For years, members of the powerful Prince George's delegation have traveled to Annapolis in one position -- with hands outstretched. With local property tax revenues capped by a strict charter-mandated limit, each winter saw new pleas from county officials for additional taxing authority or extra state aid, to which state representatives, after some grumbling, usually responded.
Though county voters have repealed the tax cap known as TRIM, money will still dominate the local agenda when the General Assembly convenes next week. However, county officials and state representatives are more divided on the issue than ever.
County officials, having spearheaded the drive to repeal TRIM, want authority to impose another tax, most likely on commercial use of utilities, to give them more money for education and other services. They said they want to plan more long-range improvements in those areas and to change the "crisis mentality" that has guided policymaking in the recent lean years.
"Generally what we've seen is a decade of avoided catastrophe, and the roof hasn't fallen in," said County Executive Parris Glendening at a briefing for the legislators last month. "But what we've seen is a sustained period of contraction of services. In my opinion that is not how we should be setting policy." Glendening argued that the repeal of TRIM showed "a momentum" in voter support for better schools and services.
Representatives to the General Assembly said that more money for services is fine with them, but not if they have to approve another tax to get it.
"The county has said there will be not one person fired from their job in the county, and there will not be a single budget cut if there is no additional money. I think most of us regard that as the bottom line," said state Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Clinton), leader of the county's Senate delegation. Instead of a tax, Miller said, he and other senators would support an increase in state aid to education, but other officials, including many delegates, say such an increase is unlikely this year.
Some state delegates believe the county can make do with even less money than it now gets and they have drafted a bill that would repeal an increase in the transfer tax on real estate sales passed by the Assembly last year. The county opposes that bill. The loss of the extra transfer tax revenue -- about $8 million -- would just about equal the gain the county expects from the repeal of TRIM.
What both sides do agree on, however, is that they want to protect the county from revenue losses that might result from changes expected this year in major statewide policies. There are efforts under way to curb health care costs, to shore up the state's racing industry, improve transportation, revise the state's gambling laws and improve higher education.
Specifically, both sides want to ensure that no Prince George's hospital operations are scaled back to help the state reduce the large number of excess hospital beds, most of which are located in or near Baltimore City. They want to protect the $456,000 the county received in fiscal 1984 from the operation of two race tracks. One current proposal calls for the closing of the Bowie Race course.
Legislators want to add funds for a study of intracounty transportation similar to Montgomery's Ride-On bus system, and they want the governor's budget to include more aid to the state's community colleges.
Several local bills affecting only Prince George's County have been submitted. One bill would increase the size of the Board of License Commissioners, commonly known as the Liquor Board, from three members to five. The size of the Board of Elections Supervisors would be similarly increased under another bill. Both bills were submitted by representatives of the Glenarden-based legislative district, which has the county's largest black population. Those officials are trying to get at least one black member on each board. The commission posts are among the last of the paying patronage jobs available in local government.
"These bills are about empowerment," said state Sen. Decatur Trotter (D-Glenarden), who submitted the bills along with Democratic delegates Nathaniel Exum, Frank Santangelo and Sylvania Woods Jr. Trotter argued that blacks, who comprise 37 percent of the county's population, deserve at least one seat on each board for their allegiance to the Democratic Party, which controls two out of three appointments to those boards.
Other local bills would increase the number of liquor licenses available in the county and provide an unlimited number of licenses for hotel chains. The county government, which usually takes a hands-off approach to liquor bills, is supporting the latter proposal this year -- as is the county's Economic Development Corporation -- arguing that the legislation would encourage more hotel construction in the county. Currently, individuals may hold only one liquor license and hotel chains may have only two.
Other liquor bills include one submitted by state Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Beltsville) that would prohibit the sale or transfer of liquor licenses until five years after they are issued. Another, by Del. William McCaffrey (D), would allow full-time liquor inspectors to arrest minors who try to buy alcohol. Currently, only store owners are liable if underage patrons purchase liquor illegally. The minors go unpunished.
Other bills include measures submitted by delegation Chairman Del. Charles Ryan (D-Bowie) that would grant collective bargaining rights to county library workers and establish residency requirements for members of the Board of Education.
As they do every year, county legislators are trying to bring home extra dollars for capital projects through bond measures, though few have yet been drafted or submitted.
Overall, however, county legislators are submitting fewer bills -- only 48 so far this year compared to 155 in the 1982 session, Ryan said. Ryan argued that more legislators are realizing that some problems can be solved through less costly means than submitting legislation. Others, like Del. Timothy Maloney, call it "a healthy trend away from meddling in local affairs," a sign that the county's decade and a half of home rule is finally being taken seriously by state representatives.
Dorman had a different view. "It's just because we did such a good job last year," he shrugged.