August 21, 2018
Politics & Opinion
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A Tax Break For Some Is A Tax Increase For Most

Councilman Michael Peroutka
Councilman Michael Peroutka's picture
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November 3, 2017

On November 6, the Anne Arundel County Council will consider a bill designed to grant a property tax credit to persons designated as “public safety officers.”

Generally, this means that policemen and firefighters, along with volunteer firefighters, will be eligible to have their property taxes reduced by up to $2,500.

According to the sponsor of Bill 81-17, it represents a way to thank policemen and firefighters, and is also designed to aid in recruitment and retention.

And since we respect and appreciate the special nature of the work that police and firefighters perform, including some duties that are dangerous by nature, it would seem at first blush that granting these public safety officers a property tax credit is a pretty good idea.

But let’s explore it a little deeper.

I believe there are at least three compelling reasons it is not really such a promising idea.

First, what seems like a tax break is really a tax increase. Under our county’s tax cap formula, the amount of the tax break given to public safety officers will be added to the tax bill of everybody else.

So, a tax break for some is a tax increase for most. This is simply not fair to the vast majority of taxpayers.

Secondly, creating special classes of persons who are eligible for special privileges violates the principle of equality under the law, and it runs in contradiction to the traditional American view of government. Also, human nature is such that treating persons differently based on their status as specialized civil servants will inevitably lead to jealousies, rivalries and discontent.

Indeed, history has demonstrated that the existence of different classes leads to struggles between and among the classes. So, in my view, this tax scheme represents an approach that would probably appeal more to Marx and Engels than it would Adams and Jefferson.

Thirdly, this proposal violates the Constitution of Maryland.

The Maryland Declaration of Rights, at Article 15, requires that all taxes on property or improvements to property must be uniform relative to their class or sub-class designation. This means, for example, that different tax rates can be applied to residential property as opposed to commercial property. But property in the same class, i.e. residential, cannot be taxed at a different rate because of the privileged status of the person who lives there.

Despite these problems, similar (but smaller) tax credit schemes have been adopted by the council in the past. And a recent opinion of the attorney general of Maryland on this subject is hardly helpful. Essentially, the AG has opined that since the Constitution is impossible to follow perfectly (the opinion does not elaborate on this assertion), his office will look the other way so long as the lawless scheme doesn’t cost too much or doesn’t last too long. No kidding.

With all due respect to the sponsor and to the laudable goal of appreciating and retaining capable and qualified peacekeeping and fire safety personnel, my preference would be to follow the Constitution and not to engage in this side-door approach to recompensing public safety officers.

If we believe them (or anyone else) to be undercompensated, then let’s budget them a pay raise, take a vote, and let the entire process be direct and transparent.

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