Tough Job? Call Bobby Neall

By Barry Rascovar

May 23, 2016–They never seem to give Bobby Neall easy assignments. Now Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. wants the former Anne Arundel County Executive, former state senator and former state delegate to take on another near-mission impossible: reorganize state government.

It sounds like a simple task but it isn’t – not when Maryland’s government spends $42 billion a year and employs over 80,000 entrenched bureaucrats and nearly 10,000 contract workers.

Tough Job? Call Bobby Neall

Robert R. Neall, the governor’s new senior adviser

Compounding Neall’s assignment: Republican Hogan’s motives are deeply distrusted by the Democratic legislature. Any move that smacks of cutting government operations to pay for election-year tax cuts will be buried by legislative Democrats.

Neall says Hogan hasn’t asked him to slash government spending to make way for voter-appealing tax cuts. Instead, “this is something the governor wants to be part of his contribution – modernizing government and make it perform better, and maybe in the process saving money.”

The idea, according to Neal, is to come up with “a new platform capable of doing more and delivering better services and hopefully at lower unit prices. The businessman in the governor is coming out. It’s not just about budget cuts to make tax cuts possible.”

State government certainly could use a good shake-up.

Mandel’s Magic

There hasn’t been a major reorganization in 46 years, when Marvin Mandel, taking his cue from proposals put forth by the 1968 Constitutional Convention, took 248 unwieldy agencies and boxed them into 12 cabinet-level departments.

Suddenly the governor, not individual fiefdoms, controlled state government. It was one of Mandel’s great achievements, giving Maryland government a modern organization that was manageable and the envy of other states.

While Mandel’s basic structure has stood the test of time, the state’s operations again have spread its wings, becoming ungainly, duplicative and inefficient.

Neall sees his main opportunity in an area that would avoid headlines: government’s “backroom” operations – the massive services and supplies needed for the daily activities of 90,000 state workers.

“Having a Department of Veterans Affairs is fine,” he noted, “but it may not need its own personnel office, its own purchasing office, its own procurement office.”

Centralized backroom services might make sense, especially in an age of computers and two-way video communications. But it can still be controversial – witness the furor among parole office workers when personnel functions were removed from their workplace and consolidated at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

IT Laggard

Maryland government also has a reputation for lagging behind the times in information technology. Witness the disgracefully botched software to handle the Affordable Care Act and the continual IT screw-ups in social services computer operations.

Neall diplomatically notes, “Maryland state government has never been good at using technology. We’ve lost a lot of ground.”

Improved IT operations may hold the key to a leap forward in government efficiency and customer satisfaction but Neall’s efforts could encounter a major barrier – the costs involved.

Maryland’s Parole Commission, for instance is awash in paperwork. Boxes of inmate records are piled to the ceiling in large storage rooms. Converting these legal documents to computer-accessible records and protecting this data from cyber theft won’t be cheap or rapid.

Neall sees his main job as taking a hard-eyed look at state operations and then answering this question: “What’s the best way to deliver services to citizens today?”

For example, “We no longer get all our clothes in a clothing store; we shop online off a website.”

Process, Not Overhaul

Neall is not talking about wiping out entire departments and turning government into an amorphous internet presence. Instead, he wants to zero in on how state employees and agencies go about their jobs: “How they organize their work, the processes and the time sensitivity.”

In many areas, government is unnecessarily slow and cumbersome, irritating the heck out of constituents. It may be time to learn from the private sector.

There are private companies that will deliver to you your birth and death certificates in a matter of hours – for a fee. But ask state government for that same information and it could take weeks.

A cottage industry has sprung up due to the frustration people encounter waiting hours in long lines at the Motor Vehicle Administration. For a fee, these companies will take care of everything for you. While there have been improvements at the MVA, it still isn’t market-sensitive or people-friendly.

Those are the types of efficiency changes Neall has in mind.

Avoiding Controversy

He’s hoping it won’t involve wholesale reorganizations that would raise hackles among legislators, unions and other interest groups.

So the chances of a Mandel-style re-shuffling of powerful state agencies aren’t likely. Indeed, most state operations will look the same to Marylanders.

“The storefront stays if you can deliver products in a timely fashion, create a sense of urgency and customer satisfaction,” Neall says.

Throughout his career, Neall has been recognized as an insightful budget analyst skilled in dissecting complicated business and government operations and then suggesting cost-saving efficiencies.

Turnaround Artist

He’s worked for Johns Hopkins Medicine for a quarter-century, the last 12 as head of Hopkins’ managed-care organization for the poor and near-poor. Priority Partners is the largest MCO in the state, but when Neall took over it was $10 million in the red. Within a year, he had eliminated the red ink.

Neall is trusted and respected by both Republicans and Democrats in Annapolis. He knows the magnitude of his task.

If anyone can pull this off it is Bobby Neall. The goal he has set is modernization, not wholesale reorganization.

It may not be sexy, but Neall would be happy to see a quiet, successful implementation that most people don’t even notice.

