Tag Archives: Robin Ficker

Winners and Losers of the Ballot Question War

By Adam Pagnucco.

This year, MoCo saw its biggest battle over ballot questions in sixteen years. Most county players lined up on one side or the other and victory has been declared. Who won and who lost?

Winners

Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson
Friedson authored Question A, which liberalized the county’s property tax system to allow receipts to increase with assessments. Wall Street applauded its passage. Even progressives, who don’t love Friedson but owe him big-time for opening up the county’s revenue stream, have to admit that his Question A was the real deal.

Council Member Evan Glass
Glass authored Question C, which added two district council seats and defeated the nine district Question D. Lots of wannabe politicians are going to look at running for the new seats. Every single one of them should kiss Glass’s ring and write a max-out check to his campaign account.

County Democratic Party
It’s not a coincidence that MoCo voters adopted the positions of the county Democratic Party on all four ballot questions. With partisan sentiments running high and information on the questions running low, MoCo Democrats went along with their party and dominated the election.

David Blair
Blair was the number one contributor to the four ballot issue committees that passed Questions A and C and defeated Questions B and D. By himself, Blair accounted for nearly half the money they raised. Whatever Blair decides to do heading into the next election, he can claim to have done as much to pass the county Democrats’ positions on the ballot questions as anyone. (Disclosure: I have done work for Blair’s non-profit but I was not involved in his ballot question activities.)

Ike Leggett
The former county executive was key in leading the fight against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. Thousands of MoCo voters still like, respect and trust Ike Leggett.

Jews United for Justice
While not having the money and manpower of many other groups who played on the questions, Jews United for Justice played a key role in convening the coalition that ultimately won. They have gained a lot of respect from many influencers in MoCo politics.

Facebook
Lord knows how much money they made from all the ballot question ads!

Losers

Robin Ficker
At the beginning of 2020, MoCo had one of the most restrictive property tax charter limits of any county in Maryland. For many years, Ficker was looking to make it even tighter and petitioned Question B to the ballot to convert it into a near-lock on revenues. But his charter amendment provoked Friedson to write Question A, which ultimately passed while Question B failed and will raise much more money than the current system over time. Instead of tightening the current system, the result is a more liberal system that will achieve the opposite of what Ficker wanted – more revenue for the county. This was one of the biggest backfires in all of MoCo political history.

Republicans
The county’s Republican Party did everything they could to pass Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. In particular, they gave both cash and in-kind contributions to Nine Districts and even raised money for the group on their website. In doing so, the GOP provoked a fierce partisan backlash as the county Democrats rose up to take the opposite positions on the ballot questions and most Democratic-leaning groups combined forces to support them. With President Donald Trump apparently defeated, Governor Larry Hogan leaving office in two years and little prospect of success in MoCo awaiting them, where does the county’s Republican Party go from here?

This tweet by MoCo for Question C from a voting location explains all you need to know about why Question D failed.

Political Outsiders
It wasn’t just Republicans who supported the failed Questions B and D; a range of political outsiders supported them too. What they witnessed was a mammoth effort by the Democratic Party, Democratic elected officials and (mostly) progressive interest groups to thwart them. Even the county chamber of commerce and the realtors lined up against them. Whether or not it’s true, this is bound to provoke more talk of a “MoCo Machine.” Machine or not, outsiders have to be wondering how to win when establishment forces combine against them.

Push

MCGEO, Fire Fighters and Police Unions
These three unions are frustrated. They have not been treated the way they expected by the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich and they are also upset with the county council for abrogating their contracts (among other things). They wanted to show that they could impose consequences for messing with them and that was one reason why all three made thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to Nine Districts. On the negative side, the nine districts Question D failed. On the positive side, the passage of Friedson’s Question A will result in a flow of more dollars into the county budget over time, a win for their members. So it’s a push. On to the next election.

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How Many More Votes Will be Counted?

By Adam Pagnucco.

As of right now, here is the status of key election results in MoCo.

