Tag Archives: Nancy Floreen

The County Executive’s Least Known Power

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s Charter lays out the County Executive’s powers and responsibilities.  The best known include nominating department heads, drafting recommended operating and capital budgets, vetoing legislation, representing the county in public and in Annapolis and directing the operations of county government.  It’s a powerful office.  But the least known, and one of the most interesting, powers of the Executive doesn’t appear in the charter and has not been used in more than thirty years.  If it is exercised by the next Executive, its use could have a significant impact on the county’s future direction.

Land use is a huge issue in county government.  It is largely the province of the County Council and the Planning Board.  The board makes many recommendations to the council on master plans, zoning, impact taxes, transportation projects, its own agency budget and numerous other matters.  In serving in its advisory capacity, the board’s recommendations are subject to final action by the council.  But the board has its own powers too, especially in deciding preliminary plans, site plans and other development applications.  Individual projects need to conform to applicable master plans, statutes and regulations but it is the board that decides how and whether they do.  That’s an enormous amount of authority resting with the board.

The five Planning Board Members are appointed to staggered terms by the County Council.  Because of the board’s power and influence, these appointments are taken very seriously by the council and everyone else with an interest in land use decisions.  But here is something that relatively few people have known about until now:

The County Executive can veto Planning Board appointments.

Maryland Land Use Code Ann. § 15-103, which we reprint below, lays out the process by which Planning Board appointments are made.

Note that SEVEN of the nine votes on the County Council are required to override an Executive’s veto of an appointment.  Under the county charter, six votes are required to override an Executive veto of a bill or budget item.

The last time we know of an Executive vetoing a Planning Board appointment occurred in 1986.  At that time, the council appointed Rosalie Silverberg, a civic activist from Bethesda, to the board.  County Executive Charles Gilchrist vetoed the appointment because the other four board members were also from Bethesda and the Executive desired geographic diversity on the board.  So the council appointed attorney Nancy Floreen, who then lived in Silver Spring, to the board instead.  (That turned out to be a momentous decision as Floreen would later go on to be a hugely influential four-term County Council Member and chair of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee.)

The Executive is not commonly regarded as a major player in county land use decisions as the County Council and the Planning Board have direct authority over them.  But a determined Executive would only need three allies on the County Council to exert control over the Planning Board through his or her veto power.  Such control would not be absolute; the Executive can only veto whereas the council alone can nominate.  But it’s easy to see how Planning Board appointments could be high stakes, political confrontations in such a scenario.  And when politics gets involved, well… who knows what could happen?

The point here is that an Executive’s land use views matter and he or she has the power to make them stick.  Whatever your views on the subject, that is worth remembering in the voting booth.

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Nancy Floreen’s Recommendations for the June Primary

By Council Member Nancy Floreen.

As someone in the unique position of watching the campaign season after 15 and a half years of being on the inside, I have pretty strong feelings about who are the right folks for electoral office.

My criteria:

Is that candidate well informed about the office he or she seeks?

Is that person an honest broker – ie – with the experience and grounding in reality that leads to genuine capacity for problem solving?

Is that person candid, or does that person have a different story for every audience?

Is that person humble or does that person take credit for shared initiatives or make promises that cannot be kept?

Does that person have the demonstrated temperament to treat people he or she disagrees with respectfully?

Is that person an independent thinker, or likely to be more influenced by endorsers?

Does that person have a track record of credible community engagement ?

Does that person have the backbone to stand up to political pressure?

Does that person have a genuine passion for the office, or is it just another job?

Does that person stand a chance in the General Election?

There are a lot of candidates out there, but not that many who satisfy my standards..

Here’s who I believe warrants your vote.

Noteworthy are my current council colleagues running for re- election – Hans Riemer, Craig Rice, Sid Katz, Nancy Navarro and Tom Hucker. We don’t all agree on everything all of the time, but they are hard working, committed and all have long histories of community engagement.

