Sauerbrey may cut quality of life along with taxes


TO HEAR Ellen Sauerbrey tell it, Marylanders are swarming to Southern Pennsylvania in search of lower taxes.

It's true that the area around Shrewsbury, just off Interstate 83, has come to be known as "Little Baltimore" because of the large population of refugee Marylanders. They're Maryland's boat people.

But anyone considering reserving a moving van had better stop and take another look at the tax burden of our neighbors to the north.

Maryland often gets the bum rap of being known as a high-tax, anti-business state. Depending upon who's doing the calibrating either have the third highest tax burden in the nation or the 36th highest. Both are true.

Maryland's income tax is the third highest in the nation, tied with the District of Columbia. But the state's overall tax burden is 36th in the nation, its sales tax 45th and its property tax 35th.

Essentially, Marylanders pay those three major taxes (and the lottery for those who play it) and an assortment of other nuisance taxes and fees.

By contrast, residents of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital located a few miles north of Shrewsbury, have 12 taxes and then some.

They pay taxes on real estate, schools, sewer, garbage, incinerator and water; then there's a 1-percent city tax, a county tax, $150-per-capita tax, a $10 occupation privilege tax, 2.1-percent state income tax and a 6-percent sales tax. What's worse, many agency heads can set their own tax rates.

Plus Pennsylvania's state-owned network of liquor stores sell some of the highest-priced booze in the nation. Turnpike tolls there are among the nation's highest.

Yet Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican candidate for governor, insists the flight to Pennsylvania will only accelerate unless taxes are chopped in Maryland.

She's proposing a 24-percent reduction in the income tax over four years and a growth in spending of only 2.4 percent as compared to the current 5-percent growth rate. The mythical post-nuclear family of four with an income of $50,000 would save $562 when the full tax cut is in effect in the fourth year.

In the end, Mrs. Sauerbrey's economic mumbo-jumbo would translate into a cut of $820 million and the elimination of what's known in gobbledygook governmentese as the structural debt -- budgeting more money than Maryland's taking in.

Sure the numbers will work. Numbers always do whatever anyone wants them to. But there's more to the equation than abstract arithmetic. Government is in the quality of life business. Government provides hope, opportunity and services to its clients.

People put their kids and their trash on the curb in the morning and they expect to get one of them back in the afternoon. These days, though, it's likely to be the trash that's returned.

So it's easy to talk about cutting taxes. It's easy to cut taxes. The question is this: How much pain are we willing to inflict and how much quality are we willing to sacrifice?

Maryland is a well-managed state. And it's a progressive state that provides a high level of services to its taxpayers because they expect them and are willing to pay for them. The quality of life in Maryland is the sum total of those services.

Imagine a Maryland without the Johns Hopkins Hospital or the Shock Trauma Unit. Consider Baltimore without the Baltimore Museum of Art or the Walters Art Gallery. And shut down the Baltimore subway and the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and close the Mechanic and Lyric theaters as well. And while we're at it, lock the doors on a couple of public universities, too.

Government, in many cases, has to be the risk-taker. Harborplace, for example, probably wouldn't exist unless government first built the World Trade Center, the Convention Center and the subway. It was only after those three building blocks were in place that private investors wanted in on the action.

Nobody likes to pay taxes. And surely nobody favors bloated, unresponsive government. But Maryland gives back a dollar in services for a dollar paid in taxes.

Everyone wants great highways. One measure of Maryland's roadways is this simple test: Cross the line into Pennsylvania and tighten your seat belts because your giblets will start rattling on those pocked roads that resemble a moonscape.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. observed, "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." The question is, how much civilization are we willing to give up.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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