School Board At-Large: Lynne Harris 53%, Sunil Dasgupta 46%

School Board District 2: Rebecca Smondrowski 60%, Michael Fryar 39%

School Board District 4: Shebra Evans 66%, Steve Solomon 33%

Circuit Court Judge: Bibi Berry 23%, David Boynton 21%, Michael McAuliffe 21%, Christopher Fogleman 20%, Marylin Pierre 14%

Question A (Authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson, freezes property tax rate with unanimous council vote required to exceed): For 62%, Against 38%

Question B (Authored by Robin Ficker, would limit property tax receipt growth to rate of inflation and remove council’s ability to exceed): For 42%, Against 58%

Question C (Authored by Council Member Evan Glass, changes county council structure to 4 at-large seats and 7 district seats): For 61%, Against 39%

Question D (Authored by Nine Districts for MoCo, changes county council structure to 9 district seats): For 42%, Against 58%

You can see the latest results here for school board and judicial races and here for ballot questions.

But all of this is subject to a HUGE caveat: not all the votes have been counted. How many more remain?

Three batches have yet to be counted. First are the remaining election day votes. As of right now, only 3 of 40 election day vote centers in the county have reported 80% or more of their results. At this moment, 6,474 election day votes have been cast for president. That suggests tens of thousands of votes more could come in.

Second are the remaining mail votes. According to the State Board of Elections, MoCo voters requested 378,327 mail ballots. At this moment, 177,628 mail votes have been cast for president. This suggests that roughly 200,000 mail votes are out there. Not all of them will ultimately result in tabulated votes but it’s still a lot.

Third are provisional ballots. How many are out there is not known right now. However, this will be by far the smallest of these three categories and they will make a difference only in tight races.

So let’s put it all together. At this moment, 312,452 total votes for president have been tabulated. (I don’t have an official turnout number, but since the presidential race has the least undervoting, this figure is probably reasonably close to turnout so far.) This suggests – VERY roughly – that 55-60% of the votes have been counted, with the vast majority of outstanding votes coming from mail ballots.

What does that mean for the results above? To determine that, we need to examine how different the election day votes and the mail votes were from the total votes tabulated so far since those two categories are where most of the remaining votes are coming from. And of those two categories, mail votes will be far larger than election day votes.

President

MoCo’s votes for president (as well as Congress) are not in doubt but the differential results by voting mode are suggestive of a pattern affecting other races. Former Vice-President Joe Biden has received 79% of total votes as of this moment. However, he has received 51% of election day votes, 65% of early votes and 90% of mail votes. That illustrates a strong partisan pattern associated with voting, with election day votes most friendly to Republicans and mail votes most friendly to Democrats. Keep that in mind as you proceed to the races below.

Circuit Court Judges

Challenger Marylin Pierre has so far received 14% of early votes, 14% of election day votes, 15% of mail votes and 14% of total votes. Each of the incumbent judges cleared 20% on all of these voting modes. This is a non-partisan race so the partisan pattern noted above has minimal effect here. With little reason to believe that the next batch of mail votes will be different than the mail votes already tabulated, it’s hard to see Pierre pulling ahead.

School Board

The district races are blowouts. Let’s look at the at-large race between Lynne Harris and Sunil Dasgupta. Harris has so far received 53% of early votes, 60% of election day votes, 53% of mail votes and 53% of total votes. These are not big leads but they are fairly consistent. For Dasgupta to pull ahead, he would need to pull at least 55% of the outstanding votes yet to be counted, more than flipping the outcome of the existing votes. Unless the next batch of votes – especially mail – is somehow fundamentally different from what has already been cast, it’s hard to see that happening.

Ballot Questions

There are two things to note here. First, none of these results are close at this moment. Second, while these are technically non-partisan, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party endorsed in opposite directions and both sides worked hard to make their views known. The partisan split seen in the presidential election had an impact on the ballot question results.

First, let’s look at election day voting. Judging by the presidential race, this was the most favorable voting mode for the GOP. Here is how election day voting (so far!) compares to total voting (again, so far).

Question A For Votes: Election day 51%, total 62%
Question B For Votes: Election day 60%, total 42%
Question C For Votes: Election day 52%, total 61%
Question D For Votes: Election day 60%, total 42%

This looks like good news for supporters of Question B (Robin Ficker’s anti-tax question) and Question D (nine districts). After all, there are probably tens of thousands of election day votes yet to be counted.

However, the big majority of outstanding votes are mail ballots. Joe Biden received 90% of mail ballot votes tabulated so far, a sign that Democrats dominated this voting mode. Here is what the mail votes (so far) look like.