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Tag-Team Villains

By Barry Rascovar

May 16, 2016 – Watching elected officials punish school children for alleged sins of other public officials is painful and embarrassing.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot should be ashamed.

They aren’t, of course.

Each is on an ego trip, enjoying the power they can wield in a vanity-filled attempt to humiliate and disparage political foes. All this is being done ostensibly to help these kids, though their actions will make school kids suffer.

Tag Team Villains

Comptroller Peter Franchot

The issue is a parochial one – the lack of air-conditioning in many Baltimore County and Baltimore City schools.

This has been a cause celebre for Franchot, allowing him to savage former County Executive Jim Smith and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for not installing window air conditioners in thousands of classrooms so studentswon’t swelter in 100-degree heat on a handful of school days each year.

The two jurisdictions have been dragging their feet for a long time. Franchot is right to bring it to public attention.

But his solution isn’t a solution at all – it exacerbates the problem.

Punitive Step

Franchot and Hogan voted last week to withhold $10 million in school building funds from Baltimore County and $5 million from Baltimore City – unless the jurisdictions install AC in 4,000 classrooms by September.

This punitive step accomplishes nothing.

First, it is mission impossible. This massive undertaking would take far longer and requires engineering studies to figure out if such a move would overload half-century-old electrical systems. Then what do you do and who pays for it?

Second, losing $15 million means fewer schools can get a permanent solution – central air-conditioning.

Their action amounts to pure hypocrisy.

Franchot went on a 20-minute rant at the start of Board of Public Works meeting with frenzied denunciations of legislative leaders and Kamenetz. Then he did it again later on. He spewed venom toward the Senate president, the House speaker, the state attorney general, the Baltimore County executive, the board’s own school construction agency, the Baltimore Sun, and even Wall Street bond counsels.

It was a Trumpian performance filled with sound and fury – but it did nothing to fix what’s broken.

Scripted Anger

Hogan wasn’t any more reasonable.

He put on a self-important display of scripted anger, assuring everyone he was doing this for the kids.

He and Franchot played fast and loose with the facts so they could pummel Kamenetz and Democratic legislators. They were cheered on by a crowd filled with supporters, who were allowed to speak.

Anyone who might object or discuss the facts was denied permission to talk. Even State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a BPW board member, was barely allowed to get in a word to counter the tag-team terrors.

She accurately called this “political theater” that was “outrageous and disgraceful.” Worse, it was “a travesty and illegal.”

Franchot and Hogan want to impose their will on Baltimore County and city leaders and determine education policy for them.

This is a dangerous precedent. Given complaints heard during the BPW meeting, the Hogan-Franchot duo could go after school board actions in other jurisdictions, too.

Easy Solution

Here’s the ultimate irony.

The governor has the ability to solve this dilemma but he hasn’t lifted a finger.

Why? Because he doesn’t want to help Democrats out of a bind of their own making.

All Hogan or former Gov. Martin O’Malley had to do was include extra school construction money in his budget and earmark it specifically for air-conditioning-related engineering studies, window air-conditioners and long-term central air-conditioning projects.

It might prove expensive, but with a budget surplus in the hundreds of millions of dollars Hogan has had the cash to handle this problem. He opted not to do so. The reason is political.

He enjoys whipping up an emotional frenzy to humiliate and embarrass a potential Democratic opponent in 2018 – Kamenetz.

It has nothing to do with “the kids.” Otherwise, Hogan would have resolved the matter back in January.

Franchot knows this problem is ripe for gaining popularity with angry school parents.

It’s political for him, especially in his scripted display of righteous anger.

Abrupt Cut-Offs

Hogan and Franchot didn’t want to hear the facts. They were told directly by a deputy attorney general their action would be illegal.  When she tried to explain the details, Hogan cut her off.

Baltimore County’s school superintendent was there, too. Hogan wouldn’t let him speak.

The state’s long-serving director of the school construction agency quit as a result of this crude power play. Hogan was publicly gleeful.

It was a pre-arranged nasty meeting.

School construction funds for any jurisdiction now could be at risk if local politicians get on the wrong side of the tag-team villains.

It was, as Kopp noted, “the politics of fear and demagoguery.”

It could result in a lawsuit the attorney general says Hogan and Franchot could lose.

It could make Maryland bonds for school construction impossible to sell, according to Kopp, who handles all of Maryland’s bond sales.

Franchot’s Future

It now looks likely that Franchot will face a strong Democratic challenge in 2018. He essentially severed ties last week with the state’s top legislative leaders and Kamenetz, who is term-limited.

Alarmed Democratic lawmakers could feel an urgency to pass veto-proof legislation next year to strip Hogan and Franchot of their ability to further politicize the state’ school construction allocations.

This could turn into a Pyrrhic victory.

There’s no doubt Baltimore City and Baltimore County failed for over a decade to confront the lack of air-conditioned classes. Local leaders never found the courage to raise taxes to pay for immediate, multi-billion-dollar school improvements.

But that is a local dilemma for local voters to address. It is not a state matter.

