A controversial ballot question that would have reduced and capped Baltimore’s property tax rate will not make it onto Baltimore ballots this fall after organizers failed to submit the required signatures Monday.
At least 10,000 signatures from registered city voters were required to give voters the chance to consider the sweeping measure that organizers have said would improve equity and Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration deemed “absurd.”
Officials behind the petition calling themselves Renew Baltimore collected more than 9,000 signatures, but not enough to clear that hurdle, according to a news release from the group Monday.
That sidelines a dramatic proposal to cut the city’s tax rate from 2.248% to 1.25% over six years and then install a permanent cap.
Billed as a grassroots effort, the coalition of economists and former city officials behind the petition argued that reducing the tax rate would create “greater economic equity” and increase city revenue by attracting more homeowners and developers to the city.
Opponents balked at the use of the word “equity,” saying the biggest winners would be wealthy, predominantly white homeowners and out-of-town investors gentrifying neighborhoods.
Scott’s spokesman, James Bentley, said it would have forced a drastic cut in services that would harm, not help, the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Over the past month, paid petitioners canvassed the city on behalf of the group, which is chaired by Stephen Walters, a Loyola University economics professor and chief economist at the conservative-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute. Economist Anirban Basu, CEO of the Sage Policy Group and an economic adviser to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, is the group’s treasurer.
Several former city officials threw their support behind the measure. Former US District Court judge and former city solicitor Andre Davis is a member of the coalition, as are former Democratic City Councilmembers Ricky Spector and Carl Stokes.
Stokes said Monday that the near miss in collecting the required signatures should be seen as a “tax revolt” among city residents. Baltimore has more than 600,000 residents.
“With many more petitions expected to arrive after the deadline, we call on our elected leaders to finally take action to reduce Baltimore’s exorbitant property tax rate — more than double every other jurisdiction in Maryland,” Stokes said in the group’s news release. “We want to assure Baltimore City voters that we’ll continue to pursue our initiative with every confidence that we’ll prevail in two years’ time if our elected officials fail to act in the meantime.”
Organized as a political committee, Renew Baltimore’s funders must be publicly disclosed. As of the group’s last filing, Matthew Wyskiel, a wealth manager who contributed $10,100, was its only donor. Wyskiel said he is 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 failed to pass muster, two other groups organizing petition drives 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, members of the City Council 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 city residents received “no benefit” from a system that “completely fails to perform its most important function” of educating children.
The largest donor to People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement is David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Hunt Valley-based TV station owner. He donated $385,000 to the group.
Election officials have a short window to vet the signatures that have been submitted before Nov. 8 election ballot printing must begin. Signatures must be verified by Aug. 22. Petitioners have until Aug. 31 to seek judicial review for a charter amendment petition.
Ballots for the fall election are due to be certified by the State Board of Elections by Sept. 6. Printing is slated to begin Sept. 9.
The review, which will be conducted by the city’s election board, is two-part: submitted signers are cross-checked against city voter registration records to ensure names and addresses match those on file. Signers must be registered to vote in Baltimore.
Election officials must also verify the validity of each sheet turned in by the petitioners. The sheets must include the name and contact information for 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 need to be prepared for names and even entire sheets of signatures to be thrown out during the review process. A petitioner new to the process would be wise to collect 15,000 signatures, 5,000 more than required, to ensure they hit the threshold, Ellis said.
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Some of the rules, such as requirements for voter verification, are quite specific in the law. Other provisions, like one that allows officials to search for signs of fraud, are more vague, he said.
“It’s sort of opaque, but they will look for signs of fraud,” Ellis said. “If every signature on the page looks the same, there’s some provision for dealing with that.”
Election officials must also confirm that the petition’s subject matter is authorized by law. Based on the advice of a “legal authority,” officials must determine whether the enactment would be unconstitutional or otherwise barred by law.
City Solicitor Jim Shea said the state attorney general’s office would provide such guidance for the city election board.