Tag Archives: taxes

Is MoCo’s Budget in Trouble?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s $120 million budget shortfall has set off political fireworks this election season, including attacks from Delegate Bill Frick (D-16), who is running for Executive, and Republicans who question how taxes could be going up while revenues are going down.  County Council incumbents pooh-pooh it, insisting that the budget decline is unremarkable and the economy is strong.  County Executive spokesman Patrick Lacefield, who once predicted that any loss of the county’s $30 million in liquor profits would cause a big property tax hike, now says that the $120 million shortfall is “pretty small” at just 2.2 percent of the county’s budget.

What is going on here?  Is MoCo’s budget in trouble?

First, the incumbents are right to point out that mid-year corrections, including budget savings plans, are not uncommon.  Between FY08 and FY11, the County Council approved five mid-year cut packages ranging from $30 million to $70 million each due to the Great Recession.  In FY16, the council approved a $54 million savings plan associated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wynne decision and disappointing income tax receipts in the prior year.  While mid-year cuts happen occasionally, it’s important to note that their history indicates that they are often – but not always – produced by looming economic problems.

So what’s causing this one?  No one is totally sure yet, but there seems to be two phenomena at work.

Declining Income Tax Payments from the Wealthy

In Maryland, the state collects income taxes on behalf of local governments and remits them in periodic distributions.  Part of MoCo’s problem originated in its November income tax distribution from the state, which includes extension filers who tend to be disproportionately very wealthy.  It’s difficult to forecast income tax payments from wealthy people because their dependence on capital gains and business income can be volatile.  The chart below from the state’s Bureau of Revenue Estimates contrasts the annual change in average federal adjusted gross income between all MoCo taxpayers (pink bars) and the top 100 MoCo taxpayers (blue line).  Income change for all taxpayers usually varies by single digits each year while income for the super-wealthy almost always varies by double digits.  This creates serious forecasting challenges for the county government since the super-wealthy have a material impact on its budget.

One relevant fact is that the November distribution may be down by 29% in MoCo but, according to the state, it is also down by 30% in Howard County and 26% in Baltimore County.  One thing these three jurisdictions have in common is that they all have substantial concentrations of very wealthy people.  That suggests that some of MoCo’s problem is not specific to the county but rather to variations in the incomes of the super rich.

Why is this happening?  One explanation lies in capital gains income.  Council analyst Jacob Sesker writes:

To a large degree, that volatility is the result of the year-to-year variations in the capital gains income of a small number of County residents. Illustrating this point, part of the projected FY18 decline in income tax revenue can be traced to a sharp drop in the capital gains of the County’s top 50 taxpayers, who realized gains in tax year 2016 that were 50% of the gains realized in tax year 2015, resulting in $21 million less in County income tax revenue (Revenue Administration Division of the Maryland Comptroller). Staff’s review of tax return data published by the Comptroller indicates that roughly 1.8% of Montgomery County returns report income of $500,000 or greater. On average, these returns explain more than half of any year-to-year increases in income tax revenue, and explain more than 100% of any year-to-year declines in income tax revenue.

Another factor could be the tax bills being considered by Congress, which contain numerous large cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations.  The super wealthy could be deferring capital gains and business pass-through income to next year when they would be subject to significantly lower rates.  If true, that would mean less income tax revenue this year but perhaps more next year when the deferred income is reported.  That’s just a theory but it can’t be ruled out.

Broader Economic Weakness

There are other facts that can’t be explained by the tax planning of the super wealthy.  First, FY17 (the year of the 9% property tax hike) closed out with $25 million less than expected.  Second, the county is writing down $206 million over the next six years in property taxes, energy taxes, transfer taxes, recordation taxes, telephone taxes and hotel taxes in addition to a $212 million income tax writedown.  The energy tax revision alone is $100 million over six years.  The reason for that is unclear, but it’s worth remembering that since commercial energy users pay roughly double the tax rates of residential users, some assumptions regarding employer energy use may be operative here.  It seems unlikely that a “strong economy” would produce such broad, multi-tax writedowns of the kind just put forth by the county.

