Montomgery May Hold Key to Tax Deal


February 09, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

What will it take to come up with a tax-and-spending-cut package in the General Assembly that passes muster with most Maryland lawmakers as well as the governor?

The crucial element could be an alliance of convenience among Baltimore City, Prince George's County and Montgomery County. These are the Big Boys in the State House and two of the three are already working constructively and pragmatically toward that objective. But Montgomery. . . . That's another story, and an old one at that.

For several decades now, Montgomery County has been the object of ridicule in legislative hallways. Its idealistic representatives to Annapolis have proved inept at applying basic political principles -- coalition-building, consensus-building and deal-making.

Instead, Montgomery's senators and delegates have tried to cover their bumbling by shouting loudly about not getting their fair share and by fingering Baltimore City as the evil

greed-monger that sucks up all the state's largess while Montgomery scrambles for the scraps.

Baltimore-bashing sentiment is once again being expressed by lesser lights in the Montgomery delegation, whipped up by county newspapers and columnists who make a nice living fanning the flames of this mean-spirited controversy. Montgomery wants more from Annapolis, and legislators want to take it out of the hide of Baltimore City.

The illogic of this situation doesn't faze them. Let's cut aid to the city that has 75 percent of the state's general public assistance clients, 52 percent of the state's welfare caseload, 85 percent of Maryland's AIDS cases, 50 percent of the state's prisoners, a tax rate that is twice as high as any other subdivision's and a shrinking tax base as the middle class -- both black and white -- continues to flee to the suburbs. Let's instead give all the state's goodies to one of the wealthiest and most affluent subdivisions in the United States.

Montgomery is rich, there's no doubting it, and getting richer. Fully one-third of the growth in the state over the last decade had occurred in Montgomery; its job growth in that same 10-year period has been 31 percent.

Yet this booming prosperity has brought a host of problems: a 50-percent surge in school enrollments, a large influx of non-English-speaking minority families, the second-largest number of emergency homeless shelters in the state (No. 1: Baltimore City), the second-largest number of special-education students (No. 1: you guessed it, Baltimore City) and 110,000 people who fall below the federal poverty level or are considered "working poor."

Compounding the county's difficulty has been the high level of government services Montgomery residents have come to expect. While Baltimore City parents worry about a shortage of paper and pencils in the schools, Montgomery parents worry about guaranteeing a computer for every kid in the county's superb school system. And they willingly pay for it through local taxes.

But the recession has illustrated that even an affluent government such as Montgomery can overextend its reach in delivering popular services to the citizenry: it is $185 million in the hole for the next fiscal year, a deficit that could balloon if there are more state cutbacks.

On top of that, the "no-new-taxes" crowd pushed through a charter amendment last year capping property tax increases without approval of a super-majority on the county council. No wonder Montgomery legislators are in a tizzy about getting more money from Annapolis.

Yet why blame Baltimore City for Montgomery's ills? It is a nonsensical argument.

Yes, Montgomery has real and pressing needs. So does the city, but of a far greater magnitude. Why not deal with both set of needs at this General Assembly session?

If Montgomery's shouters will calm down for a moment, they might see that they have a great opportunity to get what they want, quietly. They should be hip-deep in the on-going budget negotiations rather than standing on their soapbox.

City and Prince George's lawmakers are busily trying to hammer out a mutually agreeable budget deal that will help their local governments while winning favor from House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Gov. William Donald Schaefer. But where is Montgomery County?

A number of delegation members, such as Sen. Laurence Levitan and Del. Gene Counihan, are actively trying to work out a compromise -- and getting criticized back home for cooperating. Meanwhile, the Montgomery shouters are busy bashing Baltimore for no apparent purpose other than to vent their frustrations and satisfy xenophobic constituents.

That's a cheap shot, and Montgomery's lawmakers ought to recognize it. What's taking shape in the State House could include far-reaching changes in county aid. Will Montgomery's delegation remain a noisy spectator or will it decide to shut up, stop blaming the city for its own failings and take its place on the down-and-dirty political playing field in the State House?

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