September 22, 1990

In a regrettable display of judicial activism, Maryland's highest court has cleared the way for property tax cap referendums in several suburban counties. The court may be correct from a legal standpoint, but it has nonetheless opened the door to a regional disaster-in-waiting.

The electorate in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties will be given the chance to approve or reject various and sundry limits on the growth of their property taxes. The methodologies vary, but the effect will be the same: hobbling local government's ability to provide basic and peripheral services. Proponents of these wrongheaded proposals are operating under the simplistic notion that the revenue shortfall can be made up by pruning budgetary fat. Fact is, these ruinous referendums amount to radical surgery that will slice to the bone, blighting the quality of life seen in the stellar growth of these suburban counties.

Do our citizens want good schools and community colleges? Do they want adequately stacked libraries? Do they want well-maintained parks and other recreational facilities, fire and police protection, the availability of health services? Less obvious but equally important is a county's bond rating. Limits to revenue flow are a sure formula for higher borrowing costs, all of which are ultimately paid by the taxpayers.

These are far from idle concerns. Voters pondering thadvisability of capping property taxes need look only as far as Prince George's County to see the fiscal havoc wreaked by such measures. A tax cap scheme adopted by that county's residents in 1978 led to bulging classrooms and stretched response times for emergency services. Its bond rating skidded, thus rendering the county incapable of floating new debt.

Replicating Prince George's folly is not only ill-advised, but downright foolish given the pervasive economic uncertainty gripping the region. And it is not without irony that the biggest beneficiaries -- affluent homeowners -- will likely feel the least pain (except when the hidden bond bills come in).

The siren song of lower taxes is a seductive one. But voters must look beyond the prospect of "saving" a couple of hundred dollars year. Parents with children in county schools, the elderly who while away recreation time at neighborhood senior centers, high-schoolers aspiring to an affordable education at community colleges, even bikers and hikers must weigh the consequences of short-term gain against the inevitable deterioration of government-financed operations.

The high court's decision was framed by constitutional dictums rather than economic realities. Now voters should turn to another constitutional dictum: their right to say NO on Nov. 6 to selfishness, demagoguery and the well-aimed shot in the foot. In government, as in life, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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