What’s the bottom line?  Over the years, we have learned that under most circumstances, economic trends usually matter more than singular events.  One good year should not cause irrational exuberance and one bad tax distribution should not cause panic.  Whether the recent shortfall turns out to be meaningful or not, MoCo’s serious budgetary challenges are long term in nature.  They relate to decade-plus trends of lagging growth in employment and income, repeated funding of ongoing spending with one-time revenue sources and the county’s recent passage of large tax hikes and expensive employment laws at the same time, a unique combination among Washington-area jurisdictions.  That is on top of any targeting of Maryland and general economic insanity by Congress.  The big question is not about one tax distribution from the state but whether a combination of all these long-term factors will catch up with MoCo in a really bad way in the next couple years.

That’s a question for the next Executive and County Council.

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Moon Country Club Bill Could Generate $10 Million for MoCo

By Adam Pagnucco.

A local bill introduced by Delegate David Moon (D-20) that would end property tax breaks for country clubs would eventually generate $10 million a year for Montgomery County Government according to General Assembly analysts.  That’s welcome news for the county, especially considering its current budgetary difficulties.

Under current state law, the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) is allowed to strike agreements with country clubs having golf courses to cap the assessed value of their land.  To be eligible for such agreements, the clubs must have at least 100 members who pay dues averaging $50 or more annually for each member; restrict use of their facilities primarily to members, families, and guests; have at least 50 acres of land; and have a golf course with at least 9 holes and a clubhouse.  In practice, the agreements limit assessed land values to $1,000 an acre.  In return for the assessed rate, a club with an SDAT agreement must agree not to sell its land for subdivision and to not discriminate on race, color, creed, sex or national origin.  If a club with an agreement does sell its land for subdivision, it must pay back taxes equivalent to what it would have been paying without an agreement.

Not long ago, your author asked SDAT for all of its agreements with country clubs in Montgomery County.  SDAT sent us ten of them but we later learned that there are actually fifteen of them in the county.  One of them was signed in 1980 and three more were signed in 1981; all four of these are fifty year agreements.  Two more were transferred from prior owners.  One agreement, for the Lakewood Country Club in Rockville, was signed in 2017.  In tax year 2016, when the agreement was not effective, the club’s 175 acres had an assessed land value of $1.94 million.  Once the agreement takes effect, the club’s assessed land value will be $175,000 – a 91% reduction.

Moon’s local bill would abolish such agreements with country clubs in Montgomery County as of their expiration or June 30, 2029, whichever date is earlier.  Because Maryland’s state constitution requires uniform rules for the assessment of land, Moon’s bill takes the form of a constitutional amendment carving out MoCo country clubs and golf courses from that requirement.  The amendment would have to be approved by voters.  We understand that Moon may also introduce a statewide bill to deal with SDAT agreements everywhere.

The fiscal note on Moon’s bill indicates that MoCo country clubs with SDAT agreements have a combined 3,000 acres currently assessed at $3 million.  In the absence of the agreements, the fiscal note estimates that the club’s assessed land value would be $983.3 million.  So once the agreements are all gone by Fiscal Year 2030, the fiscal note estimates that the state would collect an additional $1 million a year in property taxes from the clubs and the county would get an additional $10 million annually.

That’s right, folks – if the country clubs simply pay property taxes at the same rate the rest of us do, the Montgomery County Government would get an extra $10 million a year.

Delegate Moon’s country club bill is the biggest no-brainer of all time.  There is no justification for the richest of the very rich to get a property tax break that no one else does.  And if they are required to pay the same as everybody else, the county government would get a nice revenue bump to help it deal with our significant and increasing needs.

We hope every single MoCo Senator and Delegate will join David Moon and support his bill.

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GOP Tax Bills Discriminate Against Maryland

By Adam Pagnucco.

Much has been written about the tax bills passed by the U.S. House and Senate in recent weeks.  Overall, both bills offer small tax cuts to the poor, modest ones to the middle class and large cuts to the wealthy and corporations.  But in order to partially offset the massive tax cuts going to those at the top, the bills do something else.

They discriminate against taxpayers in Maryland.

