Howard lawmakers kill push for 5% hotel tax


ANNAPOLIS -- The Howard County executive's proposal for a 5 percent hotel tax, which he had hoped would soften the impact of an impending property tax increase, was shot down yesterday at a meeting of the local General Assembly delegation.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker had said the tax on hotel and motel lodgers would raise about $1 million, equivalent to about 2 cents on the property tax rate, currently $2.45 per $100 of assessed value.

Mr. Ecker said recently that he will have to raise property taxes next year even though he intends to cut spending by 10 percent and hold the line on budgets for schools, libraries and the community college. He did not say by how much taxes might increase.

The hotel tax was defeated when two of the county's three state senators voted against it. A local bill has virtually no chance of passage in the General Assembly without the support of both the county's House and Senate delegations.

Sen. Charles H. Smelser and Sen. Thomas M. Yeager, both Democrats, opposed the hotel tax, while Republican Christopher J. McCabe endorsed it.

The tax was supported by four of the county's six delegates -- Republicans Martin G. Madden, John S. Morgan, Robert L. Flanagan and Robert H. Kittleman. It was opposed by Republican Donald B. Elliott and Democrat Virginia M. Thomas.

An amendment by Mr. Madden to place a two-year limitation on the tax failed to get delegation support.

With the exception of Mr. Elliott, the vote split along party lines, with five Republicans lining up behind Mr. Ecker, a fellow member of the GOP.

However, the executive said he did not see the vote as "a Democrat and Republican issue. I am naive, I guess. I think there is a general concern about raising taxes. People are sick and tired of taxes and want government cut back."

But Mr. Flanagan, who chairs the county's House delegation, viewed the vote as a partisan issue.

"My perception is that the Democrats are not particularly sensitive to the fiscal position of the county," he said. "They VTC bequeathed Chuck Ecker the largest deficit in percentage terms in the state, and [then] turn down a proposal that would shift some of the deficit from property [owners] to visitors to the county."

Mr. Yeager said he did not consider it a partisan issue, noting that he had voted against a hotel tax when it was proposed by former Executive Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat. He said he was opposed to adding a tax when there was a downturn in the economy.

"The sentiment of the people are against it," Mr. Yeager said.

Hotel and motel owners also had opposed the proposal, saying they would lose a competitive edge against other jurisdictions. Thirteen of Maryland's 23 jurisdictions have hotel taxes ranging from 3 percent to 10 percent. In the Baltimore-Washington area, only Howard, Harford and Carroll counties lack a hotel tax.

In other action, the county delegation delayed action on Mr. Ecker's request for legislation that would enable the county to levy impact fees on developers to help pay for schools and roads.

The delegation also supported a $250,000 state grant to renovate the Rockland Arts Center in Ellicott City that would be matched by the county. But Mr. Smelser said chances of the grant being approved by the General Assembly are "slim" without private funds to support the venture.

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