Excise tax approved by panel in House

Robey aims to generate school construction funds from new-home charge

Howard County

March 26, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A key vote by a House of Delegates committee yesterday advanced a plan by Howard County Executive James N. Robey to generate more school construction money from a dedicated tax on new homes.

After a brief hearing Wednesday, the local Howard County bill was approved yesterday by the House Environmental Matters Committee without debate.

The bill will move to the House floor and then the Senate, where the process must be repeated before the 90-day session ends at midnight April 12.

The bill is a compromise achieved after two years of infighting between Robey and local state legislators. It is expected to provide about $4.9 million a year in new revenue, which Robey wants to use to borrow about $58 million for school construction, and then pay off the bonds over time. The Democratic executive is to announce his capital budget for the next fiscal year next week.

"It's a big help, but I think we'll be back very soon if we're going to build the kind of schools we need," said Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner, the Howard House delegation chairman, who supported Robey's earlier plan to raise money with a transfer tax increase.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat and former Howard county executive who has argued for using excise tax money for schools for years, said the problem has always been obvious to her. "It just seemed so clear to me that we were heading in the direction of getting farther and farther behind" as more new homes were built and enrollments grew.

But Del. Warren E. Miller, who with fellow Republican Del. Gail H. Bates were the only Howard legislators to oppose the excise tax in the delegation vote last month, said his mind is unchanged. "After the piggy-back tax increase, it's something we don't need," he said. Robey pushed through a large local income tax increase last spring.

Legislative resistance

Officials in Howard, Harford and Carroll counties have sought General Assembly approval of higher taxes to pay for more schools as state support for school construction has dwindled - only to meet stiff resistance from their state legislators. The Harford delegation approved an impact fee of up to $10,000 a house, but Carroll County legislators refused to create a real estate transfer tax.

Although less than three weeks remain in the 90-day General Assembly session, Robey administration lobbyist Herman Charity said he is "very confident" there is enough time to get the excise tax bill enacted. He expects a floor vote in the House on Monday.

Charity said the House committee hearing took less than two minutes, and there was no discussion because the bill applies only to Howard County and was approved by the Howard delegation Feb. 18.

Although the General Assembly must approve local bills, the body normally defers to the wishes of the local delegation.

The added money is vitally important, said Courtney Watson, chairman of the county school board. "It will enable us to fund another $40 million this year [fiscal 2005] and another $18 to $20 million" beyond that.

The county needs exactly $40 million to complete a new northern high school under construction in Marriottsville, and the remainder is enough to build one of the three new elementary schools that the school board is planning to keep pace with growing enrollments.

Weeks of wrangling

Robey began his campaign in January 2003 with a proposal to create a similar but larger dedicated fund by increasing the real estate transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent of a home's price, which would raise about $10 million a year in new revenue. That was to be used to borrow $200 million for schools.

But Realtors opposed raising taxes on the sale of homes. State legislators would not increase any tax last year and only reluctantly compromised this year after weeks of wrangling.

In the end, the county's three state senators dictated the bill's terms and limits, refusing to go along with a higher levy per square foot. Robey has argued that taxing only new homes will provide diminishing returns as growth and development slow.

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