Tax cap referendum struck from Nov. ballot Montgomery County ruling may affect Prince George's

September 04, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

A Montgomery County Circuit judge has removed a tax cap referendum from the local November ballot. The ruling could doom a similar 2-year-old law in neighboring Prince George's County.

The petition ballot question, championed by anti-tax crusader Robin Ficker and signed by more than 10,000 voters, would have required the Montgomery County Council to get voter approval for every tax increase.

Judge James C. Chapin ruled yesterday in Rockville that the so-called Ficker Amendment was unconstitutional because it would have prevented the County Council from using tax-raising powers granted under state law.

Further, Chapin said that because the amendment was illegal, it could not remain on the ballot even as a "straw vote" on the issue of tax increases.

Ficker said he copied the language for his amendment from Prince George's "Question I," approved by voters in 1996.

Because that law went unchallenged in Prince George's, Ficker said, he never suspected the premise and language were flawed.

The Maryland General Assembly, through charters and individual home rule laws, gives county councils the right to set certain taxes and does not permit the redelegation of that authority to voters.

But the Court of Appeals has upheld the right of citizens to amend their county charters to incorporate property tax caps.

Ficker, a Bethesda lawyer and former state delegate, said he will appeal Chapin's decision to the Court of Appeals. If it agrees to review the case, the state's highest court would allow both sides to air their arguments again.

Clyde Sorrell, lawyer for the Montgomery County plaintiffs, said if the appeals court does not overturn Chapin's ruling, the Prince George's law could be vulnerable to a challenge.

"I think if there are interested parties, they need to give us a call -- whoever the interested 'they' might be," said the former county attorney for Montgomery who took on the Ficker Amendment pro bono.

It is unlikely Prince George's politicians would take the lead in what would be an unpopular cause. Voters approved Question I at the same time they upheld a 1978 property tax cap measure, despite last-minute lobbying against the two measures by County Executive Wayne K. Curry.

No politicians were included among the challengers of the Montgomery ballot question, although Ficker believes County Executive Douglas M. Duncan orchestrated it.

Duncan denied the charge, saying he preferred to "fight Mr. Ficker at the polls."

He will get that chance even if the Ficker Amendment dies in an Annapolis courtroom later this month.

Ficker has a second, unchallenged referendum -- Question H -- that would require the county to return in property tax cuts the difference between the amount raised with a 50 percent piggyback income tax and the current 60 percent rate. He estimates that amount to be $101 million this year.

"We have the tax bullies in a pincer movement," said Ficker, who has filed more than a dozen anti-tax ballot questions over the years. "If we don't get them on Question G, we'll get them on Question H."

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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