Elrich’s First Veto: The Politics

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive Marc Elrich has a soft and raspy voice. Close your eyes and imagine that voice saying:

I just think that developers should pay their fair share.

Last week was a terrible one for Elrich. His chief administrative officer and emergency management director were blown to smithereens by the county council over the pace of the executive branch’s distribution of federal assistance funds. The story dominated the local press for days. Elrich responded to the council with this saucy comeback: “I used to be a legislator, and it’s the best job in the world because you can just say, ‘I want to spend this money,’ and tell someone to go spend it. And you don’t actually figure out how to do it.” There is more than a bit of truth to this, but the observation won’t improve Elrich’s relations with an irate council.

That came on top of numerous other headaches, including the ethics problems that forced the resignation of Elrich’s first chief administrative officer, criticism of Elrich’s mushrooming COVID pay liability, the beatdown the administration took from Governor Larry Hogan over reopening private schools, pushback over Elrich’s joking that the council was “fact proof” and the general drudgery of having to deal with the crises in public health, the economy and the budget spawned by the coronavirus. Whether one is sympathetic to Elrich or not, the stories about his administration of late have nearly all been bad. (One exception: the opening of the county’s first bus rapid transit route on Route 29, an event that would never have happened without Elrich.)

But all of that bad news is wiped away, at least for the moment. That’s because Elrich changed the subject by vetoing legislation providing 15-year property tax breaks for Metro station high-rise developers. What’s the new subject?

I just think that developers should pay their fair share.

Supporters of the vetoed bill argue that it was necessary to enable development of high rises at the pending Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station project. They feared that failure to act would doom or shrink the project. That urgency prevented them from examining other, more time-consuming, paths to a deal including an appropriation from the economic development fund (in which Elrich would get to play) or providing financing through the county’s economic development corporation or the Housing Opportunities Commission. But unlike those mechanisms, legislation is a highly public thing. By giving Elrich an opportunity to veto the bill, his critics on the council gave him an opportunity to go on offense.

But wait a minute, you say. The bill passed on a 7-2 vote, one more than necessary to override a veto. When the council overrides Elrich, doesn’t that make him a loser?

Those who think that do not understand how Elrich got elected executive. During his twelve years on the county council, Elrich was the sole no vote on a host of master plans, all increasing density. Yes, he “lost” those votes again and again. But he also picked up support in those communities from skeptics of the plans who came to see Elrich as their only champion. Those folks became a critical and expanding part of Elrich’s base. Few if any politicians in the county have ever won more from “losing” than Marc Elrich.

Elrich’s opposition to many new development policies have prompted his critics to brand him as a NIMBY. But there is more to his political success than pure NIMBYism. When you listen to him discuss development closely, he is making an equity argument as much as a land use argument. Here is what he said about development in 2002:

Our beleaguered middle-class is told that the County can no longer afford to provide the quality of life that made this place so attractive at the same time it throws millions in subsidies into the pockets of millionaires. We make great claims about ending welfare, but we’re really only changing the beneficiaries. What we’ve done is to recast developers as the new poster children of the Nineties. This blind devotion to growth is great – if you’re a developer or a tumor – but it doesn’t work so well for the rest of us who are better served by priorities that strengthen our communities and our schools.

In other words, throwing public money at developers reduces the money available for schools, public safety, health and human services, libraries, parks and more. Here is a more refined version of this argument from his 2018 campaign kickoff.

Elrich’s quarrels with developers resonated more when the economy was better, such as in 2006, when he was first elected to the council. As executive, such arguments come up less often, first because his office does not often deal directly with land use and second because the economy is in such wretched shape. MoCo has much bigger problems at the moment than “predatory” developers. But in a dark blue county in which Democratic primaries are the real elections for office, Elrich’s equity argument still has purchase when occasion calls for it.

Supporters of the bill that Elrich vetoed have good arguments on their behalf. It’s true that Metro sites have extra development costs. It’s true that, for the most part, high-rises are not being built on these sites. It’s true that transit-oriented development is superior to sprawl or no growth. So it’s not a crazy position that public investment should be used to make these projects happen.

But the bill’s supporters have two problems. First, they are making complicated arguments and Elrich is making a simple one. In politics, simple arguments usually beat complicated ones. Second, the supporters are making economic arguments while Elrich is making a value judgment. Most MoCo Democratic primary voters are not accountants or economists, but they do have progressive values. Broadly speaking, they agree with the notion that everyone with means – not just developers – should pay towards the cost of funding government.

On top of all that, consider the times we are in. The county’s unemployment rate is the highest it has been in anyone’s memory. Small businesses are shutting down left and right. Tenants are missing rent and will be, eventually, at risk of eviction. So what are we doing? Giving developers 15 year tax breaks. That’s how Team Elrich is going to frame this.

I just think that developers should pay their fair share.

Unless something strange happens, the council will override the executive’s veto. The bill’s supporters will get the policy win. But the political win? Overall, that belongs to Marc Elrich.