ANNAPOLIS, SEPT. 20 -- Maryland's highest court cleared the way today for property tax limitation measures to appear on the November ballots in several suburban counties by ruling that citizens may legally seek ceilings on a local government revenue.
In a victory for the state's taxpayer movements, a majority on the Court of Appeals resurrected two property tax measures that had been ordered removed from ballots in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, saying that at least some portions of the measures are constitutional.
Although the court was ruling only in cases involving those two counties, its action appears to ensure that at least two of the three tax initiatives slated for Montgomery County's ballot will not be overturned. In addition, the ruling effectively reaffirms the tax limits that have been in place in Prince George's and Talbot counties since 1978, according to lawyers and others familiar with the measures.
In ruling that watered-down versions of initiatives sponsored by citizen groups in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties may be submitted to voters, the appeals court reversed earlier rulings by two Circuit Court judges. The lower courts had held that citizen-initiated ceilings on property tax revenue interfered with a county council's exclusive power to set tax rates.
The court, responding to a looming deadline for printing the ballots, issued its order less than 24 hours after it heard oral arguments in the two cases. As a result, the court did not offer an explanation, saying an opinion would be submitted later.
The court specifically upheld the portions of the measures that would set ceilings on annual increases in property tax revenue. In the case of Anne Arundel, for example, the total amount of property taxes the government collects could rise no more than 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever was lower, if the measure is approved.
At the same time, the court declared the most stringent provisions of the initiatives to be invalid. In both cases, the provisions would have required county officials next July to roll back property tax revenue to fiscal 1989 levels and hold them there for a year.
Leaders of the taxpayer groups behind the initiatives said today they were pleased with the court's ruling, even if it did not fully support their agenda for controlling government spending.
"Losing the rollback is no big deal. We started from nowhere and now we have something on the ballot that people will be able to vote on," said Robert C. Schaeffer, president of Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government. "It will be very difficult now for the government to argue against this because their argument is reduced to the fact that they can't manage on a 4.5 percent increase, and that will cause a lot of chuckles," Schaeffer added.
County officials, meanwhile, also tried to look for the silver lining in the court's decision.
"We are very relieved the rollback has been removed," said Anne Arundel County Solicitor Stephen R. Beard. "That aspect was mean-spirited, Draconian and potentially disasterous for the many taxpayers who are in need of services the county provides." Budget analysts had predicted that the rollback would force the county to slash $30 million, or 4.8 percent, from the government's budget next year.
But Beard and others say officials remain concerned that if the measure passes, the government will find itself strapped for cash and unable to expand programs and projects for a growing population unless new fees and taxes are created.
Schaeffer said he believes the court's action will ultimately help his group's cause by making the initiative more palatable to large numbers of voters. He said the group plans to wage a campaign to get the measure approved, even though it exhausted its funds in the court battles.
A coalition of community activists and public employee unions, spearheaded by County Council member Carole B. Baker (D-Severna Park), was formed to fight the measure if Schaeffer's group was successful in court. Baker said she is unsure what impact today's ruling will have on her organization's plans.
"It's certainly a compromise, but I have concerns about the long-term impact on the county," she said.