An article in yesterday's Anne Arundel Weekly in correctly said Del. Robert C. Baldwin was the ranking Republican in Anne Arundel County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly. Del. John Leopold holds that status. (Published 11/19/99)

The General Assembly's newest Democrat, Sen. Robert R. Neall (Anne Arundel), said he plans a legislative push to capture additional tax revenue for Anne Arundel government by modifying the county's property tax cap.

"The county has forgone $40 million under the tax cap because it has set the levy lower than it had to," Neall said in an interview last week. "What I'm thinking about is a measure that would enable the county to recapture that revenue if the economy cools off."

Neall, the former Republican county executive who joined the Senate in 1996, switched parties last week, saying that he could be more effective as "problem solver" in the Senate's Democratic majority.

Neall said he wanted to assess county leaders' willingness to reconsider the 1992 tax cap, which allows property tax revenue to increase by 4.5 percent a year or by the rate of inflation--whichever is less.

In recent years, inflation has been about 2 percent annually, limiting the growth in property tax revenues to that percentage. But when inflation outpaced the growth in assessments in 1995, the County Council could have raised property tax rates, collected more money and still stayed under the cap. But the council chose not to change the property tax rate, which was set at $2.36 per $1,000 of property value in 1992.

If the county had raised rates to the maximum allowed by the cap, the county would have collected an additional $40 million over the past seven years, according to county budget officials. The average taxpayer would have paid about $60 more annually.

Neall said that because the county had a right to collect that revenue but didn't, it should have the option of doing so retroactively.

"What I'm thinking about is a measure for the county to reach back and recapture that revenue in a way that is consistent with the spirit of the tax cap," Neall said. "I want to build consensus."

Tax cap supporters said there already is a consensus--for leaving the law alone.

Del. Robert C. Baldwin (R-Anne Arundel), the ranking Republican in the county delegation, questioned the legality of changing the tax rate after the fact and suggested that additional revenue should come from reduced spending, not raising taxes.

"Government still should look at its operations first to raise revenues," he said.

Robert C. Schaeffer, the retired naval commander who wrote the tax cap measure and chairs the Anne Arundel County Taxpayers Association, dismissed Neall's idea.

"The professional politicians are trying to gouge the voters again," he said. "Why didn't previous councils raise the rates to the maximum? They didn't do it because they wanted to stay popular with the people."

Schaeffer said Neall, who was county executive when voters overwhelmingly approved the tax cap in 1992, should put his proposal on a ballot referendum.

"I dare Neall to take it to the voters," he said.

County Council member John J. Klocko III (R-Crofton), said he welcomes Neall's effort. "Going through this exercise is worthwhile, and revising the code to allow it is appropriate," Klocko said. "But that's only half the equation. The question is, whether the county executive and the council will have the will to seize the money. We would be going back to take money that previous elected councils chose not to."

County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) has expressed frustration that the tax cap's effects make it difficult for her to fulfill a campaign pledge to fund $400 million in needed repairs to county schools. But she has declined to advocate the repeal of the cap and would not comment on Neall's idea.

Owens welcomed Neall's change of party affiliation last week with a statement saying she hoped he would help "in bringing home the fiscal resources we'll need to position Anne Arundel County for prosperity in the 21st century."

Neall said he would decide in the next two months whether to submit legislation modifying the tax cap.

"I'm not going to invest a lot of time on it unless we have consensus," he said.