2014 | Politics

With Little Debate, County Democrats Endorse Issue Questions On November Ballot

Effort to create 'Lockbox' for transportation funds tops measures facing voters

What a difference a new election makes, at least when it comes to the type of ballot issue questions that voters will face this year.

With little discussion and no controversy, the Montgomery County Democratic Precinct Organization Wednesday night endorsed three changes to the state constitution and the county charter on this year’s ballot – the most prominent of which would make it harder for the state General Assembly to use transportation revenues for other purposes. The county Democratic Central Committee then took just minutes to ratify the action of the precinct leaders; the party’s actions will be reflected on sample ballots sent out in the coming weeks to about 260,000 Democratic voters.

It was a stark contrast to 2012, when a similar meeting stretched on until midnight in a year in which the ballot contained hot-button issues ranging from same-sex marriage to aid for illegal immigrants to an expansion of gambling in the state. But perhaps the most contentious ballot measure two years ago involved a local issue: repealing so-called effects bargaining for county police officers. The fallout from the Democrats’ endorsement of that proposal led to a rift with local labor unions, and making peace ultimately required a major turnover in the membership of the county Democratic committee.

“I couldn’t get you quite as controversial a program as you had two years ago, but I figured you were entitled to a break,” Elliot Chabot, who chaired this year’s advisory committee on the 2014 ballot questions, wisecracked to an audience of several dozen Democratic officials and activists who gathered at Leisure World for Wednesday’s voting.

For a time, it appeared the controversy surrounding this year’s ballot questions might match that of 2012, drawing out activists from both sides to the polls in November. But opponents of a sweeping gun control bill that passed the General Assembly in 2013 opted not to seek a possible voter repeal, and foes of this year’s legislation barring discrimination against transgender individuals fell short of the signatures needed to force that question onto the ballot.

While hardly in the category of such hot-button issues, the proposal to create a so-called “lockbox” for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund has attracted the most attention of the measures that did make it onto the ballot this year. A coalition of business and transportation groups in the state have lined up behind its passage.

Locally, this includes the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, and the Corridor Cities Transitway Coalition – with the latter two particularly anxious to ensure that funds are there for construction of the CCT, which would connect the Shady Grove Metro Stop with the so-called Science City bioscience research center in Gaithersburg.  

But, while making it more difficult to utilize transportation funds to non-transportation-related purposes, the proposal on this year’s ballot would create a figurative lockbox that would not be all that difficult to pry open in the future.

At present, the General Assembly can borrow from the Transportation Trust Fund to close gaps elsewhere in the budget if such borrowing is accompanied by legislation promising to pay the money back in five years. Under the state constitutional amendment up for approval, the governor would have to first declare a fiscal emergency, and both houses of the General Assembly would have to go along by a 60 percent supermajority.

The amendment does not define what constitutes a fiscal emergency, and – given that, in Maryland, the Democrats generally control overwhelmingly legislative majorities – a 60 percent majority may not be that steep a hill to climb. In fact, some dissenting legislators sought unsuccessfully to raise that threshold to 85 percent when the proposal to create the transportation lockbox was first passed in 2013. The provision was attached to legislation raising the state’s gasoline tax for the first time in more than two decades, and legislative sources say the lockbox was intended in part as “political cover” against critics concerned that revenues from the gas tax hike would be diverted for other purposes.

According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, just over $640 million has been borrowed directly from the Transportation Trust Fund – comprised of largely of gas taxes and vehicle titling fees – by the state’s general fund over the past 30 years. During that period, a little over $656 million was ultimately repaid by the general fund.

But a particular point of controversy involves a separate fund known as Highway User Revenue, or HUR, which receives 5 percent of the total receipts of the Transportation Trust Fund. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has charged that more than $1 billion from the HUR “was diverted from local transportation projects and never refunded.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan was quoted in the Baltimore Sun this week as declaring that Gov. Martin O’Malley “robbed” this $1 billion to balance the state’s budget.

State and General Assembly officials take issue with such characterizations, saying the state, due to dwindling revenues and the pressure of the last recession, was forced to cut the proportion of HUR funds going to local jurisdictions by a factor of about two-thirds. In addition, the lockbox proposal on the November ballot will have no impact on the future handling of HUR funding, a state Department of Transportation spokesman said.

The umbrella group pushing for the lockbox proposal — the Coalition to Protect Maryland’s Transportation Funds – plans to spend up to $500,000 on a combined cable TV, radio and digital advertising campaign in an effort to ensure passage in November, sources said late Thursday. The coalition – an amalgam of business, labor and transportation groups – was set to launch a Web site Friday, followed by four-week long paid communication effort beginning in early October on behalf of so-called “Question 1.” A coalition source depicted the forthcoming ad campaign as an effort to ensure that a proposal, which deals with a complicated and sometimes arcane issue, does not fall victim to voter confusion and skepticism.

The other ballot measures endorsed unanimously or with near unanimity Wednesday by county Democrats included:

**A state constitutional amendment to enable counties to fill mid-term vacancies in the position of county executive by special election rather than leaving the appointment up to the County Council. This ballot measure originated in Montgomery County earlier this year, when County Council members – faced with a vacancy within their own ranks – realized current law allows special elections for County Council, but not county executive. If this measure is approved in November, a separate amendment to the county charter would have to be placed before Montgomery County voters in the future to authorize special elections for county executive. At this point, it’s an academic issue: There has never been a mid-term vacancy in the Montgomery County executive’s office since the post was created more than four decades ago.

**A county charter amendment designed, among other things, to require that candidates for one of the five district seats on the County Council must reside in that district at the time of both the primary and general election. Current language in the charter on this matter was considered to be ambiguous. Council sources said the ballot measure was prompted by questions surrounding the residency status of a couple of candidates for the Silver Spring-based District 5 seat, which arose after then-Councilmember Valerie Ervin resigned that slot late last year. The matter was complicated by a 2012 redistricting, and, going forward, candidates for vacancies would have to live within the newly drawn district lines if this amendment is adopted by voters.