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Maryland Senate's revised budget bill would bar use of aircraft for tax assessments

A Senate committee's version of Gov. Larry Hogan's budget would bar the state from using aircraft flights over people's land to assess their value for property tax purposes.

A provision in the budget bill, which is expected to be debated by the full Senate this morning and to receive a final vote in that chamber Friday, includes language inserted by the Budget & Taxation Committee telling the state Department of Assessments and Taxation it may not spend money on such flights.

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The committee cut $2.2 million from Hogan's $42.3 billion budget that would have been used for that purpose.

The provision was one of dozens of tweaks senators made to Hogan's budget, which emerged from the committee mostly intact. The budget bill was approved by the committee unanimously.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the committee chairman, said the assessments agency had already launched a pilot program using aircraft to conduct land tax assessments in Frederick and Anne Arundel counties.

Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents Howard and Baltimore counties, said the Attorney General's Office said that while the department might be able to rely on existing rules to launch the program, it would be better for it to seek legislative permission.

The committee was reluctant to give it such a green light, Kasemeyer said.

"We just think it raises privacy concerns. It definitely raises taxes on people," he said. Kasemeyer said the pilot program showed the drone flights led to higher assessments.

Sen. Andrew Serafini, a Western Maryland Republican, said he could see a fiscal justification for using the technology instead of more costly methods. But he said committee members had some concerns about legal and judicial issues.

"There is a larger issue. How do we protect citizens' rights?" he said.

Matthew A. Clark, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the department was using conventional aircraft and not unmanned "drones." He said there were no plans to switch to unmanned aircraft.

Clark said the governor is generally pleased with the budget bill the Senate will consider, but the spokesman said the administration believes the aircraft program makes sense.

"From our point of view, the program will let the department do their job better," he said.

The department conducts assessments of homes and other real property to determine how valuable they are for purposes of computing property taxes, most of which go to local governments.

Clark said most of the photos being taken are images the state is already gathering for other purposes.

A committee of the House of Delegates is proposing to drop the Senate's provision cutting the funds. It would allow the spending if a bill authorizing such assessments passes. However, that appears unlikely because the Senate has also given preliminary approval to a separate bill banning the practice.

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