Local tax rebels had their day in the state's highest court yesterday, pressing for a ruling that would place a charter proposal to roll back property taxes on the November ballot.
In calling for the Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court ruling removing two proposed charter amendments from the November ballot, a lawyer for the Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government invoked the First Amendment right of the people to petition government for "redress of grievances."
AATRG is appealing county Circuit Judge Bruce C. Williams' Aug. 27 ruling that the tax reform referendum is unconstitutional.
The group had collected more than 20,000 signatures in support of a charter amendment requiring the County Council to lower the 1992 property tax rate enough to roll back revenue to 1989 levels, which would require a $29.2 million budget cut.
Under the proposal, any future increases in property tax revenue would be limited to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
The group also won Board of Elections ballot certification for a separate proposal giving voters the power to pass laws through referendum.
In his ruling, Williams said both measures violate the state constitution, which grants the County Council legislative powers to the exclusion of the electorate. Citing numerous Court of Appeals decisions, he drew a sharp distinction between the right of referendum and independent citizen ballot initiatives for tax reform or any other legislation.
AATRG lawyer John Grieber Jr. told the Court of Appeals yesterday that the tax revenue cap proposal does not usurp the County Council's constitutional power because the proposal does not directly mandate a tax rate. The proposal spells out limitations on the county budget, which is submitted by the county executive and is subject to cuts by the council, Grieber argued.
Grieber also argued that, except under "weighty special circumstances," any proposed charter amendment with the necessary signatures should be allowed on the ballot, and its constitutionality should be reviewed only if it is passed.
Deputy County Attorney David Plymer said Grieber's argument that the amendment is directed at the executive branch gains him no ground, since the charter states the executive and council govern the county "in concert." Plymer argued that the state constitution clearly assigns to the council the right to pass laws.
The Anne Arundel group's arguments were followed yesterday by a similar hearing on an appeal filed by an anti-tax group from Baltimore County.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge John Fader ruled against a tax reform referendum there, but allowed it to remain on the ballot pending review by the Court of Appeals.
How the cases are finally decided may affect anti-tax efforts throughout the state, including a choice of tax initiatives on the ballot in Montgomery County.
Anne Arundel County Attorney Stephen R. Beard said a ruling is expected by Monday.