It Was A Year Of D-feat For Tax Caps And Democrats

Confusion Helps Kill Homeowners' Plan

#1 News Story

December 30, 1990|By Samuel Goldreich

Twas the night before the election and all through our town

Each street corner was taken by some sign-waving clown

They were shouting and waving, trying to catch our eye

But the drivers weren't impressed, they drove right on by

The Democrats were smug, victory was ahead

There was no reason to believe there was anything to dread

They were very confident, victory was not in doubt

Little did we know they wanted all of us rascals out.

By noon the next day the newspaper showed

That the luster we had was tarnished and bowed

With the ballots counted, it became very clear

We were taking a beating, it wasn't our year

From the top of our ticket, to the court house hall

Some of (our boys) were taking a fall.

Property taxes and growth brought on voter scorn

While others they said had grown stale and worn

With a deliberate swiftness out of office they threw

Our sheriff, our clerk and good ole Buddy, too.

-- from a Christmas card sent by Sen. Michael Wagner, D-Ferndale * For county home owners, 1990 was supposed to be the year they would vote themselves property tax relief through passage of a charter amendment proposed by Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government.

But ballot Question D failed amid an onslaught of scare-tactic advertising by the teachers' union, almost universal opposition from elected officials and hopefuls and proponents' last-minute confusion about its effects.

Instead, the wave of taxpayer resentment washed many Democrats out of office and carried local Republicans to their most successful year in recent memory.

The year began with AATRG president Robert C. Schaeffer, a Severna Park resident and retired Navy commander, stumping for tax-limit support at civic association meetings throughout the county.

AATRG collected more than 20,000 signatures for a charter amendment to roll back county property tax revenues to 1989 levels and limit future increase to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation. AATRG's companion measure to give voters legislative power through ballot initiative also was put on the county ballot.

Backed by claims that the measure would force a 20-percent cut in the tax rate, AATRG gained momentum through the year. Political candidates performed rhetorical gymnastics as they sought to embrace AATRG's goals even while warning that Question D would undermine county services.

But the tax revolt never became the steamroller its leaders had hoped, as events undercut Question D's appeal.

In August, the state Court of Appeals upheld the 4.5-percent limit in the event the measure passed, but struck down the rollback as unconstitutional. The court also ruled against the ballot initiative proposal.

Although the court effectively rewrote the tax limit petitioned by county voters (and a similar measure in Baltimore County) and ordered AATRG's second proposal struck from the ballot, it has yet to issue a written opinion explaining either ruling.

But for tax relief, voters made the court's opinion moot in November, when they voted against Question D.

Public employee unions and civic groups saturated the county with mailings, leaflets and radio and television advertising that warned against gutting education, public safety and environmental programs.

Republican Robert R. Neall, would go on to win election as county executive, offered his own budget-cutting promises and denounced the revised Question D as unconstitutional.

Finally, only days before the election, the county Office of Law issued an informal legal opinion that threw the entire debate over Question D into confusion.

Seizing upon AATRG's reference in Question D to the "constant yield," which allows property tax revenues growth through new construction, county officials opined that the measure would have virtually no effect on taxpayers and county coffers.

Schaeffer added to the confusion by agreeing with the county interpretation, then reversing himself days later.

In the end, voters followed the advice of tax-cap opponents, casting their ballots for non-incumbents who could not be blamed for the burden on their pocketbooks.

Neall defeated two-term County Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus, D-Linthicum, and four-term councilman Edward C. "Buddy" Ahern, D-Pasadena, lost to Republican Carl G. "Dutch" Holland.

Republican Diane Evans also took retiring Democrat Carole Baker's council seat in District 5, where the GOP has gained its first advantage in voter registration.

Council chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River, also came within a few percentage points of losing election to a fourth term.

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