This afternoon, in the middle of the park-panelled joint committee hearing room here, the jousting match over property tax reform is set to begin. Part ceremony and part intractable necessity, it is a process that gives equal time to bills that will never make it out of committee and bills that may well become law this year.
More importantly, it is a time for citizens to pass along to legislators some of the pain they have left for the past few years as taxes on their homes rose inexorably with rising property tax assessments.
Just getting as far as these hearings, however, is considered a major victory by some legislative staffers. At least one major piece of legislation was nearly lost along the way, left to suffocate in some bureaucrat's "in" box.
Dozens of other proposals - some of them patently unconstitutional, others exact duplicates of legislation that was already proposed - have been pushed through the legislative computers barely in time for the hearing, largetly so that individual delegates can tell their constituents in this election year that they tried to do something to ease property taxes.
All the while, in the background, emissaries have been running to and from the various camps, trying to find out if anything in the proposals of Acting Gov. Blair Lee III is palatable to the House Ways and Means Committee and if anything in the House Ways and Means Committee's proposals in palatable to Blair Lee.
At the moment, the two main camps in this jousting match are divided along the following lines:
Gov. Lee and his staff are single-mindedly pushing for passage of the administration package, which would include an immediate 5 percent increase in the inflation allowance for Maryland homeowners - in effect a 10 percent tax cut if the individual counties didn't raise their tax rates. The package also includes legislation that would put a ceiling on assessment increases.
Benjamin Cardin (D-Baltimore), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee - through which all tax legislation must pass - is leaning toward the "super circuit-breaker" concept. In effect, the legislation that embodies this concept would tie property tax relief to a homeowner's income, giving larger and larger tax breaks to lower and lower income homeowners.
Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, who has been viewed since the legislative session started as a firm member of the circuit-breaker camp, has recently put one foot over into the governor's camp as well, indicating his support for the governor's proposal to decrease from 50 to 45 percent the amount of a home's fair market value that localities may tax.
"The two ideas are not mutually exclusive," explained on Senate aide yesterday. "Hoyer has spent a lot of time in the last few weeks meeting with the Senate leadership to put together a major revamping of the property tax formula," - in effect, a circuit-breaker proposal that paralleils the idea Del. Cardin is advancing.
But, the aide added, "politically and constitutionally you have to have some money to fund that proposal that it's the governor who's got control of that money. So if you want some of the money you need, you have to go with something that the governor's pushing, and that's what he's pushing the hardest."
The circuit-breaker proponents may have to do more than give the governor one piece of his package, however, before he will accept theirs. In an interview last week, the day after he had met with legislative leaders, Lee said flatly that he would rather have no property tax relief package pass this year than see the key circuit-breaker proposal pass in its present form.
"It doesn't hit the people it needs to hit," Lee said. "It doesn't do anything for the middle-income family in a small home in a county with a middling tax rate, and they are among the ones who are screaming the loudest."
Lee also objected to the proposal on three other grounds - that its $70 million price tag is more than the state can now absorb, that it would invite massive fraud because of the difficulty the state would have checking household incomes, and that the proposal's complexity would make it an administrative nightmare, requiring a minimum of 190 new state employes.
The immediate result of this wide divergence in views has been endless meetings that are imbued with a real sense of urgency, since every member of the legislature - as well as the governor - is up for re-election this year, and everybody wants to have gotten some sort of relief for his constituents.
So last week the House and Senate leaders met with each each other; Wednesday night they met with Governor Lee - a meeting in which the two separate camps showed little flexibility - then over the weekend the legislative leaders went back and caucused among themselves again.
None of the twists and turns of all this shuttle diplomacy are lost on the people who are watching very loosely from the sidelines. These include local government officials, as represented by the Maryland Association of Counties, for these are the people who could lose critical revenues, and have to raise their tax rates, if the governor's proposals went through intact.
Also in the gallery here will be the taxpayer groups themselves; representatives of the taxpayers leagues of 17 different counties are expected to show up take part in the hearings over the next three days.
Just as there is no unanimity among the legislators as to which of the two major tax relief packages - or what combination of the two - they are willing to accept, there is no real unanimity in what the state taxpayers want. They want relief, but different county organizations have different ideas about how they would get it.
"We're going to be entirely behind the (circuit-breaker extension proposal)," said Anne Arundel County tax reform advocate Carol Baker, who was a member of the commission - headed by Del. Tyras S. Athey (D-Anne Arundel) - that proposed that legislation.
So will the Prince George's County taxpayers represented by the Neighborhoods Uniting Project. But, like their state Senator, Steny Hoyer, these taxpayers will also be speaking for some of the governor's proposals.
"We're comong out for both," a spokesman for the Neighborhoods Uniting Program said yesterday. "In general, when you average out, Lee's proposal (on the inflation allowance) generally benefits the people in the higher income brackets more, since their houses are worth more to begin with.
"At they's bill (the circuit-breaker) benefits those in the low and low-middle brackets. We've got both in our county, so we'd be messing one group or the other if we only came out for one of the proposals. We're strongly for both."
The representatives from Montgomery County, however, are expected to ack Lee's package, while, Baltimore City's taxpayers are expected to go strong with the "super-circuit breaker."