Whoever wins in today's Howard County primary elections will be facing challenging fiscal questions in the days and months ahead that neither Democrats nor Republicans have yet to conclusively answer.
After years of prosperity and growing budgets, tax revenues are down and are not expected to bounce back soon -- for the county or state government.
But whether incumbent Democrat James N. Robey or a Republican wins the county executive post in the Nov. 5 general election, all-day kindergarten will still require 59 new county classrooms and 132 new teachers and aides in the next few years -- not counting regular enrollment increases. A planned 12th county high school will cost about $40 million, and the bill for any teachers' pay raise next year will be about $2.5 million for each percent added.
Whether Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader keeps her General Assembly seat or Democrat C. Vernon Gray wins, state legislators have to figure out how to pay for the statewide Thornton Commission education reform plan over the next few years. They also will have to wrestle with a projected $1 billion budget deficit.
Despite months of sign-waving and door-knocking by dozens of candidates, today's election isn't likely to draw more than the 26 percent of Howard voters who came to the polls for the 1998 primary, several observers said.
"The super-voters who come out for every election will be there, and then a few obvious contested primaries will draw people with a particular interest in those races," said county Democratic Party Chairman Wendy Fiedler.
This year, only the Democratic race for Maryland comptroller may draw interest at the top of the ballot, while Robey -- like two of the three incumbent County Council members seeking re-election -- has no primary opponent.
There is a contest between Steven H. Adler and Clark Schoeffield, two Republicans running for county executive, but "I don't think the Republican County executive race will attract that many people to the polls. In Howard County, as far as Democrats and Republicans, I guess there's not that much" to attract voters, said County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.
Adler said he would not raise taxes and would cut the county budget 5 percent to 7 percent ($25 million to $36 million) if he is elected. But he hasn't said where the cuts might come other than to say, "I'm not OK with new school, police and fire administrators." Schoeffield said he would cut taxes by slicing "waste." Robey made no promises, except for "funding the amount of [teachers' pay] increase requested by the Board of Education."
Howard's main issue from four years ago -- the dispute over the pace of development -- has died, and there aren't any big countywide intraparty fights to excite the electorate. A new general plan that sharply lowered the maximum annual number of new houses and the end of fights over the county's last two large mixed-use developments along Route 216 have made for a fairly quiet political season.
A scramble among Democrats seeking a new Howard delegate seat in General Assembly District 13 is the only hotly contested legislative race, though two open County Council seats have also produced competition. It's such a quiet political year that two of Howard's most prominent legislators, state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican, and Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat, have no opponents from either party.
In addition, 17.3 percent of the county's 145,867 voters aren't registered as Democrats or Republicans and can't vote in those party primaries, though they can cast ballots for one nonpartisan school board opening.
Although the big political struggle is between Democrats and Republicans, the two major parties' share of the county's electorate continues to shrink slowly.
According to county election board figures, Democrats (46.9 percent) and Republicans (35.6 percent) each slipped by less than 1 percent since 1998, while the proportion of independent voters rose 1.4 percent.
For those running, Fiedler said, getting their supporters to the polls is the key to victory for most candidates.
"The lower the turnout, the more that's the issue," Fiedler said.
For Republicans "the only one [contest] really up in the air is Diane [Wilson] and Kirk [Halpin]," who are running for County Council in District 3, said GOP Party Chairman Louis M. Pope. The winner will face incumbent Democrat Guy J. Guzzone.
"The others should go true to form," Pope said, adding that Adler, operating partner of Savage Mill, "is in a comfortable position" in his primary against challenger Schoeffield, who has tried to resurrect the growth issue. Adler attracted about 40 people to a pre-election rally at an Ellicott City restaurant Friday night.
Among Democrats, the two County Council districts that cover Columbia feature the hottest primary contests. Primary voters will decide which Democrats will vie in the general election to replace retiring Mary C. Lorsung in west Columbia's District 4 and Gray in east Columbia's District 2. Both districts have heavy Democratic voting majorities.
Community activist Mary Kay Sigaty and lawyer Kenneth S. Ulman, both Democrats, are competing in District 4 for the chance to run against Republican Joan Lancos, a former county planning board chairman, for Lorsung's seat. Four District 2 Democrats -- Calvin Ball, David Rakes, Michelle Williams and James Fitzgerald -- are vying for the Democratic nomination, while Raymond Bly and Brian Harlin seek the Republican nod. In the western county's District 5, incumbent Republican Allan H. Kittleman has one opponent, James C. Adams, who, like Schoeffield, feels growth should remain an issue.
The county's newly redrawn General Assembly District 13 -- which also has a strong majority of registered Democrats -- is providing most of the remaining excitement, as five Democrats and six Republicans battle for the chance to face off in the general election for three delegate seats.
Most of the competition is among Democrats Pearl Atkinson Stewart, Neil F. Quinter and Ada Bohorfoush, who want a seat in the House of Delegates. They hope to be nominated along with incumbents Frank S. Turner and Shane Pendergrass. Only three of the six Republicans are strongly campaigning, making Mary Beth Tung, Bob Adams and Brandon Braunlich the likely nominees.