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Montgomery County needs to be kept healthy


FOR YEARS, the politicians of Baltimore City have lived in the faith that any fiscal problems the city confronts can be solved in Annapolis.

Their state counterparts, in turn, have not been afraid to be generous, on the assumption that Montgomery County would continue to provide a virtually inexhaustible source of state revenue.

It was, after all, one of America's three or four wealthiest counties.

The growing centralization of American government would continue to benefit the county, as would its scientific institutions. "Bracket creep," now exhausted, coupled with the state's graduated income tax, enacted in 1972, could be relied upon to produce more revenue.

Today, for the first time in two decades, the Baltimore City government is threatening to impose major tax increases. What has happened?

One thing is that the Glendening-Townsend administration is less sympathetic to the city than were the Hughes and Schaefer administrations. Baltimore City Democratic votes are "safe" votes. Not so Montgomery County Democratic votes.

Thus, school construction funds have been lavished on what is still statistically Maryland's richest county while Baltimore City has been denied new funds for its circuit court and increased drug treatment money for it have been carefully rationed.

Although Gov. Parris N. Glendening has done Baltimore few favors, his greatest disservice to it has been the adoption of policies which repel businesses from Montgomery County and which now bid fair to kill the goose that once laid golden eggs for the city.

Montgomery County's problems arising from overlapping development regulations, its municipalities, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission have been allowed to grow worse.(Fully 30 percent of suburban Washington businesses with complaints about state regulations in the recent Maryland Business Climate Survey singled out development regulations as most hindering.)

The Montgomery County schools, one of the nation's largest suburban school districts, have become ever more centralized, bureaucratized and union-ridden; charter schools have not been allowed, extra pay for science and math teachers has been forsworn, and new prevailing wage laws have aggrandized construction costs.

Fully 52 percent of Washington suburban businesses surveyed rated primary and secondary schools as fair or poor; 37 percent found their high school graduates insufficiently prepared for jobs.

Traffic congestion has gotten worse, an inter-county connector and suburban light rail have been delayed and potentially unpopular congestion pricing measures forsworn.

More than 10 percent of suburban Washington businesses responding to a University of Baltimore survey identified traffic and parking as the most important disadvantage to doing business in Maryland.

The county lacks any public higher education other than a community college and the nearest state college, at Bowie, has been administered as a political fiefdom with enormous dropout rates.

Numbers now tell the tale. Maryland attracted 5.9 new corporate facilities per million residents in 1999 as against 52.8 per million residents in Virginia, 51.5 in Pennsylvania and 74.7 in North Carolina.

The federal government, unlike the state, has vigorously privatized and contracted out its operations. While Montgomery County has retained its past share of full-time government employees, 41 percent of the 1993-1999 growth in Washington-area federal contract work has gone to Virginia's Fairfax County as against 7 percent to Montgomery and Prince George's Counties combined.

During those years, federal contract spending increased by 9 percent in Montgomery County, by 16 percent in Prince George's County, 38 percent in the District of Columbia, 45 percent in Arlington County, 49 percent in Fairfax County and 137 percent in Fairfax City.

These numbers should be a wake-up call, not only for Montgomery County but for Baltimore City. Political self-indulgence has its costs.

George Liebmann is a Baltimore lawyer. He was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1998.

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