For Hogan and Franchot to dictate school system decisions is troubling. It could signal more moves to intervene in local matters when they think it helps them politically.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com

The Hogan Side-Step

By Barry Rascovar

When it comes to skipping over controversial issues that might undermine his political fortunes, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. is a master of diversion. This technique has proved highly successful. He’s not about to let Donald Trump trip him up.

You might call it the Hogan Side-Step.

He used it successfully in running for governor two years ago, in dealing with a Democratic state legislature and now in avoiding a potential trap posed by Trump’s presidential success in Republican primaries.

The Hogan Side-Step

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

One would expect a Republican governor to support his party’s nominee. Hogan, though, is artfully avoiding that move. Here’s what he told reporters:

“I said I was not going to get involved, and I would not endorse any candidate and that I was going to stay focused on Maryland. And I’m not going to take any more stupid questions about Donald Trump.”

For many Marylanders, “stupid” and “Trump” are synonymous. By mixing and matching them in one sentence, Hogan gives the impression to Trump haters he’s with them.

Yet what he’s really saying is that he’s keeping a mile-length distance between his political well-being and Trump’s candidacy. He can smell the toxic odors emanating from The Donald’s campaign.

‘Not Involved’

But can Hogan sustain his “I’m not involved” posture for the next six months, even with the media and public attention riveted on the presidential race?

What will Trump followers in Maryland think of this “betrayal” of the dynamic “tell it like it is” figure they adore? After all, he won 247,000 votes in Maryland’s GOP primary. How many of them are offended by Hogan’s lack of support for the Republican presidential nominee?

The concern is that Trump backers might return Hogan’s ingratitude in kind by deserting him when the Republican governor runs for reelection in 2018.

That’s the chance Hogan is taking.

Democrats, meanwhile, have targeted Hogan’s avoidance as a weakness they can exploit. The Democratic Governors Association labeled Hogan as one of the “Silent 9” of GOP governors remaining mum on a Trump endorsement.

That will be a constant refrain in Maryland by Democrats throughout this campaign.

Danger Lurks

It won’t pressure Hogan, though, who knows there is extreme danger in supporting Trump in November. That’s what Democrats would love to see.

The governor will have none of that. He’s not about to get tied to Trump’s call to deport 13 million illegal Hispanic immigrants, Trump’s call to jail women who have abortions or Trump’s crude and mean-spirited put-downs of women and anyone who dares criticize him.

Hogan will simply sit on the sidelines pretending not to notice that the most important election in our lifetimes is taking place.

It could be a tough balancing act. What does Hogan do about attending and voting at the Republican Convention in Cleveland? Does he cast his ballot for Trump then? How does he avoid that peril?

Perhaps he will find himself too busy running the state to go to Cleveland.

Or perhaps, like the late William Donald Schaefer, Hogan will visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just at the point in the convention when he’s supposed to be voting. (Mayor Schaefer famously toured the San Diego zoo rather than sit in his delegate seat at the 1984 Democratic convention.)

‘Not My Choice’

Hogan could be using Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford as a partial shield against attacks from Democrats.

Rutherford has made it clear he’s anti-Trump. “I’m not going to endorse him,” the African-American lieutenant governor said. “He’s not my choice at all” – leaving open the question as to who Rutherford plans to vote for in November.

In heavily Democratic Maryland, that’s a smart political position for Rutherford, who doesn’t have to face voters on his own as lieutenant governor. It’s Hogan who must worry about not angering Republican voters while at the same time not energizing Democrats by his tactical side-step.

Rest assured Hogan will be campaigning this fall for other Republican candidates, especially those running for Congress and House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, who is running for the United States Senate.

She hopes to duplicate Hogan’s surprise victory in 2014 by staying away from volatile social issues, hiding the depth of her conservative voting record and presenting herself as a friendly, smiling, decent small businesswoman who is not one of those dreaded “insiders.”

Szeliga is the real loser in Trump’s candidacy. The last thing she needs in November is a large Democratic turnout, which now seems assured, thanks to The Donald’s presence. The fear factor among Trump opponents will be a powerful incentive to get to the polls in record numbers.

The Christie Dilemma

Then there’s this possibility: What if Hogan’s best political buddy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, ends up as Trump’s choice for vice president? What will Hogan do then? He’d be in a personal bind.

Hogan enthusiastically endorsed and then campaigned for Christie’s presidential bid, in part because Christie had given Hogan enormous emotional support when the governor took on his courageous fight against cancer. It might be excruciatingly difficult for Hogan to deny Christie if he becomes Trump’s choice for veep.

Maryland Democrats would have a field day were that to take place. It would be bad news for Hogan’s efforts to distance himself from the presidential battlefield.

Hogan needs to stay on course, avoiding incendiary social issues (like immigration, abortion rights, gay rights and gun rights) until after the 2018 election. If Trump somehow drags the governor into the presidential campaign, Hogan’s reelection chances are harmed.

He’d rather continue demonstrating his skill at performing the Hogan side-step by saying he won’t answer any more “stupid questions about Trump.”

