A bill raising the personal property tax on businesses in Prince George's County--which would raise about $10 million and would avert hundreds of layoffs there--received preliminary approval in the House of Delegates today, but an amendment was attached to it that Prince George's legislators say will probably kill it.
The bill, which has bounced around the House all week as the object of heavy vote trading, can no longer be amended in the House, where it comes up for a final vote Monday. It must go to the Senate, and delegates say it is unlikely it will pass.
Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening has said he would prefer that the bill die if the amendment remains. The county needs $7.9 million from the legislature to avoid laying off 412 county employes, including teachers, firefighters and police officers, he said yesterday, and $16 million to avoid service cutbacks.
Prince George's last-ditch effort to get the tax bill passed without any amendments began this morning as House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, at the request of county legislators, called members of the Ways and Means Committee off the floor and asked them to strip two amendments placed on the bill in committee.
One amendment would have taken away any authority by the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City to impose this tax in the future. Committee members were willing to kill that amendment. The second amendment, which proved to be the sticking point, says that any utility rate hikes caused by the new tax will only affect Prince George's.
Montgomery County delegates had insisted on the amendment to avoid any increase in their county's utility taxes. Utility companies have said they will pass any tax increase on to consumers, and they normally raise rates regionally, not by county, so the utility rates of Montgomery consumers would increase if Prince George's raises its personal property tax rates for businesses.
In spite of Cardin's request, the committee voted 14 to 10 this afternoon to leave the amendment on the bill, largely because of the ardent requests of Montgomery County.
"With that amendment on there, we'll probably have to kill the bill," said Prince George's Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller. "We need this money but we can't start passing bad pieces of legislation to get it."
When Cardin asked for the amendment to be killed, the four Montgomery delegates on the committee reacted angrily. "We agreed to go along with this bill with the proviso that Prince George's County would pay any difference in utility rates," said Del. Ida G. Ruben, the Montgomery delegation chairman. "If you take off this amendment, you are jeopardizing the bill."
At that point, the impromptu committee meeting dissolved into an argument between Prince George's and Montgomery legislators. Cardin stopped the debate, saying, "Let's remember that Prince Georgians are Marylanders and they need help here."
During the rest of the morning session, Cardin worked the House floor on behalf of Prince George's trying to round up votes to kill the amendment. He failed. "I got involved because I felt badly about not giving Prince George's more help with their problems earlier," Cardin said.
After the Ways and Means vote, delegation chairman Charles J. Ryan decided to move the bill, even with the amendment.
"If we don't get the bill moved to the Senate at the beginning of next week they won't have any time to work it," he said. "We did everything we could to get a clean bill" without amendments.
"It will be tough to do anything in the Senate," Miller said after tonight's House vote giving preliminary approval to the measure.
He said he has Montgomery senators lined up to vote for a new state lottery game that would bring Prince George's County about $6 million, and if Prince George's delegates brought pressure to take off the "killer" amendment on the tax bill, Montgomery senators might renege on their agreement to vote for the lottery.