Question A For Votes: Mail 68%, total 62%
Question B For Votes: Mail 34%, total 42%
Question C For Votes: Mail 65%, total 61%
Question D For Votes: Mail 33%, total 42%

The mail votes uphold the winning margins of Questions A and C and depress the results for Questions B and D. That’s not a surprise if 1. Democrats voted disproportionately by mail and 2. Democrats stuck with their party’s position on the ballot questions. Indeed, we know here at Seventh State that this post on the Democrats’ statement on the ballot questions got huge site traffic.

As a matter of fact, one could even go so far as to say that once the ballot questions turned partisan, it may have been the beginning of the end.

Plenty of votes remain to be counted so let’s respect that. We may know a lot more by the weekend.

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Early Results on MoCo Races

By Adam Pagnucco.

The first batch of votes on MoCo races has been reported. This is VERY early and VERY incomplete. So far, the reports include only early votes and less than half the mail ballots requested by MoCo voters with no election day votes tabulated. All of that means these races are FAR from decided, folks!

All of that said, here are the earliest results. Bear in mind that the final percentages are going to be different, but how different they will be cannot yet be said.

School Board At-Large: Lynne Harris 53%, Sunil Dasgupta 46%

School Board District 2: Rebecca Smondrowski 60%, Michael Fryar 39%

School Board District 4: Shebra Evans 67%, Steve Solomon 33%

Question A (Authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson, freezes property tax rate with unanimous council vote required to exceed): For 63%, Against 37%

Question B (Authored by Robin Ficker, would limit property tax receipt growth to rate of inflation and remove council’s ability to exceed): For 41%, Against 59%

Question C (Authored by Council Member Evan Glass, changes county council structure to 4 at-large seats and 7 district seats): For 62%, Against 38%

Question D (Authored by Nine Districts for MoCo, changes county council structure to 9 district seats): For 41%, Against 59%

It is probably not a coincidence that these results mirror the recommendations of the county’s Democratic Party, but the results are far from final.

At some point tonight, the election day votes should be added in. You can refresh them here for school board races and here for ballot questions.

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Top Seventh State Stories, October 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

These were the top stories on Seventh State in October ranked by page views.

1. MoCo Democrats Issue Statement on Ballot Questions
2. Sitting Judges Get Temporary Restraining Order Against Pierre
3. Harris Blasts MCEA Over School Reopening
4. Progressive-Backed Judge Candidate Courted, Donated to Republicans
5. Teachers Respond to Lynne Harris
6. Elrich Vetoes WMATA Property Tax Bill
7. State Audit: Thousands of MoCo Homeowners Overcharged on Property Taxes
8. Reopening Plans – MCPS is Behind
9. Why Montgomery County Ballot Questions B and D Are Truly Bad Ideas You Should Vote Against
10. Ballot Question Committee Scorecard

The number one post by far was MoCo Democrats Issue Statement on Ballot Questions. In fact, that post was one of the most well-read in the history of Seventh State. Most folks who saw it probably found it through Google – and that’s a meaningful piece of intelligence. If people are googling terms like Montgomery Democrats and ballot questions, then not only are they finding content here, they may find similar content at Bethesda Beat, the Democratic Central Committee’s website, the various ballot issue websites and elsewhere. This means that MoCo voters want to know what the county Democrats think about the ballot questions. That’s good news for supporters of Questions A and C and not such good news for supporters of Questions B and D.

The two posts about circuit court judge candidate Marylin Pierre and her opponents, the sitting judges, are being aggressively circulated on social media. This is the fiercest MoCo judicial race in a loooooong time. Can Pierre break through?

One story that was big with readers and off the radar of politicians was State Audit: Thousands of MoCo Homeowners Overcharged on Property Taxes. It’s a massive scandal that state math errors resulted in overcharging of property taxes for thousands of MoCo homeowners and that the state is refusing to offer refunds. In addition to Seventh State, Fox 5 and WMAR (ABC) Baltimore covered it. As far as I know, no state or county politician has made a public statement about this. Maybe I will ask them!

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Crapshoot

By Adam Pagnucco.

At the national level, the big questions are who will control the presidency and the Congress. At the county level, the big question is which (if any) of four consequential charter amendments on the ballot will pass. This is an all-consuming question for most of the county’s power players.

What is going to happen?

First, a quick summary of this year’s ballot questions.

Question A: Would freeze the property tax rate but allow a unanimous vote of the council to increase it. Authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson.
See Why Progressives Should Support the Friedson Amendment.

Question B: Would remove the ability of the county council to break the current charter limit on property taxes, thereby capping property tax revenue growth at the rate of inflation. Authored by Robin Ficker.

