For Fairfax and Montgomery, top priority in legislative sessions is school funds

Robert McCartney
Columnist January 4

When the Virginia and Maryland legislatures convene Wednesday, the focus will naturally be on how the incoming governor performs in Richmond and the outgoing one fares in Annapolis.

But ask the leaders of Fairfax and Montgomery counties to name their top priority in the annual sessions, and they cite the same goal: obtaining more state money for their fast-growing school systems.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The topic isn’t as entertaining as whether Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) can charm Republican legislators, or whether Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) can put the finishing touches on what he hopes will be a presidential résumé.

Instead, it highlights the fiscal pressures on the two school systems, each of which is the largest in its state. Both have been swelling by 2,000 students or more a year — equivalent to adding a high school every 12 months — while the recession and its aftermath have pinched revenue.

In Fairfax, the hope is that it will be easier to pry cash out of the new Democratic administration than it was under Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) would like McAuliffe to match his pro-education rhetoric by pushing for a major funding package for public schools. She said it could be similar to the historic, bipartisan agreement reached last year for roads and transit.

“If, indeed, his priority is education, then this is an opportunity for this to be an education year, as last year was a transportation year in the General Assembly,” Bulova said.

In Montgomery, the objective is to get a deal comparable to one that Baltimore procured a year ago for new-school construction. It enabled the city to piggyback on the state’s credit rating to dramatically increase its ability to borrow.

“This is Montgomery’s ‘me, too’ moment, seeking essentially what we saw in Baltimore. There is no way for us to maintain the quality of schools that we have without additional borrowing,” County Executive Ike Leggett (D) said.

Neither county seems likely to get all it wants this year. Neither state budget is flush, and the two governors have other priorities.

For McAuliffe, it’s expanding Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, to take full advantage of President Obama’s health-care law. For O’Malley, it’s increasing the state minimum wage.

Still, Bulova and Leggett are at least laying the political groundwork to squeeze more out of their state capitals in the future.

Here are two other issues to watch, one in each state, as the legislatures meet:

Will McAuliffe restrain his rhetoric? I’ve written previously that Virginia ought to expand Medicaid, but I also think it would take a miracle for the governor to persuade the GOP majority in the House of Delegates to agree to it this year

Republicans see opposition to the Affordable Care Act as their strongest selling point in the November congressional elections. They’re not going to surrender now.

This puts McAuliffe in a bind. If he pushes the GOP too hard on the issue, then the Republicans might be less cooperative about topics on which compromises seem more possible. These include reforms in mental health programs, the Standards of Learning tests and public ethics law.

Top Republicans in Richmond were unhappy over a forceful speech by McAuliffe in November in which he urged Virginia business leaders to lobby the GOP to support an expansion of Medicaid.

“It’ll be interesting to see if he can show a little bit more finesse of how to be for that expansion but not burning bridges, particularly with the House leadership, on it,” said a GOP strategist in Richmond, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the new administration.

Can O’Malley help his protege? The Maryland governor will do what he can to help Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) win the governorship. That will include pushing popular initiatives such as raising the minimum wage and expanding pre-kindergarten programs.

O’Malley wants a Brown victory partly to burnish his own credentials if he runs for president.

“He wants to argue not only that he was successful in the state, but that people effectively gave him a third term, by endorsing his handpicked successor,” said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College.

One thing to watch: Will Brown’s supporters in the Democratic legislative leadership permit substantive, in-depth hearings into what went wrong with the rollout of Maryland’s health insurance exchange? A genuine inquiry could embarrass both Brown, one of the top officials responsible for the exchange, and O’Malley himself.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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