Steve Schuh is at it again. The Republican Anne Arundel County executive last month proposed a nearly $1.5 billion budget that provides tax and fee cuts, albeit small, and increased spending on schools, public safety and quality of life projects, like public boat ramps and waterway cleanup.
“People have been talking about a new Crofton high school for over 30 years, but nothing has ever happened,” Schuh said in an energetic YouTube video standing outside one of the entrances to the planned community where Schuh grew up. “Well, the wait is over. Construction will begin this year on this long overdue school, and our children will no longer be split from their friends and neighbors when they leave middle school.”
No surprise here. Building a high school in Crofton was one of Schuh’s core campaign promises, and part of his long-term plan to build more, smaller high schools.
Tax and fee cuts are part of the five core promises, too. The property tax rate would be trimmed just a notch to $.907. Schuh also wants to eliminate the $1 a ticket charge on movie tickets, the $36 a year charge for athletic facilities and the $300 fee on mobile homes.
Schuh is benefiting from a strong local economy and low unemployment rate that allows him to keep a lid on taxes, while increasing spending $60 million, or 4.3%.
Sore Spot in Education
The sore spot in Schuh’s budget continues to be funding for the health benefits in the public school system. The county spends half its budget on schools, but the executive has little direct control over how the money is spent.
The fund that pays for health insurance for teachers and other school personnel is “on the brink of insolvency,” Schuh said in a PowerPoint presentation to the County Council. Contributions are falling short $30 million every year. This is a long-standing complaint by Schuh that has put him at odds with the county’s teachers unions.
Schuh said that the fund is running at a deficit because money was diverted from it to give teachers raises, health care costs have been escalating, the teachers don’t pay enough for their own health insurance and their co-pays for doctor’s visits are very low.
His remedy for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 is what he calls “shared sacrifice” from the teachers, the school system and the county government. Schuh wants teachers to contribute $8 million more per year in payroll deductions (offset by a one-time county subsidy of $7.5 million), he wants the school board to shift some money around, and he’s pledging an additional $15 million county “rescue,” along with CareFirst contract savings, to keep the health benefits funds solvent.
Schuh is also proposing increased funding for public safety, hiring 44 more police officers, 26 more firefighters and nine more prosecutors.
However, the opioid overdoses continue to rise. In 2016, there were 814 overdoses from heroin and other drugs, up 136%, with 119 fatalities, up 133%. This year, the overdose rate continues to rise, but fatalities are down, probably because of better emergency treatment. Schuh’s budget provides more money for enforcement and treatment of the problem.
The County Council is scheduled to finish its work on the Schuh’s budget June 15.
Grasso Running for Senate
The current chairman of the County Council, Republican John Grasso, announced last month he would run for State Senate in District 32, the seat now held by Democrat Ed DeGrange. Grasso, perhaps the most flamboyant and outspoken of the council’s Republican majority, cannot seek a third term, a fate shared by four of the seven council members next year.
District 32 includes the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport area and Jessup. It is one of the few truly swing districts in the state, and was once represented by Republican Sen. Edward Middlebrooks, whom DeGrange defeated in 1998. DeGrange, one of the last of the moderate Democrats left in the state Senate, has won about 60% of the vote in the last four elections. He sometimes votes with Republicans on taxes and business regulation.
In Grasso, he would face probably his most formidable opponent since his first election. The seat is one of the five the state GOP is targeting to pick up.
Democrats view Anne Arundel County the same way. They are energized by opposition to President Trump, and encouraged by the fact that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Anne Arundel last year. This was the first time in the 21st century the Democratic presidential candidate carried Anne Arundel County. President Obama lost the county to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 by 197 votes.
Gov. Larry Hogan is not the only Anne Arundel resident running for governor. Democrat Ben Jealous, former president of the national NAACP, surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders and a Pasadena resident, announced last month he would challenge Hogan on a host of progressive issues.
Republican Beth Smith, a former lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Department, announced last month she plans to challenge incumbent Sheriff Ron Bateman in the Republican primary.
Democrat Pam Luby filed in April to run for the House of Delegates in District 33, the solidly Republican district now represented by Dels. Michael Malone, Tony McConkey and Sid Saab. Republican County Councilman Jerry Walker also plans to run for delegate.