Question C: Would add 2 district seats to the county council, thereby establishing 7 district seats and 4 at-large seats. Authored by Council Member Evan Glass.
See MoCo Could Use More County Council Districts.

Question D: Would convert the current council’s 5 district seats and 4 at-large seats to 9 district seats. Authored by Nine District for MoCo.
See Don’t Abolish the At-Large County Council Seats, Nine Kings and Queens.

Now to some history. The last time the county was embroiled in a ballot question battle this sweeping was in 2004. In that year, three charter amendments were petitioned to the ballot:

Question A: An anti-tax charter amendment by Robin Ficker removing the ability of the council to exceed the charter limit on property taxes. This amendment was similar to this year’s Question B.

Question B: A term limits amendment by Ficker that was similar to the amendment passed by voters in 2016.

Question C: An amendment to create nine council districts that was identical to this year’s Question D.

At that time, a coalition of business, labor, progressives and elected officials assembled to oppose all of the questions. The group had a simple name: the Vote No Coalition. The Post editorial board also urged a no vote on all three. In the end, the tax cap amendment failed by 59-41%, term limits failed by 52-48% and nine districts failed by 61-39%.

This year, the message isn’t simple because – unlike 2004 – the council placed competing amendments on the ballot. The message from most of the council and many of their supporters is vote for A and C, vote against B and D. The message from many opponents is vote for B and D, vote against A and C.

How many ordinary voters are going to keep track of the alphabet soup? At least the Post has stayed consistent with its message of 16 years ago, urging a no vote on everything.

Another difference between today and 2004 is that the groups are more fractured now. In 2004, labor was a powerful force in the Vote No Coalition. This year, three unions – MCGEO, the fire fighters and the police – gave thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to Nine Districts for MoCo. (MCGEO now insists that they don’t support nine districts.) Developers, a major source of campaign funds in MoCo, are all over the place. The only real commonality with 2004 is that virtually every category of player is united against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B, which has no ballot issue committee advocating on its behalf. Otherwise, the proliferation of competing committees and genuine differences of opinion, especially on council structure, make this year much more complicated than 2004.

In analyzing the questions’ chances of success, let’s first consider the electorate. It’s a presidential general election so the electorate is going to be huge. Four years ago, 483,429 MoCo residents voted in the general. This year, that number will probably be more than 500,000. A huge majority of them are voting primarily for president. A huge majority of them know little or nothing about county tax policy or the structure of the county council. No group has the resources to communicate with all of them.

It’s a crapshoot, folks.

Aggravating all of this is the complicated nature of the questions themselves. Question A, for example, is 148 words long and reads like it was drafted by a lawyer or a tax accountant. Do most voters have strong opinions on whether capping a tax rate or an increase in total receipts is an inherently better approach? As for the council questions, do most voters have strong opinions on which legislative structures are better? Politicians and advocates have strong opinions on all of the above but they won’t be deciding the outcome. A half million voters who know little or nothing about any of this will.

Despite all of the activities by the ballot issue committees, the two things most likely to be seen by voters are the ballot language itself and the recommendations of the county Democratic Party, which were mailed to all households with at least one Democrat in them. Question D’s ballot language, which tells voters it will reduce the number of council members they can vote for from five to one, is a huge problem for nine districts supporters and may have played a part in killing nine districts in 2004. As for the Democrats’ recommendations (supporting A and C, opposing B and D), it’s natural for Democrats – who historically comprise a big majority of MoCo general election voters – to seek guidance from their party on questions with which they aren’t familiar. Here on Seventh State, this post on the Democrats’ position was the runaway most-read post in October. Then again, the Democratic Party opposed term limits four years ago and it was passed with 70% of the vote anyway.

Finally, what happens if conflicting questions pass? That outcome can’t be dismissed, especially if voters have problems even understanding the questions. Since 2002, MoCo voters have approved 81% of all county questions that have appeared on the ballot. A state attorney general opinion from 2002 speculates that courts will reject directly conflicting questions passed by voters, although the opinion states, “The Courts in Maryland have not addressed the issue of which of two conflicting charter amendments would prevail if both received a majority vote in an election.” It’s not clear that the courts have resolved this question since then. So what happens if both A and B pass, or if both C and D pass? Will the courts reject both or impose whichever of them gets more votes?

