Election season makes Doug Duncan a big player in Leggett’s 2015 Montgomery budget

Like Lord Voldemort at Hogwarts, Doug Duncan lurks between the lines of Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett’s 2015 operating budget as a “He Who Must Not Be Named.”

In his budget letter to the County Council on Monday, Leggett never identifies his predecessor and opponent in the June Democratic primary. But he depicts Duncan as a profligate and reckless spender during Duncan’s three terms from 1994 to 2006. It’s certainly no mystery who Leggett is talking about. The two have debated these issues face to face. But whether or not Duncan is named in it, the budget rollout underscores how Duncan’s vilification is an important part of Leggett’s reelection message.

Leggett wrote that when he took over in 2007, he faced “the arduous task of crafting a more sustainable budget.”

“First, the County had to stop spending beyond its means,” he said. “Under the prior administration, tax supported County government spending increased by 36 percent in the three years immediately before I assumed office.”

From there, Leggett piles on the data points. County payroll: up 28 percent. Tax-supported county spending: up 128 percent. Total budget growth: up 112 percent.

“We have brought down the rate of growth in County government from the unsustainable levels prior to my taking office,” he said.

The numbers are accurate — as far as they go.

But the economy was roaring like a blast furnace during most of the Duncan years. Unemployment in Montgomery dipped as low as 1.9 percent in 1999. It never broke 3.5 percent, according to U.S. Labor Department data. (It has averaged 4.6 percent under Leggett.)

Money was flowing, and Duncan spent it, especially during the run-up to his bid for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

But Leggett followed some of the same playbook after he took office. While county government spending increased only 5.7 percent in Leggett’s first year — compared with 14.1 percent in Duncan’s last — Leggett signed union contracts just as generous as ones Duncan negotiated. They included wage and benefit agreements that Leggett had to renegotiate after the economy collapsed.

Duncan takes his own liberties when he talks about his economic record. In a statement Tuesday, campaign manager Kurt Staiger said his candidate was “proud of his record” as county executive.

“He produced a balanced budget every single year — even while leading the county out of two recessions; he maintained AAA bond ratings; and he left Mr. Leggett a $316 million surplus,” Staiger said.

The statement suggests that producing a balanced budget was an act of statesmanship. Duncan was simply following the law. The reference to leading Montgomery “out of two recessions” is also a stretch.

According to the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research, the early 1990s recession was long over by the time Duncan entered office in December 1994. The next recession, in the early 2000s, lasted eight months, ending in November 2001.

And while Duncan repeatedly talks about the county’s economic stagnation under Leggett, he usually fails to mention that Leggett drew the Big One — the 18-month Great Recession that lasted from December 2007 to June 2009.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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