- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers have submitted a stack of bills to raise taxes and fees on everything from body piercings and dating escorts to flushing the toilet at home.

Having a bicep tattooed, getting a rubdown in a massage parlor and even having a Christmas present wrapped at the mall are also among the services targeted for fee increases in just one of the 12 bills introduced at the start of the 90-day session.

Democrats are sponsoring six of the bills, Republicans two and one has bipartisan backing.

State agencies requested three of the bills, one by the independent Comptroller’s Office and two from agencies controlled by the Republican administration.

The bills come from across the state, but lawmakers from such Democratic strongholds as Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties sponsored half of them. Legislators from Baltimore County and Western Maryland each sponsored one bill.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, also will propose a fee increase, despite his refusal to increase income or sales taxes.

The governor plans to introduce a bill to put a $2.50 surcharge on residential water bills to pay for upgrades to municipal sewage-treatment plants to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Ehrlich recently submitted a $23.8 billion budget proposal that closed a $786 million shortfall. The governor’s only tax bill so far is one to collect taxes from companies operating in Maryland but with holding companies in Delaware.

House Democrats have submitted the biggest tax proposal — increasing the state sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents on the dollar. Democratic leaders want the extra money to pay for the Thornton plan, an unfunded mandate calling for billions of dollars to close disparities between rich and poor public school districts.

The plan was adopted by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly in 2002 and signed into law by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

Politicians have agreed overwhelmingly to fully fund Thornton, but few agree on how. The Republican administration wants to use slots revenues and savings from streamlining government while House Democratic leaders prefer tax increases.

Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and five other House Democrats endorsed the sales-tax increase. Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, Montgomery County Democrat, introduced a separate but almost identical sales-tax bill.

Delegate Justin D. Ross, Prince George’s Democrat, introduced a sweeping proposal to impose a sales tax on 50 categories of luxury services, including escort and dating services, body piercing, self-storage rentals, gift-wrapping, tanning, tattooing, personal shopper and bodyguard services.

Not all the tax proposals come from Democrats.

The Motor Vehicle Administration wants to charge people who miss appointments for their driver’s license tests. The Comptroller’s Office wants the authority to charge amusement tax on more of the food and drink consumed at nightclubs and sporting events, and the Department of Natural Resources wants higher fees for boat certificates.

Some veteran Democratic politicians are criticizing their party for introducing most of this year’s major tax proposals.

“This constant talk about more taxes is benefiting the governor because he is opposed to the major taxes,” said former Gov. Marvin Mandel, a Democrat.

However, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said the Republicans are equally responsible. “A lot of them are coming from the governor,” he said. “Won’t that hurt his party?”

A longtime Democrat in state politics called the party’s focus on taxes “an effort in frustration.”

By pushing for higher taxes and providing the opportunity for a tax veto, the Democrats make a “bigger hero” out of the governor, said the Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mr. Ehrlich has proposed paying for the Thornton plan with proceeds from legalizing slot-machine gambling at four racetracks and perhaps two other venues along the Interstate 95 corridor. The governor estimated that the gambling houses could generate as much as $2 billion a year for the state.

A similar slots plan by the governor didn’t survive last session, but neither did the Democrats’ proposed tax increases.

Mr. Ehrlich vetoed a bill last year that had provisions identical to a bill reintroduced this year making health maintenance organizations pay the same 2 percent premium tax paid by other insurance companies.

“It will be passed on to the working poor,” Mr. Ehrlich said when issuing the veto May 21.

He has always vowed to veto a sales or income tax increase.

Mrs. Hixson is also sponsoring the new bill to tax HMOs, which has support from at least six other Democratic lawmakers.

While most agency heads and elected officials see higher fees and taxes as ways to reduce future budget shortfalls, Delegate Warren E. Miller, Howard Republican, prefers to rely on the benevolent nature of state taxpayers.

His bill would create an “income tax checkoff” on the state income tax form so taxpayers could make extra contributions voluntarily to the general fund.

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