As for the open seats – these are my picks :

Governor – Rushern Baker. You try wrestling with an entrenched school system and come out alive! Tough, rational and caring.

County Executive – Rose Krasnow – an experienced, yet independent voice. The former Mayor of Rockville, she has wide ranging financial, government and nonprofit management expertise, and is deeply grounded in the county and community issues.

County Council At Large –

Gabe Albornoz – long experience with the reality of our community and the ways of government through the Recreation Department

Marilyn Balcombe – a long term fighter for the largely ignored upcounty

Evan Glass – a staunch community organizer, known for his work with the Gandhi Brigade

Council District 1 – Reggie Oldak – the only candidate who actually knows the county and how the Council works (as a former staff member) and a long time community advocate.

This is a very important election for our collective futures! Be thoughtful in your choices!

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Council At-Large Fundraising History

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last week, we wrote about fundraising in the Council At-Large race.  Today we put that in perspective.  How do today’s campaigns compare to the campaigns of the past?

There are two big differences between this year’s Council At-Large race and its three predecessors: 2006, 2010 and 2014.  The first is the presence of public financing.  The second is the number of open seats.  In 2006, there was one open seat vacated by Steve Silverman, who ran for County Executive.  In 2010 and 2014, all four incumbents ran again.  This year, there are three at-large vacancies – something that has never happened before.

One thing that all four cycles have in common is the importance of fundraising.  Public financing may have changed the mode by which fundraising occurs, but it did not reduce the centrality of fundraising to the prospect of winning.  Raising a lot of money doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s hard to win without it!

Below is a chart showing fundraising for Council At-Large candidates over the last four cycles.  Candidates shown include incumbents, winners and all others raising at least $150,000.  Contributions to 2018 candidates go through the Pre-Primary 1 report, which was due on May 22.  Incumbency, endorsements by the Washington Post and MCEA and place of finish are also shown.

Since 2006, all candidates who raised at least $240,000 won with one exception: Duchy Trachtenberg.  In 2010, Trachtenberg – then a first-term incumbent – committed one of the craziest decisions of all time by sitting on $146,000.  Rumor had it that she had polls showing her winning and had decided to save her money for a future race, perhaps for Executive.  Her fellow incumbent, George Leventhal, edged her out for the fourth spot by 3,981 votes.  If Trachtenberg had spent her full sum, she might have been able to send out at least another three mailers and history could have changed.

On the other side, no one raising less than $230,000 has won since 2006 with one exception: Marc Elrich.  Love him or hate him, Elrich is the exception to a lot of rules in MoCo politics and he has always vastly outperformed his fundraising.  Becky Wagner (2010) and Beth Daly (2014) were good candidates but they couldn’t quite raise enough money to break through, even with substantial self-financing.

This year, the folks whose fundraising is in the same ballpark as prior winners are Hans Riemer (the race’s sole incumbent), Evan Glass, Bill Conway and Will Jawando.  Gabe Albornoz and Hoan Dang are close.  The others on this chart are below Daly and Wagner.  All of this year’s candidates will raise a bit more money because these figures only go through a month before the primary.  But those in public financing – everyone except Delegate Charles Barkley and Ashwani Jain – have already raised most of their funds for this cycle.  Public financing does not allow for last-second $50,000 loans or bundled corporate checks to pay for a final mailer or two.

Money isn’t everything – just ask David Trone.  But it has a role and public financing has not changed that.  As we go down to the wire in the at-large race, money matters as much as ever.

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Voters Oust Longest Serving Garrett Park Mayor

In a close election, the voters of Garrett Park turned out incumbent Mayor Peter Benjamin and elected former Town Councilmember Kacky Chantry to the position. The two incumbent candidates for the Town Council were unopposed.

