IN NOVEMBER 1978, the voters of Prince
George's County sent themselves a message that only now is being delivered with a vengeance: TRIM--the Tax Reform Initiative for Marylanders --was the county's homemade response to the Spirit of Proposition 13, which had captured the votes of Californians intent on curbing their property taxes. But in Prince George's, the amendment simply froze the total dollar amount of money that could be raised through real estate taxes--making it a matter of time before inflation and TRIM would play hell with even the most modest county budget.
The time is up, too--as evidenced by the budget just adopted by the county council. With minimum latitude and maximum fiscal discomfort, the council members have placed unprecedented financial restrictions on the schools--leaving one of the country's largest school systems with less money than it received last year. But however poorly this may sit with some parents in the county, the voters have only themselves to blame--not only for TRIM, but also for making it clear that in a serious pinch they would rather spend money on the police, fire and corrections departments than on education.
That is what County Executive Lawrence Hogan recommended, and essentially what the council agreed to. As council member Ann Lombardi notes, "there was no interest on the council in making massive cuts in each department to shift money to education. The money we had to come up with was so overwhelming that anything done would have been a pittance." That was the gist of Mr. Hogan's conclusion when he issued his budget proposal on March 31: "If you are asking me if I put a higher priority on crime than on education," he said then, "the answer is yes."
And if you ask whether there is any prospect of a better budget policy without some modification of the TRIM revenue limit, the answer has to be no. Either voters accept a tight school budget--complete with cuts of hundreds of teachers--as a reasonable amount to spend, or they act to amend TRIM to allow more fiscal flexibility. The old standby option--looking to Annapolis and Washington for bail-outs--is hardly a winner when the county refuses to spring any more of its own money for the cause.
So without even arguing over the grim alternatives confronting the county school board, there can be no serious increases in much of anything without some modification of TRIM. Adding the property tax collected from new construction to TRIM's total dollar limit on revenues from the property tax would at least provide slightly more flexibility. That is what some residents have been seeking to do by petition, and if voters really want more budget options, they should lend this effort their support.