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Montgomery Measure a Sign of the Times

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

Whether an anti-tax measure on the ballot in Montgomery County eventually passes or fails, its relative success in Tuesday's election is a sign of voters' anxiety and rising unease with the tax policies of county leaders.

The measure, which would make it more difficult to raise the limit on property tax revenue in the traditionally liberal county, was leading by a few hundred votes yesterday. But the final outcome won't be determined until more than 49,000 absentee and provisional ballots are counted in the next two weeks.

For more than three decades, low-tax activist Robin Ficker, a onetime state legislator and Bethesda real estate broker, has pressed for stricter limits on local property tax increases. None of his so-called "Ficker amendments" has succeeded.

Ficker's opponents attributed his traction this year in part to public protest of the council's budget deal in the spring that raised taxes on the average homeowner by about 13 percent.

"It's an unmistakable message to the government to live within its means," said Jerry Pasternak, who worked to defeat Ficker's efforts as an adviser to former county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said voters want the council to "spend less rather than tax more, and that's what they are likely to see in the next year."

Ficker said yesterday he is "very optimistic" that the absentee votes will go his way because most were sent before the opposition heated up. He said county residents are "fed up" with a series of increases in state and local taxes and fees.

"You have this whole flotilla of tax increases coming down on people, and county officials still wanted more," Ficker said.

The proposal would amend the county's charter to require a unanimous vote of all nine council members to exceed the limit on property tax revenue, rather than the current requirement of seven votes.

In practical terms, the measure would probably not have a significant impact in the next year or two. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has said he will not recommend that the council exceed for a second year the property tax limit, which ties increases to roughly the rate of inflation. And in the past 14 years, all but two of the council's budgets have had the unanimous support of the council.

In the long term, though, opponents say they worry that it would limit the council's flexibility to pay for public services in tough economic times and put too much power in the hands of one council member to hold up the budget.

"If this survives, you never know about the makeup of future councils," Leggett said. "It's serious in terms of good governance and policy."

Ficker is up against opposition from Leggett, all nine council members, a long list of influential labor unions and newspaper editorials.

But his opponents said yesterday that they were not surprised that Ficker's message caught on in a year of strong anti-tax sentiment.

Opponents of the Montgomery measure said they were also hampered by a late start in organizing a campaign, a lack of enthusiasm by elected officials and the competition for attention with other contests.

Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which helped lead the opposition, said she was frustrated by a "lack of leadership" from council members, and she suspected that elected officials took Ficker's track record for granted. With the exception of Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), Cullison said, council members were not actively making the case to constituents.

Until days before the election, opponents were largely silent. They sent postcards to 150,000 voters, and Leggett recorded an automated call that warned that the measure was "bad policy."

Staff writer Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.

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