Taxes the ammunition in campaign combat

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

September 24, 2006|By Larry Carson

Howard County voters must be suffering from tax schizophrenia, if the campaign tactics of local Republicans and Democrats are any indication.

While Republicans such as state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader trumpet their opposition to higher taxes as a way to attract voters, county Democrats argue that they have earned the electorate's support by increasing taxes in 2003 to keep the county's public services first-rate.

It is a clear difference in campaign and party philosophy, as reflected in Schrader's latest campaign mailing.

Schrader devoted a large chunk of her latest eight-page, tabloid-sized campaign brochure to her opposition to taxes -- locally and statewide. She opposed County Executive James N. Robey's proposed real estate transfer tax increase to pay for school construction in 2003, and a House of Delegates-passed sales and income tax increase in 2004. In her mailing, she labels her actions "Sandy's 2003 Tax Stop" and "Sandy's 2004 Tax Stop."

Robey, a Democrat, is term-limited as executive and is running for Schrader's state Senate seat this year.

"I'm assuming that's going to be their [Republican] primary attack on me," he said. "I could have cut taxes, but at what cost to the residents of the county?"

Robey said he remains convinced that "the majority want to see schools adequately funded and roads well maintained. That's what I'm listening to right now."

On the cover, the Schrader mailing says, "How Sandy Schrader's one vote saved millions for Howard County homeowners." That's a reference to Robey's transfer tax proposal, which would have increased the tax to 1.5 percent from 1 percent on all home sales and would have used revenue for a dedicated fund to borrow about $200 million for school construction.

Though Schrader opposed that idea, she was not alone, and her vote was not pivotal on the issue. All three county senators killed the proposal in 2003.

Later, the three senators supported a compromise that imposed a $1-per-square-foot excise fee on new homes, which raised about $60 million through borrowing. School officials now lament that the money is spent while they have years of expensive school renovations -- including a $20 million job at Mount Hebron High School -- on their list.

Schrader argues that Robey's secondary goal in pushing the transfer tax for schools was to free funding for a new government office complex -- an idea the county executive continues to pursue, though through private financing. Robey argued that the need for new and renovated schools was pushing needed general county capital projects to the sidelines.

Schrader also appeared to credit herself with a key role in defeating a state sales and income tax increase at the end of the 2004 General Assembly session. "With strong support from Senator Schrader, the record tax increase was rejected," the brochure reads.

Schrader also highlighted her opposition to statewide income and sales tax increases approved by the House of Delegates in 2004 as an alternative to slot machines. The headline reads, "On the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, one vote makes a difference."

That may be true, but Schrader's vote did not block the House plan, according to accounts and legislative records. It died in a conference committee that did not include Schrader after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. refused to compromise on taxes to get slots.

Schrader defended her claims and her philosophy.

"This is exactly what happened. It [the 2004 tax increase] came over to the Senate. I said I would not support what came from the House," she said, noting that her brochure's comment about one vote making a difference did not say her vote was crucial on that specific issue.

"One vote can make a difference," she said. "Everything on here is fact. The bottom line is, people are tired of being taxed. We've got young families and seniors who can't afford to pay any more," she said, the message she's hearing from residents as she campaigns door to door.

Invitation to debate

Republican county executive candidate Christopher J. Merdon said Friday that he had sent a three-paragraph open letter dated Sept. 19 to Ken Ulman, his Democratic rival, with a copy to independent candidate C. Stephen Wallis, suggesting a public discussion on the issue of growth.

Merdon said that while the three candidates have participated in numerous candidate forums, and more are scheduled, "I want to have a debate just on growth and development." The forums mix all the issues, he said.

Ulman said he would be happy to debate growth, and he said he and Merdon have spoken privately about debates apart from forums. But Ulman said Friday he had not seen Merdon's letter, and he wondered why his fellow county councilman didn't just call him directly.

"He has my cell phone number, and I have his," Ulman said.

Ulman said the letter was " a bit disingenuous."

"I'm not going to respond to any letter," he said.

Wallis said he knew nothing about the letter until called by a reporter.

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