May 10, 2010

Howard Republicans want higher bar for tax hikes

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Fearing that the state legislature will grant counties new taxing authority next year, Howard County Republicans are going to try to pass a County Charter amendment making it more difficult for the County Council to approve any tax increases.

The charter amendment would require four out of the five council members to approve raising the property tax and local income tax. The petition for the change would need 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot for voter approval in November before it became law.

Local Republicans believe that the state might allow counties to raise taxes as a way of making up for reductions in local aid.

“We foresee that the legislature will be creating mischief,” said County Council candidate Bob Flanagan, who served as House minority leader before becoming transportation secretary. “There’s a likelihood that state government is going to reduce contributions to local government and add new taxing authority” to make up for the cuts in local funding.

The state has already cut local road funding and police and jail aid.

But Howard County Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, vice chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee as well as co-chair of a special workgroup on local aid, said new local taxes aren’t on the radar. “As chairman of that workgroup, all I can say is there has been no indication in any way of giving counties any additional taxing authority,” he said.

Kasemeyer, the Democratic majority leader and a Columbia resident who also represents southwest Baltimore County, said municipalities have asked for “some additional ability to raise revenue,” but there are no incorporated towns in Howard or Baltimore County.

“There nothing on our agenda,” Kasemeyer said of  the group of 18 senators and delegates appointed by Senate president and House speaker to look at fiscal relationships between the state and local subdivisions. “We’re not sure that there is going to be anything for us to do.”

The Republicans planned to announce the charter petition drive at Tuesday night’s Lincoln Day dinner, although Karen Winterling, president of the Howard County Republican Club and unofficial organizer of “tea parties” in the county, said it would be a bipartisan effort.

She said her group was concerned about “how rising local taxes will affect local businesses.”

The drive was unveiled in a Monday morning conference call with reporters that also included current County Council member Greg Fox and County Council candidate Dennis Schrader, who promised no tax hikes at his announcement last week.

Howard County is currently at the maximum local income tax rate of 3.2%, but Fox said there was “a potential that the cap could be raised” by the legislature.

Flanagan said an attorney was working on the draft language for the amendment and petition that must be submitted to the local election board for approval.

“There has been a very harmful pattern of increasing spending in good times, and raising taxes in bad times,” Flanagan said. “These are very, very bad times that we’re struggling with. We want to discourage that pattern.”

Fox is currently the only Republican on the five-member council, but Flanagan said that could change after November.

“Our plan is to have a Republican majority and Republican county executive,” he said.

Democratic Howard County Council member Courtney Watson, whom Flanagan is challenging, said, “I’m not necessarily opposed to [the charter change],” as she understood it based on information from this reporter.

But she believed the new standard should apply to fees as well as taxes, since Flanagan had backed “historic fee increases” on driver’s licenses and registrations as state transportation secretary, rather than raising taxes.

Watson noted that tax hikes now need the approval of four out of six elected officials — three out of five council members and the county executive.