Why do they do that?  One key feature of both bills is that they abolish the ability of individuals to deduct state and local income taxes from their federal incomes.  (Property tax deductions would still be allowed up to $10,000.)  According to IRS data for Tax Year 2015, U.S. federal taxpayers deducted a total of $334 billion of state and local income taxes from their incomes, more than the amounts they deducted for mortgage interest ($278 billion), charitable contributions ($222 billion), real estate taxes ($187 billion) and state and local sales taxes ($17 billion).  Abolishing the state and local income tax deduction hits people who itemize their deductions and pay significant amounts of state and local income taxes.  Marylanders are targeted on both those measures.

Itemizing Deductions

According to the above IRS data, 46% of Marylanders itemized their deductions on their federal tax returns in 2015.  That’s the highest rate in the country, far surpassing the national rate of 30% and red states like Arkansas (22%), Mississippi (23%), Louisiana (23%), Texas (24%), Alabama (26%), South Carolina (27%) and Georgia (33%).

State and Local Income Tax Deductions

In terms of state and local income tax deductions per return (including non-itemized returns), Marylanders ranked fifth in the nation at $4,217 per return.  Maryland trailed New York, D.C., Connecticut and California.  Virginia ranked tenth, indicating that the abolition of this deduction will hit the Washington, D.C. metro area particularly hard.  The states least impacted are mostly red states and those with little or no income taxes.

Inside Maryland, the impact will be felt differently across the state.  That’s because residents of some jurisdictions pay much more in state and local income taxes than others.  According to 2015 income tax data from the Comptroller, MoCo and Howard County residents pay by far the most state and local income taxes in Maryland.  Residents of many parts of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore pay the least.

Consider this.  If you itemize your deductions, are paying $5,000 in state and local income taxes – roughly the average in Maryland – and your effective federal income tax rate is 15%, you will owe $750 more to Uncle Sam because of the abolition of the state and local income tax deduction.

Does that mean you will owe more federal taxes overall?  That depends.  If you are wealthy, you could get huge offsetting cuts because of changes to the top income tax brackets and tax cuts on pass-through income from your businesses.  If you are poor or middle class, you could benefit from an increase in the standard deduction and an increase in the child credit, but that could be offset by an elimination of the personal exemption.  An analysis of the Senate bill two weeks ago by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found almost all of the tax benefits from that bill going to the top quintile of Maryland taxpayers.  Changes prior to the Senate floor vote and in conference committee may tweak the details but not the overall impact.  And it could get worse: wealthy Republican donors are already complaining that their tax cuts are not big enough.

There are many evils in the GOP’s tax bills: redistribution to the one percent, big tax breaks for multi-nationals who ship jobs overseas, losses of insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act and more.  But for Marylanders, the additional slap in the face is that the bills shift the federal tax burden away from states like Texas, South Dakota, Alaska and Mississippi and onto residents of the Free State.  All Marylanders, including Republicans, should oppose that.

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Stop Giving Robin Ficker More Ammo

By Adam Pagnucco.

Right about now, the happiest man in Montgomery County lives in Boyds.  He is 74, a huge sports fanatic, a long time attorney, a former state Delegate, a perpetual candidate and a tireless activist.  He loves the County Council because some of its members give him endless material for use in his never-ending demagogic campaign to weaken and ultimately paralyze county government.

Yes folks, we are talking about the notorious political heckler Robin Ficker.  And he must be jumping for joy at the news that some members of the council are considering a possible new soda tax.

Ficker has been running for office and placing charter amendments on the ballot, mostly intended to limit taxes, since the 1970s.  The huge majority of his amendments have failed, often because the political establishment labeled them “Ficker amendments” to exploit the national infamy of his heckling at Washington Bullets games.  One exception was the razor-tight passage of his 2008 charter amendment mandating that all nine Council Members vote in support of exceeding the charter limit on property taxes.  But Ficker has never had more ammo than in the last four years and he has used it to push his anti-government agenda.  Consider what has happened.

The council’s approval of a large salary increase for its members in 2013 and its passage of a 9% property tax hike in 2016 gave Ficker’s term limits charter amendment momentum.  Some Council Members then used their campaign funds to finance a lawsuit to keep term limits off the ballot, which failed.  Council Member Nancy Floreen’s “exasperated” and “defensive” performance in a television debate with Ficker and Council Member George Leventhal’s comparison of term limits supporters with Brexit voters didn’t help.  Ficker predicted term limits would pass by twenty points; instead, they passed by forty.

