Riemer Property Tax Reversal Begins Council Presidency

How quickly times change.

Last week, Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1) proposed allowing Montgomery County residents to prepay their property taxes in the hopes of shielding them from the new federal tax limit of $10,000 on state, local and property tax deductions coming into force in 2018.

In Montgomery County, a proposal that shows opposition to Trump and allows many to save money on their taxes is bound to be a political winner. Putting it bluntly, supporting this proposal didn’t take a smarter political nose than the Lord gave a gopher.

Apparently, that still left not just the gophers but also Roger well ahead of his colleagues, including newly minted Council President Hans Riemer. Facing his first major public test as Council President, he explained to Bethesda Beat lo these five days ago:

“I think a lot of people felt there are so many uncertainties and unknown impacts for us to rush into this,” Riemer said.

He noted that council members would have had to support the policy without holding a public hearing or debating the measure publicly. Riemer also said the plan may result in less income tax revenue for the county.

In a memo to County Executive Ike Leggett, Riemer summarized:

[W]e believe that the serious risks of hasty action over the next ten days, for both our taxpayers and the County itself, outweigh the possible benefits.

Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large) strongly supported Riemer’s inaction:

“Roger jumped in with both feet,” Leventhal said. “But a majority of council members said no. We have a lot of conflicting priorities now and we’re facing a budget crunch. We’d be causing confusion and distress right before the holidays.”

This may well be the first time anyone has described having to pay less in taxes as a source of “distress” (!) Leventhal has loudly touted his opposition to all things Trump but blinked when he had a chance to take meaningful action. Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At Large) also backed Riemer:

[Elrich] said he didn’t want to support a proposal that is predicted to mostly benefit wealthy people who own expensive properties. If the county loses revenue as a result of the policy, it would likely result in cuts to county services for low-income residents, he said.

He described the policy as a “good political gimmick,” but added, “I wouldn’t want to run a government that way.”

An avalanche of opposition to this decision led to a Christmas miracle. The magic of constituent pressure caused the impossibility of a public hearing and the “serious risks of hasty action” highlighted by Riemer to melt like so much globally-warmed snow:

Riemer said the council will introduce a bill Tuesday, hold a public hearing and vote on it to allow the prepayments. . .

“If that’s what residents want, we’re going to make it possible for them to do it,” Riemer said Saturday.

“The urgency of this issue has really grown,” Riemer said. “We totally understand there are a lot of people that want to take advantage of this opportunity if we can create it.”

The Council had no idea the level of constituency anger – not to mention threat to political futures – over failure to act on this issue. Hence the growth in urgency over just a couple of days.

Despite having authored a post entitled “They Just Don’t Get It,” it was a still a forehead-hits-keyboard moment to discover that many councilmembers didn’t grasp that residents would prefer to save substantial sums on their federal taxes or thought that they woudn’t notice that other jurisdictions didn’t find the idea of collecting early property taxes too daunting.

Yesterday, Riemer explained the Council’s reversal to Bethesda Beat:

Council President Hans Riemer said that council members initially believed only the “most affluent” would benefit from prepayment, but later came to believe “it will benefit the middle class.”

He said council members heard from retirees, teachers and others who said the benefits would be significant enough for them to rush to put together the prepayment.

This explanation is more shocking than the reasons for his initial demurral. It means that Hans and his colleagues – the people who set our tax rates – don’t have much of a sense of how much their constituents earn or pay in taxes.

Adam Pagnucco outlined the effect of Republican tax proposals in Montgomery on December 4. I did the same on September 30. Neither post was exactly a revelation on this point, but Riemer says it was news to him.

Riemer was not alone in his inelegant pirouette. Leventhal and Elrich also reversed their positions, though Elrich continued to highlight concerns regarding budgetary impacts. Berliner’s County Executive Campaign is rather understandably touting his leadership on this issue in an email blast:

Aptly,“Bravo! You were the one that made it happen,” was one of the first constituent emails in Roger’s inbox today. As a result of his hard work, 40% of our county’s residents who itemize their property taxes can prepay and potentially save thousands of dollars before the $10,000 cap goes into effect in 2018. . .

Councilmember Craig Rice (D-2) was the only councilmember to stick to his guns and vote against the bill:

Rice said he opposed the bill because it will primarily benefit wealthy people. He said wealthy people already received tax breaks in the federal legislation and are going to be given another break by the county.

