ONE offshoot of the Norton tax affair is a question that is being asked all over town: "If you don't pay your District taxes for eight years, does nothing happen to you?" It deserves a clear answer, but the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue says it can't discuss what it did or failed to do in the Nortons' case for reasons of taxpayer confidentiality. The absence of other information, however, leaves the inference -- perhaps unfairly -- that the District government's lax enforcement allowed the Nortons to get by for eight years without paying.

The taxpaying public needs reassurance that the District government is not giving free rides to non-filers and non-payers unless or until they run for public office, or someone blows the whistle. How can the city expect full taxpayer compliance or even think of seeking significant increases in local taxes or the federal payment if the idea takes hold that the tax agency's system is haphazard or that its compliance program is random or selective? Mayor Marion Barry says not to worry, the system is effective in catching non-filers "almost 99 percent of the time," and when it does, "something does happen to you." But the Norton case seems to belie this.

Is there not a record of enforcement efforts, or lack of them, that could be made public to clear up the conflict? There is. But conflicting statements have come out of the District government and the upper reaches of the Norton campaign concerning whether these are readily available to Mrs. Norton if she wishes to clear the matter up. The Norton people claim they have had great difficulty getting hold of this record from the Department of Finance and Revenue. Harry Thomas, who is in charge of the relevant operation there, says on the contrary that this material is easily and readily available to a taxpayer who wants it. Which is the right story?

For the sake of taxpayer confidence in the process and voter confidence in the assertions of Mrs. Norton and her spokespersons, this one needs to be cleared up. That should be easy. Is the material easily available to her or is it not, yes or no? The doubts that all this has raised about the Department of Finance and Revenue must be dispelled immediately. The D.C. Council's Committee on Finance and Revenue, having oversight responsibility for the tax agency, should immediately investigate the agency's procedures for monitoring compliance with the tax code. If necessary, the D.C. Auditor should lend a hand. The taxpaying public needs to know if there are other cases like the Nortons. If so, how many? How are they being caught and made to comply with the law? How much revenue remains uncollected due to non-filings and tax evasion?

In the minds of many taxpayers, the Department of Finance and Revenue is one of the more effective agencies of the District government. A prompt investigation and report to the public should keep it that way, provided the results support what was commonly believed about that agency, at least before the Norton affair.