What the Tax Cap Means

November 06, 1992

If Anne Arundel's elected leaders thought voter dissatisfaction had peaked, Tuesday's election taught them a bitter lesson. When 90 percent of registered voters show up at the polls, you know they have a purpose. They sent their message loud and clear: They're sick of taxes and politicians.

Ballot questions to cap county property taxes and limit County Council members' terms didn't just pass. They passed overwhelmingly. Seventy percent voted for the tax cap; an astounding 77 percent were in favor of term limits. Before the election, opponents of the measures dismissed them as the work of a few anti-government rabble rousers, particularly Severna Park tax rebel Robert Schaeffer. However, the final figures showed that resentment against local government runs broad and deep. It is not something elected leaders can ignore.

County Executive Robert R. Neall correctly interpreted Tuesday's vote as a sign that people are in no mood for any tax hike, including an increase in the state piggyback tax. He has only one option: permanent cuts in government services.

Most county residents probably won't feel the cuts this year, but some will. Grants for the arts will be gone, as will other programs deemed non-essential. Expect recreation and community development programs to be sacrificed early, along with the county employees who staff them. Mr. Neall's $10 million "rainy day fund" may delay the inevitable, but it cannot provide a long-term solution. Mr. Neall has been promising to downsize government all along. The cap just means he will do it sooner rather than later.

Mr. Schaeffer, the tax protester, assures us that limiting the annual increase in property tax growth will not mean fewer police on the streets, more school crowding or libraries without books. We hope he is right. But we're skeptical.

No one -- Mr. Schaeffer included -- has answered how much government will have to shrink to accommodate this tax cap. Mr. Neall hopes he can downsize enough to reach an equilibrium -- a point where the cap no longer requires further reductions. But, for all the complaints of big government, demand for services grows. Lastly, what happens if inflation grows beyond 4.5 percent, the maximum that property tax revenues can increase each year under the cap? Who will end up paying the price?

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