Monday, May 10, 2010


Roundabout. Long Distance Runaround. Mood for a Day. All are on the famous Yes album Fragile. And so should be the County Council, because that’s what they are: Fragile.

Rockville is uneasy at the moment. Gone are the loud explosions over Hillmead, the special elections, growth policy and the Council Presidency. There is a bit of rumbling in the distance, but less thunder and lightning than you might think. On the surface, the council appears united on some key issues in the Great 2010 Budget Crisis. But it is all Fragile.

First, the areas of agreement. The council’s unanimous repudiation of the MCGEO, police and fire fighter union contracts was an important moment in its history. So was its call for furloughs in all agencies, including MCPS. Such actions indicate a united and knowing attempt to take on the unions. The myth of labor domination has been shattered despite the rantings of the Post. This is an action taken not by choice, but by necessity. Even decades-long labor movement lifer Valerie Ervin supported this approach, leaving the unions nowhere to go.

The council is also uniformly hostile to MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast. His legal memo hinting at a lawsuit had the opposite effect from what he intended: it has galvanized the council against him. For the first time in Weast’s tenure, the council does not fear him. They believe his legal arguments are without merit and are ready to take him on.

Finally, many members do not respect the County Executive. He has styled himself a fiscal conservative yet continues to support numerous spending initiatives and even wants to use public bonds to finance private projects in the face of scrutiny by the bond agencies. His spokesman mocked Council Member George Leventhal for questioning the affordability of contracts that the Executive negotiated. Rightly or wrongly, the Council Members view themselves as the grown-ups who have to clean up the mess the Executive helped to make. Few of them regard Ike Leggett as the leader who will get them to budget stability.

That said, this is not a fully united body. There are four moving parts in closing the FY 2011 deficit: the energy tax, the reserve fund, furloughs and more cuts. As of the moment, the council has not agreed on the appropriate balance between them. This is a tough choice because giving up a little on one area means taking a little more from another. Business is putting up a big fight on the energy tax, but the school unions are sending hundreds of emails to the council protesting MCPS furloughs. The numbers between these options are VERY fluid right now.

There is also a big trust issue here. The three school unions have presented a counter-proposal to furloughs that mostly relies on money from the reserve fund. Most people in the council building disagree with the proposal from a policy perspective, but there are political considerations. Some union officials are spreading word that anyone who votes for mass furloughs will not be eligible for endorsements. That means there is a powerful incentive – especially for the at-large members – to be the only Council Member who supports their position in the event that no one else does. In that instance, labor might support one incumbent and perhaps one or two challengers in the at-large race. All of this is based on speculation, but the very possibility has the Council Members eyeing each other warily. There may be suspense on the vote until the very end.

We believe that the most likely outcome is a unanimous vote on a budget with a slightly lower energy tax hike and slightly larger labor cost cuts than the Executive proposed. That is the outcome most favorable to the incumbents because it reduces opportunities for differentiation between them among the endorsing groups, thus increasing all their chances of return. Labor should beware because if that happens, it is their prospects of success in the next term that may well be Fragile.