Mayor
Kacky Chantry, 243
Peter Benjamin (i), 232

Council
Jane McClintock (i), 341
Hans Wagner (i), 338

Turnout
Registered Voters, 903
Ballots Cast, 478
Rejected Ballots, 0

Benjamin has served as Mayor of Garrett Park repeatedly, first being elected to the position in 1996 and 1998. Nancy Floreen, now an at-large County Councilmember, then served a single term. After winning election to the Council in 2002, Benjamin was then appointed to fill a mayoral vacancy (caused, I imagine, by Mayor Floreen’s election to the County Council).

Benjamin served another term on the Council from 2005 through 2007. He began his most recent stretch as mayor in 2012 and was reelected to two more terms in 2014 and 2016 before being defeated by 11 votes in this election.  Adding his six terms together, Benjamin has served twice as long as any other mayor of the Town.

Incoming Mayor Kacky Chantry previously served two terms on the Town Council starting in 2013. You can learn more about the views of the incoming mayor and all of the candidates from the most recent edition of the Garrett Park Bugle.

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The Floreen Path to At-Large Success

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s At-Large County Council race may be the hardest contest in the county to predict.  That’s because it doesn’t necessarily involve candidates running against each other directly.  It operates more like a political market in which the four candidates who are able to sell their product to the most people win.  That’s why candidates who are completely different from each other – who are selling entirely different things – often finish in the top four together.  Viewed in this way, there are multiple paths to victory available in every at-large election.  One path worth examining for this year is the one taken by four-term incumbent Nancy Floreen.

Floreen, a former Planning Board Member and Mayor of Garrett Park, was first elected as part of Doug Duncan’s End Gridlock slate in 2002.  With four terms in office, she is by far the longest-serving female at-large Council Member since the council’s current structure was established in 1990.  She has enjoyed strong support from the business and real estate communities for her entire tenure in office and has also drawn some labor and progressive backing.  One union that has never endorsed her is MCEA – indeed, she is the only council candidate who has been elected four straight times without the Apple Ballot since MCEA began using it in the 1990s.  Floreen is not known for initiating progressive bills, but she has often voted for them, including the 2008 prevailing wage law, the 2013 and 2017 minimum wage hikes, the 2014 public campaign financing law and the 2015 paid sick leave law.  Despite her reputation for business-friendly positions, Floreen passed three major tax hikes during her two years as Council President and voted for others.  Progressives don’t give her enough credit for her willingness to support new revenue for government.  And so it’s fair to say that she has balanced between the left and the center during her four terms in office.

A Floreen mailer from her first campaign in 2002.  Note how she shows support from two very different County Executives.

The electoral trajectory of Council Member Marc Elrich, who went from losing four straight council races to finishing first at-large two cycles in a row, is well known.  Several candidates have tried to emulate his success over the years but none have matched it.  Floreen’s success is less recognized but still substantial.  Since 2002, she has finished third, fourth, third and second in the Democratic primaries in that order.  Since her first election, she has cut the vote gap between herself and the first-place finisher by more than half.  If she were not covered by term limits and chose to run for reelection, she would be the odds-on favorite to finish first in the next at-large race with Elrich running for Executive.

Below are Floreen’s ranks of finish in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 primaries by state legislative and council district.  Also displayed is her percentage of the vote in 2014.  She enjoyed significant gains in 2014, especially in Upcounty districts where she finished first or second.

Below is the same information displayed by city and town.  In 2014, Floreen became the top vote-getter in most Upcounty areas including Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Darnestown, Germantown, Laytonsville and Montgomery Village as well as Burtonsville, Gaithersburg, Sandy Spring and Wheaton.  Her vote percentages ranged from 18-22% with the exceptions of Dickerson, Downtown Silver Spring and Takoma Park, areas with local favorites in the race.

Floreen combines schools and jobs in a 2014 mailer.

