Budget expected to dominate politics
Officials: Some leaders may be wary of decisions that could impact campaigns
With massive budget cuts on the radar, Prince George's County and state lawmakers said they expect intense fighting in 2010 just to retain current funding levels and with elections toward the end of the year, getting officials to take on controversial legislation may become even more challenging.
"Unfortunately, this means that not a whole lot gets done [next year]," said Del. Justin Ross (D-Dist. 22) of Greenbelt, who said many incumbents will be playing a "preventive defense" in 2010 instead of making tough decisions.
Due to the economic downturn that started in 2007, tax revenues have been sinking and county and state cuts have been the norm for two years, causing employee furloughs and spending reductions. In the last year, the county laid off about 50 employees and the state laid off 200.
But the cuts on the table for the upcoming year may be even worse. State officials have said Maryland lawmakers must eliminate a $1.5 billion to $2 billion budget deficit before the General Assembly ends in April, according to state projections.
Unlike this year, when a federal stimulus package helped stop some of the bleeding, no similar measure is in the pipeline for the coming year.
Prince George's lawmakers are concerned that state cuts in local aid could intensify the county's financial woes before they must pass a budget in mid-June. A state cut of about $26 million in August sparked County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) to lay off employees to balance costs, and officials have repeatedly said they worry about a repeat in the General Assembly.
"If you look at the cuts we've had to make already, they speak for themselves," said John Erzen, spokesman for the executive. "It's not unreasonable to think that [fiscal] '11 could look worse."
County officials have not provided any exact figures on what the outlook is for next year's spending plan, which hovered at $2.6 billion last year.
"It looks bad, very bad," Johnson said of the budget forecast in an interview in November.
That kind of pressure creates new struggles in the legislature, especially in an election year, Ross said.
"It's not just the only thing. It's everything," he said.
Del. Melony G. Griffith, chairwoman of the Prince George's delegation, agreed.
"This is probably the most difficult session people have faced in their whole political careers," Griffith (D-Dist. 25), of Upper Marlboro, said of the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 13.
When asked how the assembly can deal with making cuts without impacting constituents, Griffth said "with prayer."
Bad financial news could sour voters as they head into primary elections with frustration over the current performance of elected officials.
Mel Franklin, an Upper Marlboro resident who said he is running for County Council in District 9, said voters feel ignored by many in leadership.
There's an overall sense, not among everybody, but there's a sense [from voters] that we can do a lot better," said Franklin, who is so far facing three other candidates in the district seat being left by Councilwoman Marilynn M. Bland (D) of Clinton.
Bland and three other council members are unable to seek re-election due to term limits.
District 9 is not the only sought-after seat. As of press time, five candidates are seeking to become county executive. Two of the term-limited council members, Tony Knotts and Samuel L. Dean, are running for executive.
Johnson also cannot seek re-election to his office because of term limits.
With new faces guaranteed to take over several top local government positions, the next county executive and majority of the council face a steep learning curve, made worse by a budget crisis that is likely to persist into 2011.
Still, Griffith said she has faith that the newcomers will be able to handle the challenges.
"We're probably more impacted by term limits than other [counties]," she said. "But we have many bright minds in the race. Of course, others are going to have to hit the ground running."
One of the lingering issues will be what will happen with the county's troubled public hospital system. A joint state-county authority has been meeting for close to two years in an effort to find a buyer, but so far a deal has not been reached that will stop the county-owned properties from shutting down.
Johnson remains hopeful the hospitals will find a new life, possibly under a proposal the authority is investigating that would allow a joint partnership with the state medical system.
"We are going to solve the hospital issue," he said at a public safety event earlier this month. "We haven't yet, but I know we will. You don't hear about the hospital as much anymore."
Public safety officials also see signs of hope in the new year. In the first weeks of 2010, police are expecting to announce that crime in the county is at its lowest levels in 20 years, including homicides, which were on track to stay below 100 for the first time since 2001.
Still, longtime questions remain over law enforcement. Currently, two federal investigations of county public safety performance are ongoing, one of which concerns the death of inmate Ronnie White, who was found dead in his solitary cell at the county jail in 2008. The U.S. Department of Justice also is reviewing police procedures following a high-profile drug raid in which sheriff's deputies shot and killed the dogs of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo. Police later cleared Calvo and said he and his family were innocent victims in a drug delivery scheme.
Calvo and White's families are suing the county for alleged damages.
Erzen said Johnson faces a difficult year, but stressed that the executive will leave after eight years in office with a record of reducing crime, improving the county school system and making other long-term investments and developments.
"I'm sure the executive will have a lot more to say about the promises we've made," Erzen said, referring to the upcoming year.