Pr. George’s looks for new revenue

As the Maryland General Assembly prepares for its 430th session next month, local and state officials say that 2012 could be the year of the tax and the fee. With the state already facing a projected $1 billion shortfall, elected officials will be looking almost everywhere for new revenue and ways to cut costs.

In Prince George’s County, which operates under a voter-approved tax cap that limits the county’s ability to increase property taxes, a budget gap of more than $100 million in a $2.7 billion budget is already on the horizon. New data, expected to be released in early January, could paint a grimmer picture.

For a county that is on the hunt for millions of dollars for school construction and a new regional hospital, the gloomy fiscal outlook poses particular challenges.

“We have to look at almost everything,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), a former state delegate who plans, as he did last year, to spend substantial time in Annapolis lobbying for his county’s needs.

Everything, Baker says, translates into a probable increase in the state’s gas tax, which has won widespread support among elected officials but is eyed warily by cash-strapped county residents. Everything also means discussion about bringing slot machine gambling to the county, and it means continuing the conversation about shifting teacher pension costs to the counties.

During the legislative session, Baker hopes to secure a commitment for the state’s proposed $200 million contribution for a teaching hospital, which would replace the aging Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly. In exchange, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has said the county should allow slot machine gambling and could use some of the money to pay for the hospital. The county and the University of Maryland Medical System are expected to contribute about $200 million each to the project.

Meanwhile, the pressure is on for raises for county employees, who have seen few pay hikes in recent years. And amid budget cutting on Capitol Hill, there is uncertainty about how reliable the federal government will be in funding housing, health and social service programs.

Those challenges, Baker has said, might force him and others to rethink their opposition to slots. As county executive, “it would be irresponsible,” he said, if he didn’t at least take it into consideration.

Although there is vocal opposition to slots among leaders of the county’s influential faith community, Baker is pushing for approval of a General Assembly study that would quickly evaluate the pros and cons for the county. Proposals have been floated to place slots at Rosecroft Raceway. More recently, there has been renewed talk of placing them at National Harbor.

The debate over the county’s fiscal fortunes also could end up coinciding with the move to legalize same-sex marriage.

Many in the county’s large African American faith community have said they are opposed and do not view the fight over gay marriage as comparable to civil rights battles of previous generations. Baker, like Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), last year hewed to the sidelines, reluctant to join the debate. Prince George’s lawmakers tipped the balance against gay marriage, and the issue died. This year, O’Malley has said he is supporting gay marriage; Baker is still standing to the side.

Whether Baker will be able to maintain that stance indefinitely is unclear. County lawmakers, Baker said, might find themselves asked to support gay marriage before they seek help from other jurisdictions to resolve the county’s fiscal challenges.

That probably will spark intense discussions in the county’s political circles. Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), who heads the county’s House delegation, is among those opposed to gay marriage. “I am listening to what my constituents want,” she said.

Although Baker is noncommittal on slots and gay marriage, he has taken a firm stand on some other issues. He will support an increase in the state’s gas tax; he is backing a nickel bag fee for the county; and he wants to forestall the pension shift or at least mitigate its impact on localities such as Prince George’s.

Baker is also seeking a change in an income tax formula that for years has benefited Montgomery County and other more affluent jurisdictions while penalizing less wealthy counties, such as Prince George’s. And he wants state approval of a tax-incentive program to allow Prince George’s to reduce some taxes for businesses seeking to locate in the county. “We need more tools to attract businesses,” he said. This year, he won County Council approval to set up a $50 million incentive fund to lure businesses.

“We need that to help build up our tax base,” he said.

Miranda Spivack writes about government and politics in the suburbs, based in the Post’s bureau in Largo in Prince George’s County.
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