After the flow charts and the rosy projections, a television reporter covering the annual meeting of Maryland's Board of Revenue Estimates last month asked one of the state's financial guardians if a tax increase would be needed next year. The official responded with laughter.
Questions of that sort were not a joking matter in Maryland just a few years ago when a national recession eroded the state's tax base, knocked workers out of jobs and so reduced state revenues as to necessitate a sales tax increase to balance the budget.
That was before the era of the surplus. For the past two years, the state's economy has warmed up enough to produce sizable treasury windfalls, beginning with a nearly $80 million surplus last year. This year's budgetary surplus has been pegged at more than $200 million.
Those budgetary gains represent just part of the overall economic growth in Maryland since the lean days of 1974 and 1975. The work force has grown by 100,000 jobs since late 1977, while the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.6 per cent, the lowest in four years. Personal income has increased by more than $1 million for three of the past five quarters, spurring a healthy rise in retail sales.
The state-run lottery, featuring the highly popular daily "Numbers Game," has grown so rapidly in sales that it has become the third-largest source of state revenue. If current predictions come true, the game will contribute $125 million to the state treasury by the end of this year.
Such positive economic signs give Gov.-elect Harry R. Hughes an excellent opportunity to make good on his campaign pledge to reduce taxes. Hughes, who enters office Jan. 17, was so impressed with this year's projected surplus that he left last month's revenue estimates board meeting saying he may be able to expand on his promise of bringing Maryland taxpayers up to $86 million in property and income tax savings.
Hughes, who sponsored the state's first graduated income tax law while he was state Senate majority leader in the 1960s, says he is considering other tax relief measures for the upcoming General Assembly session, such as eliminating the 5 percent sales tax on home heating oil or repealing the one-year-old law extending the sales tax to carry-out foods.
The economy Hughes inherits is much brighter today than it was just two years ago when then-Gov. Marvin Mandel pushed through a one-cent increase in the state sales tax to help him close a $176 million gap in the state budget. Inflation, Mandel said at the time "has overtaken the state's ability to function adequately within our present fiscal structure."
Shortly after Mandel enacted the sales tax, a series of government and private reports began painting a poor picture of the state's economy. Maryland was quickly losing ground, compared to other states, in per capita income and nonagricultural and manufacturing service sector employment, according to one report. In the early 1970s, the state lost more than 41,000 manufacturing jobs. The only growth area was in size of state government.
The large blocks of extra, unexpected funds that fill state coffers are not available in parts of the private sector, such as the mortgage loan industry. Maryland lenders, unhappy with the state's 10 percent ceiling on mortage interest rates, have almost stopped making loans without large down payments. So closed is the market that prospective homeowners are turning in much large numbers to the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration for financing.
As of late December, only 86 of the state's 312 conventional mortgage lenders were making loans, and half of them restricted their loans to their own customers, according to a professional association of bankers, builders and realtors. The average down payment required for the available loans was 30 percent of the purchase price, the association said. As a result, many economists are projecting a large drop in housing starts.
The mortgage money crisis is expected to take up a large part of the coming legislative session, where mortgage lenders will fight for emergency legislation removing any ceiling on interest rates. The current 10 percent limit, members of the industry say, is much too low to be profitable.