Again, it’s a crapshoot.

Regardless of what passes and what doesn’t, we all have to ask ourselves this.

Is a crapshoot any way to run a government?

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Explaining Question A and Why I Voted No. (Definitely Vote No on Question B.)

How Property Taxes Work in Montgomery

Under current law, Montgomery County may only collect the same total amount in property taxes across the county as the previous year – also known as the constant yield tax rate –adjusted for inflation. So if the County collected $100,000,000 in property taxes last year and inflation is 3%, it may collect $103,000,000 this year. The only exception is if the County Council votes unanimously to raise property taxes.

This legal limit forces the county to adjust the tax rate based on changes in total value of assessed property in the tax. If the county’s tax base increases by 10% due to increases in real property values, the County treasury does not because the County must adjust the property tax rate downward, so it collects no more than last year adjusted for inflation. The county can also adjust rates upward if needed to collect the permitted amount.

Question A changes that system. It would cap property tax rates instead of receipts. Montgomery would see great increases in the amount of property tax collected when property tax values grow without changing the rate because they would no longer need to adjust the rate downward so they don’t collect more money.

Councilmembers will claim that they did not increase property taxes because they left the rate unchanged, but the County will collect a lot more. By keeping the focus on the rate rather than amount collected, the county can even nominally reduce the rate and claim that they reduced property taxes even as they go up in real terms and the county collects more than previously.

How Question A Raises Property Taxes

Councilmember Andrew Friedson, the sponsor of the amendment, argues that residents will benefit when housing values go down. However, the Council can vote to increase the rate to collect as much as the previous year as under the current system, just like the 8.7% tax increase that they adopted in 2017. There seems little doubt that they would do this if needed to avoid substantial cuts in spending.

In times when property values rise quickly, this can add up fast, Property taxes increases are limited to 10% a year but this is far above inflation and add up very quickly. If you pay $5000 in property taxes now, you would pay $6655 if you had the maximum increase each year for three years. The key caveat, of course, is that it all depends on how your property values change. But the amendment has no limit on the rate of growth in property taxes.

Confusing Wording

I’m not thrilled that the wording of this charter amendment focuses on limiting rates, and thus gives a rather deceptive impression that it limits, rather than increases, property taxes. (Some proponents argue that it doesn’t but since the unquestionable purpose is to allow the county to reap more revenue, it seems a fair characterization.)

Timing and Impact During an Economic Crisis

Normally, in an economic crisis, it’s not unusual to see housing values fall. But many in Montgomery have paradoxically seen their housing values rise because the crisis is due to COVID and more people are seeking larger spaces with some attached outdoor space. No one knows the future, but this would result in higher property taxes with the next set of assessments.

Many property owners in the county have seen salaries and benefits cut sharply due to the shutdown and economic crisis. Federal government workers haven’t seen pay cuts, but they haven’t had a decent pay raise in years. That’s true of many people.

As a result, a lot of people are ill-positioned to pay a property tax increase even though they may well receive one as a result of this charter amendment the next time that their properties are assessed.

Higher Taxes for Residents, Lower Taxes for Favored Developers

For me, the final straw is that the county council overrode the county executive’s veto of a huge dollop of corporate welfare for developers in the form of 15-year tax breaks (!) by 7-2 the other day. While I realize that opponents as well as the executive support Question A, and I am grateful for their votes and outspokenness on the issue, the Council seems far too inclined to continue down this path after the election. If they can afford giving tax cuts to developers to build high-priced apartments, I don’t see why they need to raise mine.

We Need Property Tax Reform, This Isn’t It

There are unquestionably problems with the county tax system. The three-year assessment cycle creates some odd quirks. Additionally, the current limit doesn’t take into account a growing population as well as other needs. In short, the budget corset is too tight. The unanimity requirement further limits the authority of our representatives too much, even if the voters passed it. But this isn’t the right way to do it, or the time, so I voted no.

But Others See It Differently

Adam outlined previously why some view this property tax increase as a good idea. Even leaving aside one’s desire to fund progressive policies, as I mentioned in the previous section, the current system does not provide sufficient funding with increases over time because it doesn’t into account factors like population growth and other needs. So I can see how other people might see this differently.

I mention this because, like much in politics, I see this as an issue on which reasonable people can disagree. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the ballot questions, even the form of the county council, has been getting more and more vehement on social media. Since we’re in a moment that is already overheated on steroids (now there’s a mixed metaphor!), it seems worth a mention that we’ll manage whatever the outcome of this ballot question.

