Baker aides say council broke the law when it rejected major tax increase

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Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III has not done a good job as a county executive. High level of mismanagement and plain sight corruption includes among other issues $10 million for “snow removal” which drove the deficit to $62.5 million. This suspicious activities are not helping the county. The effects of corruption on Prince George’s County socio-political and economic development are myriad. Prince George’s County Government officials have been shifting government expenditures to areas in which they can collect bribes easily, it appears.

Aides to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said Thursday that county lawmakers acted illegally last month when they rejected Baker’s proposal for a major tax increase, an accusation that sends an already bitter budget process into unfamiliar legal territory.

The officials are basing their opinion on a little-known provision that allows the Prince George’s council to adjust the administration’s revenue estimates up or down by as much as 1 percentage point.

They say that means there is also a 1 percent limit on how much the council can increase or reduce the county executive’s budget proposal — an interpretation that Council Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) said lawmakers “completely disagree with.”

“This sounds like a last-minute attempt to push through a 15.6 percent tax increase on residents,” Franklin said Thursday, adding that the council is seeking a formal legal opinion from its legislative attorneys. “That will not work.”

Aides to Baker (D) said he will probably use his veto power to strike down parts of the council’s budget on Monday, possibly restoring all or most of the $90 million in proposed spending — and tax increases — that was eliminated.

“It’s safe to say he will make line-item vetoes to their changes to make sure it complies with charter,” said budget director Thomas Himler.

If the council votes to override those vetoes, the budget would be placed in legal limbo, said county attorney M. Andree Green, who met with a reporter to discuss the issue along with other administration officials.

“A taxpayer could bring suit because the budget is not lawful under the charter,” Green said. “And nobody wants . . . a $3 billion budget that may not be upheld.”

Baker triggered a major outcry in Prince George’s this year by proposing an end to a 35-year property tax cap and a huge infusion of new funds into the county’s struggling public schools.

He failed to build strong support for his proposal, however, and the council passed a slimmed-down budget that still raised tax rates but cut most of what Baker wanted to spend on schools.

Baker has until Tuesday to announce any vetoes and send the budget back to lawmakers. They will then have until July 1 — the beginning of fiscal 2016 — to decide whether to override any vetoes, which requires a two-thirds majority, and to pass a balanced budget.

The legislature must also pass a separate resolution to raise the tax rate by whatever amount is required to generate enough revenue to fund the budget that is approved.

Green said Himler alerted her to the law allowing the council to adjust revenue estimates. The measure passed in 2006 during a turbulent time in Prince George’s government that revolved around clashes between then-County Executive Jack Johnson (D) and the council.

The provision — which was approved by voters in a ballot referendum — says, “Revenue estimates in the proposed operating budget may be increased or decreased by the Council by no more than one percent.”

Baker officials said Thursday that they believe “revenue estimates” refers to the amount appropriated, an interpretation that gives the county executive enormous power in setting a spending threshold.

Under that interpretation, the council this year would only be able to reduce or increase Baker’s budget by $36 million — 1 percent of Baker’s overall budget proposal.

“This is what the legislative branch asked for in 2006,” Himler said. “They wanted the ability to go up and down but only wanted that authority up to 1 percent.”

But Thomas E. Dernoga, who chaired the council in 2006 and was one of the original sponsors of the bill, said that was not the law’s intent.

It was one of a series of charter amendments aimed at disempowering Johnson and increasing the council’s oversight power in the face of allegations of executive misconduct.

The council passed measures protecting government whistleblowers, expanding the powers of the county auditor and rescinding the executive’s sole authority to hand out contracts.

Dernoga said the provision about revenue estimates was designed to “give the Council flexibility during the budget process,” and was part of a deliberate effort to expand council powers, not limit them.

“The Council did not relinquish any of its full legislative authority over appropriations,” Dernoga said. Any effort to do so, he added, “would likely violate” the state constitution.

 Arelis Hernández covers Prince George’s County as part of The Washington Post’s local staff.

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