So what has Floreen been selling in the at-large political market?  She has run as a center-left, business-backed candidate emphasizing economic growth, job creation, schools and social liberalism.  She has also been aided by the fact that in three of her four terms, she was the only female at-large incumbent.  That combination allowed her to pick up lots of votes in relatively moderate Upcounty and Midcounty areas as well as from people who felt the council should have at least one woman who represented the whole county.  Not only has that been a successful strategy, it has been increasingly successful over time.  And it’s not just due to incumbency – during Floreen’s tenure in office, two of her at-large colleagues were defeated and another (George Leventhal) slid from finishing first in 2006 to fourth in the next two cycles.  By 2014, enough voters wanted to buy Floreen’s product that they elevated her above everyone else save Elrich.

There are echoes of Elrich all over the evolving at-large race.  Several candidates are advocating his positions in favor of raising the minimum wage, limiting the influence of corporate money, protecting renters and working to reduce income inequality.  But Floreen’s path to at-large success is a proven winner too.  Will anyone take it?

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Floreen on Krasnow

I asked retiring Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) – the first councilmember to endorse a candidate for county executive – why she has endorsed former Rockville Mayor and Deputy Planning Director Rose Krasnow for County Executive:

Rose is a remarkable person. I think she’s just what Montgomery County needs to move us forward. Consider her background. She started her life of activism at age 11 in Memphis during the civil rights movement, then protested the expressway through Overton Park (which ultimately resulted in a famous land use decision by the Supreme Court), worked in Wall Street, ran a homeowners’ association, moved into City of Rockville politics as councilperson then Mayor, and on to managing a branch of United Way, then on to Park and Planning.

Rose has great financial and managerial experience, knows the county through and through, and will bring a fresh leadership style to lead the county into the future. She’s tough and will call things as she sees them.

Plus, Rose has a terrific sense of humor and is a huge sports fan. Strong, knowledgeable, and independent. What’s not to like?

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Floreen Endorses Krasnow

Apparently, Rose Krasnow announced that she was in for county executive at the Montgomery Women breakfast on Friday. Nancy Floreen, who also attended the breakfast, announced her support for Krasnow.

I believe this is this first endorsement by a sitting member of the County Council in the race. Floreen looked past three of her colleagues – Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal – in making her choice.

If elected, Krasnow would be the first woman to serve as Montgomery County Executive. The two leading candidates in the Prince George’s race, State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks and former Rep. Donna Edwards, are women, so the two counties may both have their first female county executives.

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Council Places M-83 in the Freezer

By a 7-2 vote with Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Craig Rice (D-2) opposed, the Montgomery County Council approved a resolution sponsored by Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) telling the Planning Board to ignore that the controversial M-83 road in making future plans.

The controversy pits Upcounty residents against smart growth and environmental opponents of new roads. Many Upcounty residents in communities like Clarksburg would love to see the long promised alternative route to their communities built in order to alleviate excruciating traffic. Environmentalists and smart growthers think that new roads promote the use of cars and sprawl.

Compromise or Just Spin?

The resolution is being presented by Riemer as a compromise because it keeps M-83 in the Master Plan but tells the Planning Board to act as if it will never be built. Nancy Floreen outlined the politics of spin surrounding this resolution in explaining her “no” vote:

There is nothing in here that says we are going to build M-83. So that is a win for the environmentalist, I guess. And, there is nothing in here that says we are going to build M-83, which is a win for the UpCounty.  I suppose, I should be happy about this because we leave M-83 on the master plan for the future, which is a good thing. But, because we are doing something that is designed to fuel public perception one way or the other, I think it is just plain irresponsible. It is a gratuitous slap in the face to the people who relied on the master plan. And for the people who are opposed to it, it continues the argument ad infinitum.

Indeed, the resolution in amenable to being messaged in a variety of ways to different audiences. Environmentalists and smart growthers can be told it all but kills the road for the time being. M-83 supporters will be told that it’s still in the Master Plan and that the anti-road people aren’t happy for this reason.