Robin Ficker thanks MoCo voters for giving him his biggest political win ever.

That’s not all.  Ficker has enrolled in the public financing system established by the council for his latest Executive run.  And he requested the county government’s email lists after another resident obtained them under the Public Information Act.  Any competent campaigner – maybe even Ficker – should be able to use those thousands of emails to raise enough money to qualify for public matching funds.

And now we have news of the soda tax, which prompted gleeful self-promotion by Ficker in Bethesda Magazine’s comment section.  Expect a Facebook ad soon.

Your author does not enjoy writing this column because we find merit in this particular tax.  Sugary drinks and soda are public health menaces, especially to children.  The intended use of the money for early childhood programs is a good idea.  And the current tight budget does not give any quick or easy options for funding undeniable, but expensive, priorities like early childhood education.  But the counter-argument from Ficker, who calls Council Members “tax increase specialists,” is obvious.  “They’re not listening to you,” Ficker will tell the voters.  “You told them no more tax hikes and they’re going to do it anyway.”  Even Leventhal, who has voted for numerous tax hikes and has done as much to promote public health as any Council Member ever, has come out against the new tax.

The danger here is not that Ficker will be elected.  Voters made that mistake once all the way back in 1978 and have never come close to repeating it since.  The real problem is the next charter amendment that Ficker will inevitably introduce after his latest election campaign fails.  Whatever else Ficker is, he is an astute student of Maryland county tax policies.  He is fully aware of the taxation and spending limits in the Prince George’s County charter, such as the requirements that the property tax rate may not exceed 96 cents per $100 of assessed value and that bond issues, new taxes, other tax increases and some fee increases be approved by voters.  He is also aware of provisions in the state constitution and several county charters that forbid legislative bodies from adding spending to executive budgets.  Indeed, some of his past charter amendments have been variants of such policies.

It’s one thing to raise taxes during terrible economic downturns as the county did in 2010.  That simply had to be done.  It’s a very different thing to discuss new discretionary tax hikes in times when voters are not convinced that they are absolutely needed.  If the council would like to have more money available for worthy programs, it should focus on growing the economy, stop adding ongoing miscellaneous spending financed by one-shot revenue sources, redirect cable fund money to purposes that actually benefit the public and restrain some parts of the budget to finance expansions of others.  Doing those things will free up tens of millions of dollars, and maybe more, over time.  But constant talk, and occasional passage, of discretionary tax hikes will only help Ficker place a Prince George’s-style anti-tax doomsday charter amendment on the ballot.  Should such a thing pass, no soda tax will save us.

Hence a warning.  If you give Robin Ficker enough ammo, even he will eventually hit the target.

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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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Setting the Record Straight on MCPS Funding

By Council Member Nancy Floreen.

Adam Pagnucco’s recent post on the County Council’s budgeting work made an astoundingly misleading claim: “The County imposed seven years of austerity on MCPS [in FY10-16] while lavishing double-digit increases on nearly every other function of government.”  While I ordinarily ignore this kind of online misrepresentation of Council activity, this goes too far over the top to let pass.

As Council President in 2016, I plead guilty to leading the charge for two tax hikes to support MCPS.  The FY17 property tax hike enabled us to reduce class size and focus on the achievement gap; we exceeded the State-required Maintenance of Effort level (MOE) for the MCPS operating budget by $89 million.  The recordation tax hike enabled us to fund key school construction projects that would otherwise have languished.  We did this in a historic partnership with the Board of Education, which agreed to channel more of its funds to the classroom, and, bravely, less to employee compensation.

Were the preceding seven years really a period of “austerity” for MCPS and “lavish” times for others?  Consider the facts.

1. The choice of base years matters. FY10 was an anomaly. From FY01-09, we had funded MCPS at a total of $576 million ABOVE the MOE level, thus creating a much higher required spending base.  But no good deed goes unpunished.  When revenues sank like a stone during the Great Recession, this higher base became an impossible burden, even after we approved a property tax increase in FY09.

