History won’t judge same-sex marriage, The Dream Act or even his massive tax increases as the most significant legacy of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s second term. Instead, the most historic and long-lasting achievement of this governor and his legislature will be the state’s naked usurpation of powers traditionally held by Maryland’s 24 local governments. After this, the fundamental relationship between the state and the locals (Baltimore city and the 23 counties) will never be the same.
For the locals, its death by a thousand cuts. On Dec. 19, O’Malley signed an executive order, Plan Maryland, stripping local governments of their zoning and land-use powers. Until now, local elected officials, accountable to local voters, decided where, when and how much new development took place in their counties. They told the state where to build the roads, schools and other growth infrastructure.
But O’Malley, in a stunning display of autocracy, said he was fed up with the local officials’ “stupid land-use decisions” and seized their zoning powers. From now on, the governor and his staff will decide where to build each county’s growth infrastructure, thereby determining where, when and how much local development takes place. And if a county’s voters don’t like it? Tough, a governor can get re-elected statewide without their votes.
Another encroachment on the locals is O’Malley’s bill limiting septic tanks in areas not served by public sewer systems. About 28 percent of new housing is built in such areas. But even if these areas have the necessary schools, roads, etc., O’Malley’s bill bans septic tanks in most cases.
Once again, the long arm of the state overrides local prerogatives. O’Malley and the legislature have decided that, as a matter of social engineering, it’s time to halt rural growth and drive people back to the cities. “The effect [of O’Malley’s bill] will be to redirect growth from more rural areas … Baltimore City and all municipal corporations may face the most significant increase in long term demand for residential development,” says the legislative bill synopsis.
So, forget that dream home in Carroll County, your family’s future is a condo in Canton. That’ll be your personal contribution to “Smart Growth.”
Other effects include screwing farmers by permanently devaluing their land, making it impossible to borrow for their farming operations; reducing affordable housing by limiting the land supply, and destining vast areas to permanent wilderness status. In mountainous Garrett County, where public sewers are impractical, 90 percent of the county falls under O’Malley’s septic ban. Sorry Garrett, you must remain a forest forever so we can enjoy your fall foliage.
But all this pales in comparison to what’s happening to the local governments’ fiscal powers. In order to keep on spending, O’Malley and the legislature are offloading $250 million of teacher pension costs onto the locals. For this there is no justification — the state sets pension benefit levels, controls pension fund investment, has continuously underfunded the pension fund and now, after 85 years of paying the tab, is dumping it on the locals.
It’s pure politics: Let the locals deal with the mess we created, let them raise the taxes and make the spending cuts to pay the ballooning pension costs. Meanwhile, we’ll call the pension offload “a state spending cut” and hope no one catches on. Thank God the media never blow the whistle on us.
Outraged at becoming the political fall guy, the local governments banded together with the local school boards, teachers unions and other local interests that understood that absorbing the skyrocketing pension costs would force local governments to slash local budgets.
This “Stop The (Pension) Shift” coalition was putting serious political heat on state lawmakers until legislative leaders countered with a “doomsday budget” highlighting $800 million in spending cuts if the pension shift didn’t pass.
Caught between a rock and re-election, the state lawmakers made a deal — they bought off the teachers unions and the school boards with a so-called “maintenance of effort” bill that protects education funding from any local spending cuts caused by the pension costs.
Here’s how it works: No matter what happens, local governments must give the schools as much local money as schools got last year. In other words, the state, instead of local elected officials, is deciding school spending levels in local budgets. Thanks to this “do not touch” fence that state lawmakers have built, school spending (half of most local budgets) is no longer in competition with other local spending needs; it’s guaranteed.
But wait, it gets worse. Remember the voter-imposed limits on local tax increases and spending increases? Well, forget ’em. The new maintenance-of-effort bill says local governments can ignore them in order to raise enough money to fund the state-imposed local school funding levels. Likewise, if a local government fails to fully fund the schools, the state will seize that county’s income taxes and give it to the schools.
And how about this? Any county that doesn’t meet the state’s new “education spending effort” index must add even more money to its school budget. And because the index is based on a state average, it just keeps ratcheting higher and higher.
Needless to say, now that state lawmakers and the education lobby have entered into this unholy alliance deeming local school budgets a sacred cow and throwing everyone else under the (school) bus, the teachers and school boards have abandoned the “Stop The (Pension) Shift” coalition. Instead of punishing state lawmakers, the teachers unions will now strain to re-elect them.
It’s a happy ending, except for the local governments, shorn of their budget powers, and for local taxpayers in whose face this fiscal time bomb is certain to explode.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is email@example.com.