Road Opponents Carried the Day But this Street Fight Continues

Riemer, an M-83 opponent, is deeply misguided to the extent he believes that the sop of maintaining M-83 in the Master Plan will appease road supporters. They’re not fooled. The “it’s a compromise” argument only annoys because it comes across as disingenuous to people who wanted this road built yesterday.

Marilyn Balcombe, President and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, is campaigning for at at-large seat on the County Council and making this an issue:

[T]o invoke the Paris Climate Agreement for any project that someone may disagree with is a very slippery slope. . . . Does this proposed resolution mean that we are never building any more roads in the County?

Not a bad substantive policy question in this election year.

Politically, the impact of this issue remains unclear. It’s a great way to rally Upcounty residents who want the road. But how many vote in the key Democratic primary?

Environmentalists are indeed are unhappy that the county didn’t just kill the road outright. Another county council can take the road out of the freezer and thaw it out. They have a lot of support Downcounty but it’s more diffuse pro-environmentalism rather than opposition to this particular project. Can they rally people beyond the small set of usual suspects to oppose the road?

A more likely strategy is that environmental and smart growth groups endorse against pro-M-83 candidates but mention other more compelling issues or general concerns about climate change in their messaging to voters.

Time to Get Off the Pot

While Riemer presents the resolution as a compromise that leaves all unhappy, another way to see this decision is that they decided not to decide. Often, waiting is a good decision. In the case, however, it has the strong whiff of kicking the can down the road to no purpose as the major fact we can expect to change is that traffic will get worse.

The “solution” that our elected officials voted for is really no solution at all. If councilmembers are against the road for whatever reason–the environment, smart growth, the lack of funds–they should just tell the people by killing it. Similarly, supporters should demand a resolution that actively prepares for it and be ready to explain how they will fund it.

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They Just Don’t Get It

After Adam Pagnucco’s terrific and thought-provoking post from yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with Councilmember Nancy Floreen on Facebook. A very smart and knowledgeable former Council President who is happy to defend her record, the conversation was inadvertently helpful to me in understanding why term limits passed so overwhelmingly.

They Don’t Get It. At All.

Voters didn’t quite say “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. . . Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” in the manner of Oliver Cromwell to the Rump Parliament (repeated famously by a Conservative MP to Neville Chamberlain). But a 70% vote in favor of term limits is pretty darn close.

Yet, reflecting a common view on the Council, Nancy Floreen ascribes no meaning to the vote whatsoever, including viewing it as a vote against the status quo (see full Facebook exchange here). In short, there is now a yawning gap between how councilmembers see their work and the County government, and how voters see them.

This ostrich-like response on term limits–and even though I voted against them and really like and respect Nancy, I don’t know what else to call it–vividly demonstrates this distance and why voters supported them.

The Divorce

On reflection, I realized that something fundamental has changed about how voters see the County government. When I was a more of whippersnapper, people had a much more positive view of the County government. Yes, people paid a lot in taxes but the results were visible in terms of quality services from excellent schools to parks to libraries that made it a great place to raise kids.

People are now much more divorced from their County government–and not just because our population has doubled. Traffic, always bad, is now far worse. We’ve gone through a long period in which taxes have gone up but visible outputs in terms of those excellent services, such as libraries, are going down.

People even worry increasingly about the quality of our beloved school system and whether they’re getting value for money. Metro is no longer spanking new but decaying and dysfunctional. Other infrastructure from electric wires to gas lines to water mains needs replacement.

Why Did Voters Want to Throw the Bums Out?

Many of the problems that the County faces have little to do with its current membership. At least part of the term limits vote stems from having gone through a tough period when difficult, unpopular choices had to be made. And yet, the reasons that voters decided to make the psychological trial separation from the County a full-scale divorce via term limits go beyond that.

The Bubble

County Councilmembers are insulated from the public unless they make a strong effort. The highly symbolic locked door that prevents the plebeian masses from even entering their offices is just the start of it. Staff insulates councilmembers from the public, both by fielding calls and answering email.