2. During the worst years of the recession, FY09-12, only two agencies – MCPS and Montgomery College – saw increased funding. To be sure, the increases were small (1.8 and 3.2 percent, respectively) and relied on higher State aid. But during this same period, vital County functions like Police, Fire and Rescue, and HHS were down 3.4, 5.0, and 14.7 percent, respectively.  Recreation was down 23.5 percent, and Libraries was down 29.2 percent.  These deep cuts were without precedent.  The new spending base we were forced to create was so low that any later increase seemed disproportionately large.  We consistently prioritized funding for MCPS and the College during this period.  As the Rolling Stones would say, they didn’t get what they wanted, but they got what they needed. This we could not do for the rest of County government.  I was Council President in that awful time.  There were furloughs for all County employees, including first responders.  MCPS furloughed no one.

3. The “austerity” claim fails to account for massive additional County funding for MCPS that is not included in the MCPS budget or in MOE.  So, for example, in FY18, we approved total expenditures for MCPS that include $2.37 billion for the MCPS operating budget PLUS $317.5 million more in the County budget.  This pays for debt service on school construction bonds, pre-funding MCPS retiree health benefits, support services ranging from Linkages to Learning to crossing guards, and MCPS technology modernization.  In FY13-16 alone, this additional County support totaled $1.08 billion.  These dollars are not technically included in the MCPS budget, but they should be. To put the FY18 additional County support in perspective, this amount is larger than the total FY18 budget for Police, Fire and Rescue, or HHS.  Again, this massive support for MCPS is all ABOVE the MOE level. And not counted.

4. Is the flip side of this alleged “austerity” for MCPS in FY10-16 really “lavishing double-digit increases on nearly every other function of government”?  Tell that to one of our most important and beloved departments, Public Libraries.  The libraries provide our one million-plus residents of all ages (including students from MCPS) with an ever-growing wealth of materials and technology.  But the department’s budget of $40.3 million in FY09 did not reach that level again until FY16, seven years later, even in nominal dollars.  The FY18 level, $42.7 million, is barely equal to FY09 in real dollars. “Lavish” indeed!

5. One key fact is that 90 percent of the MCPS budget is for the salaries and benefits of active and retired employees. MCPS’ benefits cost much more than the County’s. If MCPS’ employee share of health insurance costs was the same as the County’s, the savings would be $24 million.  Add to this the fact we alone in the State fund a supplement to MCPS employees’ State pension benefit. This alone cost $25.3 million last year.  The regular pension cost in FY18 is another $71.8 million, plus $56.8 million more for the State’s shift of teacher pension costs.  We also pick up the tab for pre-funding MCPS retiree health benefits (paid from the County budget, not the MCPS budget).  This set us back $74.2 million in FY18 and is now projected to cost $547.8 million in FY18-23.  Is that what you call “austerity”?

6. 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?

7. In fact, a more complete and accurate comparison of FY10-16 tax supported operating budgets by agency shows that MCPS received a 12.9 percent funding increase compared to 13.0 percent for Montgomery County Government, 15.9 percent for Montgomery College, and 8.3 percent for Park and Planning. In addition, a significant portion of the FY10-16 increase of 803.9 percent in pre-funding retiree health benefits and 41.5 percent in debt service benefited MCPS!

As we go into an election year of hyperbole and catchy phrases, know that the Council, on which I have been so privileged to serve, is committed to thoughtful fact and policy based budgets, responsive to ALL our residents’ needs. We are also constantly mindful of the burden that our decisions place on our residents’ pocketbooks.  MCPS will always need more support.  Has it been singled out for unfair treatment – “austerity” for MCPS and “lavish” increases for everyone else?  The facts say otherwise.

Nancy Floreen has served on the Montgomery County Council since 2002.  She was Council President in 2010, during the Great Recession, and again in 2016.

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Random Bits, October 2017

By Adam Pagnucco.

Chris Wilhelm is Winning the Sign Wars

MCPS teacher and progressive at-large council candidate Chris Wilhelm has covered parts of Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard with his campaign signs.  (It helps to speak Spanish!)  Yes, we know signs don’t vote.  But it shows that Wilhelm is working and that’s good for perceptions of his campaign.

Who Has Momentum in Council District 1?

Council District 1, which covers Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac, Poolesville and a large part of Kensington, has more regularly voting Democrats and more political contributors than any other council district by far.  It’s a prime seat.  Right now, there are nine candidates in the race and there might be more on the way.  Many good candidates in this district, like Bill Conway, Gabe Albornoz, Emily Shetty, Samir Paul and Sara Love, are instead running for council at-large or the General Assembly.  There are lots of openings to choose from these days!

