Johnson Backs Off Request That Assembly Raise Taxes

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson is stepping back from a proposal that state lawmakers raise property taxes in hopes that money from the federal stimulus package might help close a potential shortfall in the county's budget.

He asked state lawmakers to delay consideration of the idea yesterday just as a legislative panel of county delegates was to vote on the bill. Delegates have reported getting hundreds of e-mails against the tax increase, and several said they thought that if Johnson had not pushed for a delay, the measure would have failed its first legislative test.

"It had nothing to do with what the stimulus was going to bring to the county -- the votes were not there," said Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D-Prince George's), who sits on the county affairs subcommittee of the Prince George's House delegation, which had been scheduled to vote.

In an interview, Johnson (D) said that he had spent all day Wednesday in Annapolis discussing the county's budget situation with legislators and that it was "absolutely not true" that he asked for a delay in the vote because of the measure's likely defeat. Instead, he said, he wants time to examine the effects of the federal stimulus package on the county's budget.

"We're making progress on a number of fronts," he said. "What I've said from day one is that without additional revenue, this is what we need."

Johnson has invested considerable political capital in pushing for the tax increase. He argued for the bill at a long public hearing this month, and after his prodding, a split County Council endorsed the measure by a narrow margin.

Johnson has told legislators that the county faces a shortfall of $102 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and that the gap could grow to $132 million if state lawmakers adopt a budget put forward by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) that would trim some aid to counties. O'Malley has said the stimulus funding could avert the need for some cuts.

Prince George's has some of the nation's toughest restrictions on the ability of elected officials to raise taxes, including a mandatory cap on property taxes. In 1996, voters amended the county's charter to require that local tax increases be put to a referendum.

Johnson's proposal would increase county property tax revenues by changing the way the homestead tax credit is applied in the county. Because of the tax credit, no Prince George's property tax bill can rise more than 5 percent each year, regardless of how quickly a home's assessment has increased in recent years.

The bill would lift the cap to 10 percent for the next two years, resulting in a property tax increase for many residents. County officials have said it would raise $53 million for the county during that period.

Johnson has also asked that legislators delay consideration of a second tax measure, which would shift the funding of school buses from the county's budget to the Washington Suburban Transit District. The entity is run jointly by Prince George's and Montgomery counties and funded through property taxes.

Johnson said he thinks that local leaders could vote to raise the tax devoted to the transit district to pay for the buses without running afoul of the county charter, easing pressure on the county's budget.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company