Besides naturally supportive staff, councilmembers get a lot of positive feedback from visitors. After all, people lobbying for something tend not to want to alienate the Council. After 12 or 16 years, who wouldn’t be changed by that?

Two Electorates

Roughly 10% of eligible voters participate in the Democratic primaries that elect our local officials. Turnout in Montgomery has been stagnant, so politicians focus on the increasingly small share of people who participate in these contests.

The focus on the odd few of us who vote consistently in Democratic primaries leaves the rest feeling disengaged from politics, as politicians sensibly don’t reach out to them at election time because it won’t help them win.

It also leaves politicians with a pretty warped sense of what the average voter wants because the few who participate in primaries of either party tend to be more extreme than not just the average voter but also the average member of their party.

Term limits was one of the few ways that the other 90% could express dissatisfaction with local officials in a meaningful way other than casting a symbolic vote for a Republican, a brand tarnished by national Republicans that mostly fields weak or even nutty candidates here.

Confusing Congress and Local Government

Too many members of the Council seem to want to be national legislators and opine on the great national issues of the day. Increasingly, this creeps into legislation with more time spent on issues away from core functions.

I miss those wonderful ads with Doug Duncan taking out a voter’s trash. To voters, this said that he got it. One reason County Executive Ike Leggett was able to turn back challenges to his leadership despite being the man in charge at a difficult time was that (1) he showed an unusual capacity for listening at events around the county, and (2) he responded to voters with not just deep fluency on local issues but also a respect for voter concerns. At a town hall meeting with Ike, voters always felt heard.

Property Taxes

Most people’s salaries have been stagnant. Nonetheless, the County raised taxes by over 9%. At a time when many voters find it hard to live within their means, the County made it harder by increasing taxes. As it turns out, berating voters that they don’t care about schools or social justice if they feel this way doesn’t work.

In other words, it is time for the County to start to figure out how to live within its means. Maybe this means tax reform of some sort–no, not in the guise of a massive tax cut like federal Republicans–such as eliminating loopholes that help some but not most of us. Councilmember and County Executive Candidate Marc Elrich made a good start by highlighting an old post by Adam on a tax break for country clubs. But it may also mean taking on labor to rein in costs, actions Councilmember Roger Berliner or Del. Bill Frick, also running for executive, are more likely to do.

The tax argument for term limits was made especially effective by the 28.1% pay increase that the Council voted to award itself in 2013. The Citizens Commission report had recommended a 17.5% increase in one year plus COLAs. That would’ve given the Council a 17.8% increase through 2016 based on the CPI for the Washington-Baltimore region. Comparing annual wages per employee in Montgomery County from 2013 and 2016 reveals that private sector wages have risen just 7.6% in current dollars.

The People v. The Powerful

Monied interests are way better at working Rockville than the rest of us. While members of civic associations are part-time volunteers who are not always up on the latest in ZTAs (zoning text amendments), developers and other powerful interests have expensive lawyers who know how to work the process.

This critique is very different than rich v. poor because the problem affects neighborhoods across the County. Developers and other interests can afford lawyers who can navigate them through the process and leave neighborhoods feeling powerless.

Social Engineering

This intersects with the social engineering tendencies of both the Council and the Planning Board. Personally, I think smart growth is generally a great thing that builds urban nodes like Silver Spring, Rockville and Bethesda where many people want to live or to spend time.

At the same time, it needs to be done with sensitivity and awareness of existing neighborhoods. Most people moved out here for the suburban lifestyle of a house and a yard. They don’t appreciate being told that they’re outdated and even being demonized for caring about their neighborhoods and worrying about whether the infrastructure can handle the growth.

Moreover, those who have lived here a long time have a healthy suspicion of urban planners. In the 1970s and 1980s, these are the same people who told us that elevated urban plazas behind office buildings were the wave of the future. Total disaster.

