Council budget decisions could come home to roost in election
Politically unpopular votes could favor challengers
The Montgomery County Council made several politically unpopular decisions in passing its fiscal 2011 budget raising taxes, eliminating pay raises for government employees and going after the county's teachers to give up at least one day of pay.
Some experts say those decisions could affect November's election and give challengers the upper hand over incumbents who are on the record making tough decisions.
"We don't get much credit for trying to turn the Titanic around," said Council Vice President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.
Others, however, say voters might not be paying attention until closer to September's primary.
All nine council seats are up for re-election. The primary election is Sept. 14, and the general election is Nov. 2.
"There's only bad news for incumbents," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. "They've been dealing with this [budget] problem. You raise taxes, which makes people mad, or cut services and employees, which makes people mad. There's no easy way to make themselves popular."
On Thursday, the Montgomery County Council adopted a $4.3 billion budget that relies on $150 million in new taxes and fees, furloughs most government employees for five days and eliminates 450 jobs. The vote was 7-2, with Councilmen Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg and Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown opposing the budget.
Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring acknowledged that the council made politically difficult choices.
Those decisions already are starting to play out. The county's Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association has promised to campaign against all council members who voted for a new ambulance fee.
The vote was 5-4, with council members Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac, Navarro and Ervin opposed.
And on May 23, police and firefighters picketed a Navarro fundraiser in Silver Spring's Forest Glen Seminary over her furlough vote.
A statement on the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 1664, website said, "Navarro, along with the rest of the council, decided to furlough public safety workers after County Executive Ike Leggett recommended furloughs only for non-public safety employees."
On average, employees will be furloughed for five days, with higher-paid employees taking more days of unpaid leave.
"I think voters are somewhat understanding in this environment that cuts need to be made," said Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College in Chestertown. "There are going to have to be some real structural changes."
Andrews agreed, saying he believes residents were largely supportive of the spending cuts the council made, but not supportive of the increased taxes and fees, which prompted him to vote against the budget.
Andrews said he expects the budget decisions to be a main election issue through the summer and fall.
"I think that where the council saved money and cut spending will be met with approval," he said.
In local races, the advantage likely will go to the politician with more signs, name recognition and local connections, Deckman said.
In a year when unions saw many of their wishes ignored, Deckman said council members are likely to see enhanced interest in the local race.
"When you have a situation that results in people losing their jobs or losing pay, it gets more people involved," she said. "There's more of a vested interest."
Ervin, who is running unopposed, said this year's off-cycle election is expected to have low voter turnout.
Without a lot of new names in the running, Ervin said she's unsure whether the budget decisions will have much of an effect.
"Chances are we'll end up with many of the same council members," she said of the likely election results.
Joan Fidler, president of the nonpartisan Montgomery County Taxpayers League, said the council made many "courageous" decisions, like eliminating pay raises for employees, supporting furloughs for teachers, keeping the property tax rate the same and eliminating so-called "ghost COLAs" that provide employee pension benefits based on raises they never received.
Less courageous were the council's decisions to establish an ambulance fee, increase energy taxes and raise the cell phone tax all of which shift the burden of balancing the budget to the taxpayer, Fidler said.
One politically unpopular decision that the council did not address was government employee health benefits, which she said are unsustainable and more generous than even what federal employees receive.
"It has not mustered the courage to modify the gold-plated health benefits teachers enjoy but that most residents could only dream of: How many county residents pay only 5 percent to 10 percent in health care premiums and a $5 co-pay for a doctor visit?" Fidler wrote in a recent Gazette letter.
Fidler said the Taxpayers League is conducting a study of government employee health benefits that she expects to be complete in the next several months.
An informal council poll found that council members were unwilling to address the issue in the fiscal 2011 budget.
It's unlikely that challengers will offer any concrete alternatives, according to political experts.
The best strategy would be to criticize decisions the incumbents made without offering specific alternatives, Crenson said.
"The best strategy for a challenger is to be kind of a Rorschach ink blot ... to let the voters see whatever they want to see," he said.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac said he was elected to make tough decisions and that is what he did.
"Criticizing is easy," he said. "Offering real solutions is a lot harder."
Deckman agreed, saying challengers should stick to lofty ideas and general principles.
"Once you get elected is when the hard decisions have to be made," she said.