Maryland's Acting Gov. Blair Lee III asked the legislature today to cut residential property tax assessments by 10 per cent in 1978, and lower them further in subsequent years.
However, the same proposals would also mean an annual revenue loss of more than $100 million for the state's 24 local jurisdictions. To make up for the loss, many counties may decide to increase their property tax rates, leaving homeowners with little or no reduction in their tax bills.
The issues of rising property tax assessments and rising tax bills have been the focus of increasingly bitter debate during the past five years, during which the value of homes in Maryland has increased by about 12 per cent annually, on the average and by as much as 50 per cent in some places.
As a result, taxpayer's leagues have become more and more vociferous in demanding property tax relief, and more and more legislators and state officials have put forward politically popular proposals to reduce homeowners' tax bills. Lee is a candidate for governor in a crowded Democratic primary race.
The legislation that Lee will send to the legislature in two weeks takes a three-stage approach in reducing property tax assessments:
First, Lee would ask the legislature to enact a bill providing that owner-occupied homes be assessed at 45 per cent of their market value, instead of at 50 per cent, as state law now requires. This bill would take effect immediately, and apply to the tax bills sent out on July 1 this year.
Second, the acting governor proposed that the state's Constitution be amended, to loosen up the provisions requiring uniformity in the assessment process so as to allow special treatment for owner-occupied homes. This amendment, which also would need the approval of the state's voters in the November election, would pave the way for Lee's other proposals.
Third, Lee proposed a seven-point bill to five homeowners further relief by, among other things, establishing a ceiling for assessment increases. According to this bill, assessments would be made every three years instead of annually, as is now the case. Assessments could not increase by more than 18 per cent in any three-year period.
The bill would also allow homeowners a flat $5,000 credit on their tax bill, so that the owner of a home assessed at $30,000 would be taxed as if his home were assessed at $25,000.
During the press conference at which he unveiled the proposal, Lee pointed out that this last provision would help owners of lower-priced homes more dramatically than it would help owners of expensive residences.
Lee also noted that he had no objection to passing on to local governments the responsibility for any increases in homeowners' tax bills. "All of these things have the effect of transferring this responsibility to (local governments), where I think it belongs," he said.
"There will be less psychological inclination among those folks to spend the money if they have to raise the tax rate to do it," he added.
On the average in Maryland, more than 65 per cent of local government revenues comes from property taxes. In Montgomery County alone, Lee's proposals, if enacted, would mean a loss of at least $13 million to $14 million annually, according to Charles Maier, an aide to County Executive James P. Gleason.
Joseph J. Murnane, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said today that Lee's proposals seemed to be "nothing more than a rehash of perennial bills. There's nothing novel, nothing imaginative, nothing innovative there," he said. "It's just destructive to a large number of taxpayers."
Murnane estimated that the proposals would cost local governments "well in excess of $100 million in revenues. That would have to be made up by and increase in the property tax rate," he added.
"What good is it giving the homeowner an exemption on the one hand, then taking the money back on the other by increasing the property tax rate?"
However, the legislative leaders who will play a substantial role in the success or failure of the various Lee proposals were more positive than Murnane. They, too, are running for office this year.
"There is a healthy difference between the House, and Senate, and the executive on the issue of property tax relief," said Del. Benjamin L. Cardin, (D-Baltimore), the influential chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
"Some of the (Lee) package will be changed," Cardin predicted. "Some of it will be taken out and we will add to it." However, he also noted that Lee and the legislative leadership have "made some very constructive steps towards putting together an effective package."
Cardin has long been a proponent of extending the so-called circuit-breaker program - which gives property tax relief to lower income elderly homeowners - who live in their homes.
The proposals to extend the circuit-breaker program have earned some support in the State Senate, but even more popular there is a bill that would give local governments the authority to reduce local assessments to relieve the homeowners' property tax burden.
Even so, State Sen. Roy N. Staten (D-Baltimore County), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said today that Lee's main proposals - such as the $5,000 exemption, the ceiling on assessment increases - "will probably make the grade in the legislature."
"All in all, Lee's program sounds reasonable," Staten added.
By unveiling his proposals at today's press conference, Lee continued a practice that he started last month, that of releasing one major proposal per press conference - thus assuring maximum exposure for each proposal.
Lee alluded to this practice at his press conference last Thursday, saying, "Last week I started dribbling out some pieces of budget material and accompanying legislative matters.
"I am going to do some more today because there is so darn much in the thing that ifit got spread out before you (the press) in just one day you'd necessarily have to miss most of it."