said.

Schaefer administration officials pushed for construction of a new stadium as a means of persuading the Orioles to sign a long-term lease that would keep the team in Baltimore.

And defensive about their budget cuts, administration officials have argued repeatedly that they have little choice but to pare back health, welfare, education and public safety programs, because that is where the bulk of taxpayers' dollars are spent.

Asked if he thought it was fair of the poll respondents to blame the governor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said, "I think the public is very perceptive."

Ernest Burton, a 74-year-old retired lift truck mechanic from the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, was more forgiving of Mr. Schaefer's performance, saying: "He's doing the best he can."

But the issue of blame aside, the state's deep problems contribute to the voters' despair.

"I just see from when I first moved to the state of Maryland, in 1965, up until the last two years, I just saw things get better and better and better and better in Maryland," Mr. Gregory said. "And all of a sudden, boom, the bottom falls out."

TOMORROW in The Sun: Voters give an early reading on the new abortion law.

SUNPOLL

NB

Are you willing to pay more taxes for each of the following?

February 1992

December 1989

Food and medical care for poor children

89%

84%

Fighting the war on drugs

74%

70%

Upgrading public transportation

38%

44%

Improving public schools

78%

77%

Building and upgrading prisons

37%

52%

Housing for the homeless

76%

78%

Poll results

'

Schaefer's job rating

February 1992

October 1990

Excellent/ good

18%

61%

Fair/ poor

79%

36%

Percentages for those responding "Don't Know" are not shown.

If your legislator voted to raise taxes to maintain government LTC services, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for that person?

More likely

48%

Less likely

30%

Neither

7%

Don't know

15%

Would you rather see some cuts in services and some tax increase in Maryland, or no tax increase but seep cuts in spending?

Some cuts, some tax increase 66%

Deep cuts, no tax increase

18%

Don't know 16%

The Sun Poll was conducted by KPC Research of Charlotte, N.C. Results are based on telephone interviews Feb. 10-15 with 1,210 randomly selected registered Maryland voters. Those quoted agreed to be interviewed by reporters. Results are weighted by party and county to make the sample better reflect the electorate. The margin of sampling error for this poll at a 95 percent confidence level is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for the entire sample. This means that in 19 cases out of 20, samples such as this would differ by fewer than 2.8 percentage points from the results obtained from interviews with all registered voters in Maryland. The margin of error for groups within the sample would be larger because results are based on fewer interviews. In addition to sampling error, opinion surveys are subject to other forms of error. For example, people who declined to be interviewed, or who could not be reached, might have different opinions from those who were interviewed.

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