A bill that would call off a politically charged referendum in Prince George's County this fall has received the support of county delegates to the Maryland General Assembly.
After a public hearing last week before members of the delegation, several elected officials said the bill, which would repeal the county's authority to tax telephones and other "nuisances," was a "sure thing." They expect the bill to win approval tomorrow from the full county delegation; such approval would give the bill a good chance of passage by the legislature.
The legislators, many of whom voted to give the taxing power to the county just last year, said the repeal would "save the already overburdened taxpayers" by taking the bill off the books and off the ballot. It also would avoid the problem of putting the referendum on the same ballot as a referendum on additional taxes, which is certain to arouse controversy.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario of Oxon Hill introduced the bill to repeal the county's authority to levy the tax even though the issue was to have been tested in a countywide referendum in November. The question was placed on the ballot by a group of citizens opposed to telephone and other taxes the authority would allow.
"I was very vocal last year against the omnibus taking authority and did everything in my power then to get it off the books," said Vallario. "We face enough taxes in the county, and with this bill they can just about anything."
At the hearing Vallario, who was one of 13,000 persons who signed the petition which forced the question onto the ballot, said he hadn't considered the possibility that the referendum would do the same thing as his bill if the citizens voted against the tax in the referendum.Del. Ann Hull asked if "the people shouldn't be allowed to vote on it since they went to so much trouble to get it on the ballot."
According to several citizen activists and members of the group, Citizens Against Nuisance Taxes (CANT), that organized the petition drive, all the politicians want to do is "get it off the ballot."
"There are those in the county who do not want to run on the same ballot as the referendum," said Jack Perry, treasurer of CANT, adding that all county and statewide offices are up for election in November.
Although several delegates said they would be "very comfortable" to run on the ballot with the tax issue, Del. Frank Pesci, a petition supporter, said, "Some people (elected officials) are terrified by the petition, although it looks like (County Executive Winfield M.) Kelly will not have an opponent of any consequence in November, and it doesn't seem like much of a problem for him."
Council Chairman Francis W. White, who also favored the repeal, said last week that the tax bill would create a "negatibe" attitude during the campaign. "This tax bill is so misunderstood by now it is not a good issue to have alive during the campaign. During the heat of campaign issues it would become obscured."
Supporters of the referendum, however, said they were "disappointed" that the repeal bill was being considered. "This is evidence of how scared they are to have this on the ballot," said Joseph Johnson, one of the leaders of CANT. "We do not appreciate setting up the referendum and having the General Assembly take it away from us.
"This is an insult to the people of Prince George's County, and this repeal bill is doing nothing but circumventing the petition process."
The controversy began last January when Kelly told the delegation he needed more money from other tax sources in order to lower the county property tax rate, a campaign promise he made in 1974. He suggested that the General Assembly pass special legislation that would allow him to tax "anything not either already taxed by the state or included in specifically prohibited categories."
Kelly said he wanted only to tax telephone usage and could raise $7 million in revenues from the new tax. The General Assembly acquiesed and passed the bill, but CANT decided to challenge Kelly's use of the taxing authority. They gathered nearly 13,000 signatures by July 1, enough to put the question on the November ballot.
"I knew this was coming," said Johnson of the repeal bill. "In a private meeting last summer Kelly told us, 'I will not run with that on the ballot,' at the same time he was saying publicly he wanted to air the tax issue in a public forum. Kelly is just playing pure politics."
John Lally, an aide to Kelly, said that "no one from Kelly's staff" had lobbied for the repeal. "We would like to keep the local authority," Lally said. "But we're not going down (to Annapolis) and hold a gun at their heads to oppose it. We will not vigorously oppose it."
Kelly's support of the taxing authority has diminished since July when the petition drive stopped him from implementing the telephone tax. Instead of lowering the property tax rate by 10 cents, he said the petition drive forced him to seek a 4-cent increase.
"We're stuck," said Lally. "We're dead in the water of tax reform. Our hands are tied on this. Kelly wants to hold this year's tax bill to the same as last year and we don't care what vehicle we can do it with. If the Lee proposal passes (a plan by Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, which would allow a $5,000 exemption on assessable base and would permit individual counties to adjust the percentage on the assessable base according to inflation), it would have the same effect on us as the omnibus tax authority."
"We wanted the taxing authority on the ballot," said Perry. "This would have made for an interesting issue in the 1978 election. I think this bill has been predestined to pass. (Officials) do not want it on the ballot with them."
"To suggest that this was some kind of cabal is an insult to everyone's intelligence," said Del. Gerard Devlin. "Everyone is reacting like the referendum, if held, would fail. I'm not sure it would. I just think it sounds like (the CANT leaders) have been deprived of their victory."
"This puts those of us who voted against the bill last year and who supported the petition drive in a very tricky position," said Pesci. "Now if we vote against the repeal in order to keep it on the ballot in 1978, it will look like we support the taxing authority. So regardless of the posture we have taken last year we will have to vote for repeal."