Montgomery Council in ‘smackdown’ over tax credit for low-income families

July 15, 2013

A proposal by a Montgomery County Council member to modestly increase support for the working poor has triggered charges of hypocrisy, headline grabbing and petty rivalry over who on the council “owns” the issue of poverty.

The dispute involves a bill sponsored by Council member Hans Riemer (D-At-Large) to raise the county’s Working Families Income Supplement. The program bolsters the federal government’s refundable tax credit to low income working people, called the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Eligible households can receive credits of up to $6,000 a year from the EITC. Maryland allows residents to claim half of their federal credit on state income taxes.

Montgomery once matched 100 percent of the Maryland credit, but reduced support when the recession hit. The current match is 85 percent. Riemer would restore it to 100 percent by 2016, increasing the average credit by $124 to $505.81.

Riemer has the support of just three colleagues to date — Council members George Leventhal (D-At Large) Marc Elrich (D-At-Large) and Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda). At a July 9 hearing, a public employee union official called out council members for their tepid support.

Bob Stewart, executive director of the Municipal & County Government Employees Organization(MCGEO), juxtaposed the weak response with the council’s heavy participation in last February’s highly-publicized “SNAP Challenge,” an attempt to simulate life enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps.

Council members limited themselves to $5 a day for food, the average amount spent by SNAP recipients.

“Was that just posturing for the media?” Stewart asked.

He also compared the lack of sponsorship with the council’s vote in May to allow planners to expedite zoning changes necessary to accommodate a Wal-Mart at Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Ave. The giant non-union retailer has long been a target of labor for its low wages and other business practices.

“There seems to be a gap, or rather a gulf, between those who joined the photo op SNAP Challenge and those willing to do something substantive to close the real poverty gap,” Stewart said, “which is one of low wages and low income at the bottom and an increasingly illegitimate system of organized income distribution to the top.”

When Stewart finished he immediately got up to leave. Council President Nancy Navarro asked if he wanted to stay to hear her response to the questions he raised.

“I didn’t expect any answer,” he said. “I won’t even take your time. The proof will be in the vote, not the posturing and the public comments.”

Navarro and council vice president Craig Rice pushed back hard, defending the council’s record in supporting the poor, including expanded child-care subsidies, rent supplements and additional assistance in paying utility bills.

“I hope you agree that these remarks were disrespectful to our colleagues and to the Council as an institution,” Navarro said in a July 10 letter to Riemer. “The Council’s record serving the poor speaks for itself.”

Riemer, asked Monday if he did, in fact, agree, said he had no comment on Stewart.

Opponents of Riemer’s bill include Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), the driving force behind the SNAP challenge. Ervin said she thinks the bill is simply bad policy because it would lock the council into another annual line item expenditure — similar to the unpopular “maintenance of effort” state law covering school funding. Raising the supplement back to 100 percent would take about $3.9 million, according to staff estimates, bringing the total cost of the program to $20.6 million.

“It’s a terrible precedent,” said Ervin, who added that the $124 increase, spread over a year’s time, “won’t even buy bread and milk.”

Riemer said in a letter to colleagues that the $124 “could mean making a car payment or paying an overdue utility bill.” He also said Ervin’s comparison to maintenance of effort was “flat out wrong,” because that was a state mandate beyond their direct control. “We can change this law at any time by a 5-4 vote.”

But Riemer’s advocacy touched a nerve with Ervin during an interview Monday.

“I’d like to smack Hans Riemer. All of a sudden he cares about poor people?” Ervin said, emphasizing later that the “smack”was rhetorical only.

“Well it’s a great insight into what’s it’s like to work with Valerie Ervin,” said Riemer. “She feels threatened by any real contributions that other people make.”

MCGEO president Gino Renne, who approved Stewart’s comments, said the flap over the income supplement was symptomatic of a larger problem on the council — one of petty infighting.

In a letter to Navarro last week, Renne said: “It appears to a growing number of people close to the Council and to even those outside of the Council, that your opposition to the EITC bill comes not from policy discussion on the merits of the bill, but on petty rivalries regarding who gets to ‘own’ the poverty issue. Get over it.”

This report has been updated to reflect the current county match of the tax credit.

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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