Lawmakers divided over how to cover growth costs

State legislators oppose county officials' tax plans

October 19, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Carroll County state Sen. Larry E. Haines and County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge are both Republicans serving the same constituents. But where Gouge sees the need for targeted new taxes to pay for growth's demands, Haines sees excess.

"As a local official, we're faced with where is the money going to come from. We feel that growth should pay for growth," said Gouge.

But Haines said that "if you keep increasing taxes, they keep spending the money. We're sort of a spoiled society today." He pointed out that as a youth, he thrived in a class of 42 students.

So it goes in Baltimore's outer ring of rapidly growing counties -- Carroll, Harford and Howard -- where worried officials are pushing for narrowly focused taxes aimed at paying for additional schools and services for new residents, while their local state legislators mostly refuse to go along. Larger, more-developed suburbs, such as Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, have not asked for the same relief, and Baltimore City's school enrollments are dropping.

Some say it's just a game of chicken between local and state lawmakers, and between state lawmakers and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The governor has pledged not to raise taxes to resolve Maryland's $700 million budget crisis. But he said he will still go forward with the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission education reforms -- including requiring new classrooms for all-day kindergarten.

Meanwhile, state school construction funding is to drop another $16 million to about $100 million statewide next budget year, said David Lever, executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction -- slightly more than a third of its $286 million pre-recession peak.

So while Harford County government plans to locally finance a $43 million middle-high school to reduce crowding, officials are wondering how to pay for it -- while they also worry about more state budget cuts.

"It's frustrating for county officials who struggle for ways to fund critical services without putting additional pressure on the property tax," said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. This budget year, he said, half of Maryland's 24 local governments raised taxes.

Requests by Howard and Carroll officials for General Assembly approval of real estate transfer tax packages were refused last legislative session, though both counties plan to renew them in January. Harford County officials want legislative permission to raise money from an excise tax, impact fee or a transfer tax increase, but are hearing veto threats from legislators.

Anti-tax stance

Harford County state Sen. Nancy Jacobs has said Harford's state senators would not support a tax increase because it "isn't responsible fiscal management."

Some Republican state legislators, such as Haines and Jacobs, are philosophically opposed to raising taxes, but others feel conflicted about supporting Ehrlich's no-new-taxes stand -- and then approving new taxes for their local governments.

"Right now the legislature says to the governor, `You step out front and say we can't fund Thornton,' and the governor says to the legislature, `No, you passed it; you step out front and say we can't fund Thornton,'" lamented state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, an anti-tax Republican who represents parts of Howard and Carroll counties.

If Republican legislators won't vote for new taxes, some say, why should Democrats?

Democrats' position

"It puts the Democrat in a difficult position politically," said state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat who heads the Senate's capital budget subcommittee and represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties.

"A lot of people believe that it's not a good idea to raise taxes, so their opponents beat up on them in four years," said Howard County Del. Frank S. Turner, a Columbia Democrat who backed County Executive James N. Robey's request for a one-half percent increase in the local transfer tax.

Robey, a Democrat, has argued that the transfer tax imposes a one-time fee on those buying homes in Howard -- residents who are putting new students in classrooms. To keep up with growth, he said, the county must fix roads, keep building and renovating schools, and build other government structures.

Led by Kasemeyer, however, Howard's three state senators rejected the transfer tax proposal last winter, arguing that the county controls income and property taxes that can meet the same need. Robey and council Democrats raised the local income tax to fund the daily operating budget, but the executive still wants the transfer tax for capital projects.

Howard Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican, argues that instead of major tax increases, Howard County government must cut spending.

"We have a situation in Howard County. There's a sense that fiscal restraint is right out the window," she said.

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