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Post-MD Primary: Insiders and ‘The Donald’ Triumph

By Barry Rascovar

May 2, 2016 – On primary election day, Maryland Democrats sent a strong message that for them experience and proven ability in public office are what count most. Frustrated Maryland Republicans, though, opted to follow a charismatic Pied Piper with wild ideas and zero elective experience.

That’s the biggest take-away from the April 26 balloting in the Free State. Except for Donald Trump’s easy triumph in the GOP presidential primary, Maryland voters came down heavily on the side of polished politicians whom they feel they can trust to deal with society’s intensely complex problems.

Post-MD Primary: Insiders abnd 'The Donald' Triumph

The “mad as hell” euphoria sweeping parts of the country against establishment figures didn’t flood into Maryland. Pragmatic insiders got the nod over impractical outsiders.

Top of the Ticket

–In the Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton walloped Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. No “feel the Bern” groundswell of support for the far-left socialist-democrat in Maryland. He lost by a whopping 30 percentage points – one of his worst drubbings outside the Deep South.

That bodes well for Clinton in Maryland this November. She will benefit from solid Democratic support in a heavily Democratic state as well as the ABT (Anyone But Trump) factor: Two out of three Americans tell pollsters they view “The Donald” unfavorably.

–In the Republican president primary, Trump trumped two weak contenders, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. It was easy pickings in Maryland for the outspoken billionaire real estate developer. He’s popular in rural areas (where he held his only Maryland campaign events) but he is detested in the state’s population centers. Maryland won’t be on his November list of winnable states unless his advisers live in the same world of unreality as the candidate.

United States Senate

–In the Democratic race for U.S. Senate, voters overwhelmingly favored Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who blew away Rep. Donna Edwards by a far wider than expected margin. Edwards won African-American jurisdictions but not by stupendous totals. She got clobbered everywhere else, especially in the Baltimore suburbs and in the state’s largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County.

Van Hollen’s easy romp on May 26 will make it nearly impossible for the GOP nominee, state Sen. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, to compete in a November election where Democratic turnout could set a record. The ABT effect could severely undercut her chances, too.

Congressional Primaries

In two suburban Washington congressional primaries, Democratic voters again opted for well-qualified and proven establishment officials.

–In Montgomery County, state Sen. Jamie Raskin defeated two Democratic outsiders, a wine-business multi-millionaire, David Trone (who tried to buy the election by spending a record $13 million), and a former local news personality, Kathleen Matthews.

Raskin isn’t flashy or charismatic. But he’s a solid constitutional law professor and an ultra-liberal who learned in Annapolis how to work effectively within the legislative system. His legal smarts could prove a decided plus in the House of Representatives.

He and his wife, Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin, also could become one of Washington’s most prominent power couples after November, since Raskin is virtually assured of victory in the general election.

–In heavily Democratic Prince George’s County, former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown won a close congressional race against former two-time State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey. The two insiders far outdistanced the field, which included a vocal Latino-rights candidate.

Voters in Prince George’s clearly preferred the tried and true, remembering Brown’s quality service in the county as a two-term delegate rather than his weak performance as lieutenant governor and his abysmal run for governor in 2014.

Mayoral Race in Baltimore

–In Baltimore City, a stampede of candidates filed for the Democratic nomination for mayor but only two were taken seriously by voters. The non-politician outsiders, exemplified by lawyer Elizabeth Embry and multi-millionaire financial investor David Warnock, failed miserably to gain traction.

Warnock ran an uplifting campaign but he never persuaded voters he has what it takes to turn around a troubled, aging urban city. His advertising symbolism – driving through Baltimore in an old pickup truck – befuddled rather than enlightened viewers.

Embry, meanwhile, kept harping on criminal justice reforms – a misleading platform since Baltimore’s mayor plays a minor role in this area. That’s the job of the state’s attorney and the state legislature. Her smarmy last-minute advertising blitz portraying the two leading candidates as virtual criminals was a black mark in an otherwise constructive campaign.

Seven out of ten city voters supported the two most experienced insider candidates, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Cathy Pugh. That’s a ringing endorsement of competence in office over protesting voices from outside the government arena.

Pugh very narrowly defeated Dixon by winning over the city’s white voters and business community. Dixon ran strongest among African Americans who remembered her decades of constituent service and who deeply believe everyone deserves a second chance.

The city should benefit from Pugh’s victory, which all but officially makes her the next mayor in December, given the Democrats’ lopsided voter advantage in Baltimore. She is on friendly terms with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and key state lawmakers and will have an open door in seeking help from Baltimore’s business and civic leaders.

On April 26, Maryland proved in most cases an island of sanity and stability in an election season marked by bizarre and hard to explain developments. The state’s voters, by and large, seem to have their feet – and their senses – planted firmly on the ground.

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MD Democrats: Will It Be Symbolism or Substance?

By Barry Rascovar

April 25, 2016—Tuesday’s primary election in Maryland has more drama and national attention than any in recent memory. Democratic voters, in particular, have an eventful choice to make in the U.S. Senate primary: Will they favor symbolism or substance?

