The accompanying articles are part of a series examining the way in which the Maryland and Virginia legislatures conduct their business.
In Virginia, periodic articles will follow the progress of a single bill - a measure garages. In Maryland, the articles will describe the General Assembly, as it wrestles with a major issue - property taxes.
The pressure had been building for several years in which costs were climbing relentlessly and comfortable incomes were suddenly becoming meager. Then, all over Maryland, state assessors decided that homes were worth 30 or 60 or 100 per cent more than they had been - thus leaving homeowners with vastly inflated tax bills.
The cries of pain came to Annapolis from suburban Washington and the rural Eastern Shore, from fast-developing Anne Arundel County and the old rowhouse neighborhoods of Baltimore. Do something, the voters told their legislators. Do anything to ease the pain.
In this election year, the 188 legislators in Annapolis have been almost frantic in their response. By the second week of the 90-day legislative session, they have introduced 107 bills, al purporting to give homeowners some help.
Almost anything the mind could imagine doing to property taxes and assessments is being considered in the 1978 session. There are proposals to roll them back, freeze them, cut them, put a lid on them, shift, and eliminate them. Some bills would require that homes be reassessed less often. Others would lower the percentage of assessed value on which taxes are based. Others would tie property taxes to the homeowner's ability to pay.
Some of the proposed measures are obviously in violation of Maryland's Constitution. Others would result in slow strangulation or instant chaos for the local governments, which depend on the residential property tax for a large portion of their revenues.
"Sure, there is wheat and there is chaff," said state Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, the Prince George's County Democrat who will play a significant role in gluing together whatever property tax relief package will emerge from the legislature this year.
"Obvious chafff, for instance, is a bill that won't pass constitutional muster," he added, "but the chaff serves a purpose. It is the expression of the wish of a legislator . . . and sometimes the purpose of legislation is the expression of community anger."
"People are angry about the property tax because it doesn't make any sense," added Hoyer. "It's an irrational tax because it doesn't reflect a person's ability to pay. And if somebody builds up their home, puts shutters on it and makes it look a little bit nicer, we go and tax them for it," he said.
"You've got a tax that doesn't make any sense to the taxpayer, so they are crying out for relief to everyone they can think of."
The response of the legislators this year is contained in the 107 bills now. The total is expected to reach at least 150. Many duplicate measures introduced over and over again and killed over and over again in previous years. Many duplicate one another. No more than seven or eight different idea are contained in all the 107 bills, one Annapolis tax expert estimated.
These basic ideas are tailored to give tax relief to varying groups of people. The bill that will help the owner of a rowhouse in Baltimore may do nothing for the young family in a ranch house in Bowie.
So with the start of every 90-day legislative session, a long and intricate process begins, a process that required Acting Gov. Blair Lee III and Key legislators like Hoyer and Del. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to somehow try to please the citizens, please the other 186 legislators, please state businesses, please local governments and please each other while doing as little damage as possible to the state's economy.
"What I'm trying to do is put together a puzzle," explained Cardin, chairman of the House of Delegates committee through which all of the House bills on property tax reform must pass.
"I have to pick out from everything else the right seven or eight pieces so that I come out with a politically acceptable solution that will not just be a phony but that will actually do the job."
"Everybody in Annapolis is talking about trying to put together a puzzle," Cardin said, "Blair Lee can't decide by himself what's in it, nor can I, nor can Steny Hoyer, nor can the Chambers of Commerce or the taxpayers' leagues. We have to have a consensus."
To do this, he said, bits and pieces of various ideas must be put together with one onother. And, as Hoyer put it, "Once you reach a consensus, you put everybody's name on the bill," so all the legislators who worked on the issue can share in the credit.
Before they can reach their consensus, the legislators must give a fair hearing, or the appearance of a fair hearing, to each of the bills. They must hold committee hearings on the measures and call in interested parties (often hundreds and hundreds of them) to testify. They cannot openly dismiss any idea, no matter how outlandish, for fear of alienating the legislator who advocates that idea.
"The way you deal with a bad bill," explained Cardin, "is to deal with the issue that the bill is trying to address. You look at the issue, come out with a rational solution, get a consensus, then defer most of the rest of the bills on that subject."
The tax-reform concepts that Cardin and his fellow legislators must juggle are varied. They include:
Freezing assessments at their present level, or even rolling them back - a move that Maryland Attorney General Francis B. Burch has said would be unconstitutional.
Putting a ceiling on increases in assessments, such as the 15 per cent ceiling established by the 1977 General Assembly. Over a long period of time, this concept has the same constitutional problems as a freeze, since it perpetuates any existing inequities. It is, however, one of the most universally popular ideas.
Amending the state Constitution to make the uniformity clause more flexible, allowing for homeowners to get special tax breaks not offered to businesses or industries. Gov. Lee has already proposed such a tax measure in his tax relief package.
Changing the cycle of assessments, so that, instead of every piece property in the state being reassessed every year, a three-year cycle would be established. The result would be to defer for two years the almost inevitable increase in the taxpayers' bills.
Adjusting the so-called "inflation allowance." For the past four year, homes in Maryland have been taxed as if they were worth 50 per cent of their assessed value. Gov. Lee has proposed an emergency bill lowering this to 45 per cent. State Sen. Peter A. Bozick (D-Prince George's) has proposed a bill that would allow the various local jurisdications to adjust the inflation allowance.
Tying the property taxes on a given home to the homeowner's income. Variations of this idea are legion, although its major proponents are trying to avoid using the old term "circuit-breaker" which is now used to describe the existing program which gives property tax relief to lower-income elderly and disabled citizens.
At least one of these "ability to pay" reform proposals is gettng close attention from property tax reform groups and interested legislators.This is the measure advocated by Anne Arundel Democrat Tyras S. Athey which would set an absolute limit on the property taxes paid by a home-owner, based on the homeowner's income.
State and local governments would share in the cost of this tax relief, explained Carol Baker, a member of the Athey study committee, which has endorsed Athey's proposal. She became interested in the property tax issue when her own Severna Park home was reassessed two years ago, and she now heads one of the most vocal taxpayers' groups, the Maryland Assessment Reform Coalition.
"We're a little less naive than we were a year ago," said the 31-year-old Baker, "Initially all we wanted was a freeze and rollback. Just anything to relieve the pain.
"Now we realize that any tax relief you give has to be balanced with extra money for the local subdivisions. If you don't provide that, they'll just raise the tax rate and it won't save you anything. It's going to cost them the same to run the local government - and most of those costs are fixed costs. It's the new spending we have to keep an eye on."