In his first major address to Prince George's business leaders, County Executive Jack B. Johnson yesterday signaled indirectly but unmistakably that a new public debate about eliminating the county's voter-imposed property-tax cap needs to begin.

Johnson (D) trod lightly over the issue, which is traditionally a "third rail" in county politics, even omitting any direct reference to TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders), the ceiling on taxes approved in 1978 by Prince George's voters.

His meaning, though, was clear.

"We need road repair, better code enforcement and cleaner streets. But in order for us to make these improvements, we need to generate additional revenue," Johnson told the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce in Greenbelt during his first State of the Economy address.

"We must come to the reality that we cannot depend on the state to carry us. . . . And our citizens must understand that a small investment in ourselves will generate benefits beyond their imagination," he said.

Afterward, when asked if he was planning to seek a repeal of TRIM, Johnson said: "I didn't say we're going to go there, but we're going in that direction."

Aides, however, said that a repeal is Johnson's goal.

"We were very careful not to throw that in anybody's face," said Walter Dozier, a spokesman for the executive. "This was the first attempt to address the need to remove TRIM, without saying it."

Johnson faces a tough sell. Former county executive Wayne K..Curry tried to do away with TRIM in 1996, arguing that the cap limited public investments critical to attracting new development. But a referendum, backed by political and business leaders, was rejected by 63 percent of the voters.

County officials have said for years that TRIM has made it impossible for the Prince George's school system, which is consistently ranked near the bottom in statewide testing, to receive adequate funding.

"You get what you pay for, and that's what we have to let people know," said Council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood).

"If you want the world-class educational system, you have to pay for it." He said he could envision a referendum put before voters next year.

But Johnson said that before he addressed TRIM, he needed convince residents that he can run the county under the current budget constraints. At least one council member agreed.

"Yes, I do think we need to have a discussion about the repeal," said council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg). "But we have to make sure we build public confidence, showing that government is operating efficiently and effectively because how can you ask me to dig deeper in my pockets if government is not addressing my core interests?"

Johnson also told business leaders that in the budget he is preparing for fiscal year 2004, Prince George's is facing as much as $20 million in cuts from the state.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s budget proposal calls for a $9 million reduction in the county's highway aid, a $1.5 million cut from Prince George's Community College and a $7 million reduction in income tax disparity grants.

"It seems every day I get word from Annapolis that another area of service is being cut," Johnson said.

JACK B. JOHNSON