The budget war raging in Prince George’s County has exposed a bitter breach between Rushern L. Baker III and the nine-member County Council, after years of the council offering strong support to Baker’s ambitious initiatives.
Council members are frustrated by what they describe as Baker’s unilateral approach and have resolutely rejected his call for a major tax increase to generate new money for public schools. After a unanimous vote to override a budget veto Tuesday evening, Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) called Baker’s veiled threat to challenge the budget in court “self-destructive and self-defeating.”
The rift leaves Baker (D) without a willing partner to help him advance his agenda to overhaul schools, which he says is key to attracting new businesses, residents and wealth. And it threatens to distract from other major projects, including luring a new FBI headquarters to one of two sites in Prince George’s, building a new regional hospital and stimulating other growth that would narrow the economic gap between Prince George’s and its neighbors.
“The county has made great strides the last four years,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s). “The momentum forward has benefited us. . . . Antagonism doesn’t.”
Baker surprised the council in March by proposing a budget that would raise the property tax rate by 15 cents — from 96 cents per $100 of assessed value to $1.11 per $100 of assessed value — and pumping $133 million in additional revenue into the county’s poor-performing school system.
It would have been the first property tax increase in the county since 1978, when a voter-imposed tax cap took effect.
Baker said a 2012 school-funding provision gave the county the ability to raise taxes in spite of the cap and urged lawmakers to get on board. But they were loathe to add that much to residents’ already high tax burden.
The council ultimately voted to raise the tax rate by 4 cents, triggering the veto from Baker and a threat to challenge the budget in court.
The public spat is unusual for Baker and the council. Lawmakers forged a compromise with Baker when he pushed for ethics revisions shortly after taking office and backed his partial takeover of the school system in 2012 and his efforts to expedite the MGM casino project.
Many of those efforts, however, began with bills passed by the Maryland General Assembly, where Baker served as a delegate representing Prince George’s from 1994 to 2003 and was considered a rising political star.
The council endorsed many of Baker’s other signature programs, including a $50 million economic development incentive fund and a Transforming Neighborhoods initiative that sets aside additional government resources for the county’s poorest communities.
The council and Baker worked in tandem to broker a deal for a new regional hospital center and to promote two sites — one in Greenbelt, the other in Landover — that are being considered to house the new FBI headquarters.
Baker’s winning streak ended abruptly in November, when voters overwhelmingly defeated an effort he had endorsed to weaken term limits for the county executive and council members.
Baker campaigned for officeholders to be able to seek a third term, pointing out that neighboring jurisdictions don’t have term limits and saying that more years in office are necessary in order to achieve ambitious goals.
But council members refused to lend their support, and voters rejected the idea.
Generating more revenue for schools through the tax increase was Baker’s next bold move. He told residents and business leaders that rehabilitating the education system would be the centerpiece of his legacy.
“We’ve done a lot of the easy stuff,” Baker said Wednesday. “When you’re going to have to ask people to dig in their pockets, you are going to have disagreements.”
Council members accused Baker of ambushing them without seeking their input.
When the council voted against Baker’s budget in May, council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) commented that he could not think of one previous Baker initiative “that I have not given him full support.
“But there comes a time when you can’t do it all, and there comes a time when you have to draw the line in the sand,” Patterson said as he cast his vote in favor of a scaled-back budget. “This is one of those times.”
Baker held news conferences in an attempt to generate support for his proposal, sparking complaints from lawmakers that he was talking at them, rather than engaging in constructive communication with them.
After each Baker appearance, the tension between him and the council seemed to increase, and lawmakers grew more frustrated.
Franklin and other council members said Baker was unwilling to negotiate a lesser tax increase. The administration countered that lawmakers had not come to them with an alternative.
“It really didn’t allow for . . . meaningful discussion,” said council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel), who submitted an alternative school spending plan that Baker eventually discarded.
“He needs not take council members’ support for granted,” Lehman said of Baker. “You have to demonstrate you are willing to work with people, engage them and work through their concerns.”
Baker spokesman Scott Peterson dismissed questions about whether the budget dispute will affect future collaboration. “We are confident that the executive and legislative branch will continue to work together going forward,” Peterson said in a statement. “At the end of the day, we all want what is best for the County.”
Del. Alonzo Washington (D-Prince George’s) described the battle as a normal part of the legislative process, reflecting “differences in policy and approaches” between Baker and the council.
“The community as a whole and those interested in moving to the county need to understand that this is . . . what happens when you have checks and balances in government,” he said.
Lynh Bui contributed to this report.