What started as an anti-tax rebellion may become a landslide at the polls next month, as voters in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties overwhelmingly favor proposals to limit property tax revenues, according to a poll commissioned by The Sun.
The poll found that 59 percent of those surveyed in Baltimore County and 66 percent in Anne Arundel County supported proposed limits on how much their county government could collect in property taxes.
In Baltimore County, 32 percent oppose a measure that would limit annual property tax revenue increases to 2 percent. In Anne Arundel, 26 percent oppose a measure that would limit future increases in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent each year, or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, the poll showed.
The poll found, however, that when respondents were asked if they would be willing to pay more in taxes to improve schools, provide for the homeless, promote recycling or fight the war on drugs, they said yes in both counties -- by large margins.
Results of The Sun Poll, conducted by KPC Research of Charlotte, N.C., are based on the responses of 579 likely voters in Baltimore County and 574 in Anne Arundel County who were contacted between Oct. 4 and last Thursday. The margin of error is 4.1 percentage points in each county.
"I think it's great. It shows the support is out there," said John D. O'Neill Sr., leader of Citizens for Responsive Government, a Baltimore County taxpayers group that fought to have the tax initiative put on the ballot. "By the time the election rolls around, we think there will be even more support for us."
Property tax rebels who petitioned the issues to the ballot this fall insist that the caps are reasonable ways to encourage county governments to cut waste and excess spending. Opponents say the proposals are too restrictive and will cause cutbacks in capital projects, education and other traditional services.
Many of those surveyed who support the caps revealed a general distrust of government.
"The politicians make all kinds of promises when they run for office and don't follow up on them," said John A. Karr, 72, a Severna Park resident who favors the tax cap.
"Somewhere along the line, there has to be a better way of funding without always going to the property owners," said Samuel S. Fretz, 86, of Glen Burnie.
Those who told pollsters they opposed the tax caps said they feared the measures would lead to a reduction in services.
"It's just foolishness to think that there's any such thing as a free lunch," said Richard Uhler, 55, of Monkton, an assistant principal at Hereford High School.
In both counties, support for the tax caps crossed boundaries of income, party affiliation and age. Respondents who said they had children in public schools were just as likely to support the tax proposal as those who didn't.
Higher-income voters were only slightly more supportive than those who made less than $25,000 a year.
"I'll vote for it because I certainly don't want any more taxes," said Ron Knouse, 46, who said he struggled to pay the $1,400 yearly tax bill on his 27-year-old home in Reisterstown. "It's a nice house, but that just seems like an awful lot to pay."
County budget experts say the loss of those tax revenues would be costly.
Anne Arundel officials predict the county government will be denied a total of $118.6 million over the next four years if the tax cap passes.
Baltimore County officials say the cap will translate into cuts of $20 million in revenues next year, cuts of 3.5 percent from all departments and the layoffs of 2,500 county employees over the next five years.
Approved for the Nov. 6 ballot by the Court of Appeals three weeks ago, the two tax proposals seem particularly timely to voters who are turned off by Congress and President Bush's attempts to negotiate a budget compromise in Washington.
With higher federal taxes a virtual guarantee, and talk in state government of the need for an increase in gasoline taxes, voters seem anxious to limit taxes in any way possible -- even though they told pollsters waste was greater in the federal and state governments than at the county level.
Baltimore County residents rated taxes the biggest issue facing the county, while Anne Arundel voters considered it the third-biggest behind development and drugs and crime, according to The Sun Poll.
"People have a strong interest in protecting themselves when they know they're about to get hit by new taxes," said Robert C. Schaeffer, head of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government, the group that petitioned the Arundel proposal.
Tax cap opponents say one of the biggest obstacles they face is convincing voters that money cut from county government translates into cuts in services. Voters want to spend more money on services but do not want to pay more money in taxes, two seemingly irreconcilable opinions, opponents say.