Maryland's ATM?

Our view: If Montgomery County is treated as a cash cow, it's only because that's where the "milk" is found

December 15, 2010

In the tony village of Potomac, one of Montgomery County's most exclusive enclaves, the average home sells for about $1 million, but it's not hard to find properties that list for a great deal more money. People living there generally earn more than those who live elsewhere in the county, but they also pay much more in taxes, too.

Yet when Montgomery County was struggling to pay for government services during the recession that hit eight years ago and raised property taxes at a rate higher than that of inflation (where it's normally capped by the county's charter), you didn't hear Potomac residents claiming they'd been treated as an automated teller machine by middle-income Wheaton and Silver Spring. Those who live so close to the nation's capital city are more sophisticated about government, economics and democracy than that.

So it was disappointing to hear Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett tell Martin O'Malley at a breakfast meeting this week that the county that provided so many of the votes to re-elect him governor should not be regarded as the "ATM machine for the rest of Maryland."

That Mr. Leggett doesn't want state aid reduced next year and his own county budget woes worsened is understandable. But how disappointing for him to adopt the inflammatory language of a raging parochial He's starting to sound like developer, political gadfly and community newspaper columnist Blair Lee IV who constantly derides the county for empathizing with the plight of Maryland's poor.

"Next to taxes, Montgomery's greatest export is moral superiority," Mr. Lee famously wrote several years ago.

Mr. Leggett, a child of the Jim Crow South, should know better than to play the "feel sorry for the rich" card. Montgomery County residents pay more in taxes not because the rest of the state hates them but because that's where the money is.

No doubt the county executive is most focused on a potential loss of teacher pension money. Right now, the state pays the full employer contribution to teacher pensions, a formula that greatly benefits Montgomery County, which not only has more teachers but pays them more money (and thus allows them to earn higher pensions) then other jurisdictions.

But here's what happens if in closing a projected $1.6 billion budget shortfall next year, Mr. O'Malley and the state legislature look elsewhere for reductions: Poorer subdivisions will get hit harder. Is that really a better or fairer way to go?

It's not clear whether Mr. Leggett's remarks were directed at the governor or to placating critics like Mr. Lee. If there is a rising anger toward the governor and General Assembly for shortchanging Montgomery County, it certainly wasn't reflected in the last election. Despite supporting the so-called "millionaire's tax," the temporary surcharge on high-income residents that was vigorously opposed by some in the county's delegation to Annapolis, Mr. O'Malley won re-election in the county with 68 percent of the vote. Mr. Leggett, a millionaire's tax opponent, was re-elected with 65.5 percent.

Make no mistake, Maryland is still experiencing a difficult economy, and talk of downsizing the federal government may translate into further job losses, particularly in the D.C. suburbs. Government at every level is going to have to make some tough decisions. State government may have some of the toughest of all.

But let them be made on the basis of genuine need versus financial wherewithal and not entitlement or politics. If Montgomery is hit harder than others, it's because they have more to hit. "For of those to whom much is given, much is required," President-elect John F. Kennedy said nearly a half-century ago. Serving the public good sometimes requires a modicum of personal sacrifice.

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