Where Are We Going?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Your author has written over a thousand posts over the last decade about state and local politics.  Some of those posts were tough.  Some called out elected officials by name and others took strong positions on issues that were unpopular with some.  But none of them provoked a more negative reaction from the political establishment in Rockville than our three recent posts on the history of MCPS funding.

Those posts did not contain ad hominem attacks.  They relied on budget data to make a point: the county restricted local funding for public schools for seven straight years and relied on state aid to fund the school system until property taxes were raised last year.  We then recommended that the school system get small, steady per pupil increases to deal with their needs financed by restraint in the rest of the budget.  This was not enjoyed by the officialdom in Rockville.  Terms were used like “misleading,” “distortions,” and “over the top.”  But in the end, the response from Council Member Nancy Floreen wound up confirming, not refuting, much of what we wrote.  There is no real disagreement over the facts of the matter; the budget data tells the same story no matter how it is read.  There is only disagreement over how those facts are characterized.

All of this provokes a thought.  Everyone reading this post has suffered a huge defeat at some point in their lives.  What does one do?  Well, after regaining consciousness and asking, “What the hell happened?” many people try to reconstruct what led to the defeat and assess the various factors that contributed to it, including self-inflicted wounds.  Then a resolution is made to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future.  Sure, we often mess up again.  But sometimes we learn and improve.

For the Rockville political establishment, the 40-point passage of term limits was that moment of huge defeat.  It was the biggest voter revolt since two consecutive County Councils were thrown out in the 1960s.  Where is the self-reflection and soul searching in the wake of that moment?  We’d like to see someone in government say, “Here’s what we learned from term limits.  Here’s what will be different going forward.”  Anyone who does that would deserve great respect.

Your author speaks regularly to candidates who knock on doors.  There is considerable diversity in the views of the voters.  Development is one issue provoking different opinions.  “We need more jobs.”  “We are overdeveloped.”  “We need more affordable housing which is why we need to stop all this building!”  (Yes folks, that was an actual quote from a MoCo voter!)  But there is also a bit of unease.  “My kid’s school is crowded.”  “I pay more in taxes but I’m not getting more in return.”  “I’m having problems affording the cost of living here and I’m worried that my kids won’t be able to afford to live here.”  “The county doesn’t listen to me.”  These are not tea partiers or Trump supporters; these are Democrats who regularly vote.  This isn’t hatred of incumbents.  But lots of folks are asking the same question.  Where are we going?

The interest groups in the county are asking the same thing.  None of them feels content.  The business community, the labor folks, the PTAs, the Realtors, the civic community and the rest of them are all uneasy and some are downright unhappy.  They have more in common than they believe.  What happens when they start talking to each other?

The 2018 election will not be a normal event.  It occurs in the context of a stagnant economy, a school system in desperate need, a tight budget, abject failures in the White House and Capitol Hill and voter rejection of the status quo.  We haven’t seen anything like this in decades.  The good news is that the candidate field is outstanding.  Some of the incumbents have tremendous experience and substantial achievements in their records.  All of them who were in office in 2010 can claim credit for saving the county from complete fiscal disaster.  The non-incumbents are smart, energetic, diverse and gifted in life experience.  Many of them would make great elected officials.

But we need something more.  We need to ask: where are we going?  And where should we be going?  To do that, we have to honestly assess where we’ve been – even if it means breaking a few eggs – and then figure out how to move forward.  It’s not easy.  As the incumbents will tell you, the constraints are real.  Do you want to give more money to the public schools?  Fine – then understand the state’s maintenance of effort law and be prepared to raise taxes or control spending elsewhere in the budget.  Do you want to improve the economy?  Fine – then avoid increasing the difficulty of doing business in the county, especially when it comes to employer costs and predictability.  Do you want to increase incomes?  Fine – that involves a discussion of rebuilding the working and middle classes through encouraging collective bargaining.  Do you want to increase funding for school construction?  Fine – then you need to find new revenue or be prepared to restrain the rest of the capital budget.  Do you want to help immigrants and people of color?  Fine – then be attentive to the needs of small businesses, which in this county are dominated by owners who are immigrants and people of color.  Do you want to close the achievement gap?  Fine – get ready for some difficult discussions about housing policy.  We could go on and on.

These discussions are necessary for us to move forward.  They must be honest.  They must be driven by data, not ideology.  And they must not spare political sacred cows.  Because if we don’t figure out where we are going, we will wind up in one place.

Nowhere.  Nowhere at all.