The Maryland Court of Appeals has upheld the voters' right to limit property taxes at the ballot box, as long as the voters don't go too far and propose a tax rollback.
In a compromise decision issued yesterday afternoon, the court took much of the sting out of two proposed charter amendments that originally would have forced deep property tax cuts in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
The court disallowed provisions to roll back taxes to earlier-year levels and thereby removed the strongest argument against the measures. The court kept language that would cap the future growth of taxes.
Unlike the biblical King Solomon, the court "cut the baby in half" through its compromise, said outgoing Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer.
In doing so, it reversed two lower court decisions that had banned the amendments from the Nov. 6 ballot in the two counties. The lower courts had ruled that the tax-capping measures usurped county councils' constitutional power to set tax rates.
"It's probably the single most important decision the court has made concerning the government of home rule counties, because it has defined the power of the electorate, vis-a-vis the county council, to set the tax rate," said David Plymyer, deputy attorney for Anne Arundel government.
The decision left tax protesters claiming victory, and the issue appears even more likely to dominate pre-election politics.
"The good guys won! The people won! It's classic. It's a 'B' movie plot," said Robert C. Schaeffer, who led the Anne Arundel tax revolt.
He said he did not mind losing the rollback provision, which, according to his foes, would have forced draconian cuts in the school and police budgets.
"The rollback, after all, was an attempt to get their attention, and we did that," said Schaeffer, who heads Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government.
"Everybody's just as happy as can be," said John O'Neill, a leader of the Baltimore County tax protesters. "We're happy that after all the work, the pushing and pushing, it's finally on the ballot."
Now his group will campaign for its passage.
"I don't know how much convincing it's going to take. It's an appealing thing," he said.
Although the court has not explained its rulings yet, yesterday's decisions appear to uphold the validity of tax limitations already in place in Talbot and Prince George's counties. It also seems to validate at least two of three tax-limit proposals slated for the Montgomery County ballot.
Baltimore County government attorney Arnold Jablon, who fought the tax proposal, said, "They [the court] rewrote the amendment. It absolutely stunned me. It's obvious that the court is as political as any other body."
The revised Baltimore County amendment calls for no more than 2 percent annual increase in tax revenues. The less severe Anne Arundel amendment would allow yearly increases of 4.5 percent, or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. The court removed methods to override those limits.
Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, who is running for re-election, said today he has no public position yet on the 2 percent limit.
In Anne Arundel, Lighthizer, who is forbidden by law from running for a third consecutive four-year term, said the tax cap probably would pass if voted upon today. "The opponents of this kind of measure have got a lot of work to do.
"I'm not even sure I'd want to be county executive with that [2 percent cap] in effect. Arbitrary caps haven't worked anywhere in this country in growing counties. In most cases, where they've been put in, they've been modified or repealed," he said.
The revised cap, if approved, will cost Anne Arundel an estimated $8 million in lost revenue, a loss that could become more critical as the county population grows and requires more services, officials said.
Talbot County, which capped its property taxes in 1978, faces revenue shortages and "serious problems," said county government attorney James M. Slay.