Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ike Leggett, Fiscal Conservative

Budget documents are not merely financial statements. They are also political statements. And County Executive Ike Leggett’s FY 2010 budget recommendation states quite clearly that he is running for re-election as a fiscal conservative.

Most politicians hate tight budgets. They tend to interfere with one of their highest priorities: handing out goodies to supporters and contributors. So when tough times come, many politicians become cranky and defensive. They will claim that they cannot be held responsible for the poor state of the economy and their opponents could not do better anyway.

Ike Leggett has done no such thing. The wily old pro has been around a long time and knows how to convert challenges into political opportunities. By law, he is required to submit balanced budget recommendations to the County Council. But he has done much better than that: he has wrapped himself in the flag of fiscal conservatism because he has calculated that that is what the voters want.

Consider this excerpt from his press release on the budget:

Leggett’s budget brings the County government’s tax-supported growth rate down from a 14.1 percent increase in FY07, the year before he took office, to less than zero – an actual decrease of 0.4 percent for the coming fiscal year – the lowest level in18 years.

In the three budgets Leggett has prepared, he has closed nearly $1.2 billion in shortfalls, which is unprecedented in County history.

“When I first took office, Montgomery County’s spending was out of control and unsustainable,” said Leggett. “And that was before the economic downturn.

“It was clear that we had been living beyond our means. Over the last three years, I have been aggressively working to restore fiscal prudence to our County government by dramatically slowing the rate of growth of both the operating and capital budgets. As the economic news has worsened, I have continued to press ahead on long-term cost savings that minimize the future burden on taxpayers while preserving public safety, education, and our safety net for the most vulnerable.

“In my first budget as County Executive in FY08, we faced a $200 million budget shortfall, so I reduced the tax supported rate of increase in spending by the County government from 14.1 percent to 6.9 percent. In FY09, the projected shortfall increased to $401 million, so we imposed a hiring freeze, produced mid-year savings of more than $30 million, abolished over 225 positions, implemented a retirement incentive program, and slowed the rate of growth to 1.6 percent. This year, we face a daunting gap of $587 million that my recommended FY10 budget successfully closes.”
Consider these charts in his transmittal letter to County Council President Phil Andrews:

Leggett is constructing a political narrative that fits with his emerging record, a record that has been largely imposed on him by a failing economy. He is claiming that his budget restraint is not a necessary evil, but a positive good. His administration represents a sober, prudent break with the free-spending past. Ike Leggett, a responsible and trustworthy leader, is a careful custodian of the people’s money.

Let’s put aside the fact that Leggett recommended breaking the property tax charter limit last year. And let’s also forget that Leggett himself voted in favor of several much more generous budgets while he was on the County Council in the 1990s. Leggett is developing his message for an electorate that sent thousands of angry emails over last year’s tax hikes, voted for the Ficker Amendment and voted for slots (an issue on which Leggett changed his position). No sitting county politician has a better instinctual sense for where the voters are headed than Ike Leggett. Past records do not count for much compared to future positioning. After all, Leggett is a politician who voted for the pro-development Pay and Go policy in 1997, was embraced by both pro-growth and anti-development at-large County Council candidates in 1998 and ran as a slow-growth County Executive candidate against Steve Silverman in 2006. Ike Leggett is a master of the political black arts.

In addition, it’s difficult to look at the above rhetoric and charts and not think of former County Executive Doug Duncan. Ever since Duncan released a blistering Op-Ed criticizing Maryland’s leaders for their lack of vision and failure to embrace “zero-based budgeting” (which Duncan himself never did), speculation has swirled around his possible return to politics. Leggett is sending a signal to Duncan or any Duncan ally that is thinking of challenging him in 2010: I know where the voters are and I am closer to them than you are.

Last summer, we christened Ike Leggett “the great chess master” and quoted a politician who said, “He’s over in his office, moving his pieces around the board. He’s one step ahead of everyone else and only he knows where he’s going.” Indeed, the cunning old player has begun to set up the board for next year.