Delegation tables transfer tax proposal


Chances of increases in Howard County income and/or property taxes grew yesterday with the death of a proposal from County Executive James N. Robey to increase the county's real estate transfer tax to raise $215 million for school construction.

Members of the county's state legislative delegation -- including all three county senators and four delegates -- voted in Annapolis to table the proposal without considering its substance, which avoided a direct vote against money for county schools.

The move appears to leave county officials the choice of raising other local taxes or building fewer schools.

Robey was away yesterday and unavailable for comment. County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who attended the Annapolis meeting, said, "I was always prepared to do what we need to do [to build schools]. I was ready to do it before, and I'm ready to do it now because this has to be done."

Several legislators said privately that the move to table, which was suggested by Democratic Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, was an attempt to prevent Robey the embarrassment of a direct defeat by the county's 11 legislators. But Robey spokeswoman Victoria Goodman said the executive wanted a direct up or down vote on the tax bill.

Robey said last week that he refused to withdraw the measure despite fatal opposition because "they [legislators] need to be held accountable."

However, Del. Frank S. Turner, the House delegation's chairman, said tabling the bill ends the debate for this year, at least.

"The issue, for all intents and purposes, is dead," said Turner, a Democrat and Robey supporter. He and Dels. James E. Malone Jr., and Neil F. Quinter, both Democrats, were the only ones opposed to tabling the bill.

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, also a Democrat, was absent.

After the vote, Howard real estate brokers who had opposed the plan to increase the real estate transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent appeared happy. The proposal would have raised the cost of buying a home at settlement.

"We're going to sell houses," said Melvina Brown, a board member of the Howard County Association of Realtors, the only organized opponent of the plan.

"It was a victory for the homeowners, not the Realtors," she told Turner after the meeting. If Robey's bill had been approved, it would have increased the cost of buying a $250,000 home by $1,250, split between buyer and seller.

The school board's reaction was different.

"I was hoping they would vote to enable the County Council to raise the transfer tax," Chairman Sandra H. French said. "The result [of the vote] is that on Monday, we'll pass on a capital budget we know we'll have to cut in May."

Kasemeyer, who issued a written statement last week advocating paying for schools with revenues from broader taxes instead of a narrow levy affecting only home sales, said his move to table the bill was made "in hopes that in the near term, we can get together" and find a "new approach" to funding school construction.

Although motions to table a bill normally preclude discussion, Quinter spoke in support of Robey's idea, saying that all legislators have crowded schools in their districts and something must be done to provide relief.

"I don't want to have an increase in the income tax to pay for this," Quinter said. "I don't want to have an increase in the property tax to pay for this. Those taxes are going to hurt."

The transfer tax increase "is the least painful way" to get money for school construction, he said. "We should bite the bullet and do it."

Republican Del. Robert L. Flanagan, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s nominee for state secretary of transportation, said, "Obviously this, or something like this, is likely to come up again."

To deal with all-day kindergarten, which Howard officials say will require 80 new classrooms by 2007, he suggested using privately owned day care or preschool programs to help satisfy the state requirement..

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