While probably a politically tough vote and somewhat unusual for the pro-business councilmember, Rice is at least saved from having to explain an abrupt change of heart. Moreover, Rice has a point. The people who itemize and will benefit from the deduction are unquestionably more towards the upper end of the spectrum. Those who pay higher rates will save even more by shielding income from taxation.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean that the great bulk of these people aren’t also middle class by local standards, especially when you consider the cost of living and the heaving mortgages that many people carry to buy a home here. Retirees who don’t have escrow accounts – and vote in large numbers – are also prone to notice the impact.

In the wake of the ignominious Council climb down, conservatives and business types can enjoy the spectacle of many progressive tribunes of the people, such as Councilmember Tom Hucker (D-5), loudly trumpeting how they saved you from higher taxes.


How Catalonia’s Separatists Won the Election Despite Losing the Vote

Nothing on Maryland today because I’ve been riveted by the Catalan regional elections. Instead, I wrote a piece for The Monkey Cage blog in the Washington Post explaining why the separatist victory is a manufactured product of Catalonia’s electoral system.

Despite losing the popular vote, pro-independence leaders are still claiming a strong mandate. Looks like the standoff will continue, providing for more political instability and threatening Spain’s economic recovery.

The next question is whether Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the largest pro-independence party, will try to govern Catalonia from Brussells, where he fled to avoid arrest by Spanish police after the central government ousted him from the same post.


CASA Endorses Elrich for Exec

From the press release issued jointly by CASA and the Elrich campaign:

SILVER SPRING, Md._ On December 21, CASA in Action announced its endorsement of Marc Elrich for Montgomery County Executive. CASA, a 96,000+ member immigrant advocacy organization, is the first civil rights group to weigh in on the county’s 2018 primary election.

“I am deeply honored to have the support of the CASA in Action community,” Marc Elrich said. “CASA in Action has been a leader on immigrant rights and economic justice issues and I have been humbled to have had the chance to work with them to move people to citizenship and achieve economic security for their families.”

In a crowded race, the CASA in Action board decided to endorse Elrich because of his outstanding commitment to immigrants and workers both during his time on the Takoma Park City Council and the Montgomery County Council. In the early 1990s, Elrich supported the establishment of the first day-laborer center in Takoma Park. He also strengthened Takoma Park’s rent stabilization law and directed city funding to community organizing efforts. Since Elrich has been on the County Council, he has taken leadership with CASA in Action members to pass legislation protecting domestic workers, improve legal protections for tenants, push back against master plans that eliminated existing affordable housing, and, most recently, raise Montgomery County’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“Time and again, Marc Elrich has stood shoulder to shoulder with our members to fight for a county where children can achieve, families can strive, and immigrants are woven into the fabric of every community,” said Gustavo Torres, President of CASA in Action.

During an election cycle that will bring vast change to leadership in the county, the CASA in Action board was able to consider many strong candidates, some whom – like Councilmember George Leventhal and Delegate Bill Frick – have long stood up for immigrant rights in their current roles.

“Elections require us to make choices about the communities we want to live in. This one comes at a time when the contrast between the lives of Montgomery County’s haves and have-nots could not be more stark,” said Mr. Torres. “Marc Elrich knows that a more equitable world is possible and is committed to make the necessary changes to achieve it.”


Running Locally? Please Stop with the National Rhetoric

Based on their emails, many Democratic candidates for local office are none too interested in the bread and butter issues of local government. Why talk about snow plowing, property taxes, and sector plans when you can run against Donald Trump?

Roger Berliner is running for Montgomery County Executive to fight for net neutrality and against federal tax legislation:

At-Large Montgomery County Council Candidate Seth Grimes is running on a similar set of themes:

As it turns out, Montgomery County does not regulate the Internet.

Similarly, George Leventhal is running for County Executive to fight for gun control:

Of course, the reason George’s “action” on the issue consists of a resolution that wouldn’t stop a BB gun is that the county cannot do anything on guns any more than it can regulate the Internet.

These three candidates are good examples but they are far from alone in talking non-local issues, so don’t think they’re remotely outliers. Voters are quite naturally fixated on the latest horrendous news to come out of Trump’s cauldron.

Among Democrats, there is no greater motivator than running against Trump and his works. My guess is that it works a lot better at getting people to open up their wallets than talking about the county’s budget shortfall or zoning.

However, as someone who writes about local and state politics (and Trump too), it grates. Democratic candidates agree on all of these issues, so it doesn’t distinguish them. Despite trying to gain points for standing up for “the resistance,” opposing Trump is truly the path of least resistance in scoring Democratic dollars or votes.

