The lobbying has already begun, months before the start of the next budget season, for lower taxes in Montgomery County. And it is coming from a most unusual source: former county executive Neal Potter, the embodiment of Montgomery's unreconstructed left wing.

In the November issue of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League newsletter, Potter advocates a further reduction of the county income tax rate from 2.9 percent to 2.8 percent. He also advocates paying down debt at a time when Montgomery officials are again projecting a surplus of more than $90 million, thanks almost entirely to soaring income tax revenue.

"There may be higher priorities than a tax cut, but right now it seems feasible," Potter said. "On the other hand, the demand for more spending on transportation, education and for debt reduction have a pretty high priority. I personally am most interested in debt reduction."

That last part sounds more like the good-government guru that Potter became during his years as county executive and as a member of the County Council. Potter himself never got a chance to cut income taxes and in fact was forced to raise them 20 percent during a term as county executive that spanned the recession earlier this decade.

Montgomery officials now are paring back those tax increases--they passed a modest reduction for this fiscal year--and Potter thinks it's a good idea to keep moving in that direction as long as the gaudy surplus persists.

Yet Potter also believes that, although income taxes should be reduced, the county and state should consider increasing taxes on builders and motorists to pay for transportation improvements--through a gas tax and, perhaps, a development impact fee of the sort the council just rejected.

Democrats dominate elective offices in Montgomery. Potter is the godfather of one wing of the county Democratic Party, marked by a devotion to process and respect for the county's legion of civic groups. Former county executive Sidney Kramer, whom Potter defeated in the 1990 Democratic primary, is generally viewed as the leader of the more conservative, business-oriented wing of the party. The current county executive, Douglas M. Duncan, hails from the Kramer wing.

So it raised some eyebrows when Potter joined the Montgomery County Taxpayers League as a director last spring. The group traditionally has been a shrill one-note lobby for lower taxes and little else. But it has changed in recent months under the leadership of Cleonice Tavani, who has made it more of a fiscal policy think tank.

"I joined up when I found them to be helpful and not just crying about lower taxes," said Potter, who can't help being a little wistful when he considers what it would be like running the county in this era of plenty.

"We're proud of the record we maintained during a tough situation. But I guess it would be more fun now than when we were sweating through recession."

Beretta Gives Duncan $250

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has raised almost a half-million dollars for a possible run for governor in 2002 from a variety of sources--developers, unions, lobbyists and deep-pocket Democratic politicians past and present.

He also collected $250 from Beretta U.S.A, the Maryland-based gun company. The contribution precedes a General Assembly session in which legislators will decide whether "smart guns"--those that fire only in the owner's grip--should be the only ones sold in Maryland.

Maryland law hamstrings counties from regulating firearm sales, but Duncan has pushed gun control when possible. He successfully pushed legislation requiring that guns sold in Montgomery come with trigger locks.

So why is Duncan taking Beretta money? It's not enough to buy an ad or send out a mailer. And it leaves him open to complaints by gun-control advocates that he accepted money from the gun lobby.

Duncan said he accepted the money because Beretta is a Maryland company and it supplies the county police force with its firearms. He also accepted money from the company during the last campaign cycle.

"I've pushed for responsible gun ownership for a long time, and I will continue to," Duncan said. "They know my position on this issue."

A Web of Political Expectations

If having raised more than $900,000 in campaign contributions this year wasn't indicator enough of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's intentions, check the World Wide Web. The address www.townsendforgovernor.com is taken, registered to Friends of KKT in Annapolis.

Townsend is considered the leader among Democrats expected to seek the gubernatorial nomination in 2002.

But cyber-business speculators continue to play the Maryland political field. Both www.ruppersberger2002.com and www.duncan2002.com have been snapped up by a speculator. The campaigns of Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D) and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) would have to buy the rights if they decided to run and wanted to use those Web addresses.

The Web address www.ehrlich2002.com is taken, too, which means Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is weighing a run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, would have to buy the rights if he wanted to make use of that address for a campaign.

New Boss at Election Board

The Montgomery County Board of Elections has appointed Richard G. Goehler elections director, a job he has been doing on an interim basis since May.

Goehler succeeds Carol Evans, who retired six month ago after suffering a stroke. Goehler has been deputy administrator since 1992, when he came to the county after a career as an Air Force officer. His appointment as director takes effect in January.

Shipped Out to Appropriations

With the General Assembly session just six weeks off, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) has announced some new committee assignments, and Del. Leon G. Billings (D-Montgomery) is ticked.

Taylor has moved Billings from the Environmental Matters Committee to Appropriations, and Billings, a longtime critic of Taylor, is calling it a "political mugging." In a statement, Billings said he didn't ask for and wasn't consulted on the reassignment, which he said was retaliation for his opposition to the speaker's views on abortion, electric utility deregulation and environmental issues.

Billings also complained that his District 18 colleague House Majority Leader John A. Hurson likely was an "active participant" in his reassignment.

Taylor could not be reached in time for this report, but Hurson said he had nothing to do with Billings's reassignment. Hurson himself has been reassigned from Ways and Means to Environmental Matters.

As for Billings's move, Hurson said: "I think Appropriations is a fine assignment. There are a lot of people from Montgomery County who would want that."

Meanwhile, Taylor also announced some other new leadership assignments.

Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who was chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on public safety and administration, will head the subcommittee on transportation and the environment. Del. Sue Hecht (D-Frederick) will be vice chairman. Del. Joan Cadden (D-Anne Arundel) will become chairman of the public safety subcommittee.

Del. Wheeler R. Baker (D-Queen Anne's) will chair the Appropriations subcommittee on personnel. Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore) will be vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee's Oversight Committee on Pensions.

Baltimore's Eye on Annapolis

There has been a shuffle in the ranks of local government lobbyists.

Jeanne D. Hitchcock, a onetime lobbyist for the Maryland attorney general's office, will return to Annapolis in January to handle Baltimore's legislative agenda for the next mayor, Martin O'Malley (D).

Hitchcock will leave her post as chief operating officer for the NAACP, a job she took over in 1996 after practicing law in Baltimore. "Everything we're going to do will revolve around four basic principles: making the city safe, smart and clean, and promoting growth."

Hitchcock replaces Kevin O'Keefe, who will become the chief lobbyist in Annapolis for Anne Arundel County.

"I feel a little like a football coach," O'Keefe said. "But I think it's going to be a great opportunity."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this column.