Plagued with doubts about the impact of proposed tax caps on government services, voters in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties stopped focusing on their tax bills Tuesday and found a new target for their anger -- public officials.
Democratic incumbents in both counties bore the brunt of voter fury over skyrocketing assessments, political observers concluded yesterday.
"They were nervous that the [tax] limits were too restrictive," said Baltimore County Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-10th. "But they were very upset."
So taxpayers took aim at the politicians who spend the money instead of attacking the system that raises it.
In Baltimore County, their wrath swept Democratic Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and three Democratic council members from office.
In Anne Arundel County, where the upsets were less dramatic, voters chose tightfisted Republican Robert R. Neall as county executive and the first two GOP council members in 20 years.
The message from the voters was unmistakable: Stop wasting our tax dollars, or we'll replace you with people who will.
"They are going to hold people very accountable," said former Baltimore County Executive Donald Hutchinson, a tax-cap opponent."There cannot be the slightest perception that dollars are not being spent wisely."
The defeat of the tax caps represented a dramatic change of heart for voters, who were expected to approve them by large margins only a month ago.
But a last-minute advertising blitz by opponents convinced a majority of taxpayers that the limits could have a disastrous effect on schools, roads, police protection and fire and ambulance service.
"We put enough doubt in people's minds," said Anne Arundel Councilwoman Carole B. Baker, D-5th, who helped lead the fight against the tax cap. "The tide turned drastically in the last weeks."
She applauded voters for their decision to elect fiscal conservatives instead of putting arbitrary limits on how much property tax revenue local governments can collect.
"You don't have to cripple government to control it," Mrs. Baker said.
In Anne Arundel, the tax cap lost by a comfortable margin in all seven councilmanic districts. It won only in scattered precincts where property assessments have tended to be high.
In Baltimore County, the tax cap won strong support only in the tax-rebellion bastions of Dundalk and Essex, although it narrowly prevailed in the Bel Air Road corridor and the northern county communities.
Nationally, voters in several other states also turned down the chance to challenge their tax systems.
A $2.6 billion tax rollback in Massachusetts was defeated. So was a 2 percent limit on annual state and local budget increases in Nebraska.
Montanans refused to scrap their state income, property and sales taxes in favor of a "transaction charge" of 1 percent on all financial dealings. And Colorado voters narrowly rejected a measure requiring voter approval for any state or local tax increase.
Only Oregon taxpayers bucked the trend, passing a property tax limit that would cut tax bills by almost 50 percent.
In Maryland, tax-cap supporters said they were disappointed that the referendums were defeated. But they took credit for mobilizing votersand forcing politicians to be more responsible in their approach to spending.
"We got rid of a lot of spenders," said Robert C. Schaeffer, head of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsible Government. "I think the situation has changed dramatically in this county. The attitude is completely different than it was a year ago."
John O'Neill, head of Baltimore County Citizens for Responsible Government, had much the same view.
"We lost the battle, but won the war," he said. "We're going to get where we wanted to go."