Voters And Their Masters

Joseph N. Ingolia

November 03, 1990|By Joseph N. Ingolia

VOTERS in Baltimore County will have the opportunity Tuesday to vote on whether there should be a 2 percent yearly limitation on property-tax increases. While the question appears to be a purely local issue, nothing could be further from the truth. The issue springs from the same country-wide dissatisfaction that threatens incumbents and a non-responsive political system.

The history of Question T is a script for a book on how not to represent people. The question is sponsored by Citizens For Representative Government, a group that at first was more interested in people being properly represented than in protesting taxes. No matter. The political system removed the disparity.

Maryland's property-tax system is a kind of vise that squeezes the taxpayers. On one side are state property assessments and on the other are rising county tax rates. Each takes turns with the taxpayer in the middle. This past year, the state raised some real-property values in Baltimore County more than 100 percent and caused tax bills to rise 60 percent.

Taxpayers' protest groups sprang up throughout the county. They were incensed as much by the inequity and insensitivity of the appeals process as they were by the tax increase. When they sought help from their representatives, the county councilman said the state was to blame and the state senator said the county was to blame. Even when the protest reached its highest pitch, the best the people were offered was a cap on assessment increases -- a non-solution that meant more gamesmanship with an already complex and obsolete assessment process.

The failure of the system to provide voters adequate representation in the tax area resulted in the alliance of Citizens for Representative Government with the tax groups. It brought about a petition drive which obtained over 20,000 signatures.

Did that cause the politicians to react with a degree of understanding? No way! Their response was to bring an adversarial suit to prevent voters from being allowed to vote. A suit against their own constituency. Predictably, they lost.

Has the loss caused any change in the politicians? Well, not really. The politicians insist they must have a right to impose property taxes without any limitation whatsoever. They are telling voters to vote against Question T or face the loss of essential jobs and services. This in the face of the fact that only 1 percent of a billion-dollar budget will be affected, that the budget is ''fat,'' that other tax sources are available.

Not only that, the politicians are not satisfied with campaigning themselves against Question T under the guise of ''educating'' the public. They have enlisted the aid of powerful special-interest groups who vow they will spend millions to further ''educate'' the public through media advertising. A ploy that is certain to pit one group against another.

What all this means to the average voter is that many incumbents have not only refused to represent him, but that they will openly fight to keep him hostage to the present system -- a system where PACs, lobbyists and special interests have the political ear and the voter remains ignored except on election day.

Question T exemplifies what is happening throughout the country. People who are afraid of losing their homes, or who have trouble supporting a family will not stand idly by while politicians play an old game that is no longer viable. It will be interesting to see if the incoming political establishment is not only astute enough to sense the change but courageous enough it accommodate it.

The results of the lack of representation are ironic. Not only is the 2 percent increase limitation just what people want but it establishes a definitive amount of tax and income. It allows both taxpayers and the county to plan and rely on the revenues and provides fiscal stability which everyone ought to want. Another thing it does is to make state assessments irrelevant, at least in Baltimore County.

Certainly it causes one to wonder why something like Question T should not be adapted statewide. The state could abolish all the assessors' offices and use the money saved for something productive, like more and better education.

Mr. Ingolia is the president of Citizens For Representative ? Government. He has served as a supervisory attorney in the IRS ? and as chief trial judge of the U.S. Tax Court, and is presently a C federal judge.

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