Question B

Vote No. This is Robin Ficker’s latest very bad idea that would make current problems with the property tax system worse.

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Non-Profits Come Out Against Question B

By Adam Pagnucco.

Non-profits have joined an expanding alliance against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B that includes progressives, unions, business groups and all of MoCo’s county-level elected officials. The press release from Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B appears below.

*****

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Daniel Koroma
info@mocoagainstb.org

AREA’S TOP NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS JOIN OPPOSITION TO QUESTION B

From leading business groups to anti-hunger activists and local Democratic clubs, Montgomery County’s community leaders agree on one thing: Ficker’s Question B is a dangerous idea.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, October 26, 2020 — The cross-county coalition that burst onto the Montgomery County political scene earlier this fall with a scathing ad aimed at Robin Ficker’s latest folly, Ballot Question B, now has a wide range of allies. The County’s diverse nonprofit community has joined the call to oppose Question B and released a public statement with over 25 nonprofit signons. Their message is one of strong public services, a strong local economy, and fiscal responsibility.

For Manna Food Center, a non-profit working to end hunger in Montgomery County, “Question B represents a real threat to our ability to provide expanded services effectively to a growing population of residents who find themselves vulnerable to hunger. Now is not the time to self-impose measures that would stunt the county’s ability to fund itself and Manna’s ability to provide services to communities when they need us most.”

Opposition to Question B is widespread across the Montgomery County non-profit community, with business groups uniting with labor, charitable organizations, and religious groups. “Nonprofits do their work in close partnership with County government.” said Lesley MacDonald, Executive Director of Nonprofit Montgomery. “Question B would severely restrict the County’s ability to support critical services. It would be harmful to the community, to nonprofits, and to those most in need.”

“The nonprofit organizations that help to tie Montgomery County’s social fabric together and provide vital services for an increasing number of our residents understand that supporting Question B would be a bad decision” said Hope Gleicher of Identity, a local non-profit that creates opportunities for Latino and other historically underserved youth. “B undermines the county’s future and unnecessarily risks our fiscal health while we try to battle a global pandemic. The organizations on the front lines of that battle understand what’s at stake and we’re proud to stand with them.”

The addition of such a wide range of area organizations to the effort against Ficker’ proposal strengthens the opposition message: whether for public services, COVID recovery, the local economy or the County’s coveted AAA bond rating, Question B is the worst possible idea for Montgomery County.

#

To see the full list of Nonprofits that have signed onto the letter against B, click here. You can also see the validator image of all organizations Against Question B here. For additional information, please contact Daniel Koroma at info@mocoagainstb.org.

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MoCo Ballot Issue Committee Campaign Finances, October 18

By Adam Pagnucco.

The six committees formed to advocate for and against MoCo’s ballot questions have filed their final campaign finance reports before the general election, covering the period through October 18. Let’s see where the money is coming from.

First, a quick summary of the ballot questions.

Question A: Would freeze the property tax rate but allow a unanimous vote of the council to increase it. Authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson.
See Why Progressives Should Support the Friedson Amendment.

Question B: Would remove the ability of the county council to break the current charter limit on property taxes, thereby capping property tax revenue growth at the rate of inflation. Authored by Robin Ficker.

Question C: Would add 2 district seats to the county council, thereby establishing 7 district seats and 4 at-large seats. Authored by Council Member Evan Glass.
See MoCo Could Use More County Council Districts.

Question D: Would convert the current council’s 5 district seats and 4 at-large seats to 9 district seats. Authored by Nine District for MoCo.
See Don’t Abolish the At-Large County Council Seats, Nine Kings and Queens.

Here is a summary of finances for the committees for the entire cycle through October 18.

To understand why these flows of money are occurring, it’s useful to recall the genesis of these questions. This year’s ballot question fight was joined when two questions were placed on the ballot by petition: Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and Nine Districts for MoCo’s Question D, which would eliminate council at-large seats and remake the council into 9 district seats. In response to those ballot questions, the county council put two of its own questions on the ballot to compete with them: Question A (a different tax limitation measure) and Question C (which would keep the at-large seats and add two district seats). It is believed by some that if two directly conflicting ballot questions pass, they will both get thrown out, though that is not 100% certain.

