During most of this decade Maryland was drowning in its own prosperity. Economic expansion, federal spending and jobs creation resulted in a population surge that crowded school rooms and jammed highways.
Predictably, gridlocked voters backlashed by electing candidates who promised traffic congestion relief. For instance, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan's 2002 "End Gridlock Now" slate prescribed building a cross-county highway, the Intercounty Connector, as the solution. Four years later, with traffic even worse, Montgomery's voters elected candidates who promised to shut down economic growth and pull up the drawbridge.
Well, three years hence, the voters and their no-growth elected officials are getting their wish. According to a Metropolitan Council of Governments study released last week, D.C. area vehicle travel has decreased for the first time in 15 years and rush hour travel times have declined a stunning 24 percent to levels not seen since 2002. Traffic accidents and deaths are also down because people are driving less.
But the no-growth economy, not the no-growth politicians, account for the change. Layoffs, gas prices and family budgets are keeping people off the highways, even during the a.m. and p.m. commutes. Not exactly what the voters had in mind.
Meanwhile, the no-growth politicians are recalibrating while the moderates, like Montgomery Councilman George Leventhal, are saying, "Should we have growth or should we not is a settled question. We're seeing the consequences of negative growth." And of those no-growthers elected in 2006, Leventhal says, "When the economy tanked, those council members had some problems reconciling the way things were in 2006 to the way things are in 2009."
The battle over growth has dominated Montgomery's politics for the last 100 years. It goes in cycles: During good times people don't want the inconvenience of more congestion; during tough times congestion suddenly doesn't look so bad.
Twenty years ago, Montgomery was booming so county voters elected no-growth County Executive Neal Potter to tamp down the fire. But the minute Potter took office the 1990 recession hammered the region, devastating the economy and setting the stage for pro-growth fiscal moderate Doug Duncan to win the next election.
Now it's happening again, only much worse. Unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies and taxes are way up in Montgomery while home sales, real estate values and incomes are way down. The county government is dealing with a $550 million budget deficit and a taxpayer revolt (the 2008 Ficker amendment). Meanwhile, the state is passing its fiscal pain to the counties in the form of state aid cuts.
In a county where candidates achieve purity by refusing to accept (ask for) developer contributions, growth is making a comeback. "The real issue for the future will be jobs and the tax base," says Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, a long-time balanced growth voice back when it wasn't popular. And Floreen was one of the four council moderates who recently petitioned County Executive Ike Leggett "to appoint an economic development leader who will undertake the county's economic tax base by attracting new, forward thinking companies…"
Likewise, a Gazette editorial advised Leggett to appoint someone who understands, "that a growing economy is good for everyone." Amazingly, Leggett appointed the man he defeated three years ago, Steve Silverman, whom Leggett once admonished as the pro-developer, pro-growth candidate. And even more amazingly, the Silverman appointment is getting rave reviews. Apparently Montgomery's no-growthers are all huddled in a Takoma Park underground bunker.
Signs are popping up everywhere; Gaithersburg city officials, who once made developers cool their heels, recently welcomed them to a forum promising to expedite their projects.
And even the environmentalists are adjusting their tune. Robert Wieland writes in The Bay Journal News Service, "I am not an opponent of growth. I understand that if there is no growth, then my children can't start accumulating wealth without making someone else poorer. Growth is good, if just for their sake." Of course, he then goes on to condemn new homes, new roads and "too many cars."
The Baltimore Sun's left-leaning business columnist Jay Hancock got it right this month when he wrote, "Four decades of research shows that the conventional wisdom is correct. Recessions destroy jobs, budgets, attitudes and health. Economic growth is still the best prescription for human welfare."
Amen. Now if we can just get those academic theorists running the national government to understand that free enterprise is a much better "prescription for human welfare" than national socialism.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette.