A controversial bill to end the tax break enjoyed by Montgomery County country clubs won its first legislative round this week when a special subcommittee of state delegates unanimously approved an amended version of the measure.
For Del. Luiz Simmons (R-Montgomery), the freshman delegate who has championed the bill since he introduced it last summer, it was a mixed victory because of amendments delaying the bill's full effect until after 1986.
"It's a major step forward. Unfortunately this is politics and you can't get the whole loaf," Simmons said after the voting session.
The measure now goes to the full county delegation before it is introduced in the General Assembly.
Simmon's original bill called for an immediate end to the clubs' preferential real estate tax assessment rate. Simmons claims the tax rate is unfair and cost the county $1.2 million in lost revenue this year alone.
As amended by Del. David Scull (D-Montgomery) who chaired the five-member subcommittee, the bill would increase country club property tax assessments gradually over a six-year period. By 1986, each country club in Montgomery County would pay county property taxes on 40 percent of the property's market value. After 1986, the club rate will be the same as that for homeowners, who currently pay taxes on 45 percent of a home's market value.
Nineteen of the county's 21 country clubs -- having a total of 3,751 acres -- now are assessed at approximately 11 percent of the land's value. This is possible because of a state law designed to protect Maryland's remaining undeveloped land.
Schull's amendment also gives the County Council the right to grant tax breaks of up to 100 percent to individual clubs. Simmons' attempt to include a provision requiring clubs prove financial need before receiving a tax break was not included in the approved measure.
David Betts, an attorney who is a member of Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda, said, "We're not happy, but the phasing program is fair."
Although Simmons acknowledged that part of the loaf is better than none, he feared his legislation may be reduced to crumbs by Montgomery County's state senators.
Simmons is confident the Montgomery state delegates will approve the bill next month. But he is worried that county senators will not give their approval, traditionally needed for local bills to succeed in Annapolis.
"It's not going to be easy on the Senate side," he said.
Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) in particular has expressed opposition to the bill. Levitan, who is a long-time member of Rockville's Woodmont Country Club, chairs the Senate Taxation Budget Committee which must also approve the bill.
Levitan and other opponents of the bill protest that if clubs lose the tax break, they will sell their golf links for housing development.
Simmons maintains an increase in membership dues would offset any tax increases.But country club representatives cited figures this week to show the clubs would lose membership of dues were increased.
Because each club has a contract with the state promising to keep the land undeveloped in exchange for a lower rate, State Attorney General Stephen Sachs advised the subcommittee that elimination of the tax break would illegally void the contracts.
Simmons then proposed the clubs' assessments be raised immediately to 25 percent, which Sachs said was permissible and then to 45 percent as each contract expired.
As finally approved, the higher tax rates would be phased in until 45 percent rate is reached in 1986.