Once it became clear that both Ficker’s anti-tax question and the nine districts question were going to appear on the ballot, no fewer than four new ballot issue committees were created to stop one or both of them and/or to promote the council’s alternatives. In short order, many of the county’s power players took sides in an uncommon off-year ballot question war. The players’ positions are at least as interesting as the committees’ activities themselves.

Nine Districts for MoCo, the oldest of the committees, has by far the most individual contributors but 82% of its cash funding has come from the real estate industry. In its most recent report, MoCo GOP Central Committee Member Ann Hingston made 6 more in-kind contributions totaling $993, thereby providing more evidence of the links between Nine Districts and the county Republican Party. Nine Districts’ fundraising pace has slowed as they have collected just $154 since October 4.

The competing committees have rapidly closed the gap. Three groups have paid for mail: former County Executive Ike Leggett’s group opposing Questions B and D, former executive candidate David Blair’s group supporting Question A and opposing Question B and Residents for More Representation, a group supporting Question C and opposing Question D. These groups are also paying for websites and online advertising. But they got off to a late start while Nine Districts has been campaigning for more than a year.

Below are all the major players who have contributed at least $10,000 to one or a combination of these ballot issue committees.

David Blair – $165,000
Supports Questions A and C, opposes Questions B and D
Businessman and former executive candidate David Blair is the number one spender on ballot questions. He has contributed $65,000 to Legget’s group opposing Questions B and D, $50,000 to his own group supporting Question A and opposing Question B, and $50,000 to Residents for More Representation, which supports Question C and opposes Question D. Blair’s positions mirror the positions taken by the county Democratic Party. (Disclosure: I have done work for Blair’s non-profit but I am not involved in his ballot question activities.)

Charlie Nulsen – $123,500
Supports Questions A, C and D, opposes Question B
Nulsen is the president of Washington Property Company. On June 4, he contributed $50,000 to Nine Districts to help get Question D on the ballot. On October 13, he contributed $23,500 to Residents for More Representation to defeat Question D. Nulsen could have saved more than $70,000 and achieved the same outcome by simply doing nothing. He also contributed $50,000 to Blair’s group supporting Question A and opposing Question B.

Monte Gingery – $40,000
Supports Question D
The head of Gingery Development Group has made three contributions totaling $40,000 to Nine Districts.

Willco – $40,000
Supports Questions C and D
On August 5, this Potomac developer gave an in-kind contribution of $15,000 to Nine Districts which was used to pay Rowland Strategies (their campaign firm). On October 9, Willco gave $25,000 to Residents for More Representation, which is seeking to pass Question C and defeat Nine Districts. Folks, you can’t make it up.

MCGEO – $30,000
Supports Question A, Opposes Question B, Gave Contribution to Question D
The Municipal and County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO) has made a $20,000 contribution to Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B and a $10,000 in-kind contribution to Nine Districts. MCGEO President Gino Renne is the treasurer of Empower PAC, which gave another $5,000 to Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B.

MCEA – $20,000
Opposes Question B
The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has contributed $20,000 to Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B.

UFCW Local 400 – $10,000
Opposes Question B
This grocery store union which shares a parent union with MCGEO gave $10,000 to Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B.

The Montgomery County Democratic Party recommends voting for Questions A and C and voting against Questions B and D. The Montgomery County Republican Party recommends the exact opposite. The Washington Post editorial board opposes all four ballot questions.

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Weren’t Term Limits Supposed to Fix All This?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Recently, one of our readers emailed me this reaction to my column on Republican support for Nine Districts.

Dear Adam, thanks for covering the “Nine Districts” matter. Rest assured, there is at least one dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who believes that County Council has for years betrayed the voters and residents on planning issues … and welcomes trying a new approach that might bring to end the years of County Council’s betrayal of voters and residents … so passing the “Nine Districts” ballot measure might not be a silver bullet, but it sends a strong signal — like passing the “term limits” ballot measure — that County Council’s betrayal of voters and residents has not gone unnoticed and that, to the extent possible, County Council will be held accountable by the voters they have betrayed.

This reader has an interesting point in bringing up term limits. The coalition for Nine Districts bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the coalition supporting term limits in 2016. Both groups contained Republicans, business folks, unhappy developers, moderate Democrats and everyone else who opposed the status quo. Some upcounty residents see a lot of appeal in Nine Districts. Four years ago, Clarksburg, Damascus, Derwood, Laytonsville, North Potomac and Poolesville voted in support of term limits by 80% or more.