So who has the momentum right now?  You could say Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, who is the only sitting elected official who is running.  Or Reggie Oldak, who has qualified for matching funds in public financing.  Former Planning Board Member Meredith Wellington should appeal to land use voters oriented towards Marc Elrich.  Former Kensington Mayor Pete Fosselman was just endorsed by former Governor Martin O’Malley.

But we’re going with Andrew Friedson, who just had his kickoff boasting endorsements from his former employer, Comptroller Peter Franchot, along with Senators Brian Feldman (D-15) and Craig Zucker (D-14) and former long-time DNC member Susan Turnbull.  Feldman is an old hand in the Potomac portion of the district and has not been seriously challenged in 15 years.  Turnbull doesn’t usually play in local races but she has a national network in both the Democratic Party and the Jewish community.  If she is all in for Friedson, that’s a big deal.  Friedson, who is killing the field in social media, is feeling pumped up right now with good reason.

Where’s Duchy?

It’s unusual to see a large field of MoCo candidates without Duchy Trachtenberg among them.  She has a long electoral history, losing a District 1 County Council race in 2002 by a hair, winning an at-large council seat in 2006, losing reelection in 2010, briefly running for Congressional District 6 in 2012 and getting annihilated in a challenge to District 1 council incumbent Roger Berliner in 2014.  Now she has a full table of races to pick from, including council at-large, council District 1 and the District 16 General Assembly seats.  Say what you will about Duchy – and we’ve said plenty – but she can raise money, she has a network and she has campaign experience.  Is she done or is she just waiting to file at the last minute, as she has done before?

Can Greenberger’s Strategy Work?

Former County Council spokesman Neil Greenberger is torching his old bosses, saying they treat voters like ATMs and guaranteeing that if he is elected, there will be no property tax hikes.  This is a new strategy for a Democratic council candidate made possible by the 2008 passage of the Ficker amendment, which requires votes from all nine Council Members to go over the property tax charter limit.  Furthermore, it’s an unusual strategy from a historical perspective.  Most council candidates over the last few decades have emphasized schools, transportation, development (pro or con) and a handful of other left-leaning issues but have not been explicitly anti-tax.  That sentiment has mostly come from Republicans.

But two things have changed in Greenberger’s favor.  First, the passage of term limits was rooted partly in opposition to last year’s 9% property tax hike.  But it wasn’t just the increase alone that annoyed residents.  Unlike the 2010 energy tax hike, last year’s property tax increase was not driven by the catastrophic effects of a recession, but was a policy choice by the council that could easily have been much lower.  Voters didn’t see the tax hike as truly necessary, which increased their frustration with it.

Second, the number of votes needed to win an at-large seat could be much lower in this cycle than in the past.  Over the last four cycles, at-large candidates have needed around 40,000 votes to have a shot at victory.  (Incumbent Blair Ewing far exceeded that total in 2002 and still lost.)

That number may no longer hold.  No one knows what the turnout will be next year; informed observers disagree about that.  But the candidate field will be two to three times larger than in any other recent cycle and only one incumbent is running.  That could mean a very fractured electorate yielding a low win threshold and tight margins.  That favors candidates with medium-sized but intense bases, whether geographic, demographic or ideological.  In Greenberger’s case, if 100,000 Democrats vote, and 30,000 of them are sick of tax hikes, and Greenberger can actually communicate with them, he could win.  And so could anyone else who can put together 30,000 votes.

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Greenberger Guarantees No Property Tax Hikes

By Adam Pagnucco.

Former County Council spokesman Neil Greenberger, who is running for an at-large seat, has released a campaign video guaranteeing that if he is elected, there will be no property tax hikes in the next term.  Greenberger cites a section of the Montgomery County charter that prevents property tax hikes above the rate of inflation unless all nine Council Members vote to do so.  If only one member votes no, the tax hike would fail.  The nine vote requirement is the result of a ballot question submitted by Robin Ficker which was approved by voters in 2008.

While other at-large candidates have been skeptical of further tax hikes, none of them so far have taken as hard a line against them as Greenberger.

