Winfield M. Kelly Jr. remembers seeing it coming and realizing that there was not much he could do to get out of the way.

The year was 1978 and Kelly was Prince George's County executive. Skyrocketing property assessments and taxpayer unhappiness with government spending triggered a grass-roots revolt that swept Kelly from office and led to passage of the now-famous TRIM referendum capping property tax revenue.

"I don't think I could have done anything different," said Kelly, who said he tried to limit taxes by holding the tax rate steady during his four years in office. "Once something like this starts, it is awfully hard to deal with."

Kelly, now Maryland's secretary of state, said he senses anti-tax momentum building again this year. Tax rebels in three Maryland counties have succeeded in placing initiatives to limit property tax revenue on the Nov. 6 ballot. And Kelly expects some, if not all, to pass.

Like this year, 1978 was marked by a vigorous national debate over tax policy. Today's local anti-tax fever coincides with the long-running fight on Capitol Hill over how to cut the federal deficit, a battle that has often focused on President Bush's "no new taxes" campaign pledge. In 1978, passage of California's tax-cutting Proposition 13 led Washington area tax rebels to try the same thing.

This year's ending of the real estate boom here, coupled with rising gasoline prices, is generating the same economic worries as did 1978's high inflation, which was brought on by the oil crisis four years earlier.

And Washington area residents in both years struggled with problems brought on by growth and climbing real estate assessments.

"Back then there was a wave of cynicism with government overall. And we certainly see some of that today," Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening said.

The Prince George's County TRIM initiative and a similar measure passed by Talbot County voters that same year have been the focus of increasing debate as this year's vote nears. The two sides in the tax-limit question can't agree on whether the voters got what they wanted in 1978.

The tax rebels say the 1978 initiatives show that limits can be put on property taxes to give homeowners relief while allowing government to continue to function reasonably well. They are quick to point out that voters in Talbot County have twice had an opportunity to remove their limit on property taxes -- and twice decided by a 2 to 1 ratio to leave it in place.

Opponents of the limits dismiss the Talbot County example. They said voters rarely will elect to boost their taxes, especially in an Eastern Shore community such as Talbot that has proportionally more wealthy residents and senior citizens than the Washington suburbs and therefore requires fewer public services.

The opponents prefer to highlight what happened in Prince George's County in the early 1980s, when TRIM led to massive teacher layoffs, longer response time for the police and fire departments, and diminished bond ratings. The cuts went so deep that in 1984 Prince George's voters agreed to amend the law to freeze only the property tax rate. The change allowed Prince George's property tax revenue to climb along with assessments. Previously, the county could collect no more property tax revenue than the $143.9 million raised in 1979.

Talbot County imposed a ceiling on revenue too. But, unlike Prince George's, it allowed collection of extra revenue from new construction.

As a result of the Prince George's experience with TRIM's tough original limit, supporters of tax limits in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties have drafted their charter changes to allow for some growth in property tax revenue.

Limitation on property taxes, one of the main sources of local revenue, usually spurs local governments to search for new taxes such as user fees, said Steven Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York-Albany.

And the measures often lead to a hard-to-detect erosion of services, Gold added. "Governments tend to reduce spending for things for which the consequences are not immediately obvious, like deferring maintenance and capital expenditures," he said.

When Prince George's County instituted TRIM, it was called the nation's most restrictive limit. County officials were unable to get the state to compensate for their loss of revenue because legislators considered TRIM a local problem. So the county went about finding new money elsewhere.

Prince George's County increased "just about every permit and license fee we have," said Janet Everett, a county revenue analyst. The county also increased its real estate transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, doubled its hotel and motel tax and created a 5 percent energy tax on utility bills, Everett said.

Talbot County officials have likewise increased their piggyback tax on state income taxes from 35 percent to the maximum 50 percent.

Prince George's Glendening, never a supporter of TRIM, said the measure in its original form "was disastrous."

"For the first year-and-a-half there was legitimate waste-cutting," he said. "After three or four years, however, there were serious cuts and actual firings. There simply was no alternative."

The effects of TRIM could have been worse had not the school-age population declined during the early years of the law, Glendening said. Still, he remembers the day in 1981 when 540 teaching positions were erased from the budget and 305 teachers were fired.

Margie Spirer, president of the 6,000-member Prince George's County Education Association, said the cuts went beyond personnel. Elementary art and music programs were canceled, junior varsity sports eliminated and class sizes increased. She said the county schools have never really recovered from TRIM, despite the 1984 amendment.

"We bled here. We are not bleeding anymore. We now allow for growth in our property taxes, but we have found that we can never catch up, we can never be better than we are today," Spirer said. "If you dream of a new program, you can't do it unless you cut someone else's program."

TRIM supporters respond that opponents often focus on only half the amendment's purpose: The issue is not just how much people pay in taxes but how the money is spent.

William Goodman, a former state senator who originally pushed TRIM, said money could be found for schools by making real cuts elsewhere in the county budget. "They kept all their toys and never looked at meaningful change. The classrooms didn't have to bear the brunt of it all," he said.

Goodman's counterpart in Talbot, Emery Hertelendy, said taxpayers revolted there only after county officials refused to heed demands that the government be streamlined.

"A big meeting in Talbot County is 15 people. We had a meeting {on tax rates} in 1978 on the second floor of the courthouse in Easton, and people filled every seat and lined the walls on all three sides . . . . People were angry," he said.

Secretary of State Kelly senses the same mood this year. "The real way to handle the process is not by referendum," he said. "Every four years you have the option of voting on whether government is doing what it is supposed to be doing. That's a better way to handle it."