A measure aimed at slashing Baltimore’s property tax rate nearly in half violates Maryland law, a top elections official ruled Tuesday, barring the much-anticipated proposal from the November ballot.

The decision from Baltimore City Board of Elections Director Armstead B. Jones could end a heated fight between City Hall and proponents of the tax cut proposal, known as Renew Baltimore, before it gets underway, though backers of the measure said they intend to challenge the rejection in court.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Renew’s attorney Constantine J. Themelis, Jones said the proposal is deficient, because he said Maryland law makes clear that only Baltimore City elected officials can set the property tax rate — meaning the rates can’t be altered from the ballot.

“Maryland’s highest court has held that under this rule, a petition-initiated charter amendment may not set a specific property tax rate,” wrote Jones. “Accordingly, I cannot certify the Charter Amendment for inclusion on the ballot at the upcoming General Election.”

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Elections officials typically have 20 days to verify signatures once they have been submitted, but because Jones denied the petition, he said in his letter the deadline no longer applied. Even so, Jones said his staff will move forward with the signature verification process because of the possibility for judicial review of his decision.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Themelis said Renew Baltimore “disagrees strongly” with the election director’s decision and plans to challenge it in Circuit Court.

“We are confident that the tens of thousands of Baltimore citizens who support a fair and competitive tax rate will ultimately prevail,” the attorney said.

If enacted, the Renew Baltimore proposal would gradually shave Baltimore’s property tax rate over seven years, reducing the rate from 2.248% to a maximum allowable level of 1.2%. Backers have expressed confidence in recent weeks that their proposal rests on solid legal ground, pointing to other jurisdictions around Maryland that have imposed caps on local tax rates.

The Board of Elections decision comes just weeks after petitioners behind the proposal submitted 23,000 signatures — far more than the 10,000 signatures needed to appear on the November ballot.

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The decision also lands as progressive groups and many prominent officials in City Hall have been gearing up in recent weeks for a multimonth opposition campaign aimed at defeating the property tax cut on the November ballot. Baltimore voters have historically tended to approve ballot measures almost automatically — just one in the last 25 years has failed — and sinking the measure at the ballot box could be an uphill battle for the opposition.

While economists and former elected officials backing Renew Baltimore have argued their proposal would help to reverse decades of population decline and jump-start the city’s economy, the proposal has stirred fears of cratering finances in City HallA report released by the city Finance Department forecast that within a decade the measure would result in an annual structural deficit of nearly $900 million, while Mayor Brandon Scott predicted last month that the proposal would bankrupt the city.

The state Attorney General’s Office functions as a legal counsel to the election director in decisions about the legality of ballot measures. Attorney General spokesperson Jennifer Donelan said in a statement that while Jones could seek legal advice in the process, “the final determination is vested by law in the Election Director, not the Office of the Attorney General.”

The Maryland constitution says a city charter provision cannot conflict with state law, and in his letter Jones pointed to two state high court decisions that he said make clear that the Renew proposal violates the law.

In one 1990 case, the Maryland Court of Appeals, now called the Supreme Court of Maryland, found that, while charter amendments could place a cap on the future growth of property taxes in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, the court threw out portions that would have scaled back property tax rates in the two jurisdictions. Those “roll back” provisions would have “transferred” the powers of the county councils to the voters, the court said at the time.

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The court affirmed that ruling five years later in a case involving a similar ballot provision in Talbot County.

Jones acknowledged in his letter that Renew Baltimore is “framed as a cap” on the tax rate, which would still give the City Council the flexibility to set a lower rate if it chose to, but he noted that this was also true of the proposed charter amendment contests in the two 1990s cases.

“The Court still held that these charter provisions would in effect take away the power to set tax rates from the local legislative body, in violation of State law,” said Jones.

In a statement, Scott celebrated the outcome, saying the city “cannot govern by ballot initiative alone – especially when the policy being proposed was simply a short-sighted, naive proposal that would bankrupt the city and hollow out vital city services.”

Organizers with the opposition campaign, known as Baltimore City Is Not For Sale, similarly reiterated their argument that the property tax reduction would result in devastating cuts to city services such as street cleaning, maternal health care, libraries and fire stations.

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The Board of Elections decision puts Renew Baltimore’s “extreme proposal to rest, to the relief of our city’s residents,” said Courtney Jenkins, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO Unions and a member of the Baltimore City Is Not For Sale coalition. “The measure was a simple-minded fantasy, created to benefit the very wealthiest at the expense of the rest of us.”

While the opposition coalition took a victory lap over the decision Tuesday, Jenkins noted that they intend to continue activism against a separate ballot measure financed by David Smith, a Sinclair Inc. executive, to reduce the size of the City Council.

This is the second election cycle that backers of the Renew Baltimore property tax cut have sought to put their measure on the ballot. Supporters got a late start to petitioning in 2022 and did not secure enough signatures to make the ballot.