BY NOW all Maryland homeowners and legislators should see there is no [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and easy way to curb the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] increases that have aroused so many complaints [WORD ILLEGIBLE] problems of consitutionally and equity, state [WORD ILLEGIBL] General Francis B. Luren last week ruled out most of the highly published plans for freezing assesments, limiting increases or providing various exemptions. Then Gov. Marvin Mandel unveiled an inflation-allowance plan that illustrates - mostly by omission - the hard questions of public policy and financing that need to be addressed.
The Mandel proposal in essence involves adjusting assessments for tax purposes to reflect the actual inflation home values in each country. Besides apparently meeting the standards of constitutionality and equity that Mr. Bureh set out the plan could well be appealing in Annapohs. It could reduce tax assessments for most homeowners especially those in each country whose homes have gained value rapidly. Moreover, it would enable state legislators to claim credit for cutting assessments - while leaving to local officials, the problem of increasing tax rates, if necessary to make up the lost revenues.
Mr. Mandel's approach has some conspicuous short-comings though. First, its complexity makes it hard to explain and could cause problems in figuring assessments and projecting revenues. Second, it could reduce revenues for local governments, especially - if our calculations are correct - in those counties where housing prices have soared most rapidly. Third, in the course of helping homeowners, it could shift more of the tax burdern to renters, farmers and owners of commercial and industrial property - groups also affected, though less audibly, by increases in property values. Finally, the plan fails to focus on the lower-income homeowners who have the greatest claim for tax relief.
The point is not only that the governor's plan needs refinement, but more broadly that the whole tactic of tinkering with property taxes is inadequate. Maryland ought to be moving toward far greater reliance on an overhauledand fairly graduated income tax.This cannot be done overnight or as a total substitute for other kinds of tax increases. Moreover, income-tax improvements - like assessment changes - will affect the whole structure of state, county and municipal finance and have to be carefully thought out in that light. Del. Benjamin Cardin of Baltimore and a few colleagues have been working on these problems for some time. Gov. Mandel and most legislators, however, seem to think this is not the year to tackle anything so tough and sensitive. But an idea year is never going to come. Instead of reassessing homes, the General Assembly as a whole should start reassessing basic tax policies this year.