Montgomery County residents hate feeling left out of a big policy debate. So they are none too pleased with the way the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is handling the discussion over whether it should become a private utility.
The first of two public hearings was held last week in Prince George's County over whether a potential $3 billion sale of the water and sewer agency would be a boon or bust for its 1.6 million customers. The second hearing is scheduled for Aug. 20--also in Prince George's.
State Sen. Jean W. Roesser (R-Montgomery) is complaining that Montgomery will not be the site of any public debate, something she has been hearing about from constituents in northern Montgomery. The area suffers from regular water shortages and is home to Little Seneca Lake, a reservoir drawn down this year because of the severe drought.
The WSSC is run jointly by Montgomery and Prince George's, so Roesser and many neighborhood residents say that the county should get a hearing date also. "One hearing, 35 miles from Germantown, is not what I call a realistic opportunity for people to voice their opinions," Roesser said in a statement.
Numerous residents called legislators, council members and newspaper reporters last week before the hearing. Some had heard only recently that WSSC is being considered for privatization, which would make it a regulated utility like power companies.
Supporters of the idea say a sale could bring $1 billion in revenue to the two counties, increase property tax revenue lost because of the public agency's tax-exempt status and potentially bring down rates. But others fear a loss of control should a private company take over the area's water supply, and word that several foreign companies have expressed interest in buying the WSSC has heightened such anxiety.
So far, though, Roesser's plea for an additional hearing has fallen on deaf ears. "It's the [privatization] task force's call to make," said WSSC spokeswoman Marjorie Johnson, "and they have not ordered one."
The WSSC must forward its privatization report to the General Assembly by Sept. 1. State legislators will make the final decision on whether to put the WSSC on the block.
Guns and Money
Gov. Parris N. Glendening last week took the first steps toward framing next year's highly charged debates on guns and money in the General Assembly.
Glendening (D) is calling for so-called smart gun legislation, trying to ensure that eventually all handguns sold in Maryland have technology that allows only their owners to fire them. And the governor and top legislative leaders said something has to be done to generate more money for the state's transportation needs. The state's transportation trust fund is running short of dollars. It is funded by Maryland's 23.5 cent-a-gallon gas tax and pays for road construction, mass transit, the Baltimore Port and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
So in recent weeks, Glendening has appointed two task forces to grapple with those issues.
The gun task force will be chaired by Col. David B. Mitchell, state police superintendent. The gubernatorial appointees include: Capitol Heights Police Chief William Harrison, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler (D), Allegany County Sheriff David A. Goad, Prince George's County police officer and state Fraternal Order of Police legislative Chairman Anthony M. Walker, Johns Hopkins University Medical School Professor Emeritus J. Alex Haller Jr., former Prince George's County sheriff James V. Aluisi, Maryland State Teachers Association Vice President Patricia A. Foerster and Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse board President Neil A. Meyerhoff.
Notice there's not a representative from any pro-gun group. If it feels like a stacked group, the governor has no apologies. According to his spokesman Michael Morrill, Glendening wasn't looking for advice on whether to push for the gun legislation--he campaigned on the pledge that he would seek it. He wants advice on how to get legislation mandating the best technology passed.
The task force on whether to raise the gas tax or find some other revenue source is blithely called the Commission on Transportation Investment. It has 30 members, including several top legislators, representatives of the trucking industry and local officials. It began meeting this week.
It may need that many people, though, to make the tough case that taxes have to go up for transportation at a time when the state's coffers are overflowing with surpluses from the income, sales and other taxes. Already, some top Democrats are saying privately that they may not support a transportation tax increase in such times of plenty.
Extra Credit for School
The administration of Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) is taking issue with a claim by Glendening that a school being constructed in the Largo area came about as a result of a meeting between the governor and community leaders.
Glendening told The Washington Post in an interview last week that he had pledged last summer to provide the necessary state funds to construct the Perrywood Elementary School. He made the election-year promise at a lunch meeting at a neighborhood restaurant with County Council member Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) and civic activists, both Glendening and Russell recalled.
"Out of that meeting in that little restaurant came that new school," Glendening said, adding that Russell was largely responsible for bringing the need for a school to his attention and to the attention of county officials.
Glenda Wilson, Curry's chief of staff, didn't much like the implication that Glendening was taking credit for a school in Curry territory. She called last week to complain and to offer the Democratic county executive's version of events.
She supplied 16 pages of "evidence" that shows that since at least 1997, the Perrywood school was on the county's wish list to be built. In a letter dated Dec. 8, 1997, Curry advised Yale Stenzler, the state's director of school construction, that Perrywood was being proposed as a park-school. Curry created the park-school concept as a way to share costs between the county and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission by attaching community centers to new schools.
Her records show that neither the state nor the county provided funding for the school until fiscal 1999, when both chipped in planning money. The state and the county budgeted construction funds for the project in fiscal 2000. Those budgets were approved in the spring.
Those bad boys of business are at it again.
The Maryland Business for Responsive Government (MBRG) has issued its annual report on the legislature and has concluded that although the Senate has become more attuned to the needs of business, the House is retreating like a bunch of liberal weenies.
Okay, those aren't MBRG's exact words, but the sentiment is the same. Unlike the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and other business groups that frequently try to tiptoe around the legislature as they plead their case, the MBRG, a tough-minded, conservative, pro-business group that doesn't formally lobby, is just as happy to step on toes.
And so the group's president, Robert "Rocky" Worcester, is blunt when he said his organization's expectations for the legislature weren't too high with Democrats gaining so much ground in last year's elections. Still, this last General Assembly session wasn't as bad as it might have been, he said.
"Most of my colleagues would tell you Walter Baker outdid himself," Worcester said of the conservative Democratic chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Commission from Cecil County.
Baker saw to it that efforts by the plaintiffs' bar to change Maryland's liability laws, now so favorable to business, failed.
MBRG looked at legislation pertaining to business to make its ratings. Overall, the business organization determined that freshman senators scored about eight points higher on its rating scale than their predecessors during the last four-year legislative term. But in the House, freshmen scored 26 points lower.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) had the highest score in the Senate. In the House, Dels. Janet Greenip (R-Anne Arundel) and David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick) tied for the highest score.
The MBRG ratings are distributed to more than 25,000 business and political leaders throughout the state.
Ruppersberger, the Rainmaker
From the Gee, That Guy Is Good Department:
It was dry. It was hot. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) was looking for officials to sit on a special task force to come up with ways to restrict the use of water as the state grapples with its worst drought in generations. And so one afternoon last week, he called Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger III (D) to ask for his help.
A half-hour later, a rainstorm began to pelt small portions of central Maryland, and Glendening's phone rang. It was Ruppersberger. "What else do you want me to do?" he said.
Staff writer Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.