Tag Archives: Ballot Questions

Winners and Losers of the Ballot Question War

By Adam Pagnucco.

This year, MoCo saw its biggest battle over ballot questions in sixteen years. Most county players lined up on one side or the other and victory has been declared. Who won and who lost?

Winners

Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson
Friedson authored Question A, which liberalized the county’s property tax system to allow receipts to increase with assessments. Wall Street applauded its passage. Even progressives, who don’t love Friedson but owe him big-time for opening up the county’s revenue stream, have to admit that his Question A was the real deal.

Council Member Evan Glass
Glass authored Question C, which added two district council seats and defeated the nine district Question D. Lots of wannabe politicians are going to look at running for the new seats. Every single one of them should kiss Glass’s ring and write a max-out check to his campaign account.

County Democratic Party
It’s not a coincidence that MoCo voters adopted the positions of the county Democratic Party on all four ballot questions. With partisan sentiments running high and information on the questions running low, MoCo Democrats went along with their party and dominated the election.

David Blair
Blair was the number one contributor to the four ballot issue committees that passed Questions A and C and defeated Questions B and D. By himself, Blair accounted for nearly half the money they raised. Whatever Blair decides to do heading into the next election, he can claim to have done as much to pass the county Democrats’ positions on the ballot questions as anyone. (Disclosure: I have done work for Blair’s non-profit but I was not involved in his ballot question activities.)

Ike Leggett
The former county executive was key in leading the fight against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. Thousands of MoCo voters still like, respect and trust Ike Leggett.

Jews United for Justice
While not having the money and manpower of many other groups who played on the questions, Jews United for Justice played a key role in convening the coalition that ultimately won. They have gained a lot of respect from many influencers in MoCo politics.

Facebook
Lord knows how much money they made from all the ballot question ads!

Losers

Robin Ficker
At the beginning of 2020, MoCo had one of the most restrictive property tax charter limits of any county in Maryland. For many years, Ficker was looking to make it even tighter and petitioned Question B to the ballot to convert it into a near-lock on revenues. But his charter amendment provoked Friedson to write Question A, which ultimately passed while Question B failed and will raise much more money than the current system over time. Instead of tightening the current system, the result is a more liberal system that will achieve the opposite of what Ficker wanted – more revenue for the county. This was one of the biggest backfires in all of MoCo political history.

Republicans
The county’s Republican Party did everything they could to pass Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. In particular, they gave both cash and in-kind contributions to Nine Districts and even raised money for the group on their website. In doing so, the GOP provoked a fierce partisan backlash as the county Democrats rose up to take the opposite positions on the ballot questions and most Democratic-leaning groups combined forces to support them. With President Donald Trump apparently defeated, Governor Larry Hogan leaving office in two years and little prospect of success in MoCo awaiting them, where does the county’s Republican Party go from here?

This tweet by MoCo for Question C from a voting location explains all you need to know about why Question D failed.

Political Outsiders
It wasn’t just Republicans who supported the failed Questions B and D; a range of political outsiders supported them too. What they witnessed was a mammoth effort by the Democratic Party, Democratic elected officials and (mostly) progressive interest groups to thwart them. Even the county chamber of commerce and the realtors lined up against them. Whether or not it’s true, this is bound to provoke more talk of a “MoCo Machine.” Machine or not, outsiders have to be wondering how to win when establishment forces combine against them.

Push

MCGEO, Fire Fighters and Police Unions
These three unions are frustrated. They have not been treated the way they expected by the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich and they are also upset with the county council for abrogating their contracts (among other things). They wanted to show that they could impose consequences for messing with them and that was one reason why all three made thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to Nine Districts. On the negative side, the nine districts Question D failed. On the positive side, the passage of Friedson’s Question A will result in a flow of more dollars into the county budget over time, a win for their members. So it’s a push. On to the next election.

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MoCo Ballot Groups Declare Victory

By Adam Pagnucco.

The four ballot issue committees who worked on behalf of Questions A and C and against Questions B and D have issued a joint victory statement. The committees and their affiliated organizations had different focuses on the questions but still coordinated their activities when possible. Their statement is reprinted below.

