It's not about Ficker
Reeling from skyrocketing real estate assessments while heading into a severe recession, Montgomery County residents voted for a tax-limit referendum in the 1990 elections. But in typical Montgomery County fashion it was a very civil, mild-mannered and socially acceptable tax revolt, not like TRIM, next door Price George County's total ban on property tax hikes.
And Montgomery's 1990 "Fairness in Taxation" (FIT) wasn't led by referendum enthusiast Robin Ficker. It was an ad hoc movement of angry Chevy Chase homeowners led by Bob Denny, a retired author, and supported by Neal Potter, a 20-year County Council veteran who announced his retirement and then challenged and defeated County Executive Sid Kramer.
The FIT amendment, Question F, simply said that when the County Council intended to increase spending by raising the property tax rate beyond the current inflation rate a supermajority (seven of nine County Council members) was necessary instead of a simple five-vote majority. The usual suspects (county employees, teachers, Washington Post, school board) cried bloody murder but FIT survived several repeal efforts over the years while the County Council only sparingly resorted to the supermajority override. Meanwhile, voters firmly rejected a host of subsequent tax-limit referenda sponsored by Ficker. Some of them might have passed, but Ficker's sponsorship was the kiss of death.
Robin Ficker first broke into county politics back in the 1970s as a liberal Democrat. In 1978, he won his only election, a seat in the House of Delegates. Defeated for re-election, Ficker began a bizarre saga of party switches (from Democrat to Independent to Republican) and unsuccessful election bids (from U.S. Senate to county school board — including congressional races in two different districts). Ficker has a knack for self-promotion; hanging out with Muhammad Ali, heckling visiting teams at Bullets games, the relentless door knocking, the signature-collecting at movie lines. In one election, he circumvented the ban against posting his orange "My Friend Ficker" election signs on utility poles by hanging them 20 feet high on every other pole. We're talking about a guy who, in the dead of night, climbs hundreds and hundreds of utility poles nailing up his lawn signs. Would you vote for this guy's referendum?
Ironically, as Ficker evolved into a regional manic-comic figure he became the tax-limit crowd's biggest problem. The teachers and county employees easily defeated every tax limit by simply calling it "The Ficker Amendment." Yet, no one else had the initiative and energy to go out and collect the thousands of citizen signatures necessary to put tax limits on the ballot.
Montgomery Countians generally look down their noses at tax limits. We believe in big government, we pride ourselves on generous government services and we embrace high taxes as a sign of our willingness to live in a civilized society. Only poor people and Republicans complain about taxes.
No Montgomery politician ever lost an election by raising taxes. In fact, in 2002 we sent Chris Van Hollen to Congress explicitly to repeal the Bush tax cuts even though they benefited us more than anyone else in America. No one's going to shove a tax cut down our throats! Likewise, our State House delegation routinely supplies the winning margin for state tax hikes that take much from Montgomery and return little.
So no one worried about this year's Ficker Amendment, Question B, increasing the council vote necessary to override FIT from a supermajority (seven of nine) to unanimous (nine out of nine). After all, the exact same language, Question A, appeared on the 2004 ballot and lost handily (by 64,335 votes). Surely the same language offered again by Ficker would result in the same outcome, right? Wrong!
On Election Day, Question B won by 5,060 votes, Ficker's first tax limit win in 30 years. Why? Because this year county voters, watching their home values, retirements and jobs disappear, were outraged by an out-of-touch county government. Last year the council overrode FIT to pay 8 percent county employee pay raises while taxpayers paid 13 percent property tax hikes. All this on top of the state's recent $1.3 billion tax increases and a federal investigation into Montgomery County's disability payments scandal.
The federal government can bail out banks and the United Auto Workers by charging it to our grandchildren but, by law, Montgomery must balance its budget. So generous county employee pay raises and passing out tax-free disability payments like candy results in immediate county taxpayer pain. Sure, the council can still override FIT by unanimous vote or resort to other taxes (telephones, energy and commuter parking) if they are politically tone deaf. But even Montgomery's tax-friendly voters have their limits.
The final reason why Question B passed is that a new generation of voters is unfamiliar with the name "Robin Ficker." The kiss of death has lost its punch. On Election Day, when people read the ballot question, it sounded like a tax cut and a way to handcuff council overspending. That was enough. They didn't care about some guy named Ficker.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org