The Washington Post

Montgomery chafes at legislature’s proposed spending regulations

“Maintenance of effort” might as well be a four-letter word around Montgomery County government these days.

The phrase refers to laws designed to protect localities from big cuts in funding to critical services. Public education spending in Montgomery has operated under a maintenance of effort requirement for nearly 30 years, mandating that budgets at least keep pace with enrollment growth. Before the economy went sour, the county council routinely funded K-12 education above the maintenance of effort threshold.

But council members were unhappy last year when state lawmakers, backed heavily by the teachers’ union, tightened the law so that any school funding above maintenance of effort was added to the following year’s “base” — or the minimum acceptable level of spending. It also restricted the county’s ability to obtain a waiver from the requirement. Officials say the new rule interferes with their ability to legislate, and respond to unforeseen financial conditions or contingencies.

Their unhappiness was compounded last week when three members of Montgomery’s State Senate delegation, Roger Manno, Nancy King and Richard Madaleno (and Douglas Peters of Prince George’s), all Democrats, introduced a bill to dramatically expand maintenance of effort. It bars the county from spending any less than it did the previous year for fire, rescue and ambulance services, corrections, libraries and transportation.

At a meeting to discuss its state legislative program Monday, the council voted unanimously to fight the measure.

“We are vehemently opposed,” said Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty). ”It just completely ties the hands of the county executive and the council.”

“This is a bad idea for so many reasons,” Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) noted on his Facebook page. “It gives government no incentive to economize or become more efficient. It guarantees perpetual tax increases. It singles out some functions of government as “critical” and neglects others, like health and human services and housing.”

The county’s business leadership is also upset. Bruce Lee, president of the family-owned commercial real estate firm Lee Development Group, sent an e-mail to the state lawmakers that was headed “Time to Resign.” He said legislation that constricts local government’s ability to cut spending tarnishes the county’s reputation and sends the wrong message to companies looking to relocate to Montgomery.

“How are you supposed to effectively run the government?” he asked. “The message is that we’re in a constant anti-business environment that seems to be the trend now in Montgomery and the state of Maryland.”

Two of the sponsors said Monday that with increasing amounts of state support likely to go to the county in the next few years, there is a need for more accountability. “Like the federal government requires of states,” Manno, the bill’s principal sponsor, said in an e-mail. As with education, “the bill would ensure that other state and local match dollars are used for their intended purpose.”

Madaleno said in an interview that he was surprised by the “overwrought” reaction, and that there would be plenty of opportunity for discussion.

“I think there is a legitimate conversation to be had if the state takes on a greater role in funding those responsibilities,” he said. “Are there consequences to moving down this path? Sure. Are there consequences I may not have thought about? Certainly.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.



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