The Maryland House of Delegates today approved legislation that would strip the Burning Tree Club in Montgomery County of its property tax exemption because it discriminates against women.
The House voted 77 to 38 in favor of the bill, in a tense atmosphere created by days of backroom bargaining that continued until the moment the vote was recorded. The margin was not nearly as lopsided as it appeared since 71 votes were required for passage.
Many delegates, not wanting to vote against the bill, simply "took a walk," as they call it, failing to vote at all. That is the same as a no vote when a constitutional majority of 71 is required.
The bill, which would strip all-male groups such as the Elks and Moose of their tax exemptions as well as Burning Tree, now goes to the Senate, where another fight is expected.
Specifically the bill, if passed, would provide that any club or organization in Montgomery County that discriminates on the basis of race, creed, sex or color would lose tax exemptions. Currently, Burning Tree--located on River Road in Bethesda--pays $13,609 in property taxes, according to county property records. Without the exemption the property, assessed at slightly over $5 million, would have a property tax bill of $165,609.
Burning Tree, the only all-male golf club in the Washington area, has 600 members, an initiation fee of $12,000 and annual dues of $1,700. Its members have included Supreme Court justices and former U.S. presidents.
Employes and officials at Burning Tree declined to comment on today's legislation. Since the question of stripping the club of its exemption first became an issue here three years ago, club officials have refused to even look into the possibility of building women's facilities. It was that failure that caused Montgomery County's senators to reverse an earlier position and vote favorably on the measure last month. Since the proposal is a local bill only, their support is key to the bill's passage.
The bill passed today after proponents stalled long enough to do some desperate last-second lobbying because it was clear there were not 71 votes for the bill. At the last second, support came from several members of the Prince George's delegation, who are looking for Montgomery's legislators to help them with a bill they want establishing a new lottery game.
"They were sending us a message," said Del. Mary Boergers (D-Montgomery). "They were trying to tell us that we can't get anything done around here without them."
One of those who took a walk on the antidiscrimination bill was Del. Dennis C. McCoy, chairman of the Baltimore city delegation. When the bill was being considered previously by the House Ways and Means Committee, McCoy tried to amend it to make it a statewide bill, saying, "I think discrimination is wrong everywhere, not just in Montgomery County."
Proponents of the bill accused McCoy of trying to kill the bill by making it statewide, a charge he angrily denied. Today, McCoy said he failed to vote because, "I had some structural problems with the bill. If my vote had been needed, I would have voted for it but it wasn't."
Many delegates had been heavily lobbied, not only by other delegates, but by phone calls from back home. As a result, some were conveniently off the floor when the vote came up. Finally, Del. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), chairman of the county delegation, rose to say that delegates should treat this bill as they treat other so-called "local courtesy bills," and go along with the wishes of the local legislators.
Other proponents followed, saying this was "a vote against discrimination." Still, it was not until Prince George's delegates put up their votes at the last second that the bill went over the top.
"We voted for the bill because we're against discrimination," said Prince George's chairman Charles J. Ryan. "But I did point out to the Montgomery County chairman that they had 77 votes on the bill and 20 of them came from Prince George's. I told her I hoped they would be disposed toward voting for the lottery bill ."
The antidiscrimination bill now goes to the Senate Budget and Tax Committee. Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery) the bill's sponsor, believes he has six solid votes in the committee. He needs seven.
"This thing is a moving target," Bainum said, "But we ducked another bullet today."