Most Montgomery countians view state and local government as a nuisance. They moved here to be near the federal government, where they make their livings. What goes on in Annapolis or Rockville doesn’t interest them.
In Maryland’s last state primary elections (2010) Montgomery’s voter turnout (19.9 percent) was the state’s lowest. And, according to last month’s Washington Post poll, only 30 percent of Montgomery countians are following this year’s governor’s race, again, the state’s lowest and well below the state average, 42 percent . Likewise, only 43 percent of Montgomery voters say they’re certain to vote — another last-place finish.
Decades of voter neglect have led to a cozy symbiosis between the county’s politicians and special interest lobbies. When 80 percent of Montgomery’s voters don’t show up on primary Election Day, a state senator or delegate candidate can win with only 5,000 to 8,000 votes in a county of nearly 1 million people.
But winning those votes means getting into bed with the folks who do care about Election Day: the public employee unions, the environmentalists, the women’s groups, minority groups, the gay lobby, the teacher’s union, liberal newspaper editors, etc.
Because these special interests elect our state lawmakers, their agendas become the lawmakers’ agendas. Other delegations come home bragging about winning more state money for schools and services. Montgomery’s delegation brags about winning gun control, gay marriage, death penalty repeal and raising taxes. Montgomery’s “progressive agenda” doesn’t include grubbing for money or protecting MoCo’s taxpayers.
But finally, some Montgomery countians are realizing that every dollar squandered in Annapolis results in a dollar tax hike or a dollar spending cut back home. The wake-up call is school construction: Montgomery parents are rebelling against overcrowded, obsolete, moldy classrooms. Enrollment, driven by immigrants, is exploding by 2,500 per year (enough to fill 100 new classrooms), 10,500 students now occupy 458 portable trailers (tops in Maryland) and within five years nearly half the county’s schools will be above capacity.
Yet, new construction and renovations are delayed, and delayed, and delayed due to shortfalls in Montgomery’s share of state school construction money. Montgomery, with 17 percent of the state’s students, received only 11.7 percent of the state’s annual school construction funding during the past 10 years.
But, instead of demanding more, Montgomery’s politicians made up the difference with county funds. Now, however, that well is going dry. Hence the delays, hence the parents’ rebellion.
Like smart politicians, the county school board and superintendent passed the blame to the county executive, Ike Leggett, and County Council who, in turn, are blaming Annapolis.
Established in 1971 to help defray local school construction costs, the state program works like this: every year the governor budgets a lump sum based on needs forecasts. The state makes a preliminary allocation between the counties, and at the annual January “Beg-A-Thon” hearing, the counties lobby the Board of Public Works for more.
The construction money always was allocated based on costs until the mid-1980s, when Baltimore city got the allocation “equalized” (i.e. based on each county’s wealth), which helped the city and cut MoCo, whose lawmakers offered no resistance.
Then, in the 2007 legislative special session when Gov. Martin O’Malley’s $1.4 billion tax hike needed MoCo’s votes, he promised MoCo $55 million in 2008 school construction funds. However, when O’Malley later reneged (with only $46 million), MoCo lawmakers didn’t make a peep.
In the chaotic 2012 and 2013 sessions Baltimore city vote-traded for school construction funds, P.G. vote-traded for a new hospital and MoCo traded for a state gas tax. That’s right, instead of asking for more state aid, our idiots made the 83 percent state gas tax increase Montgomery’s top priority.
This was stupidly bordering on suicide. The gas tax is paid primarily by Montgomery motorists without particularly benefiting Montgomery. Once again MoCo adopted a “statewide perspective” at its own expense. Only MoCo makes raising taxes its top priority.
Meanwhile, Baltimore city made off with the candy store. Anticipating a drop in state revenues and school construction funding ($325 million last year, $275 million this year), the city won a $1 billion school construction deal including the state’s $20 million-per-year guarantee for the next 30 years. This is on top of whatever the city gets at the annual Beg-A-Thon. Montgomery’s lawmakers voted unanimously for what Baltimore’s mayor called “the largest legislative achievement in the city’s history.”
Now, under attack from angry parents, Ike Leggett and MoCo’s lawmakers are asking O’Malley and the legislature for the same deal Baltimore got. Leggett says he’s cashing in his moral IOUs, which is this session’s moment of comic relief.
So far, this year’s school construction allocation is $22 million for MoCo ($146 per student) and $37 million for Baltimore ($435 per student). But instead of making war, Leggett and Montgomery’s lawmakers are making excuses. Their battle cry is, “Ready, aim, surrender.”
Meanwhile, O’Malley’s capital budget is chock full of money for Baltimore’s zoo, library, aquarium, museums and a pedestrian bridge spanning Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. On deck are a new $355 million Baltimore jail and a $900 million sports arena complex.
Back in MoCo, County Councilman Phil Andrews is being shunned by fellow Democrats for blowing the whistle on the county’s State House malfeasance.
“We need a different approach. We’ve got to mobilize our public so we get a fair share of school construction money every year. And we must also elect a governor who is not going to shortchange us.”
Andrews is right — it’s up to Montgomery’s voters. As long as they continue electing the same old clowns, they’ll get the same old circus.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is email@example.com.