The Interview: Eileen M. Rehrmann, Harford County Executive

From time to time, the Calvert Institute will be interviewing the major contenders in the 1998 gubernatorial race. In this issue, we have a conversation with Eileen Rehrmann, county executive for Harford County, who is challenging incumbent Governor Parris Glendening in the Democratic primary.

Calvert Question. What has moved you to challenge Governor Glendening in the Democratic primary?
Rehrmann Answer. I believe people are very concerned about a lack of leadership in the state. They believe the state is drifting. Many people have encouraged me to run. They believe that the Harford County success story can be the Maryland story. One of the things that we see the governor do is continue to respond to the polls and to adopt policies based on them. Instead, what you need to do is set your course for leadership and work with people to make it happen.

Growth

Q. Harford County has experienced dramatic population growth over the last decade. What kind of initiatives have you sponsored to manage this large influx?

A. Harford County has experienced 17 percent growth. When I took office, we were growing by over 3,500 housing units a year. We were out of water. We were out of sewer. Practically every older school had a leaking roof. One of the first things we did was attempt to slow the rate of growth so that we could manage the county more effectively. We went to the bond market, which had not been done before, to obtain capital for the necessary improvements in infrastructure. At the same time, we set up a committee of private citizens to advise on the bond-market plan. The committee recommended that no more than five percent of our operating budget should go to debt service, a very conservative ratio. This leveraged about $18 million in capital for improvements. Furthermore, we directed growth into certain areas. We now have over 83 percent of our growth going into these directed-growth areas.

Q. Is this in response to the governor’s “Smart Growth” plan?

A. No, this came before it. Before we all heard about Smart Growth, Harford County was doing it. A related question is, how do you preserve the rural areas? In Harford County, we have three counties in one. We have an urban area, a suburban area and a rural area. For the rural area, we devised a program that would enable the county to purchase the development rights on working farms, similar to a plan already in place in Howard County. Voters approved a half percent transfer tax on real estate sales, and the tax money is used for this program. Everyone benefits in this effort to preserve agricultural land, including the farmers and the citizens of Harford County.

Q. The governor’s Smart Growth plan directs state funds for roads and services to already developed areas. Could you comment on this plan?

A. The legislation is the same as what a lot of jurisdictions were already doing. Harford county is, and has been, doing smart growth. For example, smart growth involves reinvesting in older communities to prevent new ones from having to be built in rural areas. We are doing that right now, and have designated two older communities as enterprise centers. Companies that locate there can get tax credits for job creation.

Q. Critics of Smart Growth argue that it does little to limit the power of local governments to authorize development, which they argue is the principle cause of suburban sprawl. Under Smart Growth, local governments retain the power of planning and zoning and do not have to consider the impact of development on neighboring jurisdictions. How do you view this criticism?

A. The real issue is whether the state is serious about its own growth strategy. It already has considerable power in terms of what it can refuse to fund. It simply has not been using that power. Therefore, I don’t believe the state needs additional powers. I believe, for example, that local governments should have the responsibility of zoning. They are closest to the people, and the citizens express very directly to local governments how they feel about zoning issues.

Taxes

Q. The Calvert Institute frequently notes that Maryland has an extremely high personal income-tax rate. Compared to Virginia, a principal competitor, the tax burden is 20 percent higher. Do you think taxes are too high in Maryland?

A. Well, look at total taxes – state and local. I recently used the Internet to look at a competitor in Virginia in a county that was competing against us for an economic development project. When you looked at all taxes, I was more competitive. There are a couple of other issues on the table, too. Certainly, for a company, costs are important. But life-cycle costs are important, not just one-time costs. Location is important, as is how a government does business. I have a fast-track process whereby paperwork is expedited so businesses can open their doors. Taxes are a piece of the problem. But another critically important issue is a skilled work force. Companies are saying, if I have these costs, am I going to have a productive work force? Taxes are just one part of the story. The skilled work force will be the competitive edge as we move ahead the next couple of years.

Q. What is your opinion of the small tax cut passed during this legislative session?

A. It was an important issue that the business community raised and that the legislature dealt with. It is in place. We need to continue to make state government more efficient and effective and look at new ways of doing business and solving problems. I am an executive who went through a recession and rounds of cuts in the adoption of a budget. By working and making government more efficient and more responsive, we were able to handle those cuts without raising taxes. All of our surrounding jurisdictions increased their piggyback taxes. Ours continues to be just 50 percent.

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

A. I think you need to be focused as governor on job creation and business investment, and all of your strategies come together on these issues. Right now, things are happening because the economy is starting to improve. But if you look around, other states are doing better. We are not there. We have more to do. The feedback I am getting suggests that the skilled work-force issue is front and center. What you need to do as governor is bring together diverse interests when focusing on economic development. I would sponsor a fast-track process in Maryland that would make a real difference to business. We are going to sit down and learn what kinds of skills our work force needs and work with the education system to produce these skills.

