ANNAPOLIS -- In a major victory for Maryland's property tax rebels, the state's highest court ruled yesterday that voters in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties should be allowed to consider proposed property tax limits petitioned to the November ballot.
The Court of Appeals decision overturns the rulings of circuit judges in Towson and Annapolis, who found that the proposed amendments to the counties' charters violated the state constitution.
"We're overjoyed," said Robert C. Schaeffer, president of the Anne Arundel taxpayer group that petitioned the issue to the Nov. 6ballot. "It renews my faith in the system."
The taxpayers' victory was not complete, however. The seven-member court stripped the two proposals of provisions that would have rolled back property tax revenues to the levels of previous years.
Under the original Anne Arundel proposal, the county would not have been allowed to raise more money next year than it raised in fiscal 1989.
In the Baltimore County plan, the first-year limit was based on fiscal 1990 revenues.
Those rollbacks would have reduced the counties' tax revenues by $30 million to $60 million each and, according to county officials, caused massive employee layoffs and reductions in services.
The judges also eliminated from the Baltimore County proposal a clause which would allow the county government to impose a tax increase greater than 2 percent only if two-thirds of registered voters approved, a nearly impossible challenge.
In addition, the court upheld Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Bruce C. Williams' decision to disallow another charter amendment petitioned by Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government, which would have allowed voters to author new laws.
"The most draconian measures have been eliminated and I'm happy about that," said Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer. "Unfortunately, I think this has a good chance of passing."
As it stands now, the proposed charter amendment petitioned by the Baltimore County taxpayer group, Citizens For Representative Government, would limit future increases in property tax revenues to 2 percent each year. Anne Arundel's would limit increases to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
The high court's decision also means that two other counties with existing limits on property taxes will be left untouched by the judiciary. Voters in Prince George's County and Talbot County adopted tax limits in the late 1970s.
The ruling also erased any legal questions surrounding three proposed tax limits that will appear on the ballot in Montgomery County.
The appeals court, which heard arguments Wednesday, was probably split on the decision, but the reasoning -- and the number of judges in the majority -- will not beknown until a written opinion is issued.
The two court orders issued yesterday are both signed by Judge John C. Eldrige, not by Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, a sign that Judge Murphy is one of the dissenters.
Attorneys for the counties said yesterday that they were not surprised by the ruling since the judges questioned them closely on the issue of severing the rollbacks.
The judges "made it clear they were trying to protect Prince George's and Talbot counties," said Baltimore County Attorney Arnold Jablon. "They did not want to attack them by throwing out these."
Mr. Jablon and David A. Plymyer, Anne Arundel's deputy county attorney, had argued that the two proposals were invalid because under the state constitution, the General Assembly expressly gives county councils the authority to set property tax rates.
The court's decision to keep the measures on the ballot will likely energize voters who, perhaps bored by non-competitive contests for statewide offices this year, stayed away from the Sept. 11 primary in droves. Already, proponents and opponents of the property tax limits are gearing up their campaigns.
John D. O'Neill, leader of Citizens For Representative Government, said yesterday that members of his taxpayers' group have already begun efforts to raise funds and educate voters. The retired Ruxton businessman said he intends to wage a vigorous campaign and predicted overwhelming support.
"Without the rollback, it's irresistible. How can they not vote for it?" Mr. O'Neill said.
Indeed, the irony of the court's decision may be that the amputation of the rollback clause will make the proposal more appealing to voters. The six weeks of legal wrangling have cost tax cap opponents precious time they needed to organize their own voter education ef-forts.
Neither result was likely a goal of either Mr. Lighthizer or Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen when they decided to mount a legal challenge to the tax limits last month.
"The average guy goes into the voting booth and says, heck, government is already wasting my money so I guess I'll vote for it," said Mr. Lighthizer, a two-term incumbent who is forbidden by County Charter from seeking another term in office. "It's going to be difficult to overcome that."
Mr. Rasmussen, a Democrat who is seeking a second four-year term in office, was unavailable for comment yesterday. His Republican opponent, Roger B. Hayden, declined to take a position yesterday.
Officials in both Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties still predict that, if approved by a majority of voters this fall, the proposed tax limits
could have a devastating impact on county services in the future.
They warned that spending cuts will hurt school systems the most and jeopardize their good standing with bond rating houses that determine how much it will cost the county to borrow money.