By Adam Pagnucco.
There are a lot of reasons to pay attention to the races for president and Congress: social justice, climate change, the pandemic, the economy, the fate of planet Earth… you get the idea. Here’s one more reason. If you’re a MoCo taxpayer, the fiscal fate of your county government might depend on what happens in Washington. And right now, that fate is not looking great.
Here’s why: since the summer, MoCo has been praying for a federal bailout. The reasons include:
1. The county is facing a revenue shortfall currently estimated at $192 million in this fiscal year and more than a billion dollars over the next six years.
2. In July, the county passed a nothing-burger savings plan that relied to a great extent on lapses rather than actual cuts.
3. From January through mid-September, the county council spent $28 million out of reserves.
4. The county executive has entered into open-ended agreements with county employee unions to give them emergency pay which could total $100 million over the course of a year. (Employees at MCPS, the college and park and planning are not covered by these agreements.) MoCo’s emergency pay is far more generous than offered by any other jurisdiction in the region.
5. Counting both appropriations and placeholders, the county’s share of federal CARES Act money is already spoken for.
6. The county’s own emergency management director has expressed skepticism in public that FEMA will reimburse the county for a meaningful share of its COVID expenses.
7. The county has ended its hiring freeze and is filling positions across many different departments, including ones not directly related to the pandemic emergency.
But who needs fiscal discipline when a blue wave sweeps over Washington, giving the Democrats total control of the federal government? And then they can solve all of MoCo’s financial problems with the biggest state and local government aid package in U.S. history. Right?
As anyone not hiding on Mars has noticed, the federal elections have not gone as planned for Democrats. Three scenarios seem plausible, all with troubling consequences for MoCo.
President Donald Trump wins reelection.
This is obviously awful for many reasons. One of them is that Vice-President Mike Pence can break ties in the U.S. Senate, giving GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell extra latitude in his chamber.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden defeats Trump but Republicans hold control of the Senate.
This is better than a second Trump term but let’s remember that McConnell once said he would prefer that state and local governments go bankrupt rather than get more federal aid. Additionally, the last thing McConnell would want is to give Biden a big win with tons of federal money for blue localities like MoCo.
Biden wins and Democrats get razor-thin control of the Senate.
Even if Democrats win the Senate, McConnell could use the filibuster to block or reduce more federal aid. Would Democrats repeal the legislative filibuster with control of the Senate hanging on a vote or two?
Clearly, a huge bailout for MoCo is far from a sure thing under any of these scenarios. It’s also not helpful that the Democratic majority in the U.S. House could be the smallest held by either party in 20 years.
MoCo’s bailout bet was always a bad one. At the very least, a bit of restraint was in order. But we are now one-third of the way into the current fiscal year and any budget adjustments made now will be more severe than if they were put into effect months ago. The mess is getting harder to clean up, not easier.
Is anyone going to bring order to the budget or are we headed for another tax hike?