THERE IS UNDER WAY in Prince George's County a petition drive that has a strong but deceptive appeal: A group calling itself Citizens Against Nuisance Taxes seeks a referendum on a proposed 10 per cent telephone service tax. So far, the signatures of some 6,000 citizens have been filed with the Maryland secretary of state calling for a 1978 referendum. If another 6,000 are filed by July 1, the telephone tax would be blocked until the vote.
Sound appealing? Sure - why let the county reach into everybody's wallet through another nuisance tax? Tim Maloney, 20, who is heading the referendum movement, argues that the county could just cut the budget, or else impose a commercial and industrial-lease tax of 5 per cent (and never mind how it might affect commercial development in the county or the overall tax base in the future). He emphasizes that the thrust of the campaign is against the omnibus taxing authority granted to the county by the state legislature.
But consider the effect of blocking the phone tax: Instead of a proposed decrease of 10 cents per $100 assessed valuation in the property tax, homeowners - already prime victims of local taxation - would be tapped for a 4-cent increase, according to County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.
Quite apart from the additional burden that will be dumped on homeowners if the petition drive is pursued, there is that more important long-range issue of the county's home-rule taxing authority. Under the phone-tax proposal, some significant attempts at greater equity are included. There would be an exemption of senior citizens who meet certain age and income limitations. According to Mr. Kelly's office, the surcharge would cost most phone customers about $1.25 a month. Among other things, this tax proposal would permit the county to tax, for the first time, federal facilities. Moreover, it would shift some of the tax burden from single-family homeowners to commercial-industrial users.
You don't have to relish the prospect of another tax to see the value of making the burden more equitable. As County Council Chairman William B. Amonett said the other day, the people signing the petitions "are getting snookered. They can't know all the facts. We are trying to create a more equitable tax by taxing all county users, even the federal government . . . instead of relying solely on the property tax."
To be sure, the petitioners are exercising a democratic right. But the effect of blocking the phone tax until a vote next year - and killing the effort to relieve the tax burden on homeowners - would be serious. County residents would be far better served if the leaders of the movement would drop their driven in favor of more responsible actions at the polls next year.