It’s all the more problematic because there are many pressing local and state concerns. I just don’t seem to hear much about them from many candidates who are busily trumpeting their opposition to all things Trump.

If you’re running for the Democratic nomination for Montgomery County office, tell voters what you’re going to do here. If you focus on core county issues and concerns, that would be even better. I’m even willing to stipulate that you are a fervent Trump opponent.


Revenue Shortfall Undermines Hogan’s Claims on Jobs

By Adam Pagnucco.

In 2014, candidate Larry Hogan ran on three issues: jobs, taxes and reforming Annapolis.  From 2015 through the present, Governor Larry Hogan has based his agenda on three issues: jobs, taxes and reforming Annapolis.  It’s a smart and focused way to campaign and govern and has largely (although perhaps temporarily) neutralized Hogan’s disadvantage as a Republican in blue Maryland.  But now the state budget is suffering from a revenue shortfall.  That calls into question Hogan’s standing on perhaps his biggest issue: jobs.

Recent polls show that jobs and the economy are the second most important issue for Marylanders, trailing only public education.  Accordingly, Hogan relentlessly promotes his jobs record in the press and social media, not so subtly using it as justification for his reelection.  But if employment was really surging, state revenues should be booming.  They’re not.

One of countless Facebook posts by the Governor on jobs.

Last week, the Board of Revenue Estimates, comprised of the Comptroller, the Treasurer and the Secretary of Budget and Management, voted to reduce the state’s revenue projection for FY18 (the current fiscal year) by $73 million.  The reduction included shortfalls of $92 million in income taxes and $33 million in sales and use taxes, which were partially offset by increases of $18 million in estate taxes and $17 million in corporate income taxes.

A summary of the shortfall released by the Board of Revenue Estimates.

Given the fact that the November income tax distributions were down by 26% in Baltimore County, 29% in Montgomery County and 30% in Howard County, it’s not surprising that the state’s income tax projections would take a hit.  In those three counties, tax planning by the wealthy to take advantage of next year’s federal tax cuts was probably a factor in their shortfalls.  The fact that Maryland has the highest percentage of millionaire households of any state in the country leaves it vulnerable to these kinds of revenue swings.

But that’s not all.  The $33 million decline in projected sales and use taxes does not relate to tax planning by the rich.  That’s a similar situation to what MoCo is experiencing as half the county’s shortfall comes from taxes other than income taxes.  Hogan is dealing with the same problem as MoCo’s county elected officials: for all their claims that the economy is strong, healthy economies tend to not produce significant revenue shortfalls.  Recent employment estimates are often revised substantially soon after their release, but current year revenue declines are something that governments have to deal with in the near term.

Here’s what Comptroller Peter Franchot had to say about the state’s falling revenue projections:

The revenue projections that have been brought to this Board for approval were meticulously and carefully crafted based on what we know … and the trends we are seeing … and the data we are receiving. Once Congress approves a final version of the tax reform legislation, our experts here will work diligently to determine its impact on Marylanders’ income and our state’s fiscal future and propose revisions to our revenue estimates where appropriate.

In other words, we’re doing the best we can with the information we have. But, here’s what we do know and here’s what the numbers tell us. While we have undoubtedly made considerable progress after the crippling effects of the 2008 Recession, with an unemployment rate hovering around 4 percent and stock market trends that are headed in the right direction, the fact of the matter is that thousands of Maryland working families and small business owners who were affected the most by the economic crash nearly a decade ago haven’t fully recovered.

We continue to see that with declining sales and use tax revenue. With wages and salaries that are lackluster at best. Even those who are employed with good-paying jobs have – in more cases than not – elected to put their disposable incomes in their piggy banks instead of putting money back in our local economy. And who can blame them?

With all the uncertainty that’s being produced by Washington at an almost daily basis, coupled with the continued fiscal and economic challenges that our state and our communities face, it’s understandable why so many of our citizens remain hesitant and timid about how they spend their hard-earned incomes.

Let’s remember that Franchot has a famously cooperative relationship with Hogan.  Even so, Franchot is saying that the state’s economy has not fully recovered from the Great Recession – which is exactly what we wrote about MoCo before the revenue crash.

This is the opposite of Larry Hogan’s message that he has been great on jobs.  His opponents are sure to take notice.


Busting Three Metro Myths

The six graphs – one for each Maryland branch of the Metro – in today’s post reveal the ridership figures for all Maryland Metro stops from 2005 through 2016. They’re not encouraging either for the health of the system or cherished myths around it.

