THE LAST time a leader in Prince George’s County, Maryland’s second-biggest locality, tried to rescind a property tax cap, in force since the 1970s, voters rejected the move overwhelmingly. Now, 19 years later, another leader, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), is trying an end run around the cap — this time without resorting to the voters — for much the same reason: to generate revenue he says would turn around the county’s struggling schools.
Mr. Baker’s audacious proposal pairs higher taxes — much of it to raise teachers’ salaries — with cuts for other county employees. It deserves a fair hearing. For whatever its political reception, it represents a serious bid to rebrand Prince George’s as something more than a runner-up in the cutthroat regional competition for good teachers, jobs and businesses.
Mr. Baker, who has lifted the county from the mire of scandal and was unopposed for reelection to a second term last fall, acknowledges his scheme is “drastic.” The annual tax bill on a typical house, worth $220,000, would rise by 15 percent, to about $2,500. Levies on hotel rooms and phone calls would also go up. At the same time, some 6,000 public employees, including Mr. Baker, would take week-long unpaid furloughs; 100 workers would be laid off.
The idea is to generate some $136 million in new local funds for the county’s 198 schools, a 21 percent increase from last year’s $630 million contribution. That would break a long stretch of annual increases averaging around 1.5 percent — quite a spike.
At a stroke, county officials say, the cash infusion would lift an average teacher’s salary in Prince George’s, now around $65,000, virtually to parity with the $75,000 a Montgomery County teacher earns. Talented educators would be less likely to defect.
Until a few years ago, Mr. Baker’s scheme would have been legally impossible, given the tax cap adopted by voters in 1978 and ratified again by referendum in 1996. He was able to circumvent it thanks to state legislation enacted three years ago that grants an exception for tax increases earmarked for education.
There may still be legal challenges, to say nothing of political pushback. County council members routinely say their top priority is education but tend to recoil at the idea of major tax increases.
Mr. Baker has now challenged that orthodoxy. “No longer should teachers be tempted to leave for better-paying jobs elsewhere, or parents be moving to better schools or choosing to send their children to private schools,” he said. “That cycle has to stop.”
To be successful, he will need to deploy his powers as a salesman, for the argument he makes involves a conundrum. While so-so schools have impeded the county’s efforts to attract economic development, sky-high tax bills aren’t much of a selling point either. Mr. Baker’s proposal would leave the county’s property tax bills nearly 50 percent higher than Montgomery’s — largely to compensate for the relative scarcity of commercial taxpayers in Prince George’s.
But how else to put the county’s schools, and their 125,000 students, on a level playing field with the competition — and thereby, among other advantages, attract those commercial taxpayers? If council members are inclined to oppose Mr. Baker’s blueprint, they need to answer that question.