Now let’s consider what Nine Districts supporters had to say about why they favored that initiative. There are themes of being ignored, losing out to downcounty and/or “Takoma Park” progressives, dissatisfaction with planning issues and more. Those very same grievances were cited by term limits supporters four years ago. And term limits were sold as the magic elixir that was supposed to fix it. All of it.

One thing that the term limits vote accomplished is that it spawned enormous, although probably temporary, aversion to tax hikes at the county council. Five council members who voted for the 8.7% property tax hike in 2016 that preceded the 70% vote for term limits are still on the council. Most of them along with at least half of the freshmen have opposed tax hikes at nearly every turn over the past year. When the county executive proposed a tax hike to fund more money for schools, eight of the nine council members immediately rejected it out of hand. When members of the General Assembly offered more taxing power to the council, a majority of them rejected that too even though it was merely enabling authority. They also rejected a hidden tax hike that was buried in the county executive’s budget. Council Member Evan Glass’s bill to tax teardowns is in limbo. And though they don’t favor Robin Ficker’s draconian charter amendment banning property tax increases, the council proposed an alternative containing a unanimous vote requirement for breaking the charter limit. Let’s remember that the latter requirement originated with a charter amendment passed by Ficker in 2008.

Yes, it’s true: so far, the county council of 2020 has had the same position on breaking the charter limit on property taxes that Robin Ficker had in 2008. No one seems to have noticed.

Someday, the anti-tax sentiment on the council will fade. Term limits, after all, create lame ducks who are by their nature immune from political accountability in the event that their careers in office are over. Throw in the county’s humungous multi-year revenue crash and we have not seen the last of tax hikes.

Whatever becomes of taxes, none of the other things that term limits were supposed to “fix” have been “fixed.” Four years later, supporters of Nine Districts are still complaining about those very same things. Here’s a prediction, folks – if Nine Districts passes, the new county council will be seen as just as bad as the current one by a faction of angry residents who will then spawn a new charter amendment – for the same reasons. And on and on it will go.

Instead of endlessly rejiggering the charter, how about we organize people to vote for adults? And then if the politicians act like bottle-throwing babies, vote them out. A few election cycles of that will send a message to the politicians that they won’t forget, even more so than term limits or nine districts.

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Friedson Floors Ficker on Taxes

By Adam Pagnucco.

Friends of White Flint made a huge score last week when they landed the heavyweight battle of the year, at least for MoCo tax geeks: a debate between Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson and long-time anti-tax activist Robin Ficker. Friedson and Ficker are the authors of Questions A and B, dueling tax limit charter amendments on the ballot this year. No quarter was asked and no quarter was given!

First, a reminder of what these tax questions would do. Question A (the Friedson amendment) would freeze the property tax rate and allow it to be increased only by a unanimous vote of the county council. Question B (the newest of many Ficker amendments) would allow property tax collections to rise at the rate of inflation and remove the current ability of a unanimous council to override it. Both questions impose limits on property taxes that the vast majority of Maryland counties don’t possess, although Question A would raise more money than Question B over time.

Friends of White Flint invited Friedson and Ficker to discuss their charter amendments on a Zoom meeting and they did not disappoint. Stiff jabs, hooks and uppercuts were thrown (virtually of course) as the high school linebacker and Muhammad Ali’s running partner put on a show. But Friedson threw the winning punch with this statement:

What Robin Ficker will not say, what he is not telling you, is when he repeatedly talks about that 8.7% property tax increase [in 2016] based on this ridiculous tax policy that we currently have, his property taxes, not just his tax rates, his property taxes, the literal dollars that Mr. Ficker pays today, are lower than what they were when property taxes were raised.

This is a true statement as can be verified from county records. Ficker was charged $4,920 in county property taxes on his Boyds home in 2016 and has been charged $4,723 this year, a 4% drop in his taxes. This is despite a slight increase in his property’s assessed value. Ficker’s experience demonstrates a quirk of the current property tax charter limit that his charter amendment would convert into a hard cap: because the charter limit ties revenue growth to inflation and not growth in the assessable base (which is usually higher), it can actually result in cuts to property tax rates and reductions in collections from some specific properties, including Ficker’s. Friedson argues that this deprives the county of the full tax benefits it could otherwise derive from growth and serves as a disincentive for economic development.

Ficker had no response on the issue of his county property taxes.

The full video is below.

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