Transit Always Heralds Urbanism

“If you build it, they will come.” Usually not. In Maryland, only three stops have become high traffic urban nodes: Bethesda, Silver Spring and Friendship Heights – the latter is shared with the District. The other 24 stops have not witnessed remotely this level of impressive urban development or Metro ridership. Outside the urban three, the highest ridership occurs mainly at end-of-the-line commuter stops, such as Shady Grove, Greenbelt and New Carrolton.

Transit advocates and developers are both very attached to this myth. The former because they believe fervently in transit. Developers like it because they are permitted to build far more when transit is built, which allows them to make a lot more money even if nobody ever rides it. Proximity to transit also raises the value of their property at somebody else’s expense.

The uncomfortable truth is that no nodes similar to Bethesda or Silver Spring – or Ballston or Rosslyn – have emerged in Prince George’s County. Leaving aside the terminus stops, ridership is not very high and certainly not growing. And the terminus stops have seen more precipitous declines than in Montgomery – 34% at New Carrollton, 21% at Greenbelt, and 20% at Branch Avenue.

Thriving Urbanism Heralds More Transit Riders

Not necessarily. Bethesda, Friendship Heights and Silver Spring have continued to grow yet ridership has declined. In 2016, all three served many fewer riders than at their peak – 15% in Bethesda, 17% in Silver Spring, and 20% in Friendship Heights.

Transit is a positive for these areas but it’s only one factor among many. It’s not that smart growth or new urbanism is totally off base. The focus on transit may lead to overestimation of its importance to successful development. Density and the mixture of residential and commercial looks more crucial to their continued success. It’s why places like the Kentlands thrive even though they’re nowhere near Metro.

There is little sign that less intense development around Metro stations other than the big three has increased ridership either. Throughout the Maryland portion of the system, ridership has tended to stay flat or decline. Remember that this has occurred despite population increases in both Prince George’s and Montgomery.

Declining Ridership is Temporary

Two major excuses are given for Metro’s declining ridership: the financial crisis and Metro’s “temporary” maintenance backlog. At this point, the former explains little as the recession is over and the population is now higher, so Metro should have more riders. The latter is belied by the similar decline in Metro’s bus ridership. Moreover, SafeTrack will not bring the system back to tip-top condition but simply prevent its complete collapse, as General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has been at pains to point out.

The wheel of technological change is driving changes in transportation patterns fast. Increasing numbers of jobs can be done via telecommuting. Competition from services like Uber and Lyft are remaking the taxi industry and attracting many new riders. Every price increase in Metro or its parking lots only makes them more competitive – and the price of both is likely to head up.


Doug Duncan Endorses Andrew Friedson in District 1

Former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan has endorsed Council District 1 candidate Andrew Friedson.  Following is Friedson’s press release.


Friedson Endorsed by County Executive Doug Duncan

Three-Term Exec. Calls Friedson “Forward-Focused Leader with a Proven Track Record”

Bethesda, Md. – Former Three-Term County Executive Douglas M. Duncan announced his endorsement of Andrew Friedson in the highly competitive Montgomery County Council, District One race.

“Andrew Friedson is a change-maker and a problem solver, a homegrown leader who knows how to bring together the public and private sectors to actually get things done,” Duncan said. “When our community’s growing needs continue to exceed our revenues, and as Montgomery County families are being squeezed with rising living and childcare costs and stagnant wages, we need someone with Andrew’s experience effectively holding government agencies accountable, scrutinizing public spending, and helping grow small business jobs. In rapidly changing times, we need new leaders, with new perspectives, and new ideas on the County Council. Andrew Friedson is that forward-focused leader with a proven track record, and I am thrilled to endorse him for Montgomery County Council in District One.”

Following the endorsement, Mr. Duncan and his wife Barbara are hosting a birthday fundraiser on January 9th in Bethesda to support Friedson’s campaign, along with Comptroller Peter Franchot, Senators Brian Feldman and Craig Zucker, former Congressman C. Thomas McMillen, and former Maryland Democratic Party Chair, Susan Turnbull, in addition to a large host committee of well-known community leaders. Along with the endorsement of the former County Executive, Friedson’s campaign has been noted for its fast start and impressive following on social media since he formally filed for the seat on October 5.

A lifelong Montgomery County resident and University of Maryland graduate, Friedson attended Wayside, Hoover and Churchill public schools. He spent the past six years as Senior Policy Advisor, Deputy Chief of Staff and Division Director for the Comptroller of Maryland where he focused on making government more effective, efficient and responsive, and previously oversaw a complete restructuring of Maryland’s $6 billion 529 college savings program. Friedson currently serves as Chair of the Montgomery County Collaboration Council for Children, Youth and Families, recently served on Maryland’s Small Business Development Financing Authority, and was a driving force behind a new state program which launched this fall to provide financial security and independence for Marylanders with disabilities.