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Lessons Learned from the Giant Tax Hike, Part Three

By Adam Pagnucco.

If the next County Executive and County Council want to prevent another Giant Tax Hike, they will have to do something that has not been done for years: seriously improve the county’s economy.  Otherwise, no budget reforms will be enough to pay for the county’s needs.

There are many ways to assess a local economy, but for the purposes of this column, let’s look at two big measures: jobs and income.  From 2001 through 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates that total employment in the Washington metro area grew by 393,048 jobs, a growth rate of 14.6%.  In Montgomery County, total employment grew by 14,086, a growth rate of 3.1%.  Of 24 local jurisdictions measured by BLS, Montgomery’s job performance ranked 20th.  Among the large jurisdictions, only Prince George’s County fared worse.

Montgomery fared well in federal employment over this period, growing its federal jobs base by 18.9%.  That beat the metro area’s federal employment growth rate of 13.2%.  The county’s employment problems are concentrated in its private sector, which grew by just 1.0% between 2001 and 2016.  Montgomery’s private sector had 374,115 jobs in 2016, below its peak of 386,626 ten years before.  Over the last fifteen years, Montgomery’s private sector employment growth ranked 19th of 24 local jurisdictions.

In terms of real per capita personal income, the Washington region enjoyed a long period of growth that peaked in 2007, the year before the Great Recession hit.  In the eight years since, the region’s per capita income has struggled to increase for the first time in more than three decades.  Montgomery has a higher per capita income than the regional average, but it has suffered from a similar pattern.

Of 19 local jurisdictions tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), twelve had real per capita personal income gains between 2007 and 2015.  Montgomery was one of the seven jurisdictions that did not.  Its 1.7% drop is below the regional total of -0.2% and ranks 14th of 19 jurisdictions in the region.

In broad terms, the employment data and the income data agree: Montgomery County has still not recovered from the Great Recession.

The fragile state of the economy acts like a steel cage on the county’s budget.  The county’s needs in public schools, public safety, transportation, health and human services and countless other areas will not go away.  But unlike days past, the economy currently cannot generate the tax revenues to finance everything desired by those in office – and their constituents.  The county has passed four tax hikes since the Great Recession started – two property tax increases (FY09 and FY16), an energy tax hike (FY11) and a recordation tax hike (FY16).  Added to this is a series of recent laws imposing rising costs on employers.  While some local jurisdictions in the region (especially in Virginia) have passed tax hikes and the District of Columbia and Prince George’s have passed new employment laws, Montgomery County is the only local government that has passed both in significant magnitude.  There may be reason for that, but it has contributed to enormous competitive challenges for the county.

Progressive policies such as those favored by Montgomery County politicians cost lots of money.  That money can only be obtained over the long term through a robust economy.  Economic growth is affected by the totality of what the county does – its investments in education and transportation, its fiscal and taxation policies, its planning decisions and the nature of new laws and regulations it imposes on employers.  If any of these things negatively impacts economic growth, marketing programs, slogans and massive incentives for large businesses will not by themselves make up for it.

The Number One lesson from the Giant Tax Hike is that the next generation of county elected officials must prioritize job creation and income growth.  Failure to do so will result in more tax hikes and further long-term decline.

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Lessons Learned from the Giant Tax Hike, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

The untold story of last year’s 9% property tax hike is that it was not merely the product of needed funding for public schools or the adverse consequences of a U.S. Supreme Court decision on income taxes.  It was also the product of an innate bias towards more spending built into the County Council’s budget process.  That bias created mounting pressure to fund ever-growing spending programs accumulated over many years which contributed to the tax increase.  The next generation of county elected officials must reform this process or they too will eventually feel compelled to raise taxes.

All state and local operating budgets must be balanced each year as a matter of law.  At the state level, the General Assembly may cut spending items in the Governor’s budget but they generally cannot add to them.  (The legislature can and does pass laws mandating spending on certain items in future years.)  Several counties with Executives follow the state’s model, as does the City of Baltimore.  But the Montgomery County charter grants all final budgetary authority to the County Council, which can do almost anything it wants to the Executive’s recommended budget.  It can add, subtract or rearrange spending items subject only to requirements in state law, such as mandatory minimum funding levels for public schools and the college.  Other than that, the only constraint on the council’s power is that the budget it passes must be balanced for the fiscal year.

