The House Ways and Means Committee approved a legislative package today that would limit property tax assessment increases to 15 per cent in one year through a tax credit program and require local governments to publish assessment statistics.
The legislation has an excellent chance of passage in the House and probably will be part of a measure the House agrees to with the State Senate.
Del. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, called the limitation on assessment increases a temporary approach that would be in effect only for two years until the General Assembly can revamp the assessment process and find some way to lessen the dependence of local governments on property taxes.
The committee also approved some concepts it would like to see implemented. Among them are education aid to the counties and the extension of the so-called circuit breakers property tax relief program that ties a person's tax bill to his or her income level. The program now applies only to persons over 60.
In an effort to insure that the assessment process is eventually revamped, the committee approved a resolution setting up an interim legislative committee to study and suggest changes in the assessment procedure.
"The problem in the past was that we looked at too broad issues. The property tax question is complicated and we need a nitty gritty committee . . . there's nothing glamorous in the assessment manual," said Cardin.
Even though 42 property tax assessment bills were submitted to the House this session, the committee developed its own recommendation by starting from scratch and figuring out five main objectives.
The foremost objective is to curb the impact of sharp increases in property tax assessments. Under the legislation the committee approved today, homeowners whose assessments go up more than 15 per cent in one year would be eligible for a tax credit.
In a hypothetical case, a homeowner whose assessment jumped from $30,000 to $40,000 in a year would apply a formula and deterine that he or she is eligible for $165 tax credit.
The other four objectives are extending the "circuit breaker" tax relief program, studying the assessment procedure to make it more equitable, finding financial aid for the counties and Baltimore City that does not derive from the property tax, and publication of local assessment statistics each year.
The reasoning behind requiring publication of assessment statistics is that citizens who now blame the state for raising their taxes through higher taxes to their local officials, who set the tax rates.
Defending the measure, Cardin called it "a modest attempt to get at an inquiry by citizens before property taxes (tax rates) are raised."
Although the homeowner's property tax burden is considered the major issue at the current legislative session, there is no consensus between the House and the Senate on how to provide relief to homeowners. That is why Cardin said he planned to begin debate in the House on his committee's report Friday, at same time the Senate is scheduled to debate its own property tax proposals.
Meanwhile, a sometimes confused Senate sputtered into its third day of budget deliberations, as senators who came to Annapolis this year vowing to cut enough money from the budget to avoid an increase in the sales tax found the actual process of reducing the budget difficult.
A total of 14 amendments to the budget proposed by Gov. Marvin Mandel were voted on by the Senate. Only four were approved; they would cut the budget by about $1.2 million. If all of the amendments had been approved, the cuts would have totaled about $6.5 million.
One of the amendments approved would reduce the state's emergency funds, which Mandel set at $2.5 million, to $1.5 million - a savings of $1 million. The others would cut $160,000 from state support to Maryland Magazine, a promotional publication, $7,748 for a vacant clerical position in the Department of General Services and $28,802 from funds for maintenance workers, linens, and china for the mansion where Mandel resides.
The most important test vote came on an amendment proposed by Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Balitmore County) to reduce the budget of an office in the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene by 8 per cent across the board.
"There's only one way you can reduce the budget, and that's with an across-the-board cut," said Sen. Victor L. Crawford (D-Montgomery), a cosponsor of the amendment.
"If the Senate is not willing to do that, then I certainly hope we're not going to hear any more talk about not needing the (increase in the) sales tax."
The amendment was defeated by a vote of 29 to 14 as a chorus of senators protested that an across-the-board cut would be grossly irresponsible.
In other action, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted - in an action committee members later discovered was unconstitutional - to submit a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana to a referendum at the next general election.
A vote on a bill that would decriminalize marijuana possession without a referendum resulted in a 4-to-4 deadlock. A second motion to put the matter to referendum carried by a vote of 5 to 3.
A few hours later, Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Curran (D-Baltimore) discovered that state law prohibits submitting certain kinds of legislation, of which the marijuana bill is one, to referendum.
Curran said later the problem possibly could be remedied by amending the bill to permit each of the 24 local jurisdictions in Maryland to put the matter to referendum individually, which would mean that only in those counties that voted in favor in the ereferindum would possession of marijuana be decriminalized.