Republicans say Democrats will raise taxes if re-elected

GOP pushes budget debate into forecast for next year

May 16, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

As the Howard County Council moves closer to approving a tight Ulman administration budget for fiscal 2011, Republicans are raising the specter of a Democrat-led tax increase if that party retains its political power in November's election. The GOP wants a charter change to make it harder to raise taxes.

But Democrats, who hold the executive's post as well as four of the five County Council seats, say they've managed to ride through the recession without raising general tax rates.

"That's what we've done, and that's what we'll continue to do," said County Executive Ken Ulman.

Ulman's budget for fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1, is likely to be approved virtually intact without any changes in tax rates and with a second straight year of unpaid employee furloughs, no cost-of-living pay raises and no payment on the growing cost of future retiree health benefits.

"How many more rabbits [in a hat] do we have?" Republican Councilman Greg Fox asked budget director Raymond S. Wacks during a budget work session Tuesday. Wacks and Ulman managed to cover a nearly $20 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year ending June 30 without proposing a tax increase for 2011 or raiding the county's rainy-day fund.

Fox contends that Ulman, by spending money for environmental items such as $3 million worth of recycling bins, more expensive hybrid vehicles and green buildings, and by spending $1 million on the Healthy Howard program, has increased county government and spending, despite some cost-saving moves. Ulman has also expanded the police force by 54 officers.

"By the actions taken from Year 1, he let the [spending] genie out of the bottle," Fox said.

In council budget discussions Tuesday and Wednesday, Fox pointed out that despite hopes for economic growth from federal defense expansions, revenue prospects for the year after the election aren't bright and debts might rise.

To force spending cuts, Fox and other Republicans want to change the county charter to require a super-majority of four of the five council members to raise any tax. Chances of the County Council approving a charter referendum issue are slim, he said, so Republicans are planning a petition drive, which requires 10,000 valid petition signatures by Aug. 9 to get the initiative on the November ballot. Even if they fail, Republicans could benefit politically in a year of public discontent with incumbents. Their goals are simple: smaller county government and a voting majority on the five-member council that controls public spending.

A similar petition drive failed in 2004, but Republicans feel things have changed.

Fox pointed out that the General Assembly might saddle local governments next year with a portion of growing teacher pension costs, and Ulman plans to resume annual payments for future retiree health benefits. Add that to a projected $17 million revenue shortfall forecast and pressure to raise wages, and Republicans say that if Democrats win re-election, a tax increase won't be far behind.

At Tuesday night's annual Lincoln Day dinner, Maryland Senate minority leader Sen. Allan H. Kittleman pointed out that the year after the 2002 election, then-county executive and Democrat James N. Robey pushed through a major income tax rate increase. Following Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's election, he pushed a sales tax increase through the general assembly.

"This is not a Republican movement. This is for everybody," Kittleman said at the dinner.

Democrats say such speculation doesn't match their record in office over four years.

"We are not going to have a need for a tax increase next year," council Chairwoman Courtney Watson said flatly at the end of Wednesday's council budget work session. The Ellicott City Democrat is a target of former Howard delegate and state transportation secretary Robert L. Flanagan, who is running for that seat. He and Dennis R. Schrader, a former Republican council member who also served as homeland security director while Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, have joined with Fox and Kittleman to push for the charter change. Schrader is trying to win the seat now held by Democrat Jen Terrasa, who represents the southeastern county.

Watson pointed out that a $4 million portion of the predicted shortfall for 2012 assumes all vacant jobs now frozen would be filled, which Wacks said won't happen. Watson called the 2012 projected shortfall a "worse-case scenario." The county has laid off very few people so far, but could go that route rather than increase taxes, she said.

Democrats say they've managed through the worst economic downturn since the Depression without raising tax rates.

"We've all run and we're in office, and we didn't raise taxes," East Columbia's Calvin Ball said. "We've demonstrated we can be fiscally responsible."

"Who's talking about an increase in taxes other than Republicans?" said Terrasa.

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