A citizen task force created by Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening to investigate new sources of revenue for the county will recommend that Glendening seek legislation allowing him to add one cent to the state's 5 percent sales tax, according to several task force members.
The penny tax proposal could generate enough money to help offset an anticipated $32 million deficit next year, task force members said, and is the solution that Glendening has seemed to favor since he first forecast a gloomy fiscal picture for the county. The newly elected executive said a week after his election that the county faced the possibility of layoffs of public employes next year unless he finds "a major nonproperty tax revenue source" from the state.
"We felt that the sales tax was the most viable avenue to follow," said Roy I. Dabney, a former county council member and cochairman of Glendening's Fiscal and Budgetary Committee. "We looked at a number of other things, things like Montgomery County does -- the container tax, energy tax, the telephone tax -- and decided they did not produce enough money. They are more feasible for one-time shortfalls."
Moreover, Dabney said, "we just figured collecting a couple of hundred thousand here, a couple of hundred thousand there, by the time you dealt with all the interest groups that would be upset with each individual proposal, it wasn't worth the headache."
Local legislators, however, have voiced objections to the sales tax increase, since it is the last major revenue source not shared with the counties. Also, many of them were miffed when Glendening failed to consult with the county's state house delegation before declaring that he would seek some form of state aid.
The Fiscal and Budgetary Task Force was one of eight such committees formed by Glendening, a Democrat and University of Maryland professor, as part of his transition to the executive seat that he won by a landslide this November. The committees are comprised of former officeholders, citizen activists, technical experts, business leaders and a handful of Glendening's aides. Each committee was asked to study some aspect of county government, make recommendations for improvement in that area, and report to Glendening by December 3.
Most of the 14 members of the Budget task force are close associates of Glendening's. Attorney William Meyers headed the committee along with Dabney, and other members included former County Executive Winfield M. Kelly, Jr, former Secretary of State Fred L. Wineland, developer William Chesley, and Hyattsville Mayor Thomas L. Bass.
The group met five times, for a total of about 12 hours, and were briefed by the county's budget director and an assistant county attorney. Members were not asked, according to those interviewed, to substantiate what appeared to be Glendening's preference for a local sales tax.
Nevertheless, "it wasn't a tough decision to come up with," said a task force member who asked not to be named, but who permitted The Washington Post to review preliminary draft materials used by the committeee.
"The shortfalls are substantial. The only tax that could cover them would be an additional income tax surcharge or the sales tax, and the one that seemed the fairest was the sales tax," said this commitee member. "Prince George's is the shopping place for a number of noncounty residents, so if you impose the sales tax, the entire burden won't fall on county taxpayers."
Although Glendening has had the reports since Dec. 7, he has yet to release them or reveal their contents. Aides say that he has not had time to study all of them and to decide how to respond to the recommendations.
The task force report was delivered to Glendening before Gov. Harry Hughes announced that Maryland is expecting its own$100 million deficit because of an unexpected increase in the cost of the state's pension system. Athough Hughes said that he would consider raising state property taxes and holding new lotteries to overcome the gap, the govenor's announcement last week seemed to add to the resistence that the county's legislators already are showing to the one-cent tax proposal.
Partly to mollify the lawmakers, Glendening invited a handful who sit on the House Ways and Means Committee to meet with him Tuesday. They also have been asked to meet with the county council.
Seeking to shore up support among other Maryland jurisdictions, Glendening will meet today with leaders of Baltimore, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, and with the mayor of Baltimore. Glendening said that the sales tax "will be one item on the agenda," along with other fiscal matters.