Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) attempted to serve notice on Thursday that his constituents — widely perceived as wealthy — cannot reasonably be expected to foot the bill for a significant statewide boost in education funding.
He also took shots at the $9 billion traffic congestion relief plan offered by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), saying a more modern approach is needed.
Elrich made his comments during at the Committee for Montgomery’s 29th annual legislative breakfast, an event that brings together legislators, business leaders and political cognoscenti for a pre-General Assembly session schmooze-fest every December.
A former math teacher, the newly-elected executive said he supports the goals of the Kirwan Commission, which is expected to release a long-awaited set of education funding recommendations early next month, on the eve of the legislature’s 2019 session.
The commission has said it will propose $4.4 billion in new spending on Maryland schools, though it has yet to release details, and it remains to be seen what the General Assembly will do with the panel’s recommendations.
The setting of formulas that determine who gets how much is expected to be one of the great fights of the upcoming legislative session, with a to-be-determined set of inevitable winners and losers.
“I think what Kirwan wants to do is good for Montgomery County and it’s good for the rest of the state,” Elrich told the crowd of 800 people at the county’s conference center in North Bethesda.
“But it can’t be funded on the back of Montgomery County. That is a non-starter. You can’t argue that every child deserves a decent education and then undermine our ability to provide that education.”
Echoing a refrain that many of his predecessors have offered, with mixed success, Elrich drew applause when he declared: “The state has to get a very clear message that Montgomery County does not have pots of gold. … Montgomery County is not an ATM machine. And you can’t confuse our success here with our ability to have unlimited amount of funds to spend across the state.”
Elrich taught math at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park, eventually winning a seat on the city council there, and then the County Council, before ascending to his current post earlier this month. He expressed solidarity with the Kirwan Commission’s goals.
“What the Kirwan [Commission] is trying to do is really important,” he said. “It’s hard to attract people to a very difficult profession, when the wages are below what people could earn in many other places with the same or less education, and it’s not an easy job to be a teacher. I did this for 17 years, I know that.”
He said more focus is needed on early childhood education and he noted that half of the children in Montgomery County enter elementary school “about two years behind” in basic skills.
This week Hogan announced plans to submit legislation to the General Assembly that would allocate $1.9 billion in casino revenues to school construction, coming on the heels of the voter-approved referendum to put all gaming funds into Maryland classrooms.
Elrich said classroom instruction and facilities questions inevitably go hand in hand.
The county executive also poured cold water on Hogan’s proposal to widen the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495), I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
He reiterated his call for two reversible lanes on I-270 — in-bound in the morning and northbound in the afternoon — rather than the four lanes called for by Hogan.
“There is a solution on I-270 that doesn’t require blowing out the walls of I-270,” Elrich said. Reversible lanes “would give you the traffic capacity you need without doing an incredibly expensive project.”
Many homeowners in the 270 corridor have expressed concerns about Hogan’s plan to add capacity to the frequently-crowded thoroughfare, even though he has pledged that no homes will be taken.
Elrich was even more blunt in his comments on the plan to widen I-495, which weaves its way through many older, fully-developed communities.
“There is no way you can widen the Beltway from New Hampshire Avenue to Wisconsin Avenue. We need a more realistic solution. [The governor’s plan] is very much a solution from the 20th century. It’s not a solution for the 21st century.”
Elrich said the state should focus initially on the American Legion Bridge in Cabin John, which connects Maryland and Virginia, and is a wicked choke point for long stretches of the morning and evening commute.
“If the governor really wanted to help Montgomery County, he’d start at the American Legion Bridge,” Elrich declared.
“Start there and see what happens when you can go cross that bridge and what it does to break up the congestion on [I-270 and I-495], and then work backward to resolve the bottlenecks that remain.”
Responded Amelia Chasse, spokeswoman for Hogan: “It’s great to hear that County Executive Elrich supports the state’s efforts to relieve congestion on the American Legion Bridge as part of the administration’s Traffic Relief Plan. In fact, the first phase of the proposed P3 project includes working with Virginia to connect to their Express Toll Lanes and reconstruct or rehabilitate the American Legion Bridge, so we can extend additional lanes across I-495 on the Maryland side.
“The Traffic Relief Plan is actively moving forward, and will provide transformative congestion relief to improve Marylanders’ quality of life.”
More than 500 business representatives from around the world gathered today for the P3 (public-private partnership) Industry Forum to discuss how to tackle traffic challenges like the ones Maryland faces on its most congested roadways.
In October, Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told Maryland Matters that industry leaders were already working on ways to expand capacity to the state’s most congested roads using existing right-of-way.
Elrich also reiterated his call for a bus-rapid transit network to link commuters to their jobs more quickly and less expensively than rail.
“Metro’s Red Line is absolutely critical. But it serves a limited function,” he said. “Our ability to move back and forth, and up and down, in the county is hampered by the lack of any kind of adequate bus system.”
As for Amazon’s decision to build part of its new national headquarters in Arlington, Va., Elrich noted “the billion dollars that the state of Virginia threw into tech education, which we didn’t even know. But a strategic play to put a billion dollars into tech education — I don’t think that was an insignificant step on the part of the state of Virginia and we need to think about our education resources and do a better job of funding them in Montgomery County.”
“This is a moment where we need to ask the governor to have some vision,” he added.
Elrich told the audience that he plans to be a regular presence in Annapolis during the legislature’s annual 90-day session, and he told the lawmakers in the room that he would meet with anyone they recommended to advance the county’s interests.
Elrich is not well-known to legislators outside of Montgomery County. But on Wednesday he greeted a bus tour of incoming freshmen when they visited United Therapeutics, a biotech company in downtown Silver Spring, as part of their statewide bus tour.