Judging by this year's Committee for Montgomery Legislative Breakfast, children and roads will get a lot of attention in the next General Assembly session. And with the state budget surplus approaching $1 billion, politicians have lost their best excuse--not enough money, sorry--to deflect advocacy groups in their quest for funding.
But wealth brings its own set of challenges, state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore) told several hundred guests at the breakfast last week. Hoffman, the powerful chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, survived the bad fiscal times earlier this decade but isn't sure the good ones are much easier.
"It's almost as hard to govern with a lot of money than with no money," she told the crowd. "All priorities rise to the top. So we have to make some decisions."
The breakfast is the annual event in which state and Montgomery County leaders outline their plans for the session that begins next month and runs 90 days. And Hoffman, the keynote speaker, made clear that she sides with many of the most powerful legislators in Annapolis in supporting construction of the intercounty connector linking Interstates 270 and 95.
Not only did she say as much--to applause at an event drawing many corporate types--but she also noted that her emerald green suit was testament to her fear of traffic. She woke up at 4:30 a.m. to make the trip from Baltimore to Rockville, and she candidly told the crowd that her outfit was the same one she wore the previous evening to the inauguration of Baltimore's new mayor, Martin O'Malley.
"You have to build an east-west road," she said, without offering how the county would do that when Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has ruled it out.
The event was also the first time new council President Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), the occasionally cranky populist, outlined his agenda for the coming year. The Vietnam veteran declared war on the minority achievement gap in county public schools--literally--and asked the crowd to enlist.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), Subin's friend or foe depending on the day and issue, introduced the new president by alluding to the joke he delivered during his state-of-the-county speech the previous night. He asked Subin, short compared to the 6-foot-4 Duncan, to stand up. After he did, Duncan jibed: "No, Mike, stand up."
Subin, who managed to work in quotes from Oscar Wilde, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln during the 15-minute speech, picked up the theme. Leading into his Lincoln reference, Subin referred to the words of a "really smart, tall guy."
"No," he said with comedic pause, "not me."
Help Through the Tangle
First came an inspector general. Now the Montgomery County Council has created the position of people's counsel to help residents negotiate the thicket of land-use regulations and challenge projects they believe conflict with them.
The council last week appointed Martin Klauber to the $85,000-a-year post. Klauber, a lawyer and a former zoning hearing examiner, will begin a 3 1/2-year term starting Jan. 3.
In his role, Klauber will assist residents and civic organizations in the land-use process, as complicated a set of rules as exists in county bureaucracy. He will have the authority to participate in certain proceedings before the Board of Appeals, the hearing examiner, the planning board and the council.
Klauber was co-founder of the Maryland Land Use Round Table and is a frequent guest lecturer at area universities.
Funding for school construction once again tops the list of legislative priorities that Prince George's County lawmakers will carry with them to Annapolis for the General Assembly session.
County leaders are seeking $44 million for an accelerated school construction program that requires design funding for seven new elementary schools and money to demolish and replace Bladensburg High School.
Prince George's County already has General Assembly approval to build 13 new schools as a result of a deal between county leaders and the state to end nearly three decades of court-ordered busing.
But County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) has said that 26 new schools are needed to allow students to return to classrooms in their neighborhoods.
The county also is asking for $43 million to extend Metro's Blue Line to the Largo Town Center and for $35 million to develop the New Carrollton and College Park Metro stations.
Singling Out a Mixed Use
Howard County officials lament the lack of success they've had in promoting mixed-use centers, developments designed to fight sprawl by combining commercial and residential uses in creative ways. A decade ago, they earmarked half a dozen parcels for mixed use, but so far, none of them contains such a project.
Now, the county is abandoning its original intentions for one of the sites, a 25-acre spot in Ellicott City that the county wants for itself. County Executive James N. Robey (D) has proposed buying the land, along Rogers Avenue just off Route 40, to build a consolidated county office complex. Howard's government offices are currently spread among four sites, not including its courthouse.
The county has reached an agreement with the owner to buy the land for $3.175 million. Public Works Director James M. Irvin said that Robey directed them to look only in Ellicott City for the land and that the Weissberg property was "the only undeveloped parcel that size in the area." Would the county save that parcel for mixed use and look elsewhere? "That will not happen," Irvin said.
Planning and Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter said one of the original goals in marking that site for mixed-use development was to keep traffic from worsening. Now, he said, "we'll have a little bit more traffic there."
The legislation introduced last week to allow the budget transfer is expected to be voted on by the County Council the first week in January.
Staff writer Angela Paik contributed to this column.