An intricate package of property tax relief legislation designed to stem or even reverse the steady increase in homeowners' tax bills, moved through both houses of the Maryland General Assembly yesterday with an ease and swiftness that indicated almost certain enactment.
After five key pieces of legislation sailed through the House of Delegates with a total of only three opposing votes, Del. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), one of the packages' chief architects, joked: "I prepared a rather lengthy speech tonight, what should I do with it?"
Two hours before the House action, the State Senate debated only an hour beore giving final approval by a 33-to-13 margin to a controversial tax credit measure - known as the circuit breaker - which is the keystone of the tax package.
The Senate had originally been expected to offer stiff opposition to this measure, which will cost the state $30.5 million and is designed to benefit homeowners of lower income levels and those living in counties with higher tax rates.
In recent weeks much of this opposition melted away, largely due to the energetic lobbying efforts of Senate President Steny H. Hover (D-Prince George's), a long-time supporter of the tax credit concept.
At the moment, it seems likely that the entire package will clear both houses and arrive on the desk of Acting Gov. Blair Lee III well before the legislative session ends April 10. Lee, who originally staunchly opposed the tax credit measure, has since backed off and endorsed the entire package.
The intricate, carefully constructed package of tax relief legislation is designed to accomplish several purposes: first and foremost, to cut homeowners' tax bills; secondly, to placate local governments that will lose about $30 million in revenues as a result of the legislation, and third to tidy up assessment practices.
The relief would come to the homeowners in the following ways:
They would receive a 10 percent reduction in that portion of their home's assessment on which taxes are levied. If local governments did nothing to raise their tax rates, this would mean a 10 percent cut in homeowners' tax bills. However, it seems certain that local governments will have to increase rates somewhat if they do not want to cut back on the services they deliver.
One in the five of the state's 850,000 homeowners will qualify for the tax credit program. About 24,000 homeowners in Montgomery County are expected to qualify, each receiving an average $216 credit on his tax bill. Another 17,500 in Prince George's County should be eligible for an average $215 credit.
Finally, the package contains a measure extending the current state law that limits annual assessment increases on any home in Maryland to 15 percent.
In order to ease, at least partially, the adverse affect the legislation would have on local government treasuries, the legislators included two measures, totaling $15.8 million, that would increase state aid to local police departments and help local governments with state medicaid payments.
Senate opponents of the tax credit plan argue that the bill unfairly favors the poor and ignores the plight of middle-income homeowners who are creating the greatest clamor for relief.
"This is the biggest hoax of four years of my being in the Senate," declared Sen. C. Simpson (D-Charles). "The people hit hardest with assessments and reassessments are the ones who won't receive any relief."
Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), motioning to the Senate visitor's gallery, said "If you think you're going to get property tax relief today, you're sadly mistaken. As a property tax relief bill, this is an absolute fraud." Speaking on behalf of the bill, Sen. Arthur H. Helton, Jr. (D-Hartford) said, "This bill addresses a very particular plight of a particular set of people who do not earn enough income to pay their property taxes"