Friday, June 1, 2007

Where’s the clout? Politicians and business leaders are asking: Has Montgomery arrived in Annapolis?

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Wealth, brains and numbers.

On the surface, Montgomery County and its state delegation have it all.

When state lawmakers reconvene in Annapolis — possibly as early as this fall as part of a much-ballyhooed special session — the first item of business will be addressing a $1.5 billion state budget shortfall that is projected to grow. Some legislative leaders predict negotiations could reach a level of contention not seen in the General Assembly in some time.

New taxes and legalized gambling will be considered, tough decisions will be made, and Montgomery County should figure prominently in the mix, said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village.

‘‘The bottom line is when you’ve got a delegation of eight in the Senate and 24 in the House, we should have a significant role in making those decisions,” said Hogan, chairman of the county’s Senate delegation.

The county is Maryland’s most populous, richest and most diverse.

‘‘It’s like Never Neverland for other legislators of the state,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach.

Montgomery’s delegation in Annapolis is the legislature’s largest (and wholly within the county’s borders unlike Prince George’s, which has some shared districts) and is regarded as one of its brainiest.

But with so many gifts — a strong tax base, legislators with impressive credentials — does the county carry the clout in Annapolis that it should?

‘‘I’m not sure,” said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). ‘‘I think we have the leadership. I think we have the numbers.”

Some say the delegation’s past performance leaves something to be desired when it comes to bringing dollars home.

‘‘It’s a sorry history,” said Charles S. Lapinski, a Colesville resident and senior board member for the Maryland Taxpayers Association. ‘‘You hear, ‘You don’t know how hard it is.’ Well, I didn’t see any effort either.”

Whenever the legislature considers a revenue measure, ‘‘it is automatically assumed by everybody in Annapolis that Montgomery County is going to be the bill payer,” said Lapinski, who also is co-chairman of the public finance committee for the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

The economics of clout

Economic strength benefits Montgomery County in Annapolis, said Zach P. Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Clout ‘‘has little to do with actual legislators themselves and more to do with, ‘Look, Montgomery County is the economic engine of the state,’ and everybody recognizes that now,” Messitte said.

Mike Miller said he made an effort to ‘‘purposely over-represent Montgomery County” on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee in recognition of how much state revenue comes from the county. No other jurisdiction has three members on the committee.

That said, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch are ‘‘very cognizant of where people come from,” Miller said. ‘‘We look at who would be good in those positions, but at the same time we want to be sure each area of the state has a voice in the decision-making process.”

Montgomery’s economic growth is one reason why some say the county’s influence in Annapolis has grown in recent years at the expense of Baltimore’s. The Montgomery delegation has articulated the county’s challenges well, said Jean B. Cryor, a Republican delegate from Potomac for 12 years before being defeated last year.

‘‘No one is so shortsighted that they want to see Montgomery County fail, because it does remain the economic engine of the state,” she said, before echoing a common refrain: ‘‘Montgomery County gets a cold and the rest of the state gets pneumonia.”

Still, the state’s economic health depends on both the Baltimore area and the Washington suburbs.

‘‘Most legislators understand that the state thrives because it has more than one center of activity,” said Barbara A. Hoffman, a former state senator from Baltimore city who is now a lobbyist. ‘‘Whatever the rhetoric from the legislators in that Washington area, they don’t want Baltimore to sink. And Baltimore wants those guys to thrive, too.”

Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis agreed.

Medical research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda ties to the Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center and to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he said.

‘‘As the economic dynamics start to drive the state, really there’s an importance of the Baltimore area and the Washington area really coming to common goals,” he said.

Reality and perception

While Montgomery has stepped into more fiscal and statewide leadership positions, Baltimore is still seen as carrying a bigger stick in the legislature.

‘‘The [Montgomery County] delegation is not the strongest delegation in the state,” said Marvin Weinman, president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League and co-chairman of the public finance committee for the county civic federation. ‘‘Obviously, Baltimore city gets a lot.”

A recent report by the Montgomery County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight showed that county money went to pay for 74 percent of Montgomery’s $1.8 billion public schools operating budget for fiscal 2007, which ends June 30. Baltimore city paid for 20 percent of its school costs, with 69 percent coming from the state.

Montgomery’s ability to pay for its own projects, such as upgrades to state roads and forward funding of school construction, may be self-defeating because it shows the county can make up for shortfalls in state aid, Weinman said.

Montgomery’s image as a wealthy county ‘‘is not an unfair perception,” he said. ‘‘So we may be our own worst enemy.”

As the county’s schools face the challenge of educating more students living in poverty and with limited-English skills than ever before, and the number of residents without health insurance grows, changing perceptions about the county are important, county lawmakers and observers said.

‘‘They have to overcome the view that they’re rich and trouble-free. ... That’s not true anymore,” Hoffman said.

A fair share

Sixty-five percent of the $5.9 billion in state aid to local governments in the fiscal 2008 budget is distributed according to tax base, leading to a lower return for affluent Montgomery.

