As vote nears, tax cap support slipping

November 05, 1990|By Marina Sarrisand Larry Carson | Marina Sarrisand Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff Melody Simmons contributed to this story

Some opponents of property-tax-limitation proposals in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties feel heartened by a poll showing that support for the measures has slipped in the last month.

But the election is suddenly only hours away and opponents acknowledge that time may be running out on their uphill battle against the tax caps.

"Obviously, we still have a long way to go," Carole B. Baker, an Anne Arundel County councilwoman and tax-cap foe, said yesterday.

John D. O'Neill, a proponent of the tax cap in Baltimore County, said he remains confident that the cap will win voter approval, despite a new Sun poll showing the number of undecided voters has grown.

"I went door-to-door on Saturday in Riderwood and found that people support us ten to one," O'Neill said.

The Sun poll, conducted last week and published yesterday, showed that support for the Anne Arundel tax cap fell 21 percentage points to 45 percent in the last month. Opposition to the cap increased 5 percentage points to 31 percent. The number of undecided voters grew from 8 percent to 24 percent.

Support for a similar Baltimore County tax cap dropped 15 percentage points to 44 percent in the last month, according to the poll. Opposition rose 2 percentage points to 34 percent. The number of undecided voters rose from 9 percent to 22 percent.

"I think it shows that what we're doing has been working -- we're getting people to think about the ramifications of that cap," said Baker.

The Anne Arundel County charter amendment would limit the annual growth in property-tax revenues to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

The proposal on Baltimore County's ballot would set a 2 percent limit on how much property-tax revenue could increase each year.

Opponents of the tax caps include teachers, government employees and other groups. With leaflets, radio ads and television commercials, they have continued to spread their message that the caps will hurt schools, police and fire departments.

Opponents have found they must contend with residents' frustration at rising assessments and government in general, a feeling fueled by the federal budget problems last month.

Tax rebels, meanwhile, are hoping that voters' perception that government has grown fat and arrogant will help the proposed caps succeed.

In Baltimore County, O'Neill predicts voters will approve hi ballot question tomorrow by a large margin.

O'Neill said recent television advertisements warning voters that the tax cap could cut into civic services such as fire, police and educational services has caused some wariness.

"There is some emotional things attached to those ads," he said. "But I think we're going to win 60 [percent] to 40 [percent]."

David E. Boyd, the Towson State University professor who began the Baltimore County tax protest after north countians received higher assessments last December, said the measure would never have appeared on the ballot if county officials had agreed to negotiate a settlement or had reduced the property tax rate in May. "They stonewalled us," he said.

And Robert C. Schaeffer, who led the fight to put a tax cap on the Anne Arundel ballot, has stepped up similar complaints about the "arrogance" of a county government that, he claims, ignores tax-weary citizens.

Schaeffer has accused the government of deliberately miswording the ballot question, even though his attorney approved the wording after consulting with him.

He, too, was unmoved by the latest poll results.

"I was not surprised about the slip because of these terribly immoral ads they are running," Schaeffer said yesterday. "They are starting to make people afraid."

Former Baltimore County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson, a leader in the fight against the tax cap in his area, said that warnings about cuts in important government services are beginning to reach voters who were initially impressed by the idea of lower tax bills.

A coalition led by the Maryland State Teachers Association has spent $225,000 on television and radio ads against the %o tax-limitation measures in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, said Kathleen Lyons, an MSTA official.

Amid the last-minute campaigning, proponents of the caps in both counties have charged that government officials have unfairly spent public money to fight them.

Schaeffer and other members of his Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government complained that school Superintendent Larry Lorton spent public money to send anti-tax-cap letters home with students last week.

"I was mainly angry that five of my children brought it home," said Severna Park resident Sherrie Hall, who supports the cap proposal. "That cost money -- my money," she said. "I thought the cap was going to pass, but right now it's hard with this smear campaign."

Baker defended Lorton's letter as an attempt to educate parents. "As the executive in charge of over half the county budget, he has a responsibility to inform consumers -- the parents -- of what the ramifications of the cap would be."

If the cap passes, spending per student would drop 13.9 percent after five years, Baker said.

A similar letter campaign in Baltimore County angered O'Neill, who complained bitterly of anti-tax cap notices being placed on government bulletin boards by labor groups. He also criticized the nearly $15,000 spent by the three Baltimore County community colleges to print and mail letters opposing the cap from the each of the three college presidents.

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