OCEAN CITY, MD., JULY 27 -- Just beneath the easygoing, shirt-sleeve mood of Maryland local officials gathered here is the growing dread of tax increases and a titanic struggle over state resources after the November elections.
Beset by property tax limitation movements at home and losses of aid from the state and federal governments, many officials at the Maryland Association of Counties convention might be excused for wearing long faces at the annual crab feast.
"Local governments are under fiscal siege," Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen said.
Many county leaders consider a state tax increase inevitable after December, when the Governor's Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure reports the results of its three-year study. But that prospect doesn't cheer the majority for two reasons: The money generated by a tax increase might get diverted to help state government cope with its slowing economy or might simply be siphoned from wealthier jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County, to aid poor Baltimore and a handful of rural counties, executives said.
Silver Spring lawyer R. Robert Linowes, who heads the state tax committee, sought today to reassure local officials. "We should not endanger the fiscal well being of any local government," Linowes said.
But, he added later, "We cannot avoid the reality of the huge disparity between the haves and have-nots."
In particular, Linowes mentioned the possibility of applying the state sales tax to a larger part of the growing service sector. Several local officials would prefer to make the state's top income-tax brackets higher and to increase the capital gains tax.
"Many states are in trouble, and we want to avoid that," State Budget Director Charles Benton said. "We're going to have to tighten our belts. We're not going to get the same revenue growth we have been."
Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening commented, "Both the state and almost all counties are facing severe financial pressures. The economy is in decline, and that affects our revenues.
"No responsible officials will propose property tax increases. If the state has a massive shortfall and the Linowes Commission has come in and recommended $500 million or $600 million in tax increases, that money's going to go to fill the shortfall in state revenue."
The $328 million price tag for public education changes unveiled last week by state School Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling sent still another shudder through county officials, who fear they will get struck with the check.
Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel), a prominent member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, told local officials today that the General Assembly is unprepared to make drastic changes in tax policy but could consider revisions aimed at "tax equity, if it's revenue-neutral."
Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer said he is more confident that the aftermath of the Linowes Commission study will not be a raid on Montgomery County's treasury.
But to Mary Pat Clark, president of the Baltimore City Council, talk of tax increases without new aid for her city is "like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer reiterated that "we're not going to take it away from Montgomery. But he added that recommendations for tax increases are almost certain.
"While we're coming into hard times, people still have to have their needs met," he said.