'Truth' in taxes runs into heavy flak Foes barrage senators with objections to bill

March 27, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Del. Anne Healey says she just wants to introduce "truth in taxation" to the state's property tax system, but a vocal contingent of tax-wary Marylanders fear that the truth would hurt them right in their pocketbooks.

Those fears, fanned by a conservative Baltimore talk show host, DTC have led to an outpouring of phone calls from taxpayers demanding that senators reject the bill, which the House has passed, 101-34, with the outspoken support of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Senators apparently are listening to their constituents. Despite its powerful backing, the bill seems to be in trouble in the Senate.

When Healey defended her bill before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, she was peppered with questions along the lines of: Why am I getting all these calls?

"The people who are calling have been misinformed or disinformed," Healey told the senators.

In an earlier interview in her office, Healey seemed puzzled by the fuss. The Prince George's County Democrat, a Ways and Means subcommittee chairwoman, said she can't even tune in the talk show host's radio station, Baltimore's WCBM, from her home.

She said her bill is an effort to bring Maryland's property tax rates into line with reality so that public rankings of state taxation don't exaggerate Maryland's tax burden.

"The bill portrays the rate to be what it is," she said.

Maryland residential property is taxed on 40 percent of assessed value. Healey's bill would change that to 100 percent and reduce local property taxes to 40 percent of what they are now.

For example, Baltimore County's property tax rate of $2.855 per $100 of assessed value would drop to $1.142. Baltimore's rate would drop from $5.85 to $2.34.

Healey and Taylor said the bill would not change the amount taxpayers pay or the amount local governments collect.

What it would change, proponents say, is the perception that Maryland's property tax rates are unusually high, a perception that results from comparisons with states that tax 100 percent of assessed value.

That logic has won widespread support, including that of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Maryland Municipal League, the Maryland Association of Counties and editorial writers.

But it hasn't persuaded talk show host Zoh Hieronimus. For much of the past week, she has been warning her listeners that the bill would open the door to hefty tax increases.

Opponents say the bill would encourage local government officials to sneak through what would appear to be little tax increases -- say a penny or two -- because their altered tax rates would appear to be so low.

That would be deceptive, Hieronimus said. "You have to multiply every penny increase by 2 1/2 cents," she said.

Hieronimus said the opposition is largely based on distrust of government that is "founded in past experience."

After yesterday's hearing, it appeared that some senators were wary.

"I think people have qualms about it," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Sen. William H. Amoss, a Harford County Democrat, said he hadn't received any calls but that he shared some of the opponents' concerns about local officials.

"People know what they have now. They understand it," he said.

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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