*****

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

MONTGOMERY COUNTY BALLOT COMMITTEES CELEBRATE SUCCESS AT THE BALLOT BOX

Broad coalition of religious, business, labor, and community groups thanks all the members and partners who worked tirelessly to protect the future of Montgomery County.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, November 5, 2020 — With a shared vision of a better Montgomery County that works for everyone, we successfully took our message to voters about the County ballot questions. Every vote counts and, as our County’s dedicated election workers complete the count, we take a moment to acknowledge the power of our community working together.

In a time when our country is so divided, Montgomery County showed how broad and diverse coalitions can work side by side to address tough issues. Whether it is tax policy or representation, the politics of lifting people up is more powerful than tearing people down. When we believe changes are needed, we are capable of coming together as a community to make it happen. We are confident in the opportunity ahead to build a better and stronger future for all Montgomery County residents.

Signed,

Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B
Press Contact: Daniel Koroma

Montgomery Countians For A & Against B
Press Contact: Scott Goldberg

Residents for More Representation
Press Contact: Marilyn Balcombe

Vote No on B&D
Press Contact: Susan Heltemes

Ballot committee coalition members:
● Baltimore-Washington Laborers’ District Council, LiUNA
● CASA
● CERG 2.0
● Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors(R)
● Jews United for Justice
● LGBTQ Democrats of Montgomery County
● MCGEO – UFCW Local 1994
● MoCoWoMen
● Montgomery Countryside Alliance
● Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce
● Montgomery County Council of PTAs
● Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee
● Montgomery County Democratic Socialists of America
● Montgomery County Education Association
● Montgomery County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
● Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club
● Montgomery County Young Democrats
● Nonprofit Montgomery
● Progressive Maryland
● SEIU Local 500
● Sierra Club
● Takoma Park Mobilization
● The Association of Black Democrats of Montgomery County
● and many other organizations, county leaders, and engaged residents!

#

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Moody’s: Passage of Question A is a “Credit Positive”

By Adam Pagnucco.

Moody’s Investors Service, one of the three major Wall Street bond rating agencies, has released an issuer comment characterizing the passage of Question A as a “credit positive” for Montgomery County. The comment is reprinted below.

*****

Montgomery (County of) MD

Voters amend limits to property tax revenue collections, a credit positive

On November 3, voters in Montgomery County (Aaa stable) approved a charter amendment on property tax limitations which enables the county to raise property tax rates without revenue constraints, a credit positive.

The approved measure (Question A) replaces the existing limit and enables a unanimous vote by County Council to adopt a tax rate on real property that can exceed the rate from the previous year. The amendment is credit positive for county operations because property tax revenue is not subject to any restrictions based on inflation, and revenue growth can be captured through tax base expansion in addition to any approved rate increases. The county’s previous charter limit, a self-imposed tax cap that was enacted in 1990, limited property tax revenue growth to the rate of inflation (CPI index) and an amount based on new construction.

A second charter amendment on the ballot (Question B) was rejected, which aimed to remove the county’s ability to increase revenue above inflation. The failure of the measure is also positive because it enables the county to retain flexibility to increase this revenue source when needed to balance the budget, particularly as its income tax rate is already levied at the maximum state cap of 3.2%. Montgomery County is just one of five counties in Maryland with a charter amendment limiting property tax revenue increases, and the ability to adjust the tax rate accordingly is important, particularly as most of the county’s debt is secured by its limited ad valorem tax and full faith and credit pledge.

Income taxes are the county’s primary general fund revenue source (43.5% of total fiscal 2019 revenue), followed by property taxes (36.6%) and other local taxes (7.8%).

The county demonstrated willingness to override its prior charter limit in May 2016 when it approved a 9.9% increase in property tax revenue to support rising debt service and insurance costs, as well as an increase in the Maintenance of Effort (MOE) for K-12 schools and the community college, mandated by the State of Maryland (Aaa stable). Without the increase, the county faced a $178 million budget gap in fiscal 2017 (ended June 30, 2017).

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How Many More Votes Will be Counted?

By Adam Pagnucco.

As of right now, here is the status of key election results in MoCo.

