Maryland, like Illinois, is famous as an integrity-free zone. Former governors, the heads of various school systems in the state, legislators, county executives and law enforcement officials have ended their careers in federal and state penal institutions for confusing serving the public with serving themselves at the public’s expense.
Prince George’s County just outside Washington and across the Wilson Bridge from Alexandria has probably had more former elected and appointed officials incarcerated than any other state jurisdiction, including Baltimore, in recent years. The county’s political culture is toxic to those who believe that elected officials should resist the temptation to steal from those who elect them, and it is a culture that seems eternally resistant to reform. It’s a shame, because the historic picturesque county should be a great place to live and raise a family.
Moreover, it is the wealthiest majority black county in the entire country and the 77th wealthiest of all counties regardless of where they are or who is in the majority. The median income in the county in 2008 was nearly $72,000 and yet, by any standard, it is also one of the most dysfunctional counties in the country. Its schools are among the worst in the D.C. metropolitan area, its police are among the least disciplined in the country, and its bureaucracy fails to deliver on almost all fronts to a public that seems used to being abused, overtaxed and taken for granted by arrogant “public servants.”
To say that Prince George’s is dominated by one party is an understatement. President Obama received 90 percent of the county vote in 2012, which was up from the mere 89 percent he got when he first ran in 2008. Republicans who live in the county tend to ignore politics altogether because no one is much interested in their views or their votes. The GOP doesn’t even bother to contest most county and local offices even though there are signs that Prince George’s voters are finally getting fed up with business as usual in their home county.
County voters didn’t turn out in great numbers in the 2014 gubernatorial race and partly as a result Republican Larry Hogan is now the state’s governor. Then when County Executive Rushern Baker proposed raising real estate taxes to throw more money into a well-financed but dysfunctional school system, voters revolted. The increase would have amounted to something like $300 on a $200,000 home and, as it turned out, would be spent not on teachers and schools, but to help fund pension obligations that the county had agreed to pay and couldn’t. The all-Democratic County Council rebelled and Mr. Baker had to scale the proposal way, way back.
Prince George’s is not a poor county by any measure, but audits of their school system have revealed that much of the money earmarked for education is wasted or stolen. Maybe that’s why at least one former head of the system went to prison for public corruption. Still, the county executive claims the county is broke and needs help either from the state or in the form of much higher taxes.
These pleas are falling on deaf ears these days because in big and small ways every citizen can point to wasteful spending that should be, but isn’t cut back. My wife and I came home the other evening to find white paint on our curb. On inquiring, we discovered that the mark and many others in the neighborhood were placed there by the county arborist, who informed us that the county would be along soon to plant some trees.
Anyone who has driven out Indian Head Highway knows that Prince George’s is not exactly lacking in trees. So we naturally wondered why the county is spending money on trees at a time the county executive is claiming kids aren’t able to read because the place is cash-starved. It seems a little like spending government money in Alaska to make ice.
The arborist, of course, assured us that everyone would benefit from the plantings and that besides, it’s her job to plant trees even if we all live in the middle of a veritable forest. There are no doubt countless other county bureaucrats running around “doing their jobs,” and not one of them is costing enough to break the county, but together they are a sign of a governmental inability to prioritize or budget effectively.
This is what’s happened nationally, and its why no matter how much money government raises at any level, it seems incapable for lack of funds of fulfilling its core mission. It’s why conservatives claim that governments are more likely to have a spending rather than a revenue problem.
Certainly that’s the case in one D.C.-area county.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor of The Washington Times.