- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday said he wants to cut the state property-tax rate and is eager to talk to Democratic legislative leaders about how to do it.

“I continue to be concerned about vulnerable Marylanders, including seniors, being able to stay in their homes while property assessments are rising so dramatically,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said during a speech to the Maryland Realtors Association in Ocean City. “Therefore, I will seek a reduction in the state’s property tax next year.

“I will work with legislative leaders and members of my Cabinet to develop the specifics of this program,” he said. He called the state’s $1.2 billion budget surplus an opportunity to cut the tax.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he would not oppose a property-tax cut.

“I think that you could do that,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat. “For those on fixed incomes, the most regressive taxes are property taxes. And with the escalating assessments on property values, it’s prohibitive on many people to afford the property taxes.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. agreed, but said he needed to know how much a tax cut would cost.

“Is it going to mean increasing health insurance costs for state employees? Is it going to mean less money for open space? Is it going to mean environmental controls are going to be cut?” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s County Democrat. “What happens to the roads that we need to be building?”

Rather than giving an across-the-board cut to all homeowners, Mr. Ehrlich would like to target a bigger share of the tax cut at low-income residents and first-time home buyers, said his communications director, Paul Schurick.

When Mr. Ehrlich took office in 2003, the Board of Public Works approved the governor’s proposal to increase the property-tax rate from 8.4 cents per $100 of the value of a property to 13.2 cents to help close a budget deficit.

According to state law, property taxes are collected to cover the cost of debt service on state bond issues. But previous administrations for years had used the general fund to subsidize a lower property-tax rate.

In April, the Board of Public Works — which consists of Mr. Ehrlich and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, both Democrats — rejected the governor’s proposal to cut the tax rate by a penny per $100 valuation, citing an uncertain economy.

Mr. Schaefer, an ally of Mr. Ehrlich’s, “said we simply cannot afford it right now, and we need to wait at least another year to see what happens,” said Michael Golden, a spokesman for the comptroller.

Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly’s chief budget analyst, said the state could still face deficits over the next several years.

But Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus applauded the proposal.

“I think now is the time,” the Somerset County Republican said. “Anytime we can give the taxpayers relief, we should, especially in this climate of increased gas prices and increased costs.”

The Senate last session opposed a similar 1-cent cut, after House leaders tried to repeal the 2003 rate increase.

Last month, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner warned that the state’s $544 million surplus wasn’t big enough to justify tax cuts or new spending.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, has warned lawmakers that cost increases for already approved programs — including car-tax relief — will push the state’s 2006-08 budget almost $3 billion higher than the 2004-06 budget of $63 billion.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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