Tax increases developing as partisan issue

Republicans, Democrats debate need for action

GOP plans to aid petition drive

Charter amendment aims to make raises difficult

Howard County

May 06, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As Howard County's Democrats and Republicans gather this week for annual party fund-raising dinners charged with election-year presidential politics, a local fight over tax increases is emerging as a rival for attention.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was the keynote speaker for the Democrats last night at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the Republicans' big gun tomorrow night at Turf Valley, where the party plans to help launch a petition drive to make county tax increases more difficult.

"We need 10,000 signatures, and we'll get 300 right there," said outgoing Republican Party Chairman Louis M. Pope. Pope was chosen national party committeeman for Maryland on Saturday and will soon leave his county post.

James Oglethorpe, a registered independent voter who is president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association, said he welcomes the Republican help and is not worried about his issue being subsumed in the presidential contest.

"I gotta go where the people are that support me," Oglethorpe said. "There is only one way this is going to happen - that is with the support of the Republicans. But they're not the only ones who are going to support it."

He is also counting on some Democratic support, and "there's a lot of independents," he said, referring to about 18 percent of Howard's 152,000 registered voters.

At issue is a charter amendment introduced by the County Council's two Republican members that would require the approval of at least four of the five council members for an income or property tax increase, instead of a simple majority. Under the proposal, the county executive also must request council permission for a revenue increase before proposing it.

Objection to deficits

The debate comes against a background of lower overall tax burdens because of federal income tax cuts and spiraling federal deficits that Oglethorpe has said he objects to as much as higher local levies.

Most observers expect the council to reject the amendment, which requires four votes to go on the ballot. That leaves the three-month petition drive as the only way to put the idea before county voters.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat who pushed through a large income tax increase last year, opposes the change, which would give a council minority of two members a virtual veto over future tax increases.

Against change

"To require the county executive to go to the council is the most far-fetched, politically motivated thing I've ever heard of in my life," Robey said. "Even the Supreme Court of the United States requires a simple majority for decisions so far reaching it's indescribable."

He vowed to fight the idea that "the majority no longer has a say in government."

But Republican Councilmen Allan H. Kittleman, who represents the western county, and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City say they don't automatically oppose every tax increase, so the charter change wouldn't prevent one if, for example, Ehrlich forces the county to take over payment of state pension costs - a $25 million burden that could force a property tax increase next year.

"Monday night, we had a 5-0 vote for a tax increase," Merdon said, referring to the council's approval of an excise tax on home construction to provide money for school construction. The entire council also has supported fire tax increases in past years, Kittleman said.

Potential candidates

Kittleman and Merdon are potential candidates for county executive in two years, as is council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Guzzone argued that if Kittleman and Merdon still believe the income tax increase was unwarranted, they "can demonstrate how they're going to cut $40 million [in new revenue] from this budget. It's one thing to talk about cutting taxes and another to show where you're going to do it. If they vote for this [fiscal 2005] budget, they're basically saying they agreed with our decision from last year."

The Republicans reject that argument, noting that they proposed a budget-cutting plan last year that Democrats rejected.

"This charter amendment does not cut any taxes. We don't have to show where we would cut anything," Kittleman said.

Merdon said that despite party support for the charter amendment, it isn't primarily a political issue.

"There may be that perception, but I view it as an issue for local government," he said. "I don't view it as a Democratic or Republican issue. You're going to get crossover [voters]."

Petition predictions

Pope and Democratic Party Chairwoman Wendy Fiedler said they expect record crowds at their respective dinners, despite higher ticket prices this year, and both predicted that the petition drive likely would collect enough signatures by the Aug. 16 deadline to put the tax issue before the voters Nov. 2.

"It's so easy to get the signatures," Fiedler said. "Who isn't going to sign a petition against higher taxes?"

The more difficult task, she and Robey said, is convincing voters that the teachers, schools, police, parks and senior centers government provides are worth the taxes that support them.

"I challenge any conservative Republican to compare [Howard's] services" with those in counties with lower tax rates, Robey said.

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