The Washington Post editorial page this weekend compared two Beltway-area counties–Montgomery, in Maryland, and Fairfax, in Virginia. They are, the Post says, "demographic cousins with populations around 1 million, school systems among the nation's biggest and best, and public spending equal to that of small countries." Yet Montgomery is a fiscal basket case, Fairfax is not. What's the difference?
Take a snapshot of one year, 2006, when times were flush. In Fairfax, the county executive, an unelected technocrat, proposed a budget with a relatively robust spending increase of about 6 percent. In Montgomery, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a career p
olitician then running in the Democratic primary for governor, pitched a gold-plated, pork-laden grab bag of political largess that drove county spending up by 11 percent.
Mr. Duncan's budget that year capped a three-year spree in which county spending rose by almost 30 percent. It reflected major multiyear increases in pay and benefits that he had negotiated for police, firefighters and other county workers. At the same time, Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery's schools superintendent, negotiated a contract that promised pay increases for most teachers of 26 to 29 percent over three years—about twice the raise Fairfax teachers got—plus health benefits virtually unmatched in the region. Montgomery County Council members, most of whom were hoping for union endorsements in the fall elections, rubber-stamped Mr. Duncan's contracts. The Board of Education, equally beholden to the teachers union, did the same for Mr. Weast. […]
The results have been striking—and strikingly unaffordable—in a county where more than half of all spending goes to public schools. The average teacher salary in Montgomery today is $76,483, the highest in the region. Average pay for teachers is now almost 20 percent higher in Montgomery than in Fairfax and has increased much faster than in most local suburban school systems. Since 2000, salaries for Montgomery teachers, as for many other county employees, have nearly doubled, rising at almost triple the rate of inflation. […]
Today, Montgomery schools spend about 20 percent more per pupil than Fairfax schools; they consume a greater share of the public spending than in any other locality in the region. The spending gap is not about classroom quality and student achievement; in those terms the two school systems are comparable. Rather, the difference is compensation, which accounts for 90 percent of Montgomery's education spending.
Virginia law denies public employees collective bargaining rights; that's helped Fairfax resist budget-busting wage and benefit demands. As revenue dipped two years ago, Fairfax officials froze all salaries for county government and school employees with little ado. By contrast, Montgomery leaders were badly equipped to cope with recession. County Executive Isiah Leggett took office proposing fat budgets and negotiating openhanded union deals after he succeeded Mr. Duncan. Then, as economic storm clouds gathered, he shifted gears and cut spending—while still trying to appease the unions.
Notoriously, one such deal guaranteed almost $300 million in pension benefits over 40 years to thousands of employees based on salary increases they never received. The giveaway became known as "Phantom COLAs," for the cost-of-living raises that were never paid. And even when Montgomery's teachers agreed to give up cost-of-living raises last year, about two-thirds of them continued to receive step increases of up to 4 percent.
Whole thing, well worth a read, here; link via Instapundit. I referenced Montgomery's "phantom" pension increases in my recent column, "We Are Out of Money," and also in this blog post. Steven Greenhut's classic cover story on the "Class War" here.