School Board At-Large: Lynne Harris 53%, Sunil Dasgupta 46%

School Board District 2: Rebecca Smondrowski 60%, Michael Fryar 39%

School Board District 4: Shebra Evans 66%, Steve Solomon 33%

Circuit Court Judge: Bibi Berry 23%, David Boynton 21%, Michael McAuliffe 21%, Christopher Fogleman 20%, Marylin Pierre 14%

Question A (Authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson, freezes property tax rate with unanimous council vote required to exceed): For 62%, Against 38%

Question B (Authored by Robin Ficker, would limit property tax receipt growth to rate of inflation and remove council’s ability to exceed): For 42%, Against 58%

Question C (Authored by Council Member Evan Glass, changes county council structure to 4 at-large seats and 7 district seats): For 61%, Against 39%

Question D (Authored by Nine Districts for MoCo, changes county council structure to 9 district seats): For 42%, Against 58%

You can see the latest results here for school board and judicial races and here for ballot questions.

But all of this is subject to a HUGE caveat: not all the votes have been counted. How many more remain?

Three batches have yet to be counted. First are the remaining election day votes. As of right now, only 3 of 40 election day vote centers in the county have reported 80% or more of their results. At this moment, 6,474 election day votes have been cast for president. That suggests tens of thousands of votes more could come in.

Second are the remaining mail votes. According to the State Board of Elections, MoCo voters requested 378,327 mail ballots. At this moment, 177,628 mail votes have been cast for president. This suggests that roughly 200,000 mail votes are out there. Not all of them will ultimately result in tabulated votes but it’s still a lot.

Third are provisional ballots. How many are out there is not known right now. However, this will be by far the smallest of these three categories and they will make a difference only in tight races.

So let’s put it all together. At this moment, 312,452 total votes for president have been tabulated. (I don’t have an official turnout number, but since the presidential race has the least undervoting, this figure is probably reasonably close to turnout so far.) This suggests – VERY roughly – that 55-60% of the votes have been counted, with the vast majority of outstanding votes coming from mail ballots.

What does that mean for the results above? To determine that, we need to examine how different the election day votes and the mail votes were from the total votes tabulated so far since those two categories are where most of the remaining votes are coming from. And of those two categories, mail votes will be far larger than election day votes.

President

MoCo’s votes for president (as well as Congress) are not in doubt but the differential results by voting mode are suggestive of a pattern affecting other races. Former Vice-President Joe Biden has received 79% of total votes as of this moment. However, he has received 51% of election day votes, 65% of early votes and 90% of mail votes. That illustrates a strong partisan pattern associated with voting, with election day votes most friendly to Republicans and mail votes most friendly to Democrats. Keep that in mind as you proceed to the races below.

Circuit Court Judges

Challenger Marylin Pierre has so far received 14% of early votes, 14% of election day votes, 15% of mail votes and 14% of total votes. Each of the incumbent judges cleared 20% on all of these voting modes. This is a non-partisan race so the partisan pattern noted above has minimal effect here. With little reason to believe that the next batch of mail votes will be different than the mail votes already tabulated, it’s hard to see Pierre pulling ahead.

School Board

The district races are blowouts. Let’s look at the at-large race between Lynne Harris and Sunil Dasgupta. Harris has so far received 53% of early votes, 60% of election day votes, 53% of mail votes and 53% of total votes. These are not big leads but they are fairly consistent. For Dasgupta to pull ahead, he would need to pull at least 55% of the outstanding votes yet to be counted, more than flipping the outcome of the existing votes. Unless the next batch of votes – especially mail – is somehow fundamentally different from what has already been cast, it’s hard to see that happening.

Ballot Questions

There are two things to note here. First, none of these results are close at this moment. Second, while these are technically non-partisan, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party endorsed in opposite directions and both sides worked hard to make their views known. The partisan split seen in the presidential election had an impact on the ballot question results.

First, let’s look at election day voting. Judging by the presidential race, this was the most favorable voting mode for the GOP. Here is how election day voting (so far!) compares to total voting (again, so far).

Question A For Votes: Election day 51%, total 62%
Question B For Votes: Election day 60%, total 42%
Question C For Votes: Election day 52%, total 61%
Question D For Votes: Election day 60%, total 42%

This looks like good news for supporters of Question B (Robin Ficker’s anti-tax question) and Question D (nine districts). After all, there are probably tens of thousands of election day votes yet to be counted.

