Getting the message

March 09, 2007

In Annapolis, there are bills meant to become law and then there are bills intended to send a message. Legislation offered this session by two powerful chairwomen, Maggie L. McIntosh of the House Environmental Matters Committee and Sheila E. Hixson of Ways and Means, is the latter type, and this is its message: Counties with caps on property taxes ought to rethink that strategy.

It's difficult to see their bill - which would give county councils the right to roll back voter-approved tax caps with a two-thirds vote - as anything else. As policy, such an approach is a slap in the face to charter government - and to voters in Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George's, Talbot and Wicomico counties who approved the tax caps in the first place.

But as a message? What Delegates McIntosh and Hixson have offered deserves close attention. With the state facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall, Anne Arundel residents may soon find themselves in a similar fiscal crunch and wish their elected officials had such power.

If state lawmakers have to raise taxes next year, you can bet they'll put the squeeze on local governments, too. And the tightest squeeze will be on counties that aren't stepping up to the plate. In other words, state tax dollars can't be seen as underwriting an Anne Arundel tax cap; that's patently unfair to people living outside the county.

Voters in Anne Arundel have the right to keep their cap, of course, but they ought to be aware of the consequences. County Executive John R. Leopold is talking about new taxes on bingo games and rental cars to support what's expected to be an austere budget this year. That won't be nearly enough to pay the bills if the economy tanks by 2008 and the state cuts back on local aid.

Is anybody out there listening? Probably not. But no one can complain that a warning was never given.

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