Wednesday, July 9, 2008

How to Get Clout in Annapolis, Part Three

In Part Two, we heard from a Montgomery County budget official that a possible state shifting of teacher pension funding down to the counties would result in a fiscal “nuclear explosion.” Montgomery’s statehouse delegation successfully resisted that fate in 2008, but it may happen next year. If not, Governor O’Malley, Senate President Mike Miller and the other statehouse leaders will find some other way to extract money from “the state’s piggy bank.” It is time for our state legislators to fight back. They can do it successfully if they implement the following five steps:

1. Get Organized

When Senator Rona Kramer (D-14) revolted against the special session tax package because she believed it drew too much on Montgomery County, no other Montgomery Senator joined her and she was demoted by Mike Miller. When Senators Kramer and Rich Madaleno (D-18) revolted against the millionaire tax, again because they believed it would damage their county, only a minority of the county’s delegation supported them. Lonely rebellions fail. Organized revolts can succeed.

Montgomery’s state legislators have a county delegation structure, as do many other counties in the state. This delegation structure does not function as a hierarchical, authority-wielding organization, but rather as a clearinghouse to develop and focus the priorities of the legislators. So far, it has proven insufficient to unite and direct the delegation. That must change. Unless the delegation agrees on a common list of priorities, a strategic plan to enhance the county’s clout and an accompanying internal enforcement mechanism, it will never out-Miller Big Daddy.

In the next four steps we will suggest the elements of such a plan. But organization and discipline are key prerequisites. Once a plan is agreed to, there must be consequences for renegades. Possible punishments range from defeat of an offender’s local bills (bills that apply to the county and must be approved by the delegation) all the way up to bans from district campaign slates. Without punishment, Montgomery’s legislators will strike out on their own and the delegation will not hold together – a situation that critics allege happens all too often right now.

2. Control the Campaign Funding

Many state politicians rely on Montgomery County for one thing: campaign money. Even when they act against the county’s interests, Mike Miller and his co-conspirators will periodically swoop in here for cash. But most of the contributors who live here depend on our state legislators for one thing or another. That gives our legislators leverage over who gets that money and who does not.

Our delegation needs to send a message to all major contributors who live in Montgomery and rely on them for help: do not give money to state politicians who damage the county. Any contributors who break this rule will fall into disfavor with the delegation. This message will be doubly effective if it is also delivered by county politicians. It is bad enough for a major contributor to cross the state legislators; it is even worse to run afoul of the county’s power-brokers at the same time. When Big Daddy’s allies begin to see their private campaign spigots go dry, they will understand that a new day is coming.

3. For Now, Limit New Legislation

Montgomery’s eager, idealistic legislators introduce lots of bills and many of them work hard to get them passed. That is perfectly understandable: the best legislators have clear policy goals and do their best to get them implemented. Over the long run, that is great for both the legislators and the people. But in the short run, there is a cost.

Simply put, getting a bill passed requires an expenditure of political capital. Any legislator who convinces someone else to vote for their bill – or especially, someone in the leadership to support it – is in their debt. Now a favor is owed. When the leader returns to that legislator asking for repayment, the legislator has to seriously consider the request, even if it goes against his or her hometown interest. And so some Montgomery legislators may find themselves pressured to go against the county’s interests to support their public policy goals.

The solution to this is to stop introducing lots of bills. Now the relationship is reversed. A legislator who supports other legislators’ bills accumulates political capital and owes less of it to anyone else. At the appropriate moment, those debts can be cashed in. If the Montgomery delegation followed a common policy to limit introduction of bills, its members would gradually build up a treasure trove of favors by helping others. This will prove valuable later.

We will finish our plan in Part Four.

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