Prince George’s County’s enduring prohibition on raising property taxes, or TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders), has survived for more than three decades — despite many efforts by politicians to nullify it. Elected officials who believed the cap bankrupt’s the growth potential of the Washington suburb have won a few victories over the years in changing the terms. But voters have consistently reaffirmed the core principle at the ballot box: keep government small and do more with less. Most recently, a 2012 state law seems to have given County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and the County Council power to raise taxes above the limit for the sake of education — something he plans to exercise with his FY 2016 budget. Is TRIM dead?
Here are 10 things to know about the much-maligned and enduring government charter rule:
- TRIM came into existence in the late 1970s after California’s Proposition 13, which rolled back and froze property taxes, triggered anti-property tax sentiment across the country. Taxpayer rage over the way public officials used public money swelled just as Ronald Reagan made his ascent to the White House. In Prince George’s, Larry Hogan Sr. (yes, the father of the current Maryland governor), was elected in 1978 on an anti-tax message. He would be the last Republican to serve as county executive.
- Before TRIM came to voters, Prince George’s had been transforming from a rural outpost to a suburban refuge for less-affluent whites from Southeast Washington. The transformation sparked unrestrained and unorganized development across the county that became expensive to maintain. Allegations of corruption surfaced, and scandals over the zoning process erupted. The aftermath sent a county commissioner, the head of the planning commission and several developers to prison — fueling anti-government feelings that persist to this day.
- It was Maryland Democratic state senator William J. Goodman who wrote the referendum that gave birth to TRIM, because he believed Prince George’s was over-taxed. Along with former state delegate David Bird (D), Goldman assembled a team to fight for capping property taxes at the level collected in 1979.
- Originally, the tax cap froze the dollar amount of property taxes — not the tax rate. In other words, Prince George’s government could not collect in property tax more than the amount of revenue raised in 1979 (irrespective of inflation and home values): $143.9 million.
- Prince George’s entered another growth spurt, and, by 1984, thousands of new residents had settled there. Two years into his first term, then-county executive Parris Glendening (D) said he was frustrated by budget deficits and constrained by the tax cap. The county needed revenue, he said, but had few, if any, options. Glendening convinced residents to remove the revenue ceiling, modifying TRIM so that the total amount collected could increase if property values escalated and the tax base expanded.
- As a result of Glendening’s media blitz campaign, called “Freeze the tax rate,” the County Council was authorized to levy taxes on 40 percent of the value of real property at a rate of $2.40 for each $100 of assessed value. Revenues increased by about $6 million to $8 million.
- Proponents and opponents of the tax cap have persistently fought to defend and destroy the measure in court. In 1991, the courts allowed Prince George’s government to bypass the limit and raise the rate to cover a budget shortfall and pay off pre-TRIM debt obligations.
- Some politicians avoided the intense debate over TRIM altogether — especially if they had more conservative constituencies — but were finding it increasingly difficult to fund government services, such as schools. Other special taxes were created, and some costs shifted to the state and agencies, such as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which were exempt from caps.
- Prince George’s first black county executive, Wayne K. Curry, declared the county had outgrown TRIM. Upper-class and middle-income African Americans from Mitchellville and Lake Arbor largely and quietly led a well-financed repeal effort. They thought more money would improve schools where the majority of students were black. But Hyattsville activist Judy Robinson fought back in 1996 with her Truth iN Taxation organization, and voters — black and white — overwhelmingly upheld TRIM. Curry conceded defeat: “The voters of Prince George’s have spoken … they have called for a smaller, leaner government. And that’s exactly what they will get.”
- Under a new computation model that assesses value at 100 percent rather than at 40 percent, the tax cap became 96 cents per $100 of assessed value in 2001. It has stood, unchanged, ever since.
The current debate over TRIM mirrors those of the past. It’s a conversation about government spending, mistrust and keeping up with the neighbors, such as Montgomery and Fairfax counties. In an interview, former delegate Bird, who now lives in Howard County, said he was chagrined to see Prince George’s cap in danger again: “It remains one of the few checks the public has on government. It would be a shame if you don’t let voters decide.” But to Glendening and other elected officials trying to balance Prince George’s annual budget, TRIM is one of many reasons the county struggled to make progress improving schools and attracting sought-after businesses.
>>> Washington Post