At their end-of-session dinner reception in Annapolis last week, members of the Montgomery County legislative delegation happily sipped wine and dipped strawberries in chocolate, but the underlying mood was bittersweet at best.
After nearly a decade of fat appropriations and policy victories, 2003 has been mostly a dreadful year.
"The best way I can put it is, it was a survival year," said Melanie L. Wenger, the county's lobbyist in Annapolis.
The worst news for the county was in the 2004 budget, in which key proposals for transportation and education slipped away as Democratic lawmakers attempted to broker peace with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"We took several hits," Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said. "We're going to have a tougher time funding our budget because of the actions of the governor and the General Assembly."
Stripped from the budget were hundreds of millions of dollars needed to fund transit initiatives sought by Duncan. The county lost $10.3 million in highway funding and $6 million in teacher challenge grants.
Duncan also failed in an attempt to raise an added $10 million through legislation to close a loophole that has enabled corporations to buy and sell property without paying transfer taxes. In addition, although the legislature agreed in its final day to a county-only surcharge to state vehicle registration fees, Duncan's top legislative priority, the bill appears headed for a veto.
"There is a lot of pressure on the governor to veto that bill," said Paul Schurick, a top Ehrlich aide. "There is both political pressure and pressure from those who believe it will open a Pandora's box" by allowing local government to piggyback on any number of state fees.
Duncan said the loss of the vehicle surcharge would be a major setback for his "Go Montgomery" plan to build roads and add bus routes in an effort to reduce traffic.
A number of local bond bills, measures that allow lawmakers to deliver money directly to projects in their districts, were also stripped from the final budget. Among those lost were funds for the Chelsea School and the Whitman-Walker Clinic, both in Silver Spring.
Duncan also said he saw the start of an ugly trend in the state's willingness to pass along the costs of state activities to local government.
In 2004, the state will for the first time bill counties for crime lab costs, tax assessments and for judges' law clerks. For Montgomery, that will mean an added $2 million in expenses.
But not all the results were grim, said new delegation Chairman Del. Charles E. Barkley (D). The legislature, for instance, approved the county's request to install speed cameras on roads.
The county received $6.4 million for continued work on the Performing Arts Center at Strathmore Hall, an $89 million project that will include a 2,000-seat concert hall on the grounds of the historic mansion along Rockville Pike in North Bethesda. The county also will get $46 million for construction of the Center for Advanced Research and Biotechnology in Shady Grove, and the county will receive $800,000 for work on the county detention center.
The county's delegation ended the session divided on a bill that, had it passed, would have allowed Montgomery to upgrade its campaign finance rules.
The legislature passed a plan to allow Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) to replace members of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
For the county's lawmakers, this year represented their first real test of two-party government in Annapolis. Barkley said he found the experiment frustrating.
"I really believe the Democrats and the Republicans were at odds," he said. "I hope we'll do better at mending fences next year. Everyone will be better served if we can."