Tax plan may cost speaker at home

Busch: In acting for what he sees as the good of the state, he may be undermining his Arundel base, pollsters say.

General Assembly

March 30, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

For more than a decade, Anne Arundel County voters - once a reliably liberal bloc - have grown increasingly conservative, especially in their distaste for taxes.

Their opposition to taxes might prove a problem for their most prominent state official, House Speaker and Anne Arundel County Del. Michael E. Busch, who proposed last week one of the largest tax increases in state history.

Busch says he believes the tax increase is necessary for the good of all Marylanders, but political observers question how voters in his home county - where the property tax has a limit and polls show a majority of residents oppose an income tax increase - will react.

"Anne Arundel County ... has become a Republican bastion, much more than other suburban jurisdictions in Maryland," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based public opinion research firm. "All signs say that Republicans will target [Busch's] re-election and try to paint him as a very progressive Democrat, not necessarily in step with the people of Anne Arundel County."

He also might not be in step with the county's legislative delegation. Of 13 delegates whose districts fall chiefly within the county's borders, only he and one other voted last week for his tax plan.

Slots, not taxes

Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, said his polls have shown that voters in the county want more government services but tend to favor Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to use slot machine gambling as the revenue source rather than taxes.

County voters have in the past approved limits on taxes and strongly opposed increases.

In 1992, residents voted for a measure that states that the amount of revenue the county collects from property taxes cannot grow from one year to the next by more than the Consumer Price Index or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Then, two years ago, the County Council lowered the limit on individual tax assessments from 4 percent to 2 percent a year.

Nataf's recent poll showed that 63 percent of county residents oppose any increase in income taxes, which County Executive Janet S. Owens has proposed.

Owens' proposal is facing strong opposition from County Council members. With a lack of support for her tax proposal and the county's conservative bent, Owens said she believes Busch's proposal might hurt him at home.

"In the county, there is enormous respect and affection for the speaker, yet at the same time the county is very conservative fiscally," Owens said. She said that although Busch is trying to act as a state leader, "there may be a little contradiction with the home base."

Haller, the Bethesda researcher, said that over the next two years, Busch will need to satisfy his constituents as well as meet the requirements of his statewide role as speaker. If he fails to guard his turf, he could find himself facing the same fate as his predecessor, former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who was defeated by a Republican challenger in the 2002 election, Haller said.

With a population of about 490,000, Anne Arundel is the state's fifth-largest jurisdiction behind Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

GOP inroads

Republicans have almost caught up to Democrats in the number of registered voters. The GOP, with 111,087 registered voters, trails Democrats by about 15,000 voters, according to the State Board of Election's latest statistics. In the four larger jurisdictions, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 100,000 or more registered voters.

Nataf said he believes the growth in Republican voters is partly the result of competition from strong GOP candidates.

In addition, many of the residents who have moved into the county in recent years tend to be affluent and espouse conservative ideals, he said.

Republican leaders view Busch's actions as leaving him and other county Democrats vulnerable to a challenge.

"Marylanders just don't want to pay any more taxes," said John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. "Come election time, voters are going to be reminded what [the Democrats] voted for, including Speaker Busch."

Just four years ago, the Anne Arundel delegation - which includes a district shared with Prince George's County - had 11 Democrats in the legislature (four senators and seven delegates) and five Republicans (five delegates, no senators).

As a result of the 2002 election, the number of Anne Arundel County Democratic representatives in the legislature has dropped to eight: three senators and five delegates. The GOP picked up a Senate seat and two delegate slots.

Busch's Annapolis district is considered one of the county's most liberal. But a Republican won one of the three delegate seats there in 2002 with 16.59 percent of the vote, fewer than 2 percentage points behind Busch.

"I would like to think that people who have supported me in five different elections believe I make fair and rational decisions," Busch said. "It was a rational decision for the overall good of the community."

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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