Petition campaign to cap Baltimore’s property tax rate lacks signatures despite heavyweight support – Baltimore Sun

A contentious ballot question that would have lowered and capped Baltimore’s property tax rate will not appear on Baltimore’s ballots this fall after organizers failed to submit required signatures on Monday.

At least 10,000 signatures from registered voters in the city were needed to give voters the chance to consider the sweeping measure that organizers said would improve fairness and Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration deemed “absurd”.

Leaders of the petition calling themselves Renew Baltimore have garnered more than 9,000 signatures, but not enough to clear that hurdle, according to a press release from the group on Monday.

That rules out a dramatic proposal to cut the city’s tax rate from 2.248% to 1.25% over six years, then install a permanent cap.

Billed as a grassroots effort, the coalition of economists and former city officials behind the petition argued that lowering the tax rate would create “greater economic equity” and increase incomes for the city by attracting more owners and developers to the city.

Opponents have balked at using the word “equity,” saying the biggest winners will be wealthy, mostly white homeowners and outside investors gentrifying neighborhoods.

Scott spokesman James Bentley said that would have forced a drastic reduction in services that would hurt, not help, the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Over the past month, paid petitioners have petitioned the city on behalf of the group, which is chaired by Stephen Walters, an economics professor at Loyola University and chief economist at the conservative-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute. Economist Anirban Basu, CEO of the Sage Policy Group and economic adviser to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, is the group’s treasurer.

Several former city officials have thrown their support behind the measure. Former U.S. District Court judge and former city attorney Andre Davis is a member of the coalition, as are former Democratic City Council members Rikki Spector and Carl Stokes.

Stokes said on Monday the near failure to collect the required signatures should be seen as a “fiscal revolt” among townspeople. Baltimore has over 600,000 residents.

“With many more petitions expected to arrive after the deadline, we are calling on our elected leaders to finally take action to reduce Baltimore’s exorbitant property tax rate – more than double that of all other jurisdictions in Maryland,” said Stokes in the band’s press release. “We want to assure the voters of Baltimore City that we will continue to pursue our initiative with the certainty that we will prevail in two years if our elected officials do not act in the meantime.”

Organized into a political committee, the funders of Renew Baltimore must be made public. When the group last filed, Matthew Wyskiel, a wealth manager who contributed $10,100, was its only donor. Wyskiel said he was a lifelong Baltimorean who grew up in Roland Park and now lives on the border of Roland Park and Guilford.

While Renew Baltimore’s petition was unsuccessful, two other groups organizing petition campaigns submitted signatures to the city.

One, promoted by the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, would create a fund to “promote” and “negotiate” an agreement to “seek enabling legislation” for the creation of a Baltimore Regional Transportation Authority.

Another, sponsored by the People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement, would establish a two-term limit for the city’s mayor, city council members and comptroller. Jovani Patterson, a Republican candidate who lost a bid for Baltimore council president in 2020, is the group’s chairman, according to state committee records.

Patterson and his wife are engaged in a lawsuit against the city and its school system, alleging that city residents have received “no benefit” from a system that “completely fails to perform its most important function.” to educate children.

People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement’s largest donor is David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of a Hunt Valley-based television station. He donated $385,000 to the group.

Election officials have a short window to verify signatures that have been submitted before the Nov. 8 ballots begin printing. Signatures must be verified by August 22. The petitioners have until August 31 to seek judicial review of a petition to amend the charter.

Ballots for the fall election must be certified by the State Board of Elections by September 6. Printing is expected to begin on September 9.

The review, which will be conducted by the city’s election commission, is in two parts: submitted signers are cross-checked against city voter registration records to ensure that names and addresses match those listed on file. Signatories must be registered to vote in Baltimore.

Election officials must also verify the validity of each sheet submitted by petitioners. The sheets should include the name and contact information of the petition circulator, as well as a signed affidavit swearing that the information contained is true.

Andy Ellis, a local Green Party leader familiar with the petition process, said petitioners should be prepared that names and even entire sheets of signatures will be thrown away during the review process. A petitioner new to the process would be advised to collect 15,000 signatures, 5,000 more than needed, to ensure they meet the threshold, Ellis said.

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Some of the rules, such as voter verification requirements, are quite specific in law. Other provisions, such as one allowing officials to look for signs of fraud, are more vague, he said.

“It’s a little opaque, but they’ll be looking for signs of fraud,” Ellis said. “If every signature on the page looks the same, there’s a layout to deal with it.”

Election officials must also confirm that the subject matter of the petition is authorized by law. Based on the opinion of a “legal authority,” officials must determine whether the enactment would be unconstitutional or otherwise prohibited by law.

City attorney Jim Shea said the state attorney general’s office will provide that guidance to the city’s electoral board.