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Montgomery delegation to focus on transit, education funds in 2012

By Sarah Breitenbach | The Gazette,

For Montgomery County legislators, the upcoming General Assembly session will center less on local bills and more on getting colleagues on board with the notion that investing in the Washington suburb benefits the state as a whole.

Delegation leaders said last month that in addition to bringing home money for capital projects, lawmakers will direct their attention toward securing money for transportation projects and education.

The Purple Line, a proposed extension of the Metro train system through Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, must be the centerpiece of the state’s transportation investment, said Senate delegation Chairman Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) of Takoma Park.

“A great metropolitan area deserves a great metropolitan transit system for its people,” Raskin told county advocates at a recent legislative breakfast.

“We are also fighting for a doubling down [of] our investment in education, which is the lifeblood of Montgomery County.”

Last year, members of the Montgomery delegation argued that the state’s law governing local school funding needed to be revamped.

The state requires localities to spend at least as much on education as the previous year, unless exempted, or face penalties.

In fiscal 2012, the county and school system spent $1.37 billion instead of the required $1.497 billion on education, resulting in a loss of $26.3 million in state aid in fiscal 2013 as a penalty.

Five other counties faced similar situations last year. School officials fear that unless lawmakers erect new barriers protecting education funding this year, more counties will try to slash the money.

Raskin and other delegation members admitted that gaining funding for the Purple Line through a proposed gas tax increase and bringing more education dollars to the county won’t be easy.

Part of the difficulty lies in the lingering perception that Montgomery is wealthy.

The quest also requires the acknowledgment that economic and political power have shifted from the Baltimore area to the Washington area, a difficult proposition for many to swallow, said Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery) of Silver Spring.

Manno said local lawmakers have to convince colleagues that funds directed to Montgomery come back to the state in the form of jobs, taxes and other revenues.

Still, he said, it’s a tough sell.

“Even if other parts of the state understand it, it’s an arrangement that’s worked out really well for them for a long time,” Manno said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) told Montgomery lawmakers that an increase in the state’s 23.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax, a proposal that died before reaching the Senate floor last year, will move forward this year.

“We’re coming [out of the recession] slowly but surely, and Montgomery County is the economic engine that drives the state,” Miller said during the breakfast meeting. “And I’m not catering to you or [patronizing] this group. It’s the truth.”

Many around the state do not realize that Montgomery’s demographics are diverse and changing, Del. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) of Potomac said.

Recent census data show that minorities account for almost half of the county’s population.

“Quite frankly, in Annapolis it’s still a challenge,” Feldman said. “The rest of the state, legislators from other parts of the state, look at Montgomery County as it existed 20 or 30 years ago — really white, affluent, without regard to needs.

“But we are making great progress, I think, in the state legislature, making the case that Montgomery County is changing, has challenges, has needs.”

In addition to vying for transportation and education dollars as well as bond money for capital projects, the Montgomery delegation is committed to legalizing same-sex marriage, Raskin said.

The measure, which passed in the Senate but not in the House of Delegates last year, had wide support in the county delegation.

Four of the 32 senators and delegates from Montgomery are openly gay.

“The delegation is unified behind it, and lots of us have lots of gay constituents, and this is a fundamental question about everybody’s equal rights,” Raskin said. “Montgomery has a proud heritage of being a leader on questions of civil rights and civil liberties.”

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