The $5.9 billion does not include an additional $602 million in payments that the state makes on behalf of local governments for retirements, which is not subject to the 65 percent adjustment.

If that formula or any part of the state’s tax code is revised when the General Assembly reconvenes this fall, Montgomery’s delegation leaders will be ready, said the House delegation chairman, Del. Brian J. Feldman (D-Dist. 15) of Potomac.

‘‘We want to make sure that whatever package or solution is out there, that we’re not paying any undue price relative to what we get back,” he said.

For every dollar the county paid in taxes in fiscal 2004, the latest year for which state budget analysis is available, Montgomery received 15 cents in direct state grants, money that goes mostly for public schools. The statewide average was 35 cents.

Leggett has described the delegation’s results during the 2007 session as a mixed bag.

Montgomery received $52.5 million for school construction, the result of a campaign pledge of $400 million in state aid by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). But the legislature rejected a proposal pushed by Montgomery lawmakers to include a geographic cost of education index that would have meant an additional $15.3 million to cover school costs as part of the $1.3 billion Thornton school funding law. Baltimore city and Prince George’s County also would have received additional money.

‘‘What we got in this year’s budget really was a slap in the face,” said Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Dist. 19) of Derwood, who calls the state formula for distributing tax revenue ‘‘disproportionate.”

For Montgomery to get its fair share on budget matters, taxpayers need the delegation to say, ‘‘We’re all going to have to vote against this thing because we’re not getting a fair shake out of it,” said Lapinski, of the Maryland Taxpayers Association.

‘‘I want some delegation members who are going to see a piece of legislation and are going to ask, ‘What does it really, truly mean for Montgomery County?’” he said.

Staying together

If Montgomery lawmakers need a theme song the next time they head to Annapolis, they may want to consider Al Green’s ‘‘Let’s Stay Together.”

‘‘If we could stay together as a bloc ... I’ve got to believe there will be a shift in the dynamic, in the way Montgomery County is treated in Annapolis,” Ben Kramer said.

The county ‘‘hasn’t yet figured out the best way to use its clout,” Barbara Hoffman said. ‘‘They need a more coherent message so every member of the delegation is pushing the same priorities. At the same time, they need to form alliances. They may be the biggest or largest, but that’s not enough by themselves. ... The most thoughtful legislators understand you have to have a win for everybody at some point.”

After all, lawmakers pledge to meet needs statewide, not just in their home district, Mike Miller said.

‘‘You got to remember that these are not county representatives; they’re not municipal representatives,” he said. ‘‘They took an oath that they are going to support the state of Maryland.”

Progressive Montgomery

Del. Murray D. Levy, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said Montgomery taxpayers ‘‘get back their fair share. I don’t think they get out as much as they put in ... that’s a progressive mindset.”

The progressive mindset means Montgomery is not afraid to raise taxes in order to support other parts of the state, said Levy (D-Dist. 28) of La Plata.

But taxpayers do want to know how their money is spent.

‘‘I don’t think any constituent wants to pay taxes if they don’t get value for their money,” Levy said.

Montgomery officials must be cautious to balance the needs of their constituents with the needs of the rest of Maryland, said Ida G. Ruben of Silver Spring, the former senator who was vice chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and who led the county’s delegation during her 32 years in Annapolis.

‘‘We have to help people in other parts of the state,” she said. ‘‘But at the same time, you can’t come back and say you gave all of our money away because we don’t need it, we can raise more with taxes. I think Montgomery County has reached its ceiling on taxes.”

Former House delegation chairman Charles E. Barkley agreed.

‘‘The county has been responsive to the needs of the state,” said Barkley (D-Dist. 39) of Germantown. ‘‘But we also expect to get a respectable share back from the state. We have not been getting some of that lately.”

Genteel no more?

‘‘Go along to get along” seemed to be the rule during the O’Malley administration’s inaugural session, but that is expected to change when the General Assembly reconvenes.

Observers expect Montgomery County’s delegation to assert itself.

‘‘Montgomery County tends to fancy itself a little more genteel than some delegations,” Ben Kramer said.

No more.

‘‘I think the days are gone when Montgomery County just did what everyone else did,” Hoffman said. ‘‘And I don’t think those days ever existed.”

Gail H. Ewing, a former county councilwoman from Rockville, expects Montgomery lawmakers to bring home state dollars for education as well as for capital projects such as a new $62.5 million District Courthouse in Rockville.

‘‘We are not the gentleman legislators anymore, and I think that is going to come through loud and clear,” she said.

Ewing said she expects the delegation to say, ‘‘If you want Montgomery County’s votes, you’re going to have to assure us of getting the courthouse or getting money back for education.”

Ben Kramer summed up the county’s attitude more bluntly: ‘‘If we start sending the message, ‘You kill my cat, I’ll kill your dog,’ then people will sit up and start taking notice.”