Every March 15, the Executive is required by the charter to send a recommended budget to the council.  The council then begins its process for reviewing and changing the budget that lasts roughly two months.  The council’s vehicle for altering the Executive’s recommended budget is the reconciliation list (commonly called the rec list), which is a ledger of spending additions and deductions.  Each council committee, and the full council itself, can post additions or deductions to the rec list.  The last step in the process is figuring out how to finance some portion of the additions since they always exceed the deductions.

In theory, there are two sound places to go to fund additions to the Executive’s budget: new tax revenues or offsetting spending cuts.  In practice, the council’s use of these resources is limited.  Tax increases are typically proposed by the Executive, who distributes the revenues they generate across spending items in the recommended budget.  In such cases, the new revenue is not available for further spending desired by the council unless it alters the Executive’s choices.  The council could also cut the Executive’s spending items and use the money for its own items.  But the Executive’s spending proposals have constituencies who will squeal if they are diverted or cut.  No one likes to be the bad guy at budget time!

Page one of the council’s final draft reconciliation list for FY18.  These are some of the new spending items the council wanted to fund last spring.  The challenge was how to pay for them.

If new taxes and spending cuts are insufficient to pay for new spending desired by the council, other funding sources must be identified.  In the past, favorite sources for funding included setting aside less reserve money than proposed by the Executive, setting aside less money for retiree health benefits, occasional transfers of cash from the capital budget and other one-time fixes.  In FY12, the Executive proposed $10 million for snow removal and the council redirected $4.1 million of that for new spending on the reconciliation list.  Snow removal costs must be paid, so if they were to ultimately prove larger than budgeted funds, the council’s action would be tantamount to a backdoor drawdown of the reserve.

Since FY05, the council has added a combined $245 million to the Executive’s budgets through its reconciliation lists.  One does not have to be a certified public accountant to see what the effect of these additions will be over time.  Many spending items added by the council are ongoing, such as hires of new employees and expansions of programs expected to continue indefinitely.  But some of the funding sources for the new spending are one-time in nature, like capital budget transfers and reserve drawdowns.  Repeated use of one-time funding sources for ongoing spending creates enormous long-term pressure on the budget.  Eventually, especially when a downturn comes, the new spending must be trimmed or taxes must be raised.  Guess which is more likely to occur?

Why does this happen?  It’s not because elected officials are stupid.  It’s because of the incentives they face.  From mid-March through mid-May every year, Council Members are besieged by requests for more spending from the community.  Every year, there are three nights of hearings jam-packed with constituents wanting more money for their favored programs.  They are followed by dozens of meetings with groups who want even more than that.  Aside from occasional admonishments from council administrator Steve Farber and Executive Branch budget officials, there are almost no voices for moderation in the budget process.  And here’s the thing: whether it’s hiring social workers, funding more childcare assistance, deploying more police officers in communities that need them, removing more tree stumps or much, much more, almost all the new spending proposals have merit.  Given the incredible pressure brought to bear by groups with genuine funding needs, it’s kind of a miracle that the budget gets balanced at all.

All of this creates serious problems for the County Executive.  The charter grants the Executive a line item veto over spending items, but this is never used because the council would simply override it.  The Executive could abstain from including the council’s new spending in next year’s budget, but again, the council could just put it back in.  For the most part, the Executive and his top aides grumble in private and put on a happy face for Wall Street, but they did go public in objecting to a $10 million draw from the reserve two years ago.  Instead of fighting the council, the Executive’s staff simply tries to figure out how to retain and pay for the council’s new spending in next year’s budget.  And each year, the job gets a little harder without new revenue.

This process is a big reason why the county has had seven major tax hikes in the last sixteen fiscal years.

Next year, a new County Executive and at least four new Council Members will take office.  This new generation of officials will have a choice.  They can keep the existing budget process and eventually come under pressure for yet another tax hike, as happened last year.  Or they can reform it by requiring that new ongoing spending be offset by actual ongoing spending cuts, not one-time measures.  Failure to learn this lesson will mean repeating history.

We will conclude with one last lesson from the Giant Tax Hike in Part Three.

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