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Prince George's Caps Taxes Even Tighter

By Terry M. Neal and Manuel Perez-Rivas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 6, 1996; Page B13

Voters in Prince George's County refused yesterday to repeal a long-standing cap on property taxes and instead overwhelmingly approved a measure that would impose one of the toughest tax limits in the nation.

Wayne K. Curry (D), the Prince George's county executive who had called for the repeal of the tax cap, conceded defeat at the headquarters of the repeal campaign's offices in Largo. "The voters of Prince George's have spoken and spoken emphatically," he said. "They have called for a smaller, leaner government. And that's exactly what they will get."

He later added: "I hear the message. [The voters] think we can do more with less. We will work hard to do so."

Prince George's stood in sharp contrast to Montgomery County, where voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax-restriction measure called Question C. Shortly after the polls closed, activist Robin Ficker conceded defeat of the measure he put forth that would have forced a reduction in either income or property taxes. But Ficker, who has placed 15 ballot measures on the county's ballot, immediately said there is a "good chance" he'll try again to place a tax-cutting measure on the 1998 ballot.

"This year, they [county officials] were all able to gang up on Question C because nobody was running for office. In 1998, they'll all be running, and they'll be more concerned about their reelection than about a ballot question."

Prince George's already had one of the most restrictive tax limits in the region. But last night, ballot Question I, which would require the Prince George's government to seek voter approval for any local tax increase, was leading, 62 percent to 38 percent, with more than 90 percent of the county's precincts reporting. The other tax measure, which would have removed the current cap on county property taxes, was trailing by virtually the same ratio.

The well-financed campaign to overturn the tax cap, known as TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders), started slowly, but it had the support of most county leaders, including Curry. The campaign mounted a last-minute television and radio ad blitz. About 600 volunteers worked the polls in a final effort to sway voters.

The result "shows that individuals still make a difference," said Judy Robinson, honorary co-chairman of TNT (Truth iN Taxation), the group campaigning for the tougher restriction. "In America, that's the way it's supposed to be. The people of Prince George's County are the winners."

Robinson and other activists created TNT this summer around the same time the County Council agreed to put the tax cap repeal question on the ballot. TNT got on the ballot by collecting the 10,000 signatures needed to do so. Robinson and another TNT leader, Robert Callahan of Bowie, also led the successful effort in 1992 to limit the terms of elected county officials.

In defeating the referendum to repeal TRIM, voters sent a strong message to the county's political and business leaders that they were in no mood for tax increases, despite the erosion of some services, particularly the schools. Curry, the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce, many labor unions and other groups had appealed passionately to the electorate to overturn the tax cap.

At Kingsford Elementary School in Mitchellville yesterday, Curry worked shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers spreading his anti-TRIM theme. His message to voters: "Invest in yourself. Don't destroy yourself." Curry ran into Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), the previous county executive, at Largo High School. Glendening said he voted to repeal TRIM and voted against the measure that would require voter approval of all new taxes.

In Montgomery, opponents of the tax-cutting initiative, known as the "Ficker Amendment," visited polling places across the county. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) stopped at more than a dozen to ask voters to defeat the Ficker Amendment.

The Ficker Amendment gave voters the opportunity to order a cut in the county's "piggyback" income tax rate from 60 percent of the state income tax to 56 percent. If county officials failed to cut the county's income tax to that level, the amendment would have triggered a cut in property taxes.

Another measure, Question D, asked Montgomery voters to loosen the County Council's guidelines for increasing the county budget. The vote on that was almost an even split, according to incomplete returns.

The ballot choice in Prince George's was between two even more distinct alternatives on county spending. One measure, Question B, called for the repeal of TRIM, which caps the county government's property tax rate at $2.40 per $100 of assessed value. The other, Question I, asked Prince George's residents to toughen the county tax cap by requiring voter approval for any local tax increase. That measure also would apply to major fees, such as garbage rates.

TNT worked the polls promoting Question I. TNT officials estimate that they had volunteers at 80 percent of the county's 197 precincts. About 100 of those workers were affiliated directly with TNT, with the rest coming from the campaigns of Del. John S. Morgan (R-Howard), the Republican candidate for Congress in the 5th District, and Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), said Tony McConkey, co-chairman of TNT.

Those on both sides of the debate spent the last few days campaigning frenetically, hoping primarily to sway undecided voters. With more than $223,000 raised, the repeal campaign, PRIDE (Prince George's Revenue Initiative Dedicated to Excellence), was the far better financed of the two sides, but many potential leaders waited until late in the campaign to publicly commit themselves to the repeal effort.

PRIDE's leaders said they thought they were seeing a turn in public opinion about two weeks ago, after Curry outlined what he would do next year with a tax increase. Curry said he would increase the property tax rate by 12 cents per $100 of assessed value. He also said he would seek authority from the General Assembly to levy a 10 percent tax on telephone service.

Combined, the two taxes would cost the average household $101 a year, Curry said. The bulk of the $63 million raised for the county's $1.2 billion budget from the tax increases would go to schools and public safety under Curry's plan, which the County Council endorsed five days later.

But many voters interviewed outside the polls said they didn't want to pay any more money in taxes.

William Davis, 47, a self-employed electronics repairman, voted against the repeal of TRIM and in favor of capping all county taxes. Davis has one child in the public schools but said he did not accept the county's argument about the need for more money for schools.

"I personally couldn't believe Wayne Curry would ask me if I would raise my taxes," said Davis, who lives in Clinton. "I pay enough taxes already. I personally believe there has to be another way" of raising money.

Bernard Smith, 68, has lived in his home in Clinton 18 years and has grandchildren in the school system. He voted against the repeal of TRIM.

"I don't feel right voting myself new taxes," he said. "That's the bottom line. . . . Right now, I think we have plenty leeway."

In Montgomery, it was the third time in five years that Ficker, who perhaps is best known for his heckling of visiting teams at Washington Bullets home games, has placed before voters a proposal to cut the income tax rate. The last time, in 1994, a similar measure that called for a deeper tax cut lost by less than 1 percent of the vote.

According to county finance officials, the measure would have meant a tax saving of $90 for a person with a taxable income of $48,000 a year. But the same income tax cut would cost the county $33 million in lost revenue for the county's $2 billion budget.

The trade-off, however, was not enough to convince the county's voters, many of whom expressed doubts about Ficker himself in explaining why they voted against he measure.

"I don't like Robin Ficker. I think he's just bad for Montgomery County," said Robert Scheibert, a clerk for the Government Printing Office who lives in Rockville. "I just didn't see the need for this amendment."

Even Rose Crenca, chairwoman of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, which backed the proposal, said Ficker's name on the amendment probably cost the measure "at least a few points" at the ballot box.

"Unfortunately, this could be interpreted as a mandate for government to spend more money," Crenca said. "But some of us will be watching closely over the next two years. . . . If they stray, we'll be there to rein them in."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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