However, the big majority of outstanding votes are mail ballots. Joe Biden received 90% of mail ballot votes tabulated so far, a sign that Democrats dominated this voting mode. Here is what the mail votes (so far) look like.

Question A For Votes: Mail 68%, total 62%
Question B For Votes: Mail 34%, total 42%
Question C For Votes: Mail 65%, total 61%
Question D For Votes: Mail 33%, total 42%

The mail votes uphold the winning margins of Questions A and C and depress the results for Questions B and D. That’s not a surprise if 1. Democrats voted disproportionately by mail and 2. Democrats stuck with their party’s position on the ballot questions. Indeed, we know here at Seventh State that this post on the Democrats’ statement on the ballot questions got huge site traffic.

As a matter of fact, one could even go so far as to say that once the ballot questions turned partisan, it may have been the beginning of the end.

Plenty of votes remain to be counted so let’s respect that. We may know a lot more by the weekend.

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Early Results on MoCo Races

By Adam Pagnucco.

The first batch of votes on MoCo races has been reported. This is VERY early and VERY incomplete. So far, the reports include only early votes and less than half the mail ballots requested by MoCo voters with no election day votes tabulated. All of that means these races are FAR from decided, folks!

All of that said, here are the earliest results. Bear in mind that the final percentages are going to be different, but how different they will be cannot yet be said.

School Board At-Large: Lynne Harris 53%, Sunil Dasgupta 46%

School Board District 2: Rebecca Smondrowski 60%, Michael Fryar 39%

School Board District 4: Shebra Evans 67%, Steve Solomon 33%

Question A (Authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson, freezes property tax rate with unanimous council vote required to exceed): For 63%, Against 37%

Question B (Authored by Robin Ficker, would limit property tax receipt growth to rate of inflation and remove council’s ability to exceed): For 41%, Against 59%

Question C (Authored by Council Member Evan Glass, changes county council structure to 4 at-large seats and 7 district seats): For 62%, Against 38%

Question D (Authored by Nine Districts for MoCo, changes county council structure to 9 district seats): For 41%, Against 59%

It is probably not a coincidence that these results mirror the recommendations of the county’s Democratic Party, but the results are far from final.

At some point tonight, the election day votes should be added in. You can refresh them here for school board races and here for ballot questions.

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Top Seventh State Stories, October 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

These were the top stories on Seventh State in October ranked by page views.

1. MoCo Democrats Issue Statement on Ballot Questions
2. Sitting Judges Get Temporary Restraining Order Against Pierre
3. Harris Blasts MCEA Over School Reopening
4. Progressive-Backed Judge Candidate Courted, Donated to Republicans
5. Teachers Respond to Lynne Harris
6. Elrich Vetoes WMATA Property Tax Bill
7. State Audit: Thousands of MoCo Homeowners Overcharged on Property Taxes
8. Reopening Plans – MCPS is Behind
9. Why Montgomery County Ballot Questions B and D Are Truly Bad Ideas You Should Vote Against
10. Ballot Question Committee Scorecard

The number one post by far was MoCo Democrats Issue Statement on Ballot Questions. In fact, that post was one of the most well-read in the history of Seventh State. Most folks who saw it probably found it through Google – and that’s a meaningful piece of intelligence. If people are googling terms like Montgomery Democrats and ballot questions, then not only are they finding content here, they may find similar content at Bethesda Beat, the Democratic Central Committee’s website, the various ballot issue websites and elsewhere. This means that MoCo voters want to know what the county Democrats think about the ballot questions. That’s good news for supporters of Questions A and C and not such good news for supporters of Questions B and D.

The two posts about circuit court judge candidate Marylin Pierre and her opponents, the sitting judges, are being aggressively circulated on social media. This is the fiercest MoCo judicial race in a loooooong time. Can Pierre break through?

One story that was big with readers and off the radar of politicians was State Audit: Thousands of MoCo Homeowners Overcharged on Property Taxes. It’s a massive scandal that state math errors resulted in overcharging of property taxes for thousands of MoCo homeowners and that the state is refusing to offer refunds. In addition to Seventh State, Fox 5 and WMAR (ABC) Baltimore covered it. As far as I know, no state or county politician has made a public statement about this. Maybe I will ask them!

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Once Again, MoCo’s Two Electorates

By Adam Pagnucco.