I think they’ve got it more right this time with smart growth. But carrying it out in such an ideological manner that dismisses neighborhood concerns alienates the people who are supposed to be served. Downcounty residents are mighty tired of hearing patronizing talk of how much they’ll like that new 30-story building looming across the street from their home. Or that traffic is good because it will force us to ride the decaying Metro that doesn’t take us to the supermarket.

Upcounty residents really do want some of those promised roads built and are real tired of begging. If you don’t believe me, check out the hundreds of petition signatures submitted by upcounty citizens (see below) who are deeply unhappy that Councilmember Hans Riemer’s proposed resolution on traffic solutions for the area drops the M-83 extension of the Midcounty Highway.

Put another way, start treating smart growth like a very good idea to be pursued in concert with residents rather than a new religion desperate to burn some heretics. The Council made a good start with the Bethesda Master Plan. It wasn’t perfect but it was a good process so kudos, especially to Councilmembers Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and Hans Riemer. But concerns have already arisen that development will go beyond what is in the plan, as developers and their lawyers are already working the process.

Ferment in the Land

So yes, it’s definitely “a time for a change” election. Yet, we may end up with a crowd that has much the same views as the previous one but voters will welcome the change of faces. And, who knows, new faces may bring some good new ideas and approaches.

Here’s hoping.

M-83 Petition Signatories 101717 by David Lublin on Scribd

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A Reply to Nancy Floreen on MCPS Funding

By Adam Pagnucco.

Thanks to Council Member Nancy Floreen for writing about MCPS funding in recent years in response to my blog post.  First, a note of appreciation.  While we may disagree about MCPS, we agree wholeheartedly on the issue of economic growth, which is the anchor for the county budget.  The political winds on growth shift back and forth in county politics over the decades, but Floreen has consistently pushed an economic development agenda.  She was for jobs before jobs were cool!  All the things the county has done right in economic development – and there have been a few of them – have Floreen’s fingerprints all over them.  It’s one reason why your author admires her and is sad to see her leave the County Council.

Let’s begin with areas of agreement.  First, Floreen is absolutely right about the terrible days of the Great Recession.  The county had not faced anything like it since the 1930s.  Everything had to go on the table in those days – spending cuts, layoffs, furloughs, broken collective bargaining agreements and an energy tax hike – because the alternative was default.  Floreen was Council President in 2010, the worst year of the recession.  She, the County Executive and her colleagues saved the county from fiscal disaster.  That achievement should not be forgotten.

Second, Floreen mentions the state’s teacher pension shift as a stress point on county finances.  Again, she’s absolutely right.  For many years, the state’s payment of teacher pension benefits was the one state program that disproportionately benefited Montgomery County.  That’s because our high cost of living as well as our prioritization of schools leads us to pay higher teacher salaries than the rest of the state, which results in higher pensions.  In 2010, nearly all of MoCo’s state legislators running for election promised not to shift pension costs to the counties.  But in 2012, Governor Martin O’Malley pushed a plan to do exactly that and most of our state legislators voted for it.  The result is that Montgomery County pays roughly $60 million a year for teacher pensions now, more than any jurisdiction in the state.  Compare that to the size of last year’s property tax hike, which was $140 million a year.  No matter what is said about the county, the state should not be let off the hook.

Now to the areas of disagreement.  It’s interesting that Floreen says our blog post is misleading but does not actually refute any of the data on which we rely.  She simply picks other data and disagrees with our characterizations.  We are sympathetic to her problem: it’s hard to refute data that happens to be true!  One thing she contests is our choice of FY10 as a base year for comparison.  We picked FY10 because it was the peak year of overall county spending before the Great Recession fully kicked in.  So comparing FY10 to FY16, the year before the tax hike, is valid because it’s a peak-to-peak comparison that includes both the cuts to departments in the early part of the period as well as the restoration that occurred afterwards.