If the election were based on achievements and legislative accomplishments, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County would be a landslide winner. His record is heads and shoulders above that of Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County, who has little to show for eight years in Congress.

Edwards’ campaign pitch, delivered almost exclusively to African Americans and women, is that she is a crusader for those two groups. Other voters in the state have been largely ignored.

Edwards is pitching the notion that it is more important to elect a symbolic black female than an accomplished male with solid credentials in the fight for women’s rights and equality for minorities.

Protesters vs. Pragmatisim

In many ways, it is the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders divide all over again. Sanders and Edwards are idealists and protest movement leaders. They excel at sweeping denunciations of the status quo and demanding radical change to obviate social injustice.

But as far as finding practical solutions and realistic ways to solve intractable problems, Sanders and Edwards come up woefully short. They are visionaries and crusaders, not worker-bees and negotiators.

They may claim credit for the ultimate reforms but they weren’t in the room doing the hard work of finding a path forward through a thicket of political and societal obstacles.

Clinton and Van Hollen are pragmatists who recognize Rome wasn’t built in a day (legislatively speaking) and that steady progress toward Democratic social goals is the most pragmatic tactic. It’s not an exciting or emotionally riveting approach but it gets you where you want to go.

When he was in Annapolis as a state delegate and then a state senator, Van Hollen was viewed as a rising star. When he went to Congress, it wasn’t long before he became a key member of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle. Why? Because he’s effective. He knows how to get things done and to do so in ways that won’t alienate colleagues or blow up compromises.

Views in Congress

Van Hollen is exceptionally well-liked by those who have worked with him; Edwards is not. Fewer than 10 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed her Senate bid, which is a telling slight. The vast majority of elected black officials in Maryland have cast their lot with Van Hollen as well.

Edwards has given residents of her congressional district the back of her hand, preferring to focus on national feminist and African American causes rather than delivering quality constituent service. She also has spent little time canvassing the entire state, especially in the Baltimore region where many voters wouldn’t recognize Edwards if she bumped into them.

One of the oddities of this Senate primary is the peculiarly myopic position of Emily’s List, which has poured nearly $2.5 million into a drive to nominate Edwards, even though Van Hollen has an equally sterling record in support of women’s rights.

It could come back to haunt supporters of women’s rights because Edwards is the Democrat that Maryland Republicans want to run against. She is viewed as vulnerable in the November election.

Edwards’ base of support is narrow, but in a Democratic primary she is hoping that vast numbers of African American women will exert enough voting power to pull her over the top.

In November, though, the African American vote isn’t nearly as great. Republicans see a legitimate chance to cast Edwards as a far left-wing radical who does not represent the views of mainstream Marylanders.

Anger Among Supporters

Emily’s List opted to divert $2.5 million of its funds from other Senate races where strong female candidates could well oust incumbent Republicans if given a big financial boost.

It was not a smart move and it angered many supporters of the group in Maryland who view the group’s endorsement and financial backing of Edwards destructive to the Democratic Party and overtly sexist.

How this primary race turns out is likely to determine the type of senator Maryland gets for the next six years (or more). Van Hollen is far closer to the image of retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who speaks loudly and gruffly but knows how to work the legislative system to get what she wants for her home state. Edwards has shown no inclination she would follow Mikulski’s formula.

Van Hollen appears to have the advantage – in recent polls, in the support of elected officials, in key newspaper endorsements, in his fund-raising prowess, in the quality of his advertising and in his ground-level election operations (his team knocked on seven times more doors during the week of early voting than Team Edwards).

Turnout could prove telling, but excitement over the presidential races, two hotly contested congressional races in the Washington suburbs, an equally intense race for Baltimore mayor and the Edwards-Van Hollen contest could boost voter intensity all over the state.

Do Democrats in Maryland want a senator who is an eloquent civil rights protester or a practitioner of the practical? The outcome could weigh heavily on the direction of state politics in the years to come.

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Responsive Legislative Actions

By Barry Rascovar

April 18, 2016 – In chalking up results from the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session that concluded a week ago today, it appears lawmakers have much to crow about.

In at least four areas, they achieved major steps forward that should prove enormously beneficial to Maryland residents.

Re-shaping prison sentences and parole

No bill holds more promise than this one, which had the backing of blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the governor and lawmakers.

The goal is to unclog prisons by placing minor drug offenders in alternative treatment, counseling and training programs instead of sitting unproductively in a jail cell.

Proponents made a big deal of the supposedly enormous savings in the original bill, which is of minor importance compared to providing offenders with constructive ways to turn their lives around while reserving incarceration for society’s truly bad apples.

State senators hesitated to give full support to the advocates’ liberal “get out of jail card” approach, worrying hardened criminals might be getting breaks they don’t deserve and return quickly to a life of street violence.

In the end, they agreed to give it a try, but the issue is certain to return to the State House next year to close unintended loopholes and weaknesses in the bill that won’t appear until the law is fully implemented.

