Democrat Harry R. Hughes promised yesterday to give Marylanders $86 million in tax relief if he is elected governor by broadening an existing property-tax-relief program and increasing the deductions available to state income taxpayers.
Although Hughes' program contained a number of proposals similar to those in the tax cut program presented by his Republican opponent J. Glenn Beall Jr., the Democrat said his plan was more responsible since it was targeted to help Maryland's lower-income taxpayers.
Both candidates' plans to answer taxpayer requests for relief would be paid for by the state's projected $140 million surplus.
Specifically, Hughes proposed:
Reducing the state property tax from its current rate of 20 cents per $100 of a home's assessed value to 11 cents.
Increasing standard deductions on nonitemized state income tax forms from $500 to $1,500 for an individual. Joint deductions for married taxpayers would rise from $1,000 to $3,000.
Adding $25 million to the present homeowners property tax credit program to provide greater benefits for those already eligible and to include renters in the program.
Eliminating the sales tax on farm and manufacturing machinery.
Like Beall, Hughes also promised to hold down government costs by imposing frequent review of all programs to see "if they're worthwhile, something like a zero-based budgeting approach."
Hughes also said he would ask the legislature to enact laws to control government spending by limiting increases in local county property tax rates to 5 per cent. When it was pointed out that many countries were considering such restrictions now, Hughes replied that a state law would be necessary to insure uniformity throughout the state.
He also proposed a $150 million reduction in the state's capital debt, as did Beall 10 days ago. Both ideas came from a state government committee that has been studying Maryland's bonded indebtedness.
Beall's proposed tax cuts, which totalled $126 million or an average of $100 per taxpayer, paralled Hughes' proposals in some respects: both men, for instance, favored elimination of the machinery sales tax.
However, rather than proposing an increase in the standard deduction, which is available only to income taxpayers who do not itemize deductions on their returns, Beall proposed raising the personal deductions available to all income taxpayers from $800 to $1,000 over the next three years.
The most significant difference between the two proposals of the Republican and the Democrat is Hughes' plan to funnel $25 million in new tax relief through the existing hometowners' tax credit program and to open this program to renters.
This idea, Hughes said, supports his claims that his plan partially aimed at the disadvantaged. "(Beall) does nothing to help the renters," said Hughes. "And in my travels around the state I've noticed that the elderly on fixed incomes who rent are in need of relief."
Beall, however, said that relying on the hometowners tax credit program is no insurance that the needy will receive relief.
"As recently as last week it was reported that more than 75 per cent of those eligible for circuit breaker relief had not taken advantage of the program. In spite of this, Mr. Hughes wants to expand a program that is already not working."
Beall described Hughes' entire program as "piecemeal and iffy" since Hughes relies on the legislature to pass the programs.
Hughes' third proposed change would be the inclusion of renters in the program. The only difference for renters would be that they would receive their credits in the form of reductions in their state income tax bill while homeowners' credits take the form of reductions in their property tax bills.
The homeowners' tax credit program, also known as the circuit breaker, is a property tax credit system based on weighing the taxpayers' total property tax bills against their ability to pay and providing credits when the tax bills are excessive. There are different formulas for returning credits, based on different homeowners' income levels.
Hughes would change the eligibility requirements in three ways.
Under the current system, a Prince George's County family with a gross income of $20,000 and a total property tax bill of $1,500 receive $210 credit on their county property tax bill. That credit is calculated this way: if the family's total state and county tax bills is more than 5 per cent of their income, they receive half of the difference as a credit.
If these homeowners are more than 60 years of age they could receive the entire difference as a credit under the existing program.
Hughes proposal would eliminate the 60 year age cut-off, giving taxpayers of all ages the same relief. He would change the formulas by which taxpayers receive credit, giving additional credits to homeowners at all income levels.
Under the Hughes' plan, the credit of the hypdthetical Prince George's family would increase from $210 to $700.
Throughout the hard fought primary race for the Democratic nomination, Hughes said he felt that equitable tax relief would come only when governments ended their reliance on property tax and made the state income tax the primary source of funds.
Yesterday Hughes had little to say about changing the income tax system. "When you look at gradation of the income tax you have to look at changing all taxes, local and state. It takes a long time."
Hughes also pledged to keep down the growth of state expenditures to no more than 8 percent his first year in office and 5 percent in the following years.
But this limitation, he said, would apply only to what he called "controllable" expenditures, which he said make up less than one-fourth of the state budget. Hughes said he could not control expenditures such as those paid for by federal grants, transportation funds, debt servicing, payments of social security, retirement, welfare and medicaid benefits, the homeowners tax credit program and some capital construction projects.