Montgomery County's state senators today managed to kill a proposal to curtail tax breaks for the county's country's clubs without actually voting on the controversial issue. Instead they accepted the suggestion of Sen. Laurence Levitan (D), a member of the exclusive Woodmont Country Club, that the measure be referred to a state commission for further study.
"They might as well have sent it to the presidential commission on aardvarks," said (del. Luiz Simmons of Montgomery, who sponsored the bill.
"It's been buried without a vote on the merits."
The bill, which had been endorsed by Montgomery Executive Charles Gilchrist, the Montgomery County Council, and the county's state delegates, would have gradually elimimated a tax break currently enjoyed by 19 private clubs at a cost to the county of $1.2 million annually.
When it come to the senators, however, the bill was halted almost singlehandedly by Levitan, who openly discussed his membership in Woodmont -- where taxes would increase by more than $350,000 under the proposed bill, and Levitan's own dues would increase by hundreds of dollars.
"We're going to figure out some kind of nice way to give that bill exactly what it deserves, without ignoring it," said Levitan shortly before the seven county senators met.
Levitan's method turned out to be a proposal that the bill be referred to a governor's task force that has been studying such issues as transportation and education funding and tax reform. After speaking at length against the bill, Levitan argued that this commission could obtain "additional figures" on the effect of revoking the clubs' tax break.
The Montgomery senators, who have become increasingly uncomfortable as attention focused on the clubs tax break in past weeks, approved Levitan's motion by a 4-to-3 vote. Sens. Levitan, James Clark, Margaret Schweinhaut and Howard Denis voted in favor of the motion, while Sens. Sidney Kramer, Victor Crawford and S. Frank Shore opposed it.
The referral at the bill means that no action will be taken on the country clubs' taxes until at least next year, when the committee of the state task force studying tax reform will make its report.
Senators' vote thus ended an intense debate that began last August, when Simmons proposed his bill and released figures showing that the country clubs' property was valued for tax purposes at an average of 11 percent of market value, compared to the 45 percent rate that is used to compute taxes on homes.
The proposed legislation would have gradually eliminated this inequity -- which was created by the legislature in 1966 at the urging of the former acting governor Blair Lee III, then a lobbyist -- over a period of six years while providing means for the County Council to give tax relief back to clubs that could prove they needed it.
Simmons said that the bill would add 6143,000 to the county's tax revenues next year, while increasing dues by a maximum of about 147 dollars for members of clubs like Woodmont, Congressional and Burning Tree.
Club supporters repeatedly claimed that Simmons' figures were inaccurate, but they would not supply their own information on dues amounts and membership. bInstead, a club lobbyist distributed figures on projected dues increase for several of the clubs without identifying which clubs had provided them.
Levitan and the club supporters argued that if the private clubs had to pay taxes at the same rate as homeowners, membership would fall off as dues increased and the clubs might eventually close and be solid for new housing developments.
This club supporters said, would greatly damage Montgomery County's economy. "What we have to look at is how much revenue can the county derive by using these facilities to attract new industries they are considering moving to Montgomery," Levitan argued.
The bill was approved by the county's delegates 101 days ago, and since then the senators have been lobbied heavily by proponents and opponents even as several local television stations and newspapers drew attention to the vote.
"When you brought up the issue with one of the Senators, you'd get this embarrassing silence," said one county official who lobbied for the bill last week. "It basically came down to whether there were country clubs and country club members in their districts."