A blow to representative government Tax caps: Prince George's restrictive referendum may resonate elsewhere.

November 07, 1996

PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY voters thumbed their noses at representative government on Election Day, stripping leaders of their most important power -- the ability to levy taxes. Voters not only refused to repeal a restrictive property tax cap that, after 18 years, is making it impossible for P.G. government to keep up with demands for basic services; they approved a measure forcing any tax or fee increase to referendum.

This is government by plebiscite, not representative democracy as defined by the Founders. They were wise enough to see that democracy in its purest form can be rash, based on insufficient information and bound to produce policies that won't hold up over the long haul because they would be based on prevailing winds that might change direction. Moreover, pure democracy can elevate individual interests and emotions above the common good. In Prince George's, any tax or fee hike -- no matter how justifiable -- will face an uphill battle at referendum because no one likes paying taxes.

The really frightening thing about approval of this ballot measure is that it may appeal to constituencies in other Maryland jurisdictions. A notable exception might be Montgomery County, where voters Tuesday rejected a tax-cutting initiative. That rejection probably stems from a combination of the sophistication of the electorate and the fact that a controversial gadfly was the brains behind the measure. It is safe to presume that in more conservative, distrustful suburbs such as Anne Arundel (which imposed a tax cap in 1992), Carroll and Harford, new tax referendum initiatives will resonate.

Elected officials can help head off such measures by proving themselves responsible and above reproach. Every ethical infraction, every questionable expenditure erodes public trust and makes people think they would be better off taking matters into their own hands.

They would not, at least not to the extent voters have opted to in Prince George's. Tough decisions belong in the hands of representatives charged with looking at the big picture and thoughtfully weighing what is best for their community, state or nation, sometimes against what is popular. If we don't trust them or don't like what they do, we can, and should, simply kick them out.

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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