Opinion: How MoCo Can Win the Speaker’s Race

Opinion: How MoCo Can Win the Speaker’s Race

The importance of finding the right seat at the table in Annapolis

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With the passing of House of Delegates Speaker Mike Busch, something is happening which has not occurred in more than 16 years: a race for the top post in the House.  None of the three candidates (so far) who are running are from Montgomery County.  They include the delegates Maggie McIntosh (Baltimore City), Dereck Davis (Prince George’s) and Adrienne Jones (Baltimore County).  But that doesn’t matter, because no matter who wins, MoCo can earn a huge victory from this – if our Delegates play their cards right.

MoCo has long been perceived as having streets paved with gold by the rest of the state, but that hasn’t been true for a loooooong time.  The county’s challenges include a slow economy, a very tight budget, fierce competition from the rest of the Washington region and huge needs among its population.  From a state perspective, the thing MoCo arguably needs most is more education funding.  Right now, the state’s funding formulas put the county at a significant disadvantage.  Consider these three factors.

School Construction

State allocations for MoCo school construction have improved recently, rising from $33 million in fiscal 2014 to $60 million in 2019.  The county would have been a huge beneficiary of House Bill 727, a massive school construction bill lead-sponsored by MoCo Delegate Kathleen Dumais, which would have channeled $400 million to MoCo (and additional money to other jurisdictions).  The bill passed the House on a 133-3 vote but – incredibly – did not receive a vote in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which is chaired by MoCo Sen. Nancy King.

Despite incremental progress by the state, the county’s school construction needs are so dire that the county’s capital budget has almost stopped road construction in order to devote as many dollars as possible to schools.  One big problem for MoCo is that the state only funds 50% of its approved school project costs; Prince George’s (70%), Baltimore City (91%) and most other counties get higher cost shares.  As a result, while MoCo accounted for 18% of the state’s school enrollment in fiscal 2019, it received 15% of the state’s school construction funds.

State Aid for School Operating Budgets

State aid for schools is largely driven by wealth formulas which steer less money to jurisdictions with high incomes and/or high property values and direct more money to poorer jurisdictions.  This has long disadvantaged MoCo.  The table below shows state aid per pupil in FY19 by county.  MoCo’s state aid per pupil ranked 21st of 24 jurisdictions, with only Anne Arundel, Worcester and Talbot counties receiving less.

Kirwan Commission

The state’s Kirwan Commission is considering a sweeping overhaul of the state’s educational system, including its aid formulas.

Two years ago, a consultant hired by the commission recommended that MoCo’s state aid for schools should be cut by 63% while county taxpayers should pay 60% more to MCPS.  Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice, who chairs the council’s education committee, blasted the recommendation as “devastating.”  The full commission has not recommended any changes to aid formulas and the General Assembly will have the final say.  But as long as ideas like this one are bouncing around, MoCo has a target on its back.

What does this have to do with the speaker’s race?  MoCo has 24 delegates, the largest number of any jurisdiction in the state.  They will play a crucial role in determining the next speaker.  McIntosh, an LGBTQ woman from Baltimore City, appears to be on the verge of succeeding Busch.  Many MoCo delegates like McIntosh, in part because she is perceived as more progressive than her two rivals.  But MoCo’s delegates would be fools to give away their votes for free.  In fact, they should act as a bloc and agree to support whoever gives the county the best deal on school funding.  It has been at least a generation since MoCo’s House delegation has had such enormous leverage.  They should use it.

If that sounds parochial, well, it is.  And no one does parochial like the delegations from Baltimore City (which includes McIntosh) and Prince George’s County (which includes her principal rival, Dereck Davis).  In those places, performance is measured by the dollars brought home by state legislators.  Below is the header of a recent email sent out by Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks bragging about the state aid secured by “Team Prince George’s.”  As for McIntosh, when Baltimore City started losing state aid because of its overuse of corporate welfare, McIntosh passed a bill that would hold the city harmless, thereby effectively causing state taxpayers to subsidize the city’s deals.

MoCo’s delegation had a reputation for being patsies for the rest of the state for a long time.  Former Gazette Newspapers columnist Blair Lee wrote an infamous column back in 2010 comparing them to a group of nerds getting pushed around on the playground.

Two years later, most of MoCo’s delegation voted for a partial shift of teacher pension payments that now costs the county $60 million a year, more than any other county in the state.  That same year, a large majority of the delegation supported a statewide income tax hike that raised 41% of its revenue from MoCo.  But the county has had some recent wins in Annapolis.  The delegation spearheaded a huge push to get dedicated funding for Metro last year and has made significant progress on state school construction money.  Now the speaker’s race represents an opportunity for a real breakthrough.

Will our delegates give away their votes for nothing?  Or will they demand our rightful piece of the pie on behalf of a county at a crossroads?

Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.

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