Public support for proposals to limit how much Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties can raise from property taxes has slipped dramatically in just three weeks, with a substantial number of voters now undecided about the issue, The Sun Poll shows.
The poll, conducted last week by KPC Research of Charlotte, N.C., found that voters in the two counties still favor the proposed tax caps by sizable margins, but that about one in four voters has yet to make up his mind.
Support for the tax cap in Baltimore County dropped 15 percentage points to 44 percent since a Sun Poll taken last month. The number of voters against the cap increased 2 percentage points to 34 percent, and the number of undecided voters jumped from 9 percent to 22 percent.
Support for a similar cap in Anne Arundel County has fallen 21 percentage points over the past month to 45 percent. The proportion who oppose the cap in Anne Arundel increased 5 percentage points to 31 percent, and the number of undecided rose from 8 percent to 24 percent.
The Baltimore County results are based on a sample of 585 people, and the Anne Arundel County results are based on a sample of 600 people, with both groups of likely voters selected at random from voter registration rolls.
The substantial swing in public sentiment may have been triggered by an aggressive anti-tax-cap advertising campaign, financed largely by the Maryland State Teachers Association, that included a package of television and radio spots dramatizing worst-case scenarios if the caps meant cuts in government services.
One of the more controversial ads, a minutelong radio spot, features an elderly person who, suffering chest pains, thinks he is having a heart attack and dials 911, only to get a recorded message putting him on hold.
Along with the three other radio spots, it was assailed as a "scare tactic" by taxpayers groups that had petitioned the two measures for the Nov. 6 ballot. Tax-cap proponents compared the ads to those used by Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 presidential bid.
"They're on the same moral plane with the [anti-Barry] Goldwater ad with the girl in the field with the flower and the mushroom cloud," said Robert C. Schaeffer, president of Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government. "They are saying, 'If you vote for the tax cap, your life will be in danger.' That's as low as you can go."
Tax-cap opponents defended the ads as essentially truthful but admitted they were "heavy-handed."
The commercials "are emotional," said Anne Arundel Councilwoman Carole Baker, D-5th, chairwoman of Fairness for All County Taxpayers. "Some of them are rather strong, but they get people's attention."
"The whole media campaign has about two weeks, so you've got to get the voters' attention -- you've got to go out and hit them right between the eyes," said Donald P. Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive who is heading the efforts to fight the cap there.
Mr. Hutchinson said the percentage of voters who switched from supporting the tax caps to undecided meant that the opponents' campaigns were succeeding.
"At first people were all saying, 'Lower taxes, yeah, right on.' But at least we're getting people to think about the issue, think about what it could do," Mr. Hutchinson said.
Debbie Lake, 39, of Parkville, who responded to the poll and agreed to be interviewed later, said she decided to vote against the tax cap not only because of its effect on the schools but because of the impact on services such as police and fire protection.
"Those are the departments that have the biggest expenses, so those are the ones that would be the first to be cut," said Ms. Lake, a teacher at Pine Grove Elementary School in Baltimore County.
But Mauro Sorrentino of Essex remained unconvinced by the ad campaign that services would be drastically altered. "I just think it would be a good thing to limit taxes," said Mr. Sorrentino, 36.
Listed on Tuesday's ballot as Question T, Baltimore County's proposed charter amendment would prohibit county government from raising property tax revenue more than 2 percent each year.
Anne Arundel's proposal, which is identified on the ballot as Question D, would limit growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent each year or the rate of inflation, whichever was lower.
In both counties, proponents of the tax cap also complained about other campaign tactics, including the posting of anti-tax-cap posters in public buildings and letters being sent out by community college presidents urging students and alumni to vote against the caps.
"I think that an organization like a community college shouldn't be doing this. They're trying to influence an election outcome," said Robert Banks, an alumnus of Essex Community College who received an Oct. 26 letter urging the cap's defeat.
Frederick Walsh, president of Catonsville Community College, said the letters were sent out because the presidents of all three schools saw the measure as a threat.