Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What We Learned from the Senate’s Teacher Pension Vote

The Senate’s passage of a partial handoff of teacher pensions to the counties last night – a proposal crafted by none other than MoCo Senate Delegation Chairman Rich Madaleno – contains quite a number of lessons for students of Annapolis. Here is what we learned.

1. Many Senators will vote against their own constituents on this issue.
Eight jurisdictions receive more than the FY 2010 average of $931 per pupil as a benefit from this program. They are:

1. Worcester: $1,134
2. Montgomery: $1,097
3. Kent: $1,050
4. Howard: $1,048
5. Somerset: $1,002
6. Baltimore City: $969
7. Prince George’s: $943
8. Allegany: $936

Sixteen Senators represent parts of Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. They voted 13-3 against the handoff, with only Madaleno, Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie and Senate President Mike “Big Daddy” Miller supporting it. Twelve Senators represent the other jurisdictions. They voted 11-1 in favor, with only Baltimore City Senator Lisa Gladden voting against. All three Howard Senators – Republican Allan Kittleman and Democrats Ed Kasemeyer and Jim Robey – voted in favor of the handoff. All three know that the county’s likely response to assuming the handoff will be to raise taxes. Robey, a former Howard County Executive, knows that better than anyone.

2. The Republicans are not unified.
GOP Senators voted 10-4 in favor of a handoff. Arguably the two most conservative Senators – Alex Mooney and Andy Harris – voted against it. Perhaps they agree with GOP House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, who says that shifting pension costs “almost guarantees the locals are going to raise your taxes.” O’Donnell is absolutely right. One possibility under discussion is that a future pension handoff be accompanied by allowing the counties to raise their income tax rates beyond the current cap of 3.2% to pay for it. Is that an idea that deserves support from the GOP?

3. Miller benefits from Currie’s weakness.
Two years ago, there was speculation that Currie’s legal problems would cause difficulty for Miller. In fact, the opposite has happened. Miller kept Currie in his Chair through all of his travails and they appear to have blown over. So while Currie has always been dependent on Big Daddy, he now owes everything to him – ensuring Miller absolute control over all budgetary issues. If Delegate Aisha Braveboy challenges Currie, she will be sure to point out how Currie voted against the interests of Prince George’s voters at Miller’s direction.

4. The teachers’ clout in Annapolis is over-rated.
Financing teacher pensions is one of the highest priorities for the state teachers, who fought hard to get a benefit hike back in 2006. They were either caught napping or reacted with docility to the Senate’s lightning-quick passage of a handoff. This follows their getting played by Governor O’Malley, who supported the backdoor-voucher BOAST bill shortly after the teachers gave him an early endorsement.

5. Rich Madaleno has taken a hit.
Madaleno drafted the pension handoff and was its floor leader last night. Joining him in speaking for it were Baltimore City Senator Nathaniel McFadden, GOP Minority Leader Allan Kittleman and former GOP Minority Leader David Brinkley. The spectacle of MoCo’s Senate Chairman teaming up with Big Daddy, Baltimore and the Republican leaders to erode a rare program that benefits Montgomery was too much for some of the county’s politicians to take.

“People here are talking about Rich throwing MoCo under the bus,” said one. Another official ranted, “Rich sold MoCo out, pure and simple. I am sick to my stomach.” A third person said, “Not sure what passing pension shift does from negotiating standpoint for our County. Does not look good to have Chairman of Delegation leading effort to have Montgomery County pick up 20% of the tab on pension shift.” Yet another said, “I wonder if Rich may be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome since he is basically a hostage to Miller and spends all day every day with Miller’s tightest cronies on the Budget and Tax Committee.” Madaleno did not attract a single vote from the MoCo delegation for his proposal, not from the liberal Brian Frosh, not from the conservative Rona Kramer, and not from anyone else in between.

Our informants do not expect the House to pass the Senate plan, but teacher pensions are sure to be raised next year. If so, the logical point person for Montgomery County would be its Senate Chairman and budget expert: Rich Madaleno. The problem is that he has written a proposal that targeted the county without vetting it with the rest of the delegation first, so trust is going to be an issue. How is our team supposed to prepare for the big game next year when some believe that our quarterback is wearing the other team’s uniform?

6. Big Daddy is still Big Daddy.
The biggest story of them all is once again the triumph of the Senate President. Annapolis is a grand echo chamber and Big Daddy is its master. He understands that if you repeat the same thing in private and in public for a long, long time from a position of authority that you will eventually get part or most of what you want. Better than anyone in the state, Miller uses patience, pressure and timing to move something from a crazy idea to an unlikely proposal to a serious policy consideration to a bill to a reality. That is why Maryland is getting slots. And that is why we are no longer arguing over whether to send pensions to the counties, but rather over how much of them to send. As long as the debate is conducted on Miller’s terms, he will command an overwhelming advantage.

And what happens then? A veteran Miller-watcher tells us, “You will never find anyone – ever – that has a better sense of how to smell and then exploit human weakness. He was born with this instinct.” MoCo, you have been warned.