The Interview: Charles I. Ecker, Howard County Executive

We continue our series of interviews with the major contenders in the 1998 gubernatorial race. In this issue, we talk with Chuck Ecker, county executive for Howard County. Dr. Ecker will be facing 1994 Republican nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the GOP primary.

Calvert Question. Your proudest accomplishments as county executive?

Ecker Answer. I think my most important accomplishment is bringing the county through a serious fiscal crisis. I brought spending under control while, at the same time, increasing services to the citizens of Howard County.

Q. What are the deficiencies in the Glendening administration that have compelled you to run for governor?

A. I’m concerned that the state is being divided. One county is fighting another; one region is fighting another. Each county should be treated on a fair and equitable basis. Politics should be taken out of the process.


Q. Governor Glendening has sponsored a plan called “Smart Growth,” which directs state funds for roads and services to already developed areas. This is particularly relevant to Howard County, which has experienced dramatic growth over the last decade. Can you comment?

A. My view depends on what is included in Smart Growth. Originally, Columbia was not declared a Smart Growth area. I thought this was wrong and the bill was eventually changed so that Columbia was included. I also think a water and sewer district should be included in Smart Growth. If this happens, the plan will be satisfactory, but primarily because we have been implementing a plan like Smart Growth for years in Howard County. Our 1990 plan, for example, was based on developing certain parts of the county and the state’s Smart Growth plan simply goes along with this.

Q. Critics of the plan have argued that the problem with Smart Growth is that it does nothing to amend the power of local governments to oversee development, which they argue is the principle cause of suburban sprawl. Do you think the state should exert more control over local development?

A. No, I believe in local control. I think government should be as close to the people as possible.

Q. What might reduce sprawl?

A. Sprawl happens for a number of reasons. In Howard County, it’s location. We are between two metropolitan areas – Washington and Baltimore. Couples move here: One person may work in Baltimore, the other in Washington; or both may work in the county. Howard County is convenient. Also, people want to get out of the urban areas and live in the suburbs.


Q. Growth has given Howard County the highest per-capita debt in Maryland, a concern to some. Would the large debt put Howard County at risk during a downturn in the economy?

A. No. Debt is not a problem, though we do have a large debt. Grading agencies tell me that it’s not the size of the debt that is important but, rather, your ability to repay it. We have an excellent tax base here and we will be able to repay it. We have been building infrastructure in Howard County over the last few years but we will be well-positioned for the next 10 to 15 years. Other counties have not and I think they will be playing catch-up.

Q. You reportedly said that one of the reasons Howard County could not reduce its property-tax rate to counterbalance rising assessments was the increase in school funding mandated by the state. Would you try to eliminate this mandate as governor and let the counties decide what is the most appropriate funding based on school enrollment?

A. It certainly should be looked at. I don’t think mandating is a fair or equitable way to fund schools. But I think the whole funding formula for schools should be looked at, not just the mandate covering maintenance of effort.


Q. What is your view of the small tax cut passed this past legislative session, supported by Governor Glendening, which doesn’t go fully into effect until 2002?

A. I’m concerned because state expenditures were not reduced simultaneously. They found some money for a tax cut, but the tax cuts will result in a revenue shortfall in the coming years. The state should reduce expenditures and then reduce taxes.

Q. Any particular area in which you would cut expenditures?

A. I think just in the general efficiency of government, similar to what we did in Howard County. When I took office, we were faced with a budget shortfall. We had to eliminate 200 jobs, which represented 12 percent of the positions. Forty of the positions were active so the people filling them had to be laid off. For example, in a waste-water treatment plant, we had 54 employees. I reduced it to 44 in that first year. The employees were upset, complaining that they were overworked. Well, we got a team in there to study the situation and, after they looked at other plants up and down the east coast, they came back and said that we could get by with 31 employees! So I think there are some efficiencies we can make in government without reducing services. In fact, maybe we can increase services.

Q. Certainly, other states in the northeastern corridor have been far more aggressive in cutting taxes – Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey – often 20 to 30 percent. And their economies have done quite well. Why can’t Maryland do the same?

A. I’m not going to promise any percentage cut in taxes. One thing we need to do when we reduce taxes is to make sure that we don’t just shift the burden. I understand that in New Jersey the money for tax cuts was found by taking money out of the pension funds and also by increasing local property taxes. I wouldn’t do that. In the early 1990s, Maryland shifted some of the burden of funding to the counties. I don’t want to shift the burden. I don’t want to shift taxes from the state to the local level.

Q. The highest-growth states over the last decade have been those with lower personal income taxes and higher sales taxes. Do you think that a greater reliance on sales taxes would help improve Maryland’s economy?