In November 2016, I wrote a three-part series called MoCo’s Two Electorates. (Here are the links to Part One, Part Two and Part Three.) I also wrote a piece titled “MoCo Revolts” in the wake of the term limits vote.

The combined thesis of those pieces are the following.

1. MoCo has two electorates: people who regularly vote in Democratic primaries and people who vote in general elections. Both electorates are important. Democratic primaries choose the county’s elected officials while general elections decide ballot questions and charter amendments.

2. There are roughly 40,000 Super Democrats in MoCo who vote in every primary. Relative to general election voters, they tend to be slightly more female, older, slightly higher income, slightly more likely to live in a single family home and more concentrated in downcounty. They are also slightly LESS diverse than general election voters.

3. Democrats comprise roughly 60% of general election voters with some variation by year. Republicans have outnumbered unaffiliated voters among the rest of actual voters though not by a lot. That means Republicans and unaffiliated voters can team up with a minority of Democrats to pass ballot questions.

4. On four straight meaningful local ballot questions since 2008, the general electorate took arguably the less progressive position in their votes. They voted in favor of Robin Ficker’s anti-tax charter amendment in 2008, against Ike Leggett’s ambulance fee in 2010, in favor of repealing some collective bargaining rights for police in 2012 and for term limits in 2016. This trend among the general electorate should not be comforting to the left. Term limits passed with a whopping 70% of the vote and only four precincts in the entire county voted against them.

Accordingly, these are the prophecies I made back then.

November 7, 2016: “Term limits is the issue of the day and will be decided soon enough. But a broader question looms. Given the differences between MoCo’s Two Electorates, what happens when elected officials cater to one of them at the heavy expense of the other? The recent large property tax hike, which was spread all across county government, was aimed at the priorities of liberal Democratic voters. It also became the core of the push for term limits which is aimed at the general electorate. This suggests a need for balance and restraint by those running the government. Because if one of the two electorates feels unheeded, either one has the tools to strike back – either by unseating incumbents or by shackling them with more ballot questions and charter amendments.”

November 11, 2016: “Opponents of term limits may be right about one thing – they may change the names of elected officials, but not the type of them. Democrats, often very liberal ones, will continue to be elected because of our closed primary system. But the combined message of the last four ballot questions imposes a hard choice on the elected officials of today and tomorrow. They can try to balance the interests of various constituencies across the political spectrum at the possible cost of losing the progressive support that influences Democratic primaries. Or they can stay the course and watch more moderate general election voters pass even more restrictive ballot questions, including perhaps the ultimate bane of progressivism – a hard tax cap.”

What has happened since then? First, let’s consider these two facts from the 2018 elections.

Geography: In the 2018 Democratic primary, the Democratic Crescent (a term I coined for the areas in and near the Beltway stretching from Takoma Park to Kensington and Bethesda) accounted for 34% of voter turnout while Upcounty accounted for 25%. In the 2018 general election, the Democratic Crescent accounted for 27% of voter turnout while Upcounty accounted for 31%. (The rest of the county accounted for 42% in each case.)

Diversity: Precincts that were majority white cast 60% of the votes in the 2018 Democratic primary and 58% of the votes in the 2018 general election. Precincts that were at least three-quarters white cast 22% of the votes in the Dem primary and 20% of the votes in the general. Precincts that were less than 40% white cast 24% of the votes in the Dem primary and 26% of the votes in the general. All of this suggests that the general electorate is slightly more diverse than MoCo’s Democratic primary electorate, which I also found in the 2014 data I examined years ago.

In other words, despite the substantial growth in voting in 2018, the differences between MoCo’s two electorates continued.

Two years later, ballot questions are THE local issue now. The county’s elected officials are up in arms about Ficker’s newest anti-tax charter amendment (which I predicted four years ago) and the nine districts charter amendment. Groups like Nine Districts for MoCo and former school board candidate Stephen Austin’s Facebook group did not exist in 2016, but they are playing in county politics now. Austin’s group has 8,500 members, bigger than any other online group devoted to MCPS. Nine Districts gathered more than 16,000 petition signatures for their charter amendment, of which 11,522 were found to be valid. Both groups direct their influence at the general electorate rather than just Democratic primary voters. Neither depends on the blessings of the Democratic Party but rather employs a combination of social media, press interest and (in Nine Districts’ case) developer money to get their points across. As for the Republican Party, it has found new life in promoting ballot questions like Ficker’s Question B and Nine Districts’ Question D.

