Money talks -- and the talk is tough City-Montgomery Co. clash over cash is nasty, wide-ranging

March 15, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

For more than three hours Wednesday night, senators from Maryland's wealthiest county complained about the money that may soon be spent on a football stadium in the state's most impoverished jurisdiction.

The attacks by the Montgomery County senators and successful parries by their city counterparts revealed a much larger fight a dynamic that has set a pattern in Annapolis as reliable as the change of seasons. Montgomery County and Baltimore, jurisdictions 34 miles and a cultural gap apart, were clobbering each other over money again.

"It's like a schoolyard fight with antagonists in Baltimore and Montgomery County thinking it's great if they bash each other's brains out," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Democrat whose Western Maryland residency places him on the sidelines.

"When these two big subdivisions rumble, it rumbles the whole house."

Whether the subject is football stadiums, highway construction or school aid, again and again during the legislature's 90-day session, lawmakers from Baltimore and Montgomery are finding themselves at opposite corners.

City legislators blame the delegation from Montgomery for setting an agenda that attacks Baltimore interests. Montgomery lawmakers counter that they are just trying to assert their own economic interests.

"They feel the need to pound their chests and brag afterwards about what they did to punish the city," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city's Senate delegation. "They are the most parochial group I've met in politics."

Earlier in the session, Baltimore legislators publicly bristled when their counterparts from Montgomery accused them of railroading the $200 million Camden Yards stadium without a hearing. City lawmakers expected opposition, but not the vocal and unyielding stand Montgomery legislators have taken.

Tempers have flared nearly as much over the $155 million the city receives annually in transportation aid. Under a formula dating to the 1960s, Baltimore gets half of the money the state sets aside for local highway aid, with Maryland's 23 counties dividing the rest.

Montgomery legislators think that's unfair because their county is struggling to keep up with growth, while the city's population is shrinking. City lawmakers insist that urban roads are more costly to maintain, and that the ledger looks a lot more balanced when the money spent on state highways in the counties is taken into account.

"Every jurisdiction gets screwed because Baltimore gets too much," said Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery Democrat. "It's just not fair."

That kind of talk would have been unheard of as recently as a decade ago, when Montgomery County's liberal lawmakers were counted as city supporters. The county's legislators focused more on causes such as abortion rights, child welfare or the environment than on pork barrel politics.

"They were the city's allies even when they didn't work at it," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "They looked out for people in poverty and shared the same social conscience."

But a number of factors have changed that attitude. Montgomery is no longer the bastion of affluence that it once was. The white-collar recession of the early '90s hit hard, and federal government downsizing has continued the trend.

Moderate and conservative Republicans also have made political inroads by raising the fairness issue. They have hammered Democrats on a traditional GOP theme the redistribution of wealth from the rich (i.e. Montgomery County) to the poor (i.e. Baltimore).

"Ten years ago, we had two elected Republicans. Now, we have 11 in the state legislature," said Robert L. Clark, Montgomery's GOP chairman. "We don't mind lending a helping hand to our neighbors. But when they get more of our tax money than we get, that causes some problems."

That drumbeat of keeping tax dollars in Montgomery County has been sounded more by one person than any other: Blair Lee IV, a Silver Spring developer, son of the former governor, and a Montgomery Journal columnist.

With an insider's knowledge of state government from his six years as a lobbyist for the county, his columns and appearances on cable television hold Montgomery lawmakers' feet to a bonfire.

A Montgomery politician's greatest potential crime? Not being parochial enough.

"Parochialism can't be a virtue in Baltimore and a vice down here," said Mr. Lee, whom critics have dubbed the Rush Limbaugh of Montgomery County. "The money goes to Baltimore. The state agenda is set by Baltimore. The squeaky wheel in this state is Baltimore."

If conflict between the two areas was inevitable, it was surely worsened by the General Assembly's decision in 1992 to stop picking up Social Security payments for teachers and other local government employees. That program had helped Montgomery more than any other subdivision.

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