Voters romp in 1990 rerun of the Boston Tea Party

September 14, 1990|By Linda Cotton

IF THIS were 1773, they would be throwing tea into the harbor. Instead, they have thrown out Sid Kramer in Montgomery County and launched an assault in Baltimore County that conceivably could unseat Dennis Rasmussen.

Make no mistake; there is a rebellion brewing in the metropolitan counties. By now just about everybody has received one of those fated letters from the bank: New assessments have increased annual property taxes and the escrow fund is in the red; from now on mortgage payments will be higher.

There is a palpable, and justifiable, anger in the metropolitan counties. While taxes are going up -- in very real terms -- paychecks and pensions aren't. The kids are sitting in social studies class with 30 others, maybe more; the school roof is leaking and the local shopping district has turned into a steel and concrete monster that is spreading into places that used to be covered with trees.

People are longing for the old days of suburbia, when there was plenty of money to go around and a house outside the city limits promised an escape from the problems that now literally lurk around the corners. The logical villain is the local (fill in the blank) administration. Take your pick, the allegations are flying in every county.

But the problem is bigger than Dennis Rasmussen or Sid Krameor even Liz Bobo, of Howard County, who is taking her share of criticism as well. A decade after Ronald Reagan rode into the White House, intent on bringing about the great American fiscal revolution, the fallout has finally begun to settle. The 1980s turned out to be a pass-the-buck era in which the federal government asked more and more of the states, which turned over their mandates to the counties and cities.

The missing element, though, was money. Federal funds that used to pay for all kinds of projects -- from community block grants for health and housing to money for roads and bridges -- all but dried up, leaving counties and cities millions of dollars in the red.

Maryland, like other states, heaped more problems on the pile by issuing new requirements of its own -- and by failing to provide enough money to pay for complying with them. While population shifted to the suburbs, for instance, funds for school construction all but disappeared. And when the state required recycling, the order came with an insidious caveat, courtesy of industry lobbyists: No jurisdiction could tax bottles or cans to pay for the running of the program.

Throughout this great fiscal and political boondoggle, Maryland's counties and cities have been forced to rely almost exclusively on property taxes to raise the revenue they need. Rasmussen and Kramer are not so much villains as victims. Jim Lighthizer would be too, if he were running for office again. In Anne Arundel County, like Baltimore and Montgomery, angry tax rebels are trying to use the ballot to cap assessments. Even if the state's high court strikes down the referendums as unconstitutional, which appears almost certain, there will be efforts to impose the same caps through the county councils.

There is already an effort to do this in Howard County, where Councilman Charles Feaga has proposed a bill that caps annual assessments at 5 percent -- one-third of what the average increase has been. In Baltimore County, Don Mason, who wiped out Dale Volz in the 7th District councilmanic primary, is a leader of the tax rebellion to cap annual assessment increases at 2 percent. Vince Gardina, who unseated Councilman Norman Lauenstein, is a leader of the anti-development group. They are protesters with different agendas which are nevertheless inextricably linked.

The message implicit in the primary victories of anti-tax and anti-growth rebels in all the metropolitan counties is that they can cap annual assessments at 2, 4 or 5 percent (depending on which county you live in), slow the rate of growth and somehow -- miraculously -- still provide excellent education, small classes, anti-drug programs, trash recycling, clean water, open space, adequate police and fire services, anti-drug programs -- you name it.

This is the big lie. It's possible, of course, to cut thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- of dollars from any county's budget. But the idea of doing more with less has been discredited for years, since Ronald Reagan took his budget director, David Stockman, to the woodshed for telling the nation that Reaganomics was a fraud.

The fact is, if the counties and the city don't get more money -- from the state, the federal government or through new taxing authority -- the teachers can't get raises and the roads can't get fixed. Rebellion or no rebellion.

Of course people are mad. Yet, ironically, when it was all over fewer than a third of the people who could have voted actually did.

There are, undoubtedly, as many reasons people don't vote as there are non-voters. But the problem is deeper than conventional wisdom suggests -- that people are overworked, tired and would rather watch "Family Feud." There is an abiding belief among those who don't vote that the zealots who do know, better than the rest of us, what they are doing. They are wrong.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.