Underwriting a Baltimore renewal program

One of Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s worst moments this past session was his failure to present a city revival package to the General Assembly. Given the governor’s no-show on this vital issue, Democratic lawmakers stepped in and fashioned their own combination of aid bills.

It includes state money to upgrade city parks; mentoring for promising middle-school students; a guaranteed, multi-year housing demolition aid package; youth summer jobs, and longer library hours.

It’s a step in the right direction to engage city youth in positive activities and improve life in their communities. But far more needs to be done on the state level to help the city launch an economic revival in distressed, unsafe communities. Whether Hogan views this as an imperative remains a huge question mark.

Enlarging UM’s College Park-Baltimore research ties

No, it’s not a merger between the University of Maryland, College Park and UM’s impressive professional schools university in Baltimore. Instead, the legislation fully opens the doors for collaboration between talented researchers previously separated by insular university system politics.

Equally significant, the bill allocates millions of dollars to identify promising breakthroughs and get them on the commercial development fast track. That translates into jobs and strong economic growth.

The partnership bill also provides an overdue financial boost to two underfunded campuses that have become stars in the state’s higher education constellation – Towson University and UMBC. There’s also research-development money for Morgan State University.

Almost forgotten is the bill’s mandate that Bob Caret, chancellor of the vast UM system, move his office from the College Park area to downtown Baltimore. This holds immense significance. Caret will immediately become a key figure in city business and leadership groups, an advocate for Baltimore and a potent force in leveraging the university system’s brainpower to help reverse Baltimore’s fortunes.

A healthy Baltimore City remains pivotal to Maryland’s well-being. Taking steps to rejuvenate the city puts Maryland government in a stronger position to lure companies – and jobs – to the area, to boost the quality of life for the region’s citizens and to bolster the state’s tax collections in and around Charm City.

Thwarting repeat drunk drivers

It’s about time. From now on, individuals who get caught driving while seriously inebriated will be forced to install ignition interlock devices on their cars. If they ever abuse alcohol again and try to get behind the wheel to drive home, they won’t be able to start the engine.

The bill makes our streets safer and might persuade more abusers to think twice before imbibing alcoholic beverages away from home.

That’s an impressive foursome of major legislation. Missing from this list is any tax reduction – which actually is good news.

Maryland’s economic rebound remains uneven and modest, despite the solid March jobs report. It is wiser to till next January before messing with tax cuts. With luck, Hogan will have a much bigger pot of cash to use for this purpose – a welcome move as he starts gearing up his reelection efforts.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

 

 

 

Ceding Power to the Legislature

By Barry Rascovar

April 11, 2016 – It’s been an unusually contentious 90-day Maryland General Assembly session. The Republican governor and Democratic legislature are pulling in starkly different directions.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has made it clear he’d just as soon do away with those pesky lawmakers and rule by executive fiat.Ceding Power to the Legislature

His propaganda pitch is simple: I’m immensely popular right now and that should be enough to sweep away all opposition to my policy proposals.

Hogan, the most powerful governor in America when it comes to budget-making, wants even more unfettered ability to do as he pleases in cutting mandated aid programs.

He mocked lawmakers repeatedly during the session, even comparing them to college-age pranksters at one point.

Scant Progress for Hogan

In most cases, he refused to let his underlings work with lawmakers behind the scenes to improve the final work product and reach a compromise.

He kept demanding total surrender by Democratic legislators on a host of conservative Republican initiatives.

No wonder Hogan made scant progress on his agenda. It was too ideological, too partisan and too in-your-face bad-mouthing.

Indeed, Hogan’s decision to play Lone Ranger politics rather than work cooperatively with Democrats in the General Assembly has set the stage for what could be a momentous power shift in the Annapolis State House.

Throughout Maryland’s history, legislatures have let the governor take the lead in setting the agenda for the state’s annual General Assembly session. Lawmakers followed the old adage – the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.

But this time Hogan failed to lead. His 13-point initiative was long on Republican talking points featuring lots of tax cuts, fee cuts and tax credits for businesses as well as impossibly idealistic conservative goals such as wiping away state spending mandates and stripping the Democratic legislature of any power over the decennial redistricting process.

It’s no surprise Hogan met failure on the majority of these items.

Filling the Void

What did come as a surprise was legislative leaders’ determination to jump into the policy void created by Hogan.

Where was the comprehensive gubernatorial aid package for riot-torn Baltimore City –the most pressing problem confronting the state?

Where was the gubernatorial package of bills to improve the environment, public schools, state universities or health care?

On these critical issues, Hogan was missing in action.

Instead, House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller became the initiators, setting their own achievement goals. For the most part, Hogan was left on the sidelines where he shouted nasty criticisms of the players but never offered to join them on the field.

Aggressive Legislators

The legislature’s Baltimore aid package, while far from ideal, offered the first tangible evidence of Democratic lawmakers imposing their will on the governor, not vice versa.

It could be the start of a more aggressive approach by legislative leaders, making demands on the governor or even requiring gubernatorial actions.

