Ya gotta love politicians accusing other elected officials of being, well, political.
Democrats and Republicans agreed 100 percent Thursday morning at the annual Howard County Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast panel discussion that their fellow elected officials are not going to raise any taxes next fiscal year, though they disagreed on motives.
State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the senate minority leader, said it's all about next year's elections, and warned the GOP-friendly business group to watch out for "historic" tax increases in 2011.
To prevent that, he said, "You better stand up. People around the country are standing up, in Virginia, and New Jersey," where Republican governors were just elected. Kittleman's message was clear: To prevent big tax increases, elect Republicans in Maryland. Kittleman lamented that he gets less financial support from the business community than Democrats do, though he feels Dems do less for the business agenda.
Democratic Del. Guy Guzzone, chairman of the county's house delegation, agreed there will be no tax increases in 2010, but said "as far as the future, it's a 'who knows?' " He traced the so-called "structural" deficit back to former Gov. Parris Glendening's administration, which approved a hefty income tax cut as recession clouds were forming in 2002, combined with sharply higher state spending on education that came without a funding source.
Still, Guzzone read from rating agency blurbs that renewed Maryland's AAA bond rating, the highest fiscal status possible, and launched a shot back at Kittleman that former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s last budget contained a 12 percent spending increase.
Kittleman later replied that $1 billion of that spending was actually a fat surplus Ehrlich left for incoming Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, who promptly spent it.
Guzzone then pointed out that Ehrlich amassed that surplus by shuffling state money around, not by making budget cuts. The surplus was intended to plug budget holes, and that's what O'Malley used it for, he added. The governor, Guzzone said, has the most rigorous cost accountability system around.
The two, who formerly served together on the Howard County Council, agreed at least 90 percent of the time, Kittleman said after an audience member asked if the rival politicians could fight less and cooperate more. It's just the 10 percent of disagreements that get all the publicity, he said. "There's nothing wrong with criticizing somebody. We're fine. We don't hate each other. We disagreed," Kittleman said. That's good for the final product, not bad.
"We have to work together," Guzzone agreed. "We have to balance the budget each year." Guzzone couldn't resist one more little zinger, though.
"Ninety percent of the time, you were right," he told Kittleman, to laughs.
County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, and Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, were also on the panel.
Protecting schools budget
The coming tensions over more budget cuts and how they might affect county schools was prominently in evidence as County Executive Ken Ulman spoke to the Clarksville Rotary Club on Tuesday morning in Maple Lawn.
First he explained how roughly 70 percent of the county taxpayer-funded portion of the operating budget goes to things he can't cut, like schools, Howard Community College and corrections. The state's maintenance of effort law, which requires no cuts to school spending without a major loss of state aid, is already the focus of a legal fight between Montgomery County and the state. Another round of state cuts is looming due to next fiscal year's predicted $2 billion shortfall, and county income tax revenues are also declining. The county operating budget dropped from $854 million in fiscal 2009 to $820 million this year and is likely to dip further, he said.
The state government already cut $8 million in local aid this year, but all that savings must come from 30 percent of the county's budget, the executive said.
Ulman made it plain he's very unhappy with the lack of cuts to non-classroom school activities undertaken by the school board and administrators.
"There's real, palpable frustration going on," Ulman told the group of 16 people. "I furloughed county employees. They haven't furloughed." He pointed out that he eliminated the county cable television studio and print shop, sharply reduced take-home vehicle use and is preparing to cut back on cell phones for employees, too, but the school system has done none of those things.
"You can sense the level of frustration in your county executive. It's real," he said, noting there has been some cost-cutting through cooperation. The county and schools are sharing grass-cutting costs at county fields near schools, and the two arms of government are collaborating on a computer data center, instead of the schools spending $5 million to create their own in the former Bushy Park Elementary School building.
"It's one pot of tax dollars. We've got a way to go," Ulman said.
School spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the system has taken numerous cost-saving steps, however. They include not filling 10.5 vacant administrative jobs, cutting $1 million in repair and maintenance expenses, deferring replacement of vehicles, reductions in meeting and conference expenses, and $800,000 cut from a workman's compensation fund.
The county schools have $400,000 less in their budget this fiscal year, but 800 more students to teach, Caplan said.