Montgomery County is bringing a hefty list of requests to Annapolis this year, at a time of large budget surpluses but equally plentiful demands on the extra revenue.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and the County Council have compiled requests amounting to roughly $120 million, giving the county's increasingly powerful State House delegation a tall order to fill in the new session, which began yesterday. The list includes money for public works projects, social service programs and requests the county administration believes have statewide value or is making on behalf of state agencies. An additional eight transportation projects on the county's wish list could push the total above $200 million.
Consistently described as "ambitious," the county agenda is also realistic, county lobbyists and lawmakers working in Annapolis say, as the projected state budget surplus approaches $1 billion. The county's stature in the General Assembly has climbed since the last session, and Montgomery lawmakers now hold key leadership jobs in the House and Senate.
"The huge surplus automatically magnifies everybody's wish list dramatically," said Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the county House delegation. "We are lucky we have a surplus at a time when we have unprecedented power in the General Assembly. It couldn't have happened at a better time."
There are two wild cards for the county in Annapolis this year--Duncan's political aspirations and the intercounty connector.
Some lawmakers worry that Duncan, increasingly bold about his statewide ambitions, may hamper the delegation's ability to win state aid if he antagonizes Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the presumed front-runner for the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Duncan's plan to lobby for improvements in a beleaguered juvenile justice system, which Townsend oversees, could do just that, some lawmakers say.
The connector also could complicate the county's agenda. Duncan and the council enter the session at odds over the $1 billion road project, which would join Interstates 270 and 95 north of the Capital Beltway. Duncan wants to fight for the road--already ruled out by Glendening--while the council wants to sell off land reserved for the 18-mile route. The council has hired its own lobbyist to fend off attempts to resurrect the project.
Duncan, who has made winning state aid a key part of his job description, said Montgomery's capital budget list is more assured than its operating requests. Many of the projects have been funded in previous years and await the next installment of state aid, giving them an inside track on money this year.
Leading Montgomery's capital requests is $50 million for school construction--the same amount secured by the county last year. Duncan also supports state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick's request for more money to improve teacher development and recruiting, student intervention programs and other initiatives.
In testimony before the county delegation last month, Duncan said: "As always, public education remains our top priority. We cannot let this historic opportunity pass."
The list contains $5 million for the Silver Spring redevelopment project, $2.5 million for Gaithersburg's revitalization, $2 million for Glen Echo Park and $7.7 million for the Clarksburg jail--all projects that have been funded in previous years.
The most significant change from last year concerns Strathmore Hall. Duncan had planned to ask Glendening to include $14 million in his budget for the project to build a 2,000-seat concert hall adjacent to the historic Montgomery mansion. The state and county are sharing the project cost, which has grown from $68 million to $88.9 million.
The governor had given the county $6 million for planning work, and this year's request was supposed to pay for the start of construction. But county officials are asking the state for only $1 million this year because construction funds will not be needed until 2001. Duncan officials say the county will seek $28 million the next year, a large sum that council members privately worry could cut into other county requests.
"The state's committed to putting it [$28 million] in the following year," said Michelle Byrnie, Glendening's spokeswoman. "A request that size doesn't happen every day, but it's not that unusual."
The county's request for operating funds--costs that carry over into future years--may face a tougher time. Duncan is asking Glendening for $7.2 million for county social service programs, including money to pay for 22 child welfare case workers that was rejected last year. The governor has informed the county, which is now funding the positions usually paid for by the state, that the money will not be in his budget.
Duncan also is pushing Glendening to expand the state's earned income tax credit and health care access for low-income adults. And in a request potentially embarrassing to the Glendening administration, Duncan is endorsing the construction of a new juvenile detention center in Western Maryland to relieve crowding in county youth homes.
The Department of Juvenile Justice has been at the center of controversy in recent months after newspaper reports in the Baltimore Sun exposed abuse in state-run boot camps. Duncan also is asking the state to increase the staffing and salary for juvenile justice employees.
"There's always some issue that jumps up in the middle of the session and takes it over," Duncan said. "I think we've already seen it--juvenile justice. I hope this will make a difference."