ANNAPOLIS – As the legislative session comes to a close, a senator’s bill to prevent tax hikes proposed by Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III continues to run out of time. County residents opposing Baker’s proposed tax hikes attended a public hearing Wednesday calling on legislators to help them preserve their trust in elected […]
ANNAPOLIS – As the legislative session comes to a close, a senator’s bill to prevent tax hikes proposed by Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III continues to run out of time.
County residents opposing Baker’s proposed tax hikes attended a public hearing Wednesday calling on legislators to help them preserve their trust in elected officials.
The hearing, conducted by the Senate’s budget and taxation, focused on Senate bill 939, proposed by Senator C. Anthony Muse in response to Baker’s proposal to raise property taxes above the county charter limit in order to fund increased spending for the school system.
Muse’s bill would enforce the cap on property tax increases unless the school system cannot fund its maintenance of effort (MOE) requirement.
The county must find a way to generate revenue without working around a cap on property taxes created by an initiative, the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders (TRIM). The tax cap exists in the county’s charter mandating that any proposed property tax increase be approved by citizen vote, Muse said.
“What I did was craft a bill with what I think is a win-win situation,” Muse said. “All of us, including the county executive, campaigned on the promise that we would not overturn TRIM. The citizens would have to do that. So my word is on the line with everyone else’s.”
Baker has proposed increasing the property tax rate from 96 cents per $100 of assessable value to $1.11 per $100. According to Baker’s proposed budget, a law passed by the Senate in 2012 allows “the County’s property tax rate to be set higher than the rate authorized under the County’s charter,” so long as the additional revenues is used to fund the Board of Education’s proposed budget.
Muse’s bill would close the loophole because, he said, legislators implemented the original law with the purpose of helping school system’s fund their per-pupil spending.
“I think it is a win-win. I think it is a compromise bill,” Muse said. “I’m aware that education is a top priority, and this bill is not against our need to fund education. I’m here to speak on behalf of our struggling Prince George’s County residents who are leaving our county.”
Aisha Braveboy, a former state delegate who testified in support of Muse’s bill, said she remembered the conversations the legislature had when they passed Senate bill 848. Legislators wanted to give jurisdictions the ability to “afford to pay” education costs if needed, she said, and keep counties out of jeopardy of losing other state funding because of an inability to meet MOE requirements. Senate bill 939 represents what legislators actually thought they were doing in 2012, she said.
“That is why many of us supported the legislation–not because we wanted to give a blank check and an open purse to the county executive and council,” Braveboy said. “We wanted to ensure that the county would not risk losing funds because they could not meet maintenance of effort.”
No one thought a county executive would raise taxes to the level Baker has proposed, Braveboy said.
People in Prince George’s County pay their “fair share,” Muse said. Legislators need to keep the promises they made, he said, which included not increasing the tax burden on county residents.
“It’s about those of us who are elected officials keeping our word. No one here is being disingenuous, but appearance means a lot,” Muse said. “Most of us said we will not deal with TRIM and we will not circumvent it, and now we have before us a budget that raises property taxes 15 percent, or 15 cent, without our citizen’s input.”
Wilbert Wilson, a 40 year resident of Prince George’s County, said Baker has lost his trust because of the proposed tax hike.
“The sixth (county executive) that I supported, Mr. Baker, has really lost my trust,” Wilson said.
Racism and police brutality were issues when Baker got elected, Wilson said, as well as the school system’s performance. However, he said the issues continue today and money will not solve the problem.
“Today after 12 superintendents of schools in our county, the same problems have occurred over and over and over again,” Wilson said. “It’s not the educational system and it’s not the teachers. The problem is that every superintendent that comes into the county asks for more money. And the problem is there are sneaky politics that are going on in Prince George’s County.”
Wilson said Baker seems to have built his budget specifically to navigate around TRIM and raise taxes. Legislators in Annapolis have a responsibility to uphold TRIM, Wilson said, and keep the proposed tax raises from happening.
“If you don’t live in a particular area you say, ‘That’s not my responsibility’. And I say the hell with that—it is your responsibility’,” Wilson said. “Prince George’s County is supposed to be the mecca for black citizenship. We worked for it to become the number one county for the world as far as blacks go. It’s not a racial statement it’s a real statement: You are a part of Prince George’s County as I am.”
The proposed tax hikes are unsustainable, Braveboy said, and citizens will leave.
“If we set the bar that high, we’re not allowing for any room of any type of downturn that may occur in the economy,” Braveboy said. “We’re at that limit.”
If an economic downturn does happen and the county cannot meet MOE, Braveboy said it may be in a position where it will need to raise property taxes once again.
Joyce Thorpe, a resident of Prince George’s County, said government officials are “once again” calling upon residents to save the school system. If the property taxes and other county taxes are raised, Thorpe said, residents will leave and find a home elsewhere.
“You are going to lose residents like me because I’m leaving,” Thorpe said.
Robert Rankin, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Education Association, said the teachers’ union supports Baker’s proposed budget because of the need to meet MOE.
In the past, Rankin said, school systems have come to the Senate asking for more funding in order to meet MOE spending requirements and taking a stance of not going over MOE funding.
Prince George’s County does not want to just “tread water” anymore, Rankin said.
According to the proposed budget, teacher retention will be a major focus for the county. In the past, teachers moved to other jurisdictions offering more money after receiving training in Prince George’s County.
Now, according to the budget, there will be a $21 million fund focused on teacher retention. Other funds will be issued to the school system for electronic testing training and improvement for students, expanding Pre-Kindergarten to more elementary schools and expanding college and career academies to all high schools, Rankin said.
“There have been suggestions made that maybe counties need to take a hard look to do more to help themselves,” Rankin said. “That’s what we have here today….Prince George’s County wants to do more. The school board wants to do more. The County Executive wants to do more. They don’t want to just tread water.”
Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the county executive’s office, said Baker will move forward in his efforts to fund and advance the school system.
“We continue to move forward and share the merits of this important investment in our school, our children and our county,” Peterson said.
The Senate committee has yet to vote on Muse’s bill, said Alisha Frye, an aid in Muse’s office. The General Assembly’s legislative session ends on the April 13, Frye said, but the senator does not know what day a vote on his bill could potentially take place.
With Maryland’s legislation session ending at 12:01 a.m. on April 13, Governor Larry Hogan has granted an extension for the session, but only the bills may be discussed.