Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) on Wednesday proposed a state law that would block an attempt by Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) to raise property taxes for the first time in more than three decades.
Senate Bill 939 would forbid the county’s “governing body” to set a property tax rate higher than limits enshrined in its charter — which means a 1978 voter-imposed cap of $0.96 per $100 of assessed value.
Baker announced this month that he had found a way to circumvent the tax cap, using a 2012 state law that permits full funding of any school spending plan approved by the County Council. He wants to raise property taxes by 15 percent to help fund a $1.9 billion education budget that, he says, would help bring county schools up to par with those in more affluent neighboring jurisdictions.
Muse introduced his bill at the end of Wednesday’s legislative session in the State House. Most bills were submitted weeks ago, at the start of the legislature’s annual 90-day session.
“It would not allow property taxes to be raised indefinitely and in an unlimited way,” Muse said in an interview. “This bill will give citizens a sense of ease that taxes will not go up without restraint.”
Muse, who voted for the 2012 law, said his bill would permit county officials to raise property taxes to meet “maintenance of effort,” the state-mandated base line for local education spending. Baker’s budget request goes $117.5 million above that threshold.
“I think there are other, creative ways to raise the money without raising taxes,” Muse said. For example, he offered, county officials should open a federal grant-writing office.
A spokesman for Baker said the county executive was reviewing Muse’s bill and had no immediate comment.
Baker is searching for a way to generate substantial revenue despite TRIM, the voter-imposed cap that says any property tax increase must be approved by ballot referendum. The county executive, who is starting his second term in office and is prohibited by law from seeking a third, says something must be done to boost county schools if residents want to draw more businesses, residents and investment.
But Muse said the public won’t support a major tax increase.
“We are not going to lift the cap in a way that is antithetical to the intent of TRIM,” Muse said. “I see his [Baker’s] dilemma, but I’m also sensitive to the fact that citizens want TRIM in place.”
The bill faces a number of hurdles: There are only three weeks left for it to be heard and voted on in both chambers. Muse would not say Wednesday whether he had co-sponsors. Muse asked that the bill go directly to the Senate’s budget and taxation committee and receive an expedited hearing.
A pastor who was elected to the Senate in 2006, Muse has often bucked proposals made by fellow Democrats. He voted against income tax increases, early bills legalizing same-sex marriage and congressional redistricting maps put forward by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). He unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin in the Democratic primary in 2012 and has talked about running for county executive.
Before Muse submitted his bill, others members of the Prince George’s state house delegation had shown at least preliminary support for Baker’s revenue-raising efforts. The county executive is expected to brief his Annapolis colleagues later this week.
“I think it’s courageous and I want to find out the details,” House Delegation Chair Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) said in an interview.
Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the Senate president, said it is difficult for local governments that have tax caps to keep up with education costs, which increase every year. “It’s a bold move, especially during these difficult financial times,” Miller said. “I don’t believe he would’ve put such a program forth if he did not have the tacit approval of a majority of the County Council.”
Opponents — a large group of whom live in Muse’s southern Prince George’s district — are skeptical that a proposed cash infusion would yield the desired improvements in student achievement. “I hear this time and time again,” said county Board of Education member Edward Burroughs III (District 8). “People are sick and tired of giving the school system an unlimited piggy bank without receiving a certain level of results.”
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.