Council rejects Ficker tax-cut amendment

7-0 decision turned on a change in state law

Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006

The latest tax-limiting measure petitioned to the ballot by activist and county executive candidate Robin Ficker does not qualify to go before voters in November, seven County Council members decided Tuesday.

Taking a break from its summer recess to consider the matter, the council reviewed petition materials and the question text and agreed 7-0 that Ficker’s petition did not meet standards for questions amending the county’s charter.

One issue is whether the intent statement circulated with the petition reflected what the measure would do if voters approved it. It is misleading at best, council members said.

While the stated intent is to require the council to reduce property taxes by an equivalent revenue amount whenever it raises county income tax above 50 percent of the state income tax (while allowing for budget increases driven by inflation and growth), the effect is unclear.

The main reason for the confusion is that state law changed in 1999 so that county income taxes are no longer calculated as a percentage of state income tax, but instead as a percentage of state taxable income.

‘‘I think we have an obligation to ensure that the charter is as clear as possible ... I think we have an obligation to keep it off the ballot rather than have an electoral process, followed by a year of judicial wrangling,” said Councilman Michael L. Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg.

Howard A. Denis (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase agreed. ‘‘What we have before is yet another mixed-up, messed-up Ficker amendment” that would require a ‘‘massive education” effort, he said.

County Attorney Mark Hanson advised the council, as he said his office did in 1994 when Ficker offered a similar measure, that the question should be rejected because it tries to take away authority given to the council by state law. Ficker’s proposal would have allowed the tax restriction to be overridden only by a unanimous vote.

But the council’s staff attorney, Michael Faden, said Ficker proposal ‘‘is arguably contrary to state law [but] enough in a gray area [that] our advice is you give the benefit of the doubt to the voters who have signed the petition.”

Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said it is hard not to give the benefit of the doubt to voters if 10,000 of them, as is required to put a measure on the ballot, signed the petition. But he voted with his colleagues to reject the measure although he and his colleagues agreed not to object to the verification of signatures, which the Board of Elections is yet to complete.

Leventhal also noted that although he and other council members have opposed Ficker’s measures, they also have agreed to put several on the ballot.

Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton and Steven A. Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring, who is running for county executive, were not present on Tuesday.

Ficker, who is running for county executive as an independent, did not attend Tuesday’s session, but said after the vote that he would have to confer with his attorney before commenting or deciding whether to challenge the council’s decision.

Asked whether he knew the state law had changed, Ficker said he did.