She also disagrees repeatedly with our referring to MCPS as going through austerity.  Our basis for doing so was the county’s local dollar spending per pupil, which comes from county budget documents and was not contested by Floreen.  In nominal terms, here is the county’s local spending per pupil from FY06 through FY17.

The data shows that the county cut its local per pupil contribution to MCPS for three straight years and froze it for four straight years.  This period greatly exceeds the length of the Great Recession.  The local per pupil contribution went up after last year’s property tax increase.

Last year’s per pupil bump looks significant, but here is the same data adjusted by the Washington-Baltimore CPI and presented in real terms using 2017 dollars.  (We estimated 2017 inflation at 2.02%, the average rate of the preceding years in the chart.)  Clearly, even with the tax hike, the county’s local-dollar commitment to schools is not what it once was.  And the CPI underestimates major cost drivers for the schools, such as the costs of serving rising numbers of students who live in poverty and need language services.

Floreen then talks about the county departments that were cut during the recession.  She’s right: they were cut.  But after the recession ended, most of them were restored to levels exceeding what they were before the recession.  Meanwhile, county dollars for MCPS were cut by $33 million between FY10 and FY16.  Floreen doesn’t deny that, but she notes that local dollars aren’t the only source for MCPS’s budget.  The schools get plenty of state money too.  Floreen says this:

What really matters is the total MCPS budget, not the State share versus the local share. The higher State spending for MCPS in recent years reflects that the State’s funding formulas, at long last, are starting to recognize our students’ actual needs, as shown in our higher ESOL and FARMS populations. The State aid increases, which were long overdue, enabled us to provide continued strong support for MCPS during the Great Recession without further decimating every other function of government.  Why is that not a good thing?

Floreen is conceding a central point of our original post which is reinforced in the per pupil data above: the county depended on state aid to keep MCPS afloat while it restricted its own contributions to the school system.  Meanwhile, MCPS enrollment grew from 140,500 to 156,514 between FY10 and FY16, an 11% increase.  The Great Recession by itself can’t be cited as a justification for restricting county dollars for schools because the restrictions continued long after the trough of the recession had passed.  Indeed, fifteen other counties increased their local per pupil contributions after the recession ended, including nine controlled by Republicans.  The message here is, “The state was paying for our schools so we didn’t have to increase county per pupil spending on them.”  Is that “continued strong support for MCPS” as claimed above?  Is it satisfactory for parents and voters?  Let the readers decide.

Finally, Floreen repeats her longstanding point that last year’s 9% property tax hike was intended to support MCPS.  That’s true: MCPS did get a big share of that money.  But so did the rest of the government.  Last year, we laid out how the county could have cut the tax hike in half, still given MCPS all the money requested in the County Executive’s budget and done it without spending cuts to other agencies.  County Executive Ike Leggett, who originally proposed the tax hike, asked the council to cut the rate increase in half after the General Assembly passed a law easing the county’s liability from a U.S. Supreme Court decision on income taxes.  But the council chose to keep every penny of the original tax hike and spread it across every agency instead.  That’s not an Education First budget – it’s an Everything First budget.  The result of the tax hike was a tremendous boost for the 40-point triumph of term limits at the ballot box.  Even the council’s own spokesman at the time now says the tax hike was unnecessary and is vowing to stop another one if he is elected to Floreen’s open seat.

Look folks.  We get this is tough medicine.  We understand that elected officials don’t like to be criticized, especially around election time.  And we understand that Nancy Floreen, a Council Member we respect, would like to go out on top.  But it’s important to understand the past to prepare for the future.  The schools need small, steady increases in per pupil funding to deal with their challenges.  There can no longer be wild swings between extended periods of per pupil cuts and freezes followed by huge tax hikes intended to undo the effects of those cuts and freezes.  To fund MCPS fairly without raising taxes, the county will have to restrain the overall growth of the rest of the budget to pay for it.  There cannot be any more Everything First budgets.  With four Council Members leaving and the Executive race wide open, it will be up to the next generation of county officials to chart a better way forward.

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