Montgomery Opts for Unproductive City-Bashing

BARRY RASCOVER

November 22, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

In the end, Maryland legislators managed to do what was intended when they were called into special session last week. But the name-calling and game-playing could leave some nasty residue.

All of the political posturing and maneuvering came from one corner of the state -- Montgomery County legislators and some allies in Prince George's County. None of them, it seemed, wanted to deal with the real-life problem facing the state. Their only concern was the political difficulties they confront back home.

It was clear even before the opening gavel that House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had lined up enough votes to approve a measure eliminating the state's Social Security payments on behalf of local governments for teachers and librarians.

Yet legislators from Montgomery County and some from Prince George's County decided to play obstructionist -- though they ,, had no chance of winning.

On the Senate side, Montgomery lawmakers took dead aim at Baltimore City legislators, repeatedly castigating them for not helping them out in their rebellion. After all the years of coming to the aid of the city, this is the thanks they get?

Forgotten in this attempt at scapegoating is the fact that the city is as much a victim in the local aid cuts as Montgomery. The city is in horrible fiscal shape. It will lose $16 million under this plan. Layoffs already have been planned.

Yes, Montgomery loses $27 million, but its tax base and economy are so much stronger that the impact of this big cut won't be nearly as devastating as in the city.

That's why city legislators were so reluctant to sign on to this local-aid cut. But they rightly feared that any other deficit-reduction plan would be far harsher. So they settled for the lesser of two evils.

That's the way rural legislators viewed the situation, too. The elimination of the Social Security payments will hurt small counties badly, but any other aid cuts would have been far more harmful.

And yet Montgomery's lawmakers refused to acknowledge this reality. Instead, they created villains they could pillory: It was all the fault of the greedy city. That doggone, ungrateful city is picking our pockets again!

What absolute buncombe. If the Montgomery contingent is looking for villains, fingers should be pointed at Speaker Mitchell and President Miller. They're the ringleaders in the local-aid cut (though the cut makes emminent sense from a fiscal and a statewide perspective). All the other legislators are unwilling allies, nothing more.

But when you've got to bring home unhappy news, it helps to find a scapegoat. And in Montgomery, the easiest scapegoat is Baltimore. Better to saw off the city and let it float into the Chesapeake than to subsidize it further! That's the way the "Montgomery First" fanatics see it.

This might be sound local politics, but it makes for horrendous state politics. As could be seen in the House of Delegates maneuvering, Montgomery's lawmakers could well isolate themselves from the rest of the state.

If anything, their attempts to embarrass Speaker Mitchell and make life miserable for their colleagues in the House could make them pariahs -- and cost county lawmakers seats on key committees.

Unwittingly, they may have set the stage for an alliance next year between rural delegates, city delegates and suburban delegates from the Baltimore region. Montgomery could be left out in the cold.

Nor do the threats of retribution against the city make for good strategy. Not if Montgomery wants its share of parochial goodies from Annapolis next year -- like school construction funds or highway funds. Retaliation can become a two-way street, especially when the governor isn't in your corner. The county's best long-term interest calls for consensus politics, not vendettas.

No one in Annapolis doubts the pain Montgomery lawmakers are feeling over this loss of education money. Schools are sacred in that county. But all 24 subdivisions are suffering deep cuts in education aid. They're going along only because it is an essential step in erasing the state's $480 million budget gap.

Before the state finishes its fiscal juggling, other sacred local programs in Montgomery could well feel the ax. But again, the county won't be alone in feeling the pain. Every local jurisdiction had better prepare for big cuts in state aid. There just isn't enough revenue flowing into the state capital to support all these local handouts.

Before fireworks started going off in the House of Delegates last Wednesday, Majority Leader Bruce Poole pleaded with members get down to business, without bitterness or rancor. "The eyes of the state are upon us," he said. "We've got to prove to the people that government can get things done."

Later, he acknowledged the tenuousness of the situation. "We're trying to have a 'civil' war." Sadly, it didn't turn out to be very civil.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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