Political values divide leaders

Commissioners clash with conservative delegates

Both groups entirely Republican

Ideological gap evident in debate over transfer tax

December 07, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The discussion began with a seemingly simple request for a roadside sign, but by the time it ended, the Carroll commissioners and the county's delegation to Annapolis had plunged into the ideological divide between the groups, both entirely Republican.

Sen. Larry E. Haines said, almost as an aside, that he'd like the commissioners' support for a sign at the county border in Finksburg that would read, "Carroll County: Gateway to Western Maryland." Carroll legislators are part of the Western Maryland delegation in Annapolis and most people in the county share that region's deep conservatism, he explained.

Julia Walsh Gouge, president of the more politically moderate board of county commissioners and an advocate for forging better relations with the Baltimore metropolitan area, looked aghast.

"That would not be a true sign," she said. "I don't think we are the gateway to Western Maryland. ... We're central."

That recent back and forth didn't amount to much in practical terms. Gouge and her colleagues are more upset at some delegation members' resistance to instituting a transfer tax in the county. But the sign debate highlighted the differing mentalities of Carroll's two most visible groups of elected officials, scheduled to meet next week to discuss the coming General Assembly session.

The gaps between the commissioners and delegation don't surface often because the groups rarely deal with the same issues. The commissioners spend most of their time on such matters as controlling growth and setting the county's budget, while the delegation works on the state budget and weighs social issues such as abortion and gun rights.

But the groups have always sounded different when discussing politics - the commissioners more focused on discrete problems and delegation members more focused on representing the county's broader conservative viewpoint - and the transfer tax has become a concrete point of contention between them.

The commissioners say the county needs the increased revenue, estimated at $3 million a year, and that the tax would generate funds to pay for the greater demand for services created by growth. They've spent the past few months extolling the virtues of a transfer-tax increase, which they say will place the financial burden on those causing growth.

The delegation has not officially refused to support an increase to the transfer tax, which is among the many powers the commissioners cannot exercise without permission from the General Assembly. But Haines has said he's opposed to any tax increase and most other delegation members also seem reluctant to propose a tax increase.

"I'm not supporting any new taxes, not at all, zero," Haines said. "We live in a spoiled society where everybody wants everything right now. But government is not going to solve all our problems."

About 45 residents, some wearing buttons that read "Stop Transfer Tax," attended a public hearing last week to protest the commissioners' proposed increase.

The disagreement on taxes combined with the differences in outlook evidenced by the Western Maryland debate have county political observers talking about the gap between commissioners and delegation.

Conservatives say the delegation upholds their beliefs while the commissioners, who were elected last year, push tax increases and beefed-up government controls on growth.

"The delegation has not only upheld but defined Republican principles in this county," said Scott Hollenbeck, a former member of the county's Republican State Central Committee. "They're completely in touch with Carroll County and all the people who have moved here to get away from the big-government policies in Howard County, Baltimore and Anne Arundel County."

Others, however, say the commissioners deserve praise for taking a more practical approach to governing.

"I just see a lot of political grandstanding by the delegation," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizen's Council, an Eldersburg-based group. "We can't just say no new taxes and leave it at that. ... The commissioners are working on solutions to a real funding gap, and the delegation owes it to us to at least sit down and listen with open minds."

Dangel said he thinks it's unfair to paint the whole delegation with the same brush, because Del. Susan W. Krebs and Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, who represent South Carroll, have seemed more willing to cooperate with the commissioners.

Krebs has praised the board and said she's willing to listen to any of the commissioners' proposals.

"This is the most forward-thinking group of commissioners we've had in my memory," she said at a meeting with state transportation officials last month.

But the commissioners and some delegation members say they also see ideological differences.

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