A special legislative task force has developed a compromise bill that would significantly reduce tax breaks for Montgomery County country clubs, more than doubling the amount of property tax they would pay on undeveloped land, including golf courses, within three years.
Montgomery County, which has more country clubs than any other county in Maryland, annually loses $1.3 million in tax revenues because of the break, Del. Luiz Simmons (R-Rockville) said.
Both Simmons, who argued that the tax break should be abolished, and Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Potomac), a country club member who supported the tax breaks, have waged a bitter struggle over the issue since 1979.
Simmons has twice attempted to push bills through the Maryland General Assembly that would eliminate tax breaks which allow the state's country clubs to pay taxes on an average of 11 percent of their assessed market value. Most Montgomery property is taxed on 45 percent of its market value.
Simmons was thwarted by Levitan, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, and other legislators both times.
Now, county and state members of the task force say they have a bill that will appease those who decry the tax breaks while maintaining an advantage for the country clubs.
But Simmons atacked the bill as sham and attorneys for the country clubs may already have discovered a legal loophole that will allow them to pay taxes at the lower rate.
"The compromise bill is totally inadequate," Simmons said yesterday. "It's very depressing. A lot of the people on the task force are hoping that Levitan will kill the bill. They don't even have figures on what revenue will be generated."
But Montgomery County Councilman David Scull, who served on the task force with Sen. Victor Crawford (D-Montgomery), Del. Stewart Bainum (D-Montgomery), Sen. Sidney Cramer (D-Montgomery) and Del. Lucille Maurer (D-Montgomery), defended the bill.
"I think that the public probably supports this by a wide margin," Scull said. "The strength is the idea of compromise, taking back some of the windfall and leaving country clubs with some benefit. It's my sense that this is the most we can get right now."
The tax break law, passed in 1966 with help from former acting governor Blair Lee III, who was then a lobbyist, was designed to help country clubs resist pressures to sell out to developers and ensure their continued existence.
But detractors have long claimed that such help is no longer necessary.
"By 1986, the annual loss in tax revenues to the county will be $2 million a year. Every 10 years that loss is $10 million," Simmons said.
Under the local, compromise bill, which will be filed in Annapolis by Sept. 1, taxes will be computed on 15 percent of the assessed value of undeveloped land of country clubs in the first year, 20 percent in the second and 25 percent in the third year, where the rate will remain, county government lobbyist Tom Lingan said.
But Peter Taliaferro of the Maryland attorney general's office and county officials have said that five Montgomery County country clubs have invoked the legal right to extend their current contracts for the next 50 years. Taliaferro said that is based on the provision in the U.S. Constitution that says "no state shall . . . pass any . . . law . . . impairing obligation of contracts."
"It's our position that it will then be . . . unconstitutional to interfere with the current contract," said attorney David Betts, who represents one of the country clubs.