Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Can Big Daddy Pass Off the Teacher Pensions? (Updated)

State Senate President Mike Miller seems determined to pass off at least part of the burden of financing teacher pensions to the counties. In reacting to the Governor’s failure to include a pension handoff in his budget proposal, Miller told the Gazette, “That's one of the failures of this budgetary process.” Miller also poked fun at County Executive Ike Leggett’s effort to draw a “line in the sand” over the issue, saying:

My good friend Ike Leggett said that he's going to draw a line in the sand… You never want to draw a line in the sand. Believe me, because I've had to rub out many of them in my lifetime, and I'm going to help him rub that one out as well.
So can Big Daddy force the counties to eat the teacher pensions?

Mike Miller is rightfully the most-feared man in Annapolis. But even his power has his limits. If Miller persists in going down this road, he will find plenty of obstacles. Here’s five of them.

The House of Delegates
House Speaker Mike Busch has not been as outspoken as Miller on teacher pensions. There is no sign at this point that House leadership will push the issue or that it will receive mass support on the floor. If the House reports a budget with no pension handoff, Miller will then have to override both the House and the Governor. That’s a tall order, even for Big Daddy.

The Computer Tax Debacle
The last time the Senate made significant changes to the Governor’s proposed budget was during the Special Session, when they added a sales tax on computer services. The computer tax quickly became the most-hated product of the Special Session and generated a mass movement to kill it. Ultimately, it was replaced in part by a three-year millionaire surcharge that was resisted by some legislators from Montgomery County. This illustrates a central challenge facing legislators who want to change the Governor’s budget. If an objectionable item is proposed by the Governor, he is blamed. But if an objectionable item originates in the legislature, they are blamed. Few legislators will gladly want to repeat a battle like the computer tax and a fight over teacher pensions would be MUCH bigger.

Federal Stimulus Aid
The Governor has included $350 million in anticipated federal stimulus aid in his budget. That cuts both ways. If the federal payment equals at least this amount, Miller’s case for the necessity of handing off the pensions is weakened. If the federal payment is less, Miller’s case is strengthened. Our hunch is that the Governor did not pull this figure out of thin air; he likely included it based on assurances from Maryland’s Congressional delegation and/or officials in the White House. If that is true, Big Daddy will see no help for his cause here.

Pensions Are Not Just a Montgomery Issue
Teacher pensions are sometimes cast as an issue primarily impacting Montgomery County. That is not entirely true. From our post last fall, here are the top five beneficiaries of the state’s covering teacher pensions:

Montgomery: $131 million
Prince George’s: $95 million
Baltimore County: $78 million
Baltimore City: $62 million
Anne Arundel: $54 million

Now here are the top beneficiaries on a per capita basis:

Howard: $159.52
Calvert: $142.99
Montgomery: $140.62
Charles: $131.78
Frederick: $122.94

The Montgomery delegation can find plenty of allies to block a handoff. Miller, a master at counting votes, must know this.

The Republicans
When asked about this issue by the Gazette last month, House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell (R-29C) said this:

Shifting pension costs “almost guarantees the locals are going to raise your taxes,” O’Donnell said. “The onus will be on the locals to cut spending and the states will continue spending on their merry way.”
Delegate O’Donnell is absolutely correct. With some counties across the state already facing deficits, they may be unable to cope with a pension handoff without raising taxes. And the long-term stress of bearing those obligations almost guarantees future county tax hikes. A logical Republican position on the issue would be to cut spending at the state level rather than pass the buck and risk tax hikes elsewhere.

So if Montgomery’s strategists line up their pieces correctly, Miller could face an opposition consisting of the House, the Governor, many legislators from jurisdictions in Central Maryland and the Baltimore area, and several Republicans. The rational play for Miller would be to stand down and move on.

But if Mike Miller can triumph against all of the above, he really does deserve the title “Big Daddy!”

Update: The Gazette reports that the federal government may send $3.3 billion in aid to Maryland over the next two years, though not all of that is destined for the general fund. If that happens, the odds against Miller will grow even longer.