Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the effect of the term limit ballot question approved in Montgomery County. The corrected version is below.
Voters rebuffed the political establishment in the area’s two largest suburban counties Tuesday by rejecting a meals tax in Fairfax County and adopting term limits in Montgomery County.
In Prince George’s County, voters endorsed a measure favored by most of their elected leaders in adding two at-large seats to the County Council. That expands the body from nine members to 11.
Separately, a proposed anti-union amendment to the Virginia state constitution was defeated.
The results in the Fairfax and Montgomery ballot measures indicated that the sour, anti-incumbent mood evident in much of the presidential race had an effect at the local level.
The defeat in Fairfax County of the proposed 4 percent tax on restaurant meals and prepared foods marked the third time in the past 24 years that county voters said no when asked to approve a tax increase by direct, popular vote.
A large majority of the Democratic-dominated Board of Supervisors favored the measure. They said the revenue was needed to support the county’s well-regarded school system.
But opponents, led by restaurant groups and Chambers of Commerce, said it was too soon to raise taxes after Fairfax County adopted a $100 million real estate tax increase earlier this year. They also said the county should spend its money more wisely, rather than ask taxpayers to contribute more.
Voters sent a message to politicians “that they need to keep their hands out of our wallets and spend more responsibly,” Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), who supported the tax, said grass-roots resistance was too strong.
“Asking the voters to tax themselves, or increase taxes, is a hard sell,” Bulova said. “It means we soldier on and do the best we can with the revenue we have.”
Critics faulted the tax in part because it would be added to the existing 6 percent sales tax and because it would apply to ready-to-eat food sold at convenience stores or coffee shops.
“They jumped the shark by including too much stuff,” said Bonnie Arthur, a McLean lawyer who voted against the measure. “It hurts poor people. It hurts working mothers.”
Fairfax voters rejected a similar meals tax proposal in 1992. They also voted no in a 2002 referendum on increasing taxes to improve transportation.
Across the Potomac, Montgomery County easily passed a measure that will limit the county executive and County Council members to three four-year terms or partial terms.
(It also passed a related measure that says if a member is appointed to fill a vacant seat, the term limit is three full terms and two years.)
It was a significant reversal for Montgomery, which rejected term limits in 2000 and 2004.
All of the terms-limits efforts were inspired by well-known Republican anti-tax activist Robin Ficker, whose initiatives usually have come up short.
Term limits succeeded this time because many Democrats and independents joined the bid out of frustration with the council over issues such as development and a nearly 9 percent property tax increase in the spring.
Bobby Lipman, an activist in Bethesda, said people opposed to overdevelopment in his neighborhood united with similar-minded voters in Damascus and elsewhere in the county.
“Term limits are a way to send a message to council members that they should no longer give favors to developers and ignore the wishes of the people who live in the community,” Lipman said.
Opponents said term limits are bad public policy, because they prevent voters from retaining effective legislators with institutional memory.
But supporters said it was too easy for incumbents to stay in power in Montgomery County. Four of the nine County Council members have served three full terms, as has County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).
“The government isn’t meant to be a job you have until your old-age pension kicks in,” Rebecca Queen of Potomac said. “If you want your government to succeed, you need to get some new blood in there.”
Many supporters of term limits also were unhappy with the council for voting to raise council members’ salaries to more than $130,000 by the end of 2017.
Prince George’s voters agreed to add two at-large members to the County Council in a move that supporters said would push the body to focus more on what’s best for the county as a whole.
Under the current system, the nine members are often faulted for concerning themselves only with the narrow interests of their own geographic districts.
The change “will provide a county wide perspective in policy and funding,” said David Harrington, president of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce. “There will be more balance with the executive branch.”
Supporters also said that the council needs a mix of at-large and district representatives, similar to the model used in Montgomery County and in the District. They said the lack of at-large members gives Prince George’s County less clout than its neighbors on regional bodies, such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Opponents saw the expansion as a mischievous way to evade term limits, which bar council members from serving more than two four-year terms. They complained that some voters were duped into endorsing the measures by sample ballots distributed at polling places that purported to be approved by the Democratic Party. But the party did not take a position on the issue.
Virginia voters rejected an amendment that would enshrine anti-union “right-to-work” policy in the state’s constitution.
The measure fell because of a combination of union grass-roots organizing and because of some conservatives’ preference for letting the issue be decided through the normal legislative process, according to activists on both sides of the issue.
Virginia has been a right-to-work state by statute since 1947. The amendment would have made it far more difficult for future governors and state legislators to repeal the policy.
“It’s very clear that this amendment was unnecessary,” said Gina Maglionico, communications director for the Virginia AFL-CIO. “Instead of playing silly political games with our constitution and working families, elected leaders really need to be focused on the issues affecting our communities, such as funding our schools or investing in infrastructure.”
Right-to-work laws prohibit labor contracts that require employees to belong to unions.
Business groups that support such laws say that they guarantee individuals the freedom to stay out of a union and that they encourage private investment to create jobs.
Unions say that right-to-work laws suppress wages and that they require unions to represent “freeloaders” who do not pay dues.
Right-to-work supporters “want to break unions,” said Cathleen Curtin of Alexandria, who voted no on the amendment. “The unions protect those jobs. The workers need them.”
Voters also approved a constitutional amendment allowing local communities to grant property tax exemptions to widows and widowers of police, firefighters and other emergency-service providers who were killed in the line of duty.