ANNAPOLIS, AUG. 27 -- An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge ruled today that a property tax limitation measure sponsored by a local citizen group is unconstitutional and will not appear on the county's November ballot.
Ruling on a lawsuit brought by the county government and four residents, Judge Bruce C. Williams held that citizens in Maryland are prohibited from initiating laws mandating a change in the local tax rate. The state constitution expressly reserves that power for county councils, he said.
"No matter how good it may sound, the only taxing authority under the Maryland Constitution lies with the County Council," the judge said.
The ruling came after an attorney for the taxpayer group argued that his clients' First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition their goverment would be abridged if the judge granted the county's motion to prevent the measure from being submitted to voters.
Williams said that although he could sympathize with the nearly 21,000 county residents who felt strongly enough about their rising tax bills to sign petitions qualifying the measure for the ballot, state law clearly bars such initiatives.
Members of Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Goverment, the group that sponsored the measure for a three-year rollback and limit on county property tax revenue, reacted bitterly to Williams's ruling. President Robert C. Schaeffer is especially angry that Williams ruled just hours after his group's attorney submitted a brief and within minutes after attorneys for both sides concluded their oral arguments.
"He didn't even consider it over lunch," Schaeffer said. "The fix was in on this one for sure."
The taxpayer group says its measure is necessary to control government spending at a time when many residents are concerned about rising property assessments. County government spending has nearly doubled over eight years, this year's budget totaling $616 million, and the group says the government refuses to control its spending voluntarily.
Anne Arundel County officials contend that if the tax group's initiative became law, essential county services such as schools and law enforcement would be severely harmed.
Schaeffer said his group will immediately appeal Williams's decision to Maryland's highest court. According to county elections officials, a decision must be rendered by Oct. 12 for the measure to be included on the local ballot.
Although Williams's ruling could be overturned, Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer said he expects it will have an immediate impact on a lawsuit Baltimore County officials filed in an attempt to keep a similar tax limitation measure off their ballot. Arguments in that case are expected later this week.
Plymyer said the judge's ruling also raises legal questions about the 1978 tax limit in Prince George's County that since has been modified by voters and a similar tax limitation measure that is still in effect in Talbot County. "It seems clear now that both of those measures were of questionable legal validity, but because they were not rollbacks the counties were not compelled to take action," Plymyer said.
Three tax limitation measures have qualified for the ballot in Montgomery County, including one that was submitted by the County Council as a compromise with a local taxpayer group. Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer said today he does not expect to follow Anne Arundel's lead and challenge the other two measures because he believes voters should have the opportunity to express their views.
In Anne Arundel today, Williams also ruled against a second measure the taxpayer group qualified for the ballot: a proposal that would allow citizens to propose laws that would be submitted to voters for adoption or rejection after the required number of signatures is gathered. Williams said state law gives citizens the right to hold referendums only on laws their local government has passed and does not permit them to propose new ones.
Williams said the citizens could have directed their efforts at a referendum on the county's budget bill, he said.
Schaeffer scoffed at this suggestion, saying that county law gives citizens just 45 days after a law is enacted to collect enough signatures to place a referendum on the ballot. His group spent four months gathering its signatures, he said.