Guess what? These kinds of things are here to stay. Regardless of what happens this year, don’t be surprised if more charter amendments appear on the ballot in 2022 and 2024 that arouse the ire of those in power. Tough beans for them because they are powerless to prevent it.

Have today’s county elected officials heeded the prophecies of 2016? For the most part, their agenda reflects the wishes of the progressive left – defunding the police, pursuing racial equity, cracking down on rent increases, resisting ICE and emphasizing transit over road construction. The one exception is that the county council (unlike the executive) has been resistant to tax hikes. Progressives sometimes complain that the county government doesn’t go far enough, but it does go in their direction. The problem is that other groups in the general electorate – Republicans, unaffiliated people and moderate to conservative Democrats – either don’t rank these priorities as highly as do progressives or in some cases might even oppose them. Mix that in with the county’s perceived anti-business reputation and geographically specific issues like school boundary lines and M-83 and many in the general electorate are not in the same place as the Super Democrats.

MoCo still has two electorates. One has the power to pick elected officials. The other can decide ballot questions that fundamentally change the structure of county government. We shall soon discover the depth of differences between them as well as their relative balance of power in controlling the county’s destiny.

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Crapshoot

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?

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Explaining Question A and Why I Voted No. (Definitely Vote No on Question B.)

How Property Taxes Work in Montgomery

Under current law, Montgomery County may only collect the same total amount in property taxes across the county as the previous year – also known as the constant yield tax rate –adjusted for inflation. So if the County collected $100,000,000 in property taxes last year and inflation is 3%, it may collect $103,000,000 this year. The only exception is if the County Council votes unanimously to raise property taxes.

This legal limit forces the county to adjust the tax rate based on changes in total value of assessed property in the tax. If the county’s tax base increases by 10% due to increases in real property values, the County treasury does not because the County must adjust the property tax rate downward, so it collects no more than last year adjusted for inflation. The county can also adjust rates upward if needed to collect the permitted amount.

Question A changes that system. It would cap property tax rates instead of receipts. Montgomery would see great increases in the amount of property tax collected when property tax values grow without changing the rate because they would no longer need to adjust the rate downward so they don’t collect more money.

Councilmembers will claim that they did not increase property taxes because they left the rate unchanged, but the County will collect a lot more. By keeping the focus on the rate rather than amount collected, the county can even nominally reduce the rate and claim that they reduced property taxes even as they go up in real terms and the county collects more than previously.

How Question A Raises Property Taxes

Councilmember Andrew Friedson, the sponsor of the amendment, argues that residents will benefit when housing values go down. However, the Council can vote to increase the rate to collect as much as the previous year as under the current system, just like the 8.7% tax increase that they adopted in 2017. There seems little doubt that they would do this if needed to avoid substantial cuts in spending.

In times when property values rise quickly, this can add up fast, Property taxes increases are limited to 10% a year but this is far above inflation and add up very quickly. If you pay $5000 in property taxes now, you would pay $6655 if you had the maximum increase each year for three years. The key caveat, of course, is that it all depends on how your property values change. But the amendment has no limit on the rate of growth in property taxes.

Confusing Wording

I’m not thrilled that the wording of this charter amendment focuses on limiting rates, and thus gives a rather deceptive impression that it limits, rather than increases, property taxes. (Some proponents argue that it doesn’t but since the unquestionable purpose is to allow the county to reap more revenue, it seems a fair characterization.)

Timing and Impact During an Economic Crisis

Normally, in an economic crisis, it’s not unusual to see housing values fall. But many in Montgomery have paradoxically seen their housing values rise because the crisis is due to COVID and more people are seeking larger spaces with some attached outdoor space. No one knows the future, but this would result in higher property taxes with the next set of assessments.

Many property owners in the county have seen salaries and benefits cut sharply due to the shutdown and economic crisis. Federal government workers haven’t seen pay cuts, but they haven’t had a decent pay raise in years. That’s true of many people.

As a result, a lot of people are ill-positioned to pay a property tax increase even though they may well receive one as a result of this charter amendment the next time that their properties are assessed.

