Prince George's County Executive-elect Parris Glendening is prepared to launch a statewide campaign for legislation that would allow Maryland localities to add 1 cent to the sales tax -- an increase that would mean an extra $28 million in annual revenue for the financially beleaguered county.
Glendening's unofficial pitch for a local sales tax is part of a textbook-like strategy the political science professor and two-term County Council member has mapped out for dealing with a $32 million shortfall in the county budget. But his eager approach to his newly won job already has miffed some Prince George's state legislators, whose support for any change in a tax law is critical.
"What you're getting into is a political fight between the county government and Annapolis over who is going to bear the responsibility for financing county government," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Democrat from Beltsville.
Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat from Clinton who heads the Prince George's County Senate delegation to Annapolis, said, "I personally think the possibility of passing a sales tax this year is quite remote."
"What Glendening is looking for is a scapegoat," said Miller, who, although a fellow Democrat, has had a frosty relationship with Glendening for years. "There is just so much money in the kitty and very little of it is going to trickle down to Prince George's County."
Glendening, who takes office Dec. 6, has carefully avoided an official commitment to the sales tax increase, one of several revenue proposals now under study by a citizens task force, which is due to make its recommendations on Dec. 3. But Glendening says he believes that a 1-cent addition to the sales tax in Prince George's is the "best alternative" to help offset a projected $32 million deficit in the county budget in the next fiscal year.
One official familiar with Glendening's discussions with state officials about a sales tax increase said even though most people believe the measure is doomed before it gets started, Glendening is obliged to push for it.
"Politically, Parris has to make the effort this session so that he can say 'I tried, I didn't make it this year, and I have no choice but to lay off 600 to 800 people,' " the official said.
While Glendening would like to make an all-out effort for passage of the sales tax -- provided he gets a green light from his task force -- other sources of additional revenue for the county are also under consideration, although they would not raise nearly as much money as the sales tax increase.
Those other sources include an increase in the "piggy-back income tax," which currently allows the county government to collect an additional 50 percent of state income-tax bills; an increase in certain local fees like home transfer and water-hookup charges, and an adjustment in state aid formulas in areas such as education and law enforcement.
When he won the county executive job on Nov. 2, Glendening was also handed a defeat when county voters refused to adjust even slightly the ceiling on property tax revenue, called TRIM, which could have generated $8 million in extra revenue next year.
One of the most restrictive limitations of its kind in the country, the 1978-passed TRIM initiative limits the county to collecting $143 million through its property tax -- the level collected in 1979.
If the task force endorses the sales-tax increase, Glendening said he intends to use the same momentum he generated during his election campaign to organize a committee, joined in by state legislators, to lobby throughout Maryland for approval of a 1 percent "local option" increase in the sales tax. That would allow Prince George's, and any other county in Maryland, to increase the sales tax within its jurisdiction from 5 to 6 percent.
Glendening said he will look for political support not only from Prince George's but from other jurisdictions that might want to take advantage of the sales tax as an extra source of revenue. Glendening said in interviews that he met twice before the general election with Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and received a favorable response to the proposal for a sales tax increase.
But members of the Prince George's delegation to Annapolis have complained that the new county executive ignored an elementary lesson in local politics: Don't go public with problems and then present a resolution to the legislators without talking to them first.
"He kind of put the monkey on our back," said Del. Lorraine M. Sheehan, a Democrat from Bowie who said Glendening should have "laid more groundwork" with the legislators before he passed on his problems.
Some of Glendening's aides have since advised him to couple his campaign for help with a firm promise to work closely with local legislators in seeking a solution to the county's financial squeeze. Glendening says he has deliberately avoided discussions with legislators on specific revenue sources until he has the recommendations from his task force.
"I intend to work cooperatively with every individual involved. If anyone feels miffed simply because I didn't call them at a certain [point] in the agenda of things then I apologize to them, publicly, privately, whatever they want," Glendening said this week.
"I'm concerned about maintaining the quality of life" in Prince George's, said Glendening, adding he hoped his effort would not get bogged down by "petty" concerns about who called whom first.
At his first press conference, just six days after he easily won election, Glendening announced that jobs for 600 county employes would be in jeopardy unless something was done about the projected shortfall in the county budget. And he quickly focused his sights on the statehouse, saying Annapolis is where he would seek legislative solutions to the county's financial troubles.
After Glendening's call for more state help, Maloney shot off a memo to all members of the county delegation, noting that Prince George's receives more state aid (close to one-half of the county budget) than any other county in the state.
State Sen. Frank J. Komenda, a Democrat from Oxon Hill, said he was really "quite surprised " at Glendening's announcement that 600 jobs were in jeopardy -- news that Komenda said he and other legislators would have preferred to receive in a "more serene environment" than on the front page of the local paper.
But Glendening said the first stage in his game plan is to make the county's financial problems a point of public discussion. The second step is to evaluate alternative revenue sources.
For now, Glendening says he prefers the sales tax. However, several legislators interviewed doubt the General Assembly will give up a share of the sales tax, which is jealously guarded by the legislature as a revenue source reserved exclusively for the state.
William V. Meyers, cochairman of the Glendening task force studying fiscal and budgetary matters, said in an interview last week that "the indications are right now that the sales tax is probably the most viable source of revenue . . . nothing else is going to fill the bill."
Meyers said that instead of a stop-gap measure, the task force is looking for a source of income that will grow the same way property-tax revenues grew each year until the voters capped property-tax collections at the 1979 level. Glendening estimates that revenues from a 1 cent increase in the sales tax will grow about 8 percent annually, which would keep a close pace with the county's annual budget shortfall.
Miller said the legislative delegation would be ready to deal with the county's financial problems once Glendening has demonstrated that the county budget is "absolutely, positively cut to the bone."
Komenda said he believed legislators from around the state would view the passage of a self-imposed restriction like TRIM, and the subsequent refusal to loosen it, as a message from the county voters that "we don't want more taxes." CAPTION: Picture, Parris Glendening . . . $32 million budget shortfall.