In the past, lawmakers were deferential and passive partners in the law-making process, giving the governor the primary role in formulating policy and pushing legislation to fruition.

That has started to change.

Over the next two legislative sessions, Hogan’s influence will wane as the 2018 elections draw near and political reelection becomes the driving force. Democratic lawmakers will be less willing to grant Republican Hogan what he wants if it involves partisan goals and initiatives, as seems likely.

His agenda could be put on the shelf as legislators fashion their own package of priority legislation and steer it through the House and Senate with enough votes to override a Hogan veto.

Who Will Be in Charge?

By the time Hogan finishes his first term, he may have created a legislative monster for future chief executives – a General Assembly more capable of replacing the governor as the initiator of major legislation. Their power could increase; his could diminish.

It is likely Hogan can continue to milk his popularity by belittling Democratic lawmakers, portraying himself as the victim of their misguided actions and positioning himself as the advocate of lower taxes and less intrusive government. It’s worked so far.

Yet at the same time, if the chasm between Hogan and legislative leaders widens the governor may not have much in the way of achievements to show voters. By 2018, a cynical public may not view him so positively.

A more powerful state legislature seems on the horizon, and that’s not good news for any governor – unless he is willing to collaborate and compromise. Hogan has shown a lack of interest in either.

The verdict on the governor is still out. He’s shown he can retain his popularity. But can Hogan get major legislation approved while taking a confrontational approach toward a more assertive General Assembly?

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Hogan’s April Fool’s Joke?

By Barry Rascovar

April 4, 2016—On April Fool’s Day, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. played a whopper of a prank on the Maryland General Assembly: He vetoed a bill that brings public accountability and transparency to an important state government decision-making process.

Surely, Hogan wasn’t serious about this veto. Right?

 

Hogan's April Fool's Joke?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

After all, Republican legislatures in Virginia and North Carolina have passed similar “openness in government” laws.

Besides, the Maryland bill he vetoed doesn’t weaken Hogan’s power to do as he pleases in selecting transportation projects.

It’s a “feel good” bill that merely requires that Hogan’s team develop a ranking system for transportation projects and then explain if programs low on the list are given priority status in his budget.

Transparency but No Enforcement

Is Hogan against transparency in government? Does he really want to run a more secretive administration?

Of course not.

Is Hogan serious about terming this toothless bill “the worst kind of policy making”?

Is he sincere when he says this flimsy bill will block needed road and bridge projects?

No, of course not.

It’s got to be an April Fool’s joke.

The bill passed by the legislature is decades overdue. Had such transparency in road projects been in place, the corruption scandals involving Spiro Agnew, Dale Anderson and Joe Alton might never have happened.

Shining a light on government decision-making helps avoid shadowy actions by the governor’s staff that are based on political favoritism or cronyism. The public deserves to know how important choices are made. That builds trust in Maryland’s elected leaders.

Trumpian Statements

Hogan’s comments are so far afield from the facts that it’s all got to be a gigantic charade.

Indeed, Hogan’s rantings about this unenforceable transportation transparency bill are so extreme that he sounds almost Trumpian.

Let’s examine some of his claims.

Does this bill strip power from the governor? No.

Does this bill give more power to the legislature? No.

Does this bill block the governor from choosing any road or bridge project he wants? No.

Does this bill harm any Marylanders? No.

Does this bill harm business development? No.

Does this bill infringe on the governor’s right to identify local road projects he wants to fund? Absolutely not.

So why is Hogan in such a lather? Why did he veto a bill that will be overridden promptly by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly?

Partisan, Republican politics, pure and simple.

Energizer Issue

Hogan is using this bill as a device to energize his followers and true-believers. It is part of Hogan’s ideological drive to portray himself and his supporters as victims of those evil Democrats who control the legislature.

He’s arguing on the basis of emotion, not facts. And he’s sounding distressingly like Donald Trump.

Hogan is correct that Democratic lawmakers are becoming more and more distrustful of his actions, such as cancelling the federally-approved Red Line transit route, the terrible appointments he made to the Baltimore City liquor board, the questionable appointments he made to the state’s handgun control board, the suspect actions of his nominee to the Public Service Commission, and his de-emphasis of mass transit in his budget in favor of road projects in Republican counties.

The transportation transparency bill stems from that distrust. If Hogan continues along this path, distrust of Hogan could grow rapidly, with many more objectionable bills reaching his desk.

Hogan knows he’s going to lose this fight with the legislature. He also knows his powers remain fully intact. It’s all for show – and for political gain.

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Will O’Malley’s Folly Become Hogan’s?

By Barry Rascovar

March 28, 2016—The State Center boondoggle is back on the table.

This controversial deal, involving state buildings on 28 acres in midtown Baltimore, was tailored for developer-allies of former Gov. Martin O’Malley. It ended up on the back burner in December 2014 when the extent of the giveaway persuaded Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp to put a hold on the last approval necessary.

Since then, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has kept the project on the shelf – where it belongs.

