Budget fight ahead in Md.

Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 17, 2011

Leaders from Montgomery and Prince George's counties prepared for the start of the General Assembly session last week with what has become a recession-era routine: They carefully craft expensive wish lists and then scramble for whatever they can get.

And this year promises to be even tougher.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to square ambitious spending requests from Maryland's two most populous counties with fiscal realities in Annapolis. Opportunities for less-painful state budget fixes have been used - as have federal stimulus dollars, which the state put toward key projects and school spending.

The counties are now playing defense and warily eyeing efforts in the state capital to shift some of the costs of teacher pensions to local governments, among other issues.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said last week that he would not propose shifting some of the costs of teacher pensions to the counties in the budget plan his staff is finalizing. But some in the General Assembly are continuing to push the idea as the state tries to close a $1.3 billion budget gap.

"To say that is a problem is an understatement," said Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D). A version of the shift in retirement funding under consideration could cost Prince George's $28 million and Montgomery $70 million in 2012, according to state figures.

When the session opened Wednesday, Baker joined lawmakers from the House of Delegates and the Senate to resist efforts on shifting pensions and to press for $15 million for the county's troubled hospital.

O'Malley has also forecast a possible pullback on schools funding, a daunting prospect that could add to the counties' budget challenges. The Prince George's budget shortfall is at least $77 million, and Montgomery's gap has reached $300 million.

Much of the session will turn on issues of money: how to trim it, whether to raise it and how best to spend what is available. Many local officials say they are waiting for the governor's budget proposal to know precisely what they will be fighting for, or against.

"I think it's wide open. . . . We don't know what we don't know," said Montgomery Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring). Once the governor shows his hand, "that will be the beginning of a 90-day session that's all going to be about: How do we negotiate the best deal we can for Montgomery County?"

In Prince George's, funding for schools and public transportation tops the list of items Baker says are crucial if the county is to shed its unfriendly-to-business image and improve schools. And, he said, even in tight economic times, state investments in Prince George's - a place with lots of developable land and underdeveloped Metro stations - is a wise long-term investment that will help the state and county rebuild its tax base.

"It's the one place in the area where there is great opportunity for growth," he said. "You can't grow it unless you have an education system that is improving."

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