By Adam Pagnucco.
At the national level, the big questions are who will control the presidency and the Congress. At the county level, the big question is which (if any) of four consequential charter amendments on the ballot will pass. This is an all-consuming question for most of the county’s power players.
What is going to happen?
First, a quick summary of this year’s ballot questions.
Question A: Would freeze the property tax rate but allow a unanimous vote of the council to increase it. Authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson.
See Why Progressives Should Support the Friedson Amendment.
Question B: Would remove the ability of the county council to break the current charter limit on property taxes, thereby capping property tax revenue growth at the rate of inflation. Authored by Robin Ficker.
Question C: Would add 2 district seats to the county council, thereby establishing 7 district seats and 4 at-large seats. Authored by Council Member Evan Glass.
See MoCo Could Use More County Council Districts.
Question D: Would convert the current council’s 5 district seats and 4 at-large seats to 9 district seats. Authored by Nine District for MoCo.
See Don’t Abolish the At-Large County Council Seats, Nine Kings and Queens.
Now to some history. The last time the county was embroiled in a ballot question battle this sweeping was in 2004. In that year, three charter amendments were petitioned to the ballot:
Question A: An anti-tax charter amendment by Robin Ficker removing the ability of the council to exceed the charter limit on property taxes. This amendment was similar to this year’s Question B.
Question B: A term limits amendment by Ficker that was similar to the amendment passed by voters in 2016.
Question C: An amendment to create nine council districts that was identical to this year’s Question D.
At that time, a coalition of business, labor, progressives and elected officials assembled to oppose all of the questions. The group had a simple name: the Vote No Coalition. The Post editorial board also urged a no vote on all three. In the end, the tax cap amendment failed by 59-41%, term limits failed by 52-48% and nine districts failed by 61-39%.
This year, the message isn’t simple because – unlike 2004 – the council placed competing amendments on the ballot. The message from most of the council and many of their supporters is vote for A and C, vote against B and D. The message from many opponents is vote for B and D, vote against A and C.
How many ordinary voters are going to keep track of the alphabet soup? At least the Post has stayed consistent with its message of 16 years ago, urging a no vote on everything.
Another difference between today and 2004 is that the groups are more fractured now. In 2004, labor was a powerful force in the Vote No Coalition. This year, three unions – MCGEO, the fire fighters and the police – gave thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to Nine Districts for MoCo. (MCGEO now insists that they don’t support nine districts.) Developers, a major source of campaign funds in MoCo, are all over the place. The only real commonality with 2004 is that virtually every category of player is united against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B, which has no ballot issue committee advocating on its behalf. Otherwise, the proliferation of competing committees and genuine differences of opinion, especially on council structure, make this year much more complicated than 2004.
In analyzing the questions’ chances of success, let’s first consider the electorate. It’s a presidential general election so the electorate is going to be huge. Four years ago, 483,429 MoCo residents voted in the general. This year, that number will probably be more than 500,000. A huge majority of them are voting primarily for president. A huge majority of them know little or nothing about county tax policy or the structure of the county council. No group has the resources to communicate with all of them.
It’s a crapshoot, folks.
Aggravating all of this is the complicated nature of the questions themselves. Question A, for example, is 148 words long and reads like it was drafted by a lawyer or a tax accountant. Do most voters have strong opinions on whether capping a tax rate or an increase in total receipts is an inherently better approach? As for the council questions, do most voters have strong opinions on which legislative structures are better? Politicians and advocates have strong opinions on all of the above but they won’t be deciding the outcome. A half million voters who know little or nothing about any of this will.
Despite all of the activities by the ballot issue committees, the two things most likely to be seen by voters are the ballot language itself and the recommendations of the county Democratic Party, which were mailed to all households with at least one Democrat in them. Question D’s ballot language, which tells voters it will reduce the number of council members they can vote for from five to one, is a huge problem for nine districts supporters and may have played a part in killing nine districts in 2004. As for the Democrats’ recommendations (supporting A and C, opposing B and D), it’s natural for Democrats – who historically comprise a big majority of MoCo general election voters – to seek guidance from their party on questions with which they aren’t familiar. Here on Seventh State, this post on the Democrats’ position was the runaway most-read post in October. Then again, the Democratic Party opposed term limits four years ago and it was passed with 70% of the vote anyway.
Finally, what happens if conflicting questions pass? That outcome can’t be dismissed, especially if voters have problems even understanding the questions. Since 2002, MoCo voters have approved 81% of all county questions that have appeared on the ballot. A state attorney general opinion from 2002 speculates that courts will reject directly conflicting questions passed by voters, although the opinion states, “The Courts in Maryland have not addressed the issue of which of two conflicting charter amendments would prevail if both received a majority vote in an election.” It’s not clear that the courts have resolved this question since then. So what happens if both A and B pass, or if both C and D pass? Will the courts reject both or impose whichever of them gets more votes?
Again, it’s a crapshoot.
Regardless of what passes and what doesn’t, we all have to ask ourselves this.
Is a crapshoot any way to run a government?