Q. One last question on taxes: The Baltimore Sun seems to have caught the tax-cutting fever, calling for an elimination of the state income tax for residents of Baltimore City as a way to attract middle-class families. What is your opinion of this?

A. One of the major questions is why people are living the city. They are leaving the city for education and safe communities. These are two issues that we all need to focus on to have a successful city – education and public safety.

Public Expenditure

Q. Governor Glendening has pushed the use more of than $200 million of the state’s money to construct a new stadium in the deal to bring the former Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Is this an appropriate use of state money?

A. I am facing a similar issue here in Aberdeen [with regard to a minor-league baseball team] and my position is that we must get a return on the investment the same as any business would. The City of Aberdeen presented a proposal, but, to me, it was not acceptable. I was not satisfied with the return on the investment of taxpayer dollars in the venture. [Since this interview was taped, the Aberdeen stadium issue has resurfaced, with backers requesting a $500 million donation and a $1 billion loan from the county. - Ed.]1

Education

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

A. We need to look at improving the public education system. That is there where my priority would be as governor.

Q. The Calvert Institute recently commissioned a survey of ex-city residents who left Baltimore in the latter part of 1996 and found that over half of the leavers with children would have considered staying in the city if they could have exercised a school-choice option. Given the surrounding counties’ concern with population growth, isn’t school choice an excellent way to improve the level of education in the city while also encouraging people to stay in the city?

A. We all hope that the changes that are going to take place in the Baltimore City education system starting this semester will make the necessary improvements.

Q. The Calvert Institute has noted that per-capita expenditure on students bears no correlation with test scores. For example, Caroline County, with the lowest expenditures in the state, frequently produces test scores about as good as Montgomery County’s, with the highest expenditures. Don’t you think the problem with education in Maryland involves much more than money?

A. Harford County is a lower cost, higher performing county. Clearly, teachers make a difference and families make a difference. One of the things that we have in the county is a true partnership between teachers and parents. You can spend dollars and dollars, but unless you have that partnership, you are not going to be as successful.

Health Care

Q. Across the country, the public is increasingly concerned that the power of health maintenance organizations is too great and needs to be curtailed. Three bills designed to do this died this year in the legislature. One would have made it easier for patients to appeal to the state when HMOs refuse payment for care. Another would have mandated benefits. Do you think such controls on HMOs are necessary to preserve quality of care?

A. People are concerned about accessibility, affordability and quality. Many times they just don’t know where to turn for help. I hear from people, “I went to get care and I couldn’t get care” or “I had this length of time to wait before I could get to a doctor.” These are some real issues that are very important to people. We have to find a way of dealing with them in our new health-care environment. For example, the state is changing mental-health care. Now, for mental-health services, you are to dial a 1-800 number and find the people who are providing the services. Here is a fragile population to begin with that has challenges of its own; now it must deal with a totally impersonal, non-responsive system.

Q. Currently, Marylanders cannot participate in the new federal program that allows employees of small business to purchase tax-advantaged medical savings accounts. Do you support the necessary change in the law that would allow Marylanders to participate in this program? What do you think of MSAs?

A. I think this is something that needs to be looked at. I know from the perspective of county government that the idea of using pretax dollars is important for individuals and small businesses. So I think we need to sit down with small businesses and say, how can we help you in the future? One of the major generator of jobs is small business and it is important to work together in partnership.

Gambling

Q. Both Governor Glendening and Republican candidate Ellen Sauerbrey are opposed to bringing casino gambling into the state. What is your view on this issue, as well as on allowing slot machines at Maryland racetracks and off-track betting sites?

A. I am not supportive of casino gambling. I think the slots issue needs to be examined. We have all this money leaving Maryland. Friends in Delaware call me and say, “I saw all those Maryland cars with their license tags sitting here spending all those dollars. Thank you for the money for the public services.” It is a real issue. So we have Delaware and West Virginia. Legislation was not passed, but did get out of committee, in Pennsylvania. The issue is one we need to examine. A separate issue is the horsing industry in Maryland. Look at the number of horse farms in the counties, which are part and parcel of the economy. It is an industry that is under stress. We have a horse industry that is important to us for a number of reasons. What are the solutions? It may or may not be slots, but it is an issue that needs to be considered.

Unions

Q. A few months ago, the governor issued an executive order allowing state employees to choose a union to represent them. This order came about after the legislature refused to authorize such representation by statute. Do you think the governor’s actions were unconstitutional and that he overstepped his authority?

A. It is now in court and the court is going to decide whether this was an executive privilege or not.

Ethics

Q. There have been a fair number of incidents during the current administration that are held by many to have been ethically questionable. One example is the pension question from early in the administration. Was the governor’s very generous pension plan for himself and his aides a common one in county government or very unusual? Is there anything like it in Harford County?

A. Absolutely not. We are part of the state pension system and what happens for any employee is standard for county business. There is no separate pension system.
Calvert. Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

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

End Notes

[Top] 1. Lisa Respers, “Aberdeen Baseball Stadium Plan Revived,” (Baltimore) Sun, September 5, 1997, p. 1B.

Posted in: Report, State and Local Politics