The Maryland Court of Appeals has yet to explain the legal reasoning behind its stunning impromptu decision yesterday which allows voters to arbitrarily limit property assessment increases. But this much is certain already: The ruling -- which is said to be a split decision -- is going to cause incalculable grief for local governments for years to come.
The immediate mischief of the decision will be to energize assorted single-issue, ad hoc anti-tax groups to exert their muscle in the November election in an orgy of Athenian democracy -- the kind wherein citizens gather in the town square, and the side that can shout the loudest wins, and to hell with reason.
Two lower courts -- one in Baltimore County and another in Anne Arundel -- had rendered decisions which seemed to us entirely reasonable and consistent with the Maryland Constitution. Those lower court judges said in effect that under our established representative form of government, revenue-raising decisions rest entirely in the hands of elected officials, not in the hands of political vigilante groups which can tap the understandable anger of property owners frustrated by ever-increasing tax bills.
But now the Court of Appeals, in its unexpected and still unexplained 11th-hour decision yesterday, has created a serious short-circuit in that local government processes. The court action means that voters can now act in a wholly contradictory manner: They can, on the one hand, elect county council representatives to do certain things they promise to do in their campaigns, and yet at the same time, the voters can hog-tie those officials by limiting their ability to raise the essential funds to carry out their promised agendas.
This is roughly the equivalent of President Bush sending 100,000 American soldiers to Saudi Arabia -- without giving them rifles to fight the enemy.
It is not as if the voters have no recourse to deal with escalating property tax rates. Indeed, they did so on primary day last week when. In a big upset that reflected the depth of the silent anger running among the electorate, Democratic voters in Baltimore County's 7th District unseated incumbent councilman Dale Volz and elected, in his place, a leader of the property tax revolt.
That is exactly the way the process is supposed to work. If an anti-tax majority should emerge on the Baltimore County Council in the November election, then that same majority will have to make the decisions to cut services commensurately with the cuts in revenues. In other words, if a council representative says, "no more taxes," then that same council representative ought to be the one to say, "no more books in the library" or "no more school crossing guards" or "no more twice-a-week garbage pickup" or "no more county drug counseling programs." The list could go on endlessly.
The tax-revolt crowd in effect is trying to have it both ways, and that's no way to run a government. In the end the voters get what they deserve, and, thanks to the Court of Appeals decision yesterday, it appears that the voters in a number of local jurisdictions in Maryland are about to vote themselves a bad deal.