Louis Pope, outgoing chairman of the Howard County Republican Party, says his last official act will be a mass mailing this month to county voters, urging them to sign a petition to place a referendum on the November ballot that would make it harder to raise taxes.
"The tax issue has become the most winning issue for Republicans in Maryland," said Pope, who next month will become the state's Republican national committeeman. "Having a Republican governor who is showing us the way has brought us together."
Emboldened by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s decision to hold the line on income and sales taxes -- and by the enduring strength of his approval ratings -- Republican officials across Maryland are growing more assertive in promoting their anti-tax agendas to reshape policy and win elections.
While GOP legislators in Virginia helped push through a two-year, $1.5 billion tax increase this month, Maryland Republicans are moving in the opposite direction, hardening the party's long-standing principle of lower taxes and limited spending as they head into the 2006 elections.
And even though Ehrlich (R) has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in higher fees and other revenue in lieu of tax increases, he remains the undisputed standard-bearer for the anti-tax movement.
"I think having Ehrlich up there has made things from a Republican perspective easier," said David F. Hale (R-Owings), president of the Calvert County Board of Commissioners. "Seeing how popular his message is, it obviously gives you an umbrella that we can use as an example."
Democratic leaders, nervously watching the GOP effort, are preparing their rebuttal.
"The case is: What kind of community do you want to live in?" said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who will be campaigning against a referendum proposal this fall asking Montgomery voters to restrict the County Council's ability to raise the property tax rate.
The tax issue is shaping up as the basis for a classic struggle between Republicans and Democrats, who will argue that the state's reputation for a high quality of life with good schools, well-maintained public parks and efficient services will be jeopardized by GOP policies.
So far this year, Republican leaders in central Maryland are sticking to Ehrlich's political playbook.
After 13 counties raised taxes last year -- including several ruled by Republicans -- GOP leaders across the state are holding firm, resisting increases in counties where they are in the majority and using the tax issue to make themselves heard in counties where they are out of power.
In Calvert County, the Republican-controlled Board of Commissioners recently decided against raising taxes to close a projected $2.9 million revenue gap in the proposed budget for fiscal 2005. The board elected to use reserve funds to cover the shortfall.
The GOP-led County Council in Anne Arundel quickly punctured a trial balloon this spring from County Executive Janet S. Owens (D), who tried to solicit interest in a cell phone tax.
Frederick County's Republican commissioners also have proposed a budget that holds the line on taxes, and they are considering a tax cut.
In Montgomery County, the GOP's approach has been a bit more nuanced but, some Democrats say, also more menacing. GOP Chairman Stephen N. Abrams hand-delivered a letter to the Democrat-controlled County Council offering to withhold the party's endorsement of the tax-limiting ballot measure pushed by anti-tax activist Robin Ficker. Abrams's terms: that the council agree to a number of specific cuts, including a reduction in the county income tax and in support for Strathmore Hall, the North Bethesda concert venue that has suffered from cost overruns.
Ficker, a longtime gadfly in county politics, has led several unsuccessful attempts to pass a tax-limiting referendum proposal. But county lawmakers worry that his measure could prove more popular at the polls this November than it has in the past. A formal endorsement by the state party could enhance its chances.
Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) said there is no chance that the council will meet Abrams's terms.
"There is 100 percent certainty we will not give in to any threat by Steve Abrams," he said.
Still, the shadow cast by Ficker's ballot proposal has, at least in part, prompted the council to consider two measures that would cut property taxes while raising the county's energy levy. A council committee is expected to endorse one of the plans this week.
The biggest partisan showdown over taxes this year is likely to be in Howard County. While Montgomery voters have rejected past ballot measures led by Ficker to limit taxes, it is unclear how voters will react in Howard, where Republicans are more competitive in state and local elections.
The two Republicans on Howard's five-member County Council are pushing for a ballot measure that would require that two-thirds of council members agree to any future income or property tax increase.
The Democratic majority intends to vote against putting the issue to referendum, but Republicans say they will gather the 10,000 signatures needed to bypass the council and put the issue on the ballot anyway.
Council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) said having Ehrlich as governor helps their cause.
"He is doing a good job explaining to the people that [the government] has a lot of money but we need to spend it wisely," Merdon said.
County Executive James N. Robey (D) expects the GOP to succeed in getting the issue on the ballot but vows to campaign forcefully against it, telling voters it could cripple the county's ability to pay for services.
"This is nothing but an attempt by the minority party to do a backdoor tax cap," Robey said. "This is a concept whose time has come and gone, like the disco."
In Prince George's County, which has had a cap on property taxes since 1978, Republicans see the debate as a winning issue.
The House of Delegates voted this spring to give Prince George's leaders the authority to call a referendum this fall on whether part of property tax cap -- blamed for starving the county's struggling school system of cash -- could be lifted to help fund education. But, to the disappointment of the head of the county GOP, the measure died in the Senate.
"It gives us an issue," said Dale Anderson, the GOP chairman. "We're pretty much the minority in Prince George's County, but once they put the tax issue on the ballot, we can probably get 70 percent of the vote."
Officials in Prince George's -- which has 250,000 more Democrats than Republicans -- have tried to have the cap, known as TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders), repealed several times, most recently in 1996, but voters have rejected the attempts.
In many counties, Republicans' anti-tax message is being aided by higher-than-expected revenue because of surging property values. But fiscal analysts say the windfall might evaporate if Ehrlich's decides to close a projected $1 billion budget deficit by cutting aid to local government. And should revenue begin to roll back, forcing other cuts, the GOP could face problems.
Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, said GOP leaders could feel a backlash if voters believe the party's tax policies are leading to more crowded schools, congested roads and overburdened police and firefighters.
"It could be a winning issue for Republicans, but once people really begin to feel any cuts in services, especially in education, this could really hurt Republicans," Crenson said.
Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he will blunt Maryland Republicans' anti-tax offensive by using Virginia as a case study.
In 1999, Republicans seized control of both houses of the Virginia legislature on an anti-tax message.
But after holding the line on increases for several years, the legislature was prompted this year by voter angst over lagging services to raise taxes to fund education and transportation initiatives.
And Maryland Democrats are hoping Fairfax County is a bellwether for how voters in Maryland feel about lower taxes vs. increased services. Last fall, voters in Fairfax, which has demographics similar to those of many central Maryland counties, rejected several Republican candidates for the Board of Supervisors who campaigned on imposing a tax cap.
But John Kane, chairman of the Maryland GOP, insists Maryland Republicans, not Virginia's GOP leaders, have the right message on taxes.
"I don't think Maryland fell behind the curve, I think Virginia fell under the curve," Kane said. "I think if you ask a lot of people what is the difference between a Republican and Democrat in Virginia, they can't tell you."
Staff writer Cameron W. Barr contributed to this report.