A. I think the whole tax structure should be examined, with maybe an increase in the sales tax and a reduction in the income tax or maybe something else. But I think we can reduce taxes without increasing other taxes. Certainly, the capital gains tax is a pounding for being successful. We ought to encourage people to invest wisely and be successful. I would certainly think about a lower capital gains tax. Again, the whole tax structure ought to be looked at. And I think we should index the tax deductions for dependents.


Q. Howard County recently implemented a trash collection tax. Is this service currently performed by government?

A. No, it’s private. We’ve had private haulers picking up the trash for years.

Q. What is your opinion of privatization?

A. We have looked into privatization in Howard County. I don’t have any stand on privatization for a particular department on the state government level.


Q. You have supported big changes in Howard County’s personnel system, including: (a) “gainsharing,” where government employees are rewarded for cost-saving innovations with bonuses; (b) a pay-for-performance system, where supervisors are given broad new powers to evaluate and reward subordinates; and (c) eliminating annual step increases in pay after 12 years of government service. If elected governor, would you try to implement a similar plan at the state level?

A. I think the personnel system needs to be considered. In the Howard County water-treatment plant where positions were cut and gainsharing was implemented, the employees and the union were strong supporters of this. A savings of $600,000 per year was generated; I believe the employees should share in a portion of that, maybe 25 percent. This could come in the form of equipment or training or it could be a bonus. I believe in gainsharing. I believe in paying for performance.


Q. What is your view of school choice, where low-income parents are given vouchers to help send their children to private, and possibly sectarian, schools?

A. Certainly I think the school system has some problems. I have one concern about vouchers and that is, if we give vouchers to low-income children to go to other schools, how are they going to get there? I’m afraid some would not have any transportation even though they were given a voucher. I should note that in Howard County, the parent has some choices. A student is free to go from one public school to another. It is called open enrollment. If a student wants to go to another high school, he or she can if the school is not overcrowded. But such students have to provide their own transportation.

Q. In a recent Calvert Institute survey into why people leave Baltimore City for the suburbs, 92 percent of African-American respondents were found to support school choice. Does this surprise you, given that leadership organizations in the black community are firmly against school choice?

A. I think the leaders sometimes get isolated from their followers. Many times, people get into leadership positions and then forget their base.

Q. Governor Glendening still supports a college scholarship plan for B students coming from middle-class families. What is your opinion?

A. I don’t think the state should get into this. But I do think that, if the state is going to sponsor a scholarship program, we should target those industries for which we have trouble getting workers. In Maryland, we have trouble getting high-tech workers and people with computer skills. The state used to have a scholarship program for teachers, when teachers were in short supply, and so if we were to support a scholarship program, it should be targeted to certain areas in the work force.


Q. Governor Glendening has recently stated that Maryland employers who replace regularly paid employees with welfare recipients in training should not receive the tax credits allowed under federal law, saying further that they might even be liable for civil and criminal penalties. Doesn’t this policy interfere with the free market, and doesn’t it scare off potential employers of welfare recipients eager to find work?

A. I’m opposed to shifting unemployment from one person to another. It’s not right to get credit for hiring a welfare worker by laying off someone else.

Q. The state and municipal employee unions fear that welfare recipients will take their jobs at lower pay. Doesn’t this simply mean that taxpayers, right now, are funding much more in government salaries than they need to?

A. It does go against the free market. I believe, though, that most employers want to pay a reasonable wage to their employees.

Health Care

Q. Across the country, the public is increasingly concerned that the power of HMOs relative to physicians and patients is too great and needs to be curtailed. Do you think such controls on HMOs are necessary to preserve quality of care?

A. I believe in managed care. I also believe in the right of the individual to pick his or her own doctor. I don’t think legislative action is needed right now, but we will have to wait and see. I do think Maryland has too many mandated insurance benefits right now.


Q. What is your view on bringing casino gambling to the state, as well as on allowing slot machines at Maryland racetracks and off-track betting sites?

A. I’m opposed to having the state general fund rely any more on receipts from gambling. We already rely too heavily on gambling receipts.


Q. There have been a fair number of incidents during this current administration that are thought ethically questionable. An example would be the generous pension benefits granted to the governor and some of his aides who worked in the Prince George’s County government. Was this plan for himself and his aides a common one in county government?

A. No, that was and is an unusual plan and it does not exist in Howard County. We did start our own pension program two years ago. In our pension plan, the lower-paid worker benefits more than the higher-paid worker. So it is just the opposite from what I understand the Prince George’s County plan to be.

Calvert. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Interviewer Ron Dworkin is the co-director and CFO of the Calvert Institute. He will be conducting further interviews like this one.

Posted in: News Series, State and Local Politics