Duncan currently serves as President and CEO of Leadership Greater Washington. In addition to his decorated 12-year tenure as Montgomery County’s top elected official, he also co-founded a continuous advisory services firm for state and local governments, was Vice President for Administrative Affairs at the University of Maryland College Park, was a National Account Manager for AT&T, and served as Mayor of Rockville.

For details on Andrew Friedson’s January 9th Birthday Bash, please visit http://ow.ly/k17t30h6GLW. For more information on the Friedson campaign, please visit andrewfriedson.com or http://www.facebook.com/andrewfriedson.



Johanna Berkson



Maryland Delegate Questions Criticism of Roy Moore

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a Facebook post in the wake of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s defeat, a Maryland GOP Delegate is questioning those who have criticized Moore’s history with teenage girls and the actions of other sexual harassers.  That history was key to Moore’s loss.

Republican Delegate Jason Buckel (R-1B), who represents Allegany County, wrote on Facebook:

I’ve not said a word about the Alabama Senate election or the swirling world of accusations, admissions, rumors and varying degrees of bad behavior by men– from the clearly criminal to the truly appalling to the unambiguous acts of poor taste to the fairly innocuous and easily overblown. I think that trying to litigate in the court of public opinion what did or did not happen 20, 30, 40 or more years ago in momentary, fleeting encounters or relationships and then view those allegations through the light of modern prism, as opposed to the conventions and norms of the time in which they occurred, is fraught with danger, although clearly rape, physical sexual assault, and pervasive, consistent, degrading sexual harassment have never been and never could be acceptable under any circumstances at any time by anyone.

Buckel went on to praise the policies of the Trump administration while bashing Steve Bannon, Moore and other GOP candidates.

In a comment later on his post, Buckel said, “But who knows – While girls Roy Moore stopped by a mall to say hi to 40 years ago are national figures, 99.9% of Americans have no idea who Doug Jones is and chances are his senatorial career will be exceedingly brief.”

Let’s review the allegations against Moore.  His first accuser, Leigh Corfman, described how he sexually assaulted her when he was 32 and she was 14.  Another woman, Beverly Young Nelson, said Moore locked her in a car and tried to force her into oral sex when she was 16.  Six of the eight women who came forward were under the age of 18 at the time that Moore pursued them.  These incidents were not in keeping with the “conventions and norms of the time” as the girls and their families were disturbed by Moore’s actions and he was banned from stalking girls at the Gadsden Mall.

Right now, there is a national debate going on about differing degrees of sexual misconduct and what levels of punishment are appropriate.  That debate will be playing out for a while before it is settled – IF it’s settled.  But the allegations about Moore’s behavior with teenage girls are far outside the boundaries of any gray areas, past or present.  He was not “saying hi” as Buckel stated above.  Elected officials who appear to make excuses for the likes of Moore should beware the voters next November.


Enviro Early Endorsements for General Assembly

By Adam Pagnucco.

Yesterday, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters (LCV) released its early endorsements for General Assembly.  We present them along with the early endorsements recently issued by the Maryland Sierra Club below.

First, let’s look at early endorsements for the Senate.

All early endorsees for Senate are Democratic incumbents with two exceptions: LCV-backed Delegates Ben Kramer (D-19) and Pam Beidle (D-32), who should have little problem winning their party nominations for open seats.  In general, the Sierra Club has endorsed fewer candidates so far.  Both organizations took passes on several contested Senate races.  They notably declined to support Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chair Joan Carter Conway (D-43), who is being challenged by Delegate Mary Washington.  However, both of them did support Senator Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-44), who is being challenged by SEIU leader Aletheia McCaskill.

Now let’s look at the House.

Again, all the early endorsees are Democratic incumbents and the Sierra Club supported fewer of them.  Many of the incumbents who have not yet been endorsed are appointees who have not served for three full sessions, like Montgomery County Delegates Pam Queen (D-14) and Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20) and Baltimore City Delegate Robbyn Lewis (D-46).

Let’s remember that both of these organizations will be issuing more endorsements in the future.  Several incumbents who don’t appear on these lists now could be endorsed in the next few months.  Open seat candidates will also earn support.  And the endorsement decisions in the contested Senate races, especially in the City of Baltimore, will be very interesting.  We will be watching!