The Montgomery County Council has started a fall session marked by questions over how to control development and lift up its poorest residents, familiar issues that have taken on new importance during a time of economic bounty.
In the coming weeks, the council will decide whether to impose a tax on construction to finance transportation projects and extend health benefits to the partners of homosexual county employees, and it will examine how best to address the plight of Montgomery's working poor. The debate begins tomorrow when council members take up a proposed local income tax credit for poor residents, which would be among the first of its kind in the country.
Innovative land planning and expansive social programs have long been the hallmarks of Montgomery's progressive political reputation, so in a sense the council is on familiar ground, several council members say. But the debate this fall will play out with far less consensus than in past years, when big social issues such as racial justice and fair housing united political leaders.
Today the planning and social questions facing the county are, by some measure, more pragmatic and made urgent by an economy that is spawning new homes, jobs and traffic even as it leaves behind many of the county's neediest residents.
"We have huge challenges, and it's time we faced them," said council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "The economy is good, so if not now, when?"
The busy agenda will highlight the competing strains shaping Montgomery politics today--a liberal wing embodied by a new activist council, and a fiscally minded wing represented by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
The two have been in constant conflict since November, when a new council was elected without a pair of its more conservative members. Since then the council has pushed a smoking ban, legislation to double the minimum wage for employees who work for county contractors and now a plan to tax developers to raise money for roads.
Duncan has fought those initiatives, worried that they could harm a private sector that is providing healthy tax revenue, and he is preparing to take a similar position on the development tax proposal. Duncan said the council's new term will test his ability to keep members from passing untested social policy, like the defeated living-wage bill, that he says could hurt the economy.
"Montgomery for years has been a progressive county, one of the most in the country, but coupled with that today is a much more realistic approach to the underlying economics and need for basic services," Duncan said. "A large part of my job is to make sure the council stays focused on the basics."
The biggest clashes between Duncan and the council could come over the proposed development tax and the pending proposal to extend health benefits to domestic partners of gay county workers. As envisioned, the bill would not apply to partners of heterosexual workers, who have the legal right to get married.
The building tax would charge developers as much as $8,000 per home in exchange for building permits, with proceeds matched by the county. The proposal would raise millions of dollars for road projects, but Duncan says it could serve as a brake on the economy. County real estate interests attended a hearing last week to criticize the proposal.
"This is what happens when the economy gets good," said council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large). "When buildings are sprouting up from the ground, it revives the age old question of whether developers contribute as much as they should."
In extending health benefits to partners of homosexual county employees, Montgomery would join Takoma Park and Baltimore as the only Maryland jurisdictions doing so. Most agree the cost would be minimal--less than $500,000 a year--but supporters also realize the issue has social overtones. In Arlington County, a lawsuit overturned its domestic partners program for violating Virginia law.
Passing such legislation became much easier after the election last year, in which William E. Hanna Jr., described by former colleagues as the only social conservative on the council, lost his reelection bid to Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), a liberal. Nonetheless, council supporters of the proposal know they are in for a fight.
"We will be hearing from the right wing on this," said Susan Madden, an aide to council member Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring), who is sponsoring the bill.
Duncan has concerns about the proposal, which he says would grant public employee unions benefits outside the collective-bargaining process. "I need to see it," Duncan said of the bill, which is scheduled to be introduced next week. "If the council comes in and starts giving things that should be negotiated while adding costs, then it takes away from our efforts to have good bargaining."
A broader social policy debate will surround Duncan's initiative to help the working poor, an issue brought to the forefront by the council this summer in the form of legislation to increase minimum wages. The living-wage bill was supported by advocates for the poor as a way to help a growing segment of Montgomery's population, and by unions as a way to make it more expensive for the county to privatize county services.
The council killed the bill. Silverman and Subin, who had pledged to support the measure in principle, changed their minds and opposed it.
Duncan's alternative to the living-wage bill is the earned income tax credit. The plan would return an average of $330 a year to 13,600 county families earning less than $19,000 a year when completely phased in two years from now. Other parts of the plan include proposals to increase health care, transportation, housing and job-training subsidies for working poor residents.
But more liberal council members say the plan does not go far enough, and they are proposing to beef up the package. Last week, freshman council member Blair G. Ewing (D-At Large) proposed an additional $850,000 in child care subsidies to open the program to 300 more children.
"The earned income tax credit is fine as far as it goes, but [$330] doesn't do all that much," said Andrews, author of the living-wage bill. "You can spread dollars thinly and say you helped a lot of people. But the goal is to have a real impact."