Higher Taxes for Residents, Lower Taxes for Favored Developers

For me, the final straw is that the county council overrode the county executive’s veto of a huge dollop of corporate welfare for developers in the form of 15-year tax breaks (!) by 7-2 the other day. While I realize that opponents as well as the executive support Question A, and I am grateful for their votes and outspokenness on the issue, the Council seems far too inclined to continue down this path after the election. If they can afford giving tax cuts to developers to build high-priced apartments, I don’t see why they need to raise mine.

We Need Property Tax Reform, This Isn’t It

There are unquestionably problems with the county tax system. The three-year assessment cycle creates some odd quirks. Additionally, the current limit doesn’t take into account a growing population as well as other needs. In short, the budget corset is too tight. The unanimity requirement further limits the authority of our representatives too much, even if the voters passed it. But this isn’t the right way to do it, or the time, so I voted no.

But Others See It Differently

Adam outlined previously why some view this property tax increase as a good idea. Even leaving aside one’s desire to fund progressive policies, as I mentioned in the previous section, the current system does not provide sufficient funding with increases over time because it doesn’t into account factors like population growth and other needs. So I can see how other people might see this differently.

I mention this because, like much in politics, I see this as an issue on which reasonable people can disagree. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the ballot questions, even the form of the county council, has been getting more and more vehement on social media. Since we’re in a moment that is already overheated on steroids (now there’s a mixed metaphor!), it seems worth a mention that we’ll manage whatever the outcome of this ballot question.

Question B

Vote No. This is Robin Ficker’s latest very bad idea that would make current problems with the property tax system worse.

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Undervoting on School Board Races and Ballot Questions

By Adam Pagnucco.

This year has four hotly contested county ballot questions and at least one legitimately contested school board election. But here is something folks tend to forget: not everyone votes on these so-called “down ballot” races. And the question of who is not voting is almost as important as the question of who is.

In a presidential year, almost everyone who votes casts a vote for president. There are lots of other races at stake. This year, MoCo voters can also vote for Congress, judges, school board, two state ballot questions and four county ballot questions. However, there will inevitably be undervoting in many of these races. For the purpose of this post, the definition of “undervoting” is the percentage of people who cast a ballot but don’t vote in a particular contest. There is a lot of undervoting.

The table below shows undervoting in MoCo school board races since 2002. On average, one-third of people casting votes do not vote for school board.

The table below shows undervoting in MoCo for state ballot questions since 2002. On average, one in seven people casting votes do not vote on state ballot questions.

The table below shows undervoting in MoCo for county ballot questions since 2002. On average, one in six people casting votes do not vote on county ballot questions.

What determines undervoting? As shown in the tables above, undervoting seems to be a little less prevalent in presidential years, though not by much. Undervoting is much higher for school board races than ballot questions. That makes sense since – at least in some cases – voters can figure out how they feel about ballot questions from their language whereas school board candidates don’t have enough money to communicate directly with voters.

There is a little bit of evidence that clear and consequential ballot questions lead to less undervoting. County ballot question undervoting was lower than average in 2004 (when nine council districts and Ficker amendments on taxes and term limits were on the ballot) and in 2016 (when Ficker’s term limits amendment passed). State ballot question undervoting was about half the normal rate in 2008, when early voting and slots were on the ballot.

The table below shows the ballot questions with the lowest undervotes since 2002.

Four out of these five – slots, early voting, taxes and term limits – were big-deal questions. They were also relatively easy to understand for voters.

The table below shows the ballot questions with the highest undervotes since 2002.

There isn’t much of a pattern here. The police effects bargaining question in 2012 was the only question that was strongly contested.

One more thing that will be of interest to all the groups promoting or advocating against specific ballot questions this year: most ballot questions pass. Since 2002, MoCo voters have voted in favor of 81% of county ballot questions and 92% of state ballot questions.

Here are the results for the four county ballot questions that have failed since 2002.

All four – term limits (2004), nine council districts (2004), property tax limits (2004) and the ambulance fee (2010) – were the targets of vigorous campaigns dedicated to killing them. All four saw lower than average undervoting.

There will certainly be undervoting this year and the stakes for the county, especially from the county ballot questions, are especially high. How will that affect the outcome?

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