D.C. suburb counties eye bloc politics Montgomery's leader spearheading drive for regional alliance

State aid is the prize

Powerful coalition could wrest funds from Baltimore area

November 10, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is urging neighboring counties to join him in a Washington suburban alliance in an effort to force more state aid to that part of Maryland -- and, as a result, away from the Baltimore area.

Duncan is making the pitch to elected officials in what he has dubbed the "Capital Region" -- the fast-developing, once-rural Southern Maryland counties and such jurisdictions as Howard and Anne Arundel counties, which are typically counted as part of the Baltimore metropolitan area.

"My main message is that we have very similar problems and very similar needs," said Duncan, a first-term Democrat.

But the underlying message is equally clear: Led by Montgomery County, the largest of the state's 24 jurisdictions, a Capital Region bloc would have enormous political muscle in Annapolis, where state dollars are doled out to the local subdivisions.

Duncan's effort is yet another sign that Maryland's population -- and the power that comes with it -- is shifting away from the Baltimore area, where it has been historically oriented.

Duncan already counts among his allies in this venture Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, a Democrat and leader of the state's second-largest jurisdiction.

But he wants to broaden that alliance by snatching up Howard and Anne Arundel -- both run by Republican county executives -- and bring into the fold Frederick County to the west and Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties to the south.

No one expects Duncan to get legislative delegations from counties as diverse as Howard and Calvert -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- to march in lock step behind him in the name of Washington-area regionalism. But reaction to his proposal shows that many local government leaders are serious about getting more state aid -- and are entertaining the idea of new alliances to get it.

"We're talking about the jurisdictions in this area coming together to discuss concerns common to all of us and maximize our impact in Annapolis," said Murray D. Levy, a Democrat who is president of the Charles County commissioners.

"There are going to be issues clearly where we're not going to agree, and our interests are going to separate," Levy said.

Duncan has been selling the idea since late summer, using as his priority a need for more state aid for education.

"Historically, the Baltimore region has done a better job of articulating its needs and generating the necessary political support," he said in a Sept. 22 speech to the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, where he and Curry spoke. "Wayne and I are here because, as a region, we need to do a better job of developing a strategic partnership."

The education theme grew out of a legislative fight this year over a state aid package to Baltimore that will pump $254 million into city schools over five years, the result of a settlement of three lawsuits over conditions in the school system.

Montgomery and Prince George's counties agreed to vote as a bloc against the package unless other jurisdictions received more money for their schools. The effort failed, but ultimately it appears that Duncan, Curry and others may get much of what they wanted.

Under a plan developed by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and unveiled two weeks ago, the state would send more than $45 million a year in new aid to local school systems, aimed at poor children. The proposal would channel $9.1 million to Montgomery County and $9 million to Prince George's County.

The Grasmick plan somewhat defused the education aid issue as a rallying point, but Duncan maintains other issues remain, such as school construction, transportation and economic development, that a Capital Region coalition could unite behind.

Reaction to Duncan's plan is mixed.

Some local officials are interested in the possibility. It is an attractive prospect for smaller jurisdictions -- those with fewer votes in the General Assembly and consequently less clout -- whose leaders have felt cheated in Annapolis at the expense of )) larger jurisdictions, particularly Baltimore.

"Baltimore City walked into state legislature and walked out with million," Levy said. "That gets you thinking."

Mark L. Hoke, the Republican president of the Frederick County commissioners, said he, Duncan and others have talked about a regional approach, particularly about school funding in Annapolis.

"I'm receptive to any course of action where there is a equitable distribution of assets to the entity where there is population growth," Hoke said, referring to his county.

But, he added, "We're certainly not going to sell our souls to anybody."

Other local leaders are, at least publicly, cautious about aligning themselves overtly with Montgomery and Prince George's counties. And legislators, who make up the policy-setting arm of government, are clear that they do not like the idea of another political force in the mix and consider it an affront.

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