Will O'Malley's Folly Become Hogan's?State Center vision

Developers’ $1.5 billion State Center vision in midtown Baltimore

But in the last few weeks, Hogan’s economic development chief, Mike Gill, said the administration was reviewing the $1.5 billion project anew. A decision on what to do at the Baltimore workplace for thousands of state employees could come before January.

There’s no question government workers deserve better quarters. The 60-year-old State Center complex is badly out of date. New accommodations need to be pursued. The worst course of action, though, would be to proceed with O’Malley’s white elephant.

Outsized Rents

Under the deal worked out by the former governor, the state, which now pays no rent at State Center, would be charged sky-high monthly rates for occupying space in a new, privately owned structure. The lease payments of $18.5 million a year would escalate every five years over the next two decades.

Such high rental rates are comparable to Inner Harbor, water-view office space.

The state also would be responsible for maintenance and security expenses, bringing payments to $30 million annually just in the first five years.

Additionally, the state would lease the entire 28-acre State Center property to the developer for a ridiculously low ground rent. A prime parcel near downtown would be virtually gifted to the development team.

The developers also want the state to pay for a costly underground garage in the first new office building. This $28.5 million expense would deplete the Transportation Trust Fund just when demand for road and bridge improvements is in high demand.

In another twist, state workers who receive free surface parking at State Center, would have to pay to use those underground spaces.

Bond Rating in Peril?

The most troubling aspect for Hogan is that the State Center plan could cost Maryland its coveted triple-A bond rating.

Because the developers want to use the state’s locked-in rent payments – nearly $500 million over the next 20 years – to obtain private financing for the massive project, the payments qualify as a capital project.

As such, the State Center development would blow the lid off Maryland’s debt ceiling. It would mean cutting other projects from Hogan’s construction plans and could lead to higher interest rates when Maryland goes to the bond market.

It’s a bad deal for taxpayers, and for Hogan, who inherited this mess from O’Malley (and from Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who announced the heavily subsidized state-private sector project prior to the Great Recession).

Joe Getty, Hogan’s chief legislative officer, was in the state Senate when his budget committee reviewed the State Center project in late 2014. He concluded that the excessive rent charged the state “sets us up to cut [other] projects that have strong commitments in other areas,” such as money for Baltimore City school construction and bond money for a new Prince George’s County hospital.

The Department of Legislative Services noted at the time that the State Center undertaking “will require a significant amount of annual general fund appropriations that could be avoided if the State instead constructed new or renovated space to replace the aging State Center infrastructure.”

Moving Downtown

Another promising avenue for Hogan: Move State Center workers into modern, renovated office space in Baltimore’s Central Business District.

Huge vacancies exist there – upwards of 30 percent and growing – which translates into deeply discounted rents. The state could lock in long-term leases at excellent prices and avoid paying future maintenance costs.

At the same time, DLS suggested the state could sell State Center’s buildings and 28 acres to the highest bidder. This would partly offset the cost of renting new office space downtown and avoid costly repairs at the current buildings.

That seems to make more sense than going forward with a sweetheart arrangement concocted by Hogan’s predecessor.

Here’s another oddity: The Ehrlich administration never bothered to seek competitive bids for the State Center project. After the initial development group dissolved during the Great Recession, O’Malley renegotiated the same deal with a slightly different group of developers.

Now may be the time to see what State Center’s 28 acres bring on the open market and what imaginative uses other developers suggest for the site – using their money, not the state’s.

No Termination Clause

That likely would require a payment to the current developers to terminate their contract with the state.

Here’s why: O’Malley’s State Center deal lacked a “termination for convenience clause.” This is routinely inserted into every state contract – but curiously not this one. Thus, the state is locked into 20 years’ worth of lease payments – pure gold for the builders – unless the developers are bought out.

For Hogan to endorse the current project makes little logic. It would saddle the state with unnecessary additional debt and exorbitant annual lease payments for two decades, endanger Maryland’s bond rating and squeeze other state construction priorities.

It also would amount to an endorsement of a questionable state subsidy pushed through by his Democratic predecessor.

Proceeding in a new direction might be Hogan’s best option.

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Baltimore: Opportunity Knocks

By Barry Rascovar

March 21, 2016 –Nearly a year after violence, arson and widespread looting tore apart impoverished portions of Baltimore there still is no comprehensive, long-term plan for reviving and improving Baltimore from the governor’s office.

Nor is there an all-inclusive recovery plan from the mayor’s office.

Leadership is lacking.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at least has the excuse that she’s stepping down as Baltimore’s leader in December. A detailed, long-range recovery program will have to be devised and implemented by her successor.

Her silence, though, is deafening.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has no such excuse. He’s had a long time to figure out how the state can step in with both feet and assist Baltimore rebound from a devastating blow.

He also had a golden opportunity to lay out his full range of ideas for a Baltimore renaissance in his State of the State Address in January.

It didn’t happen.

Vacant Housing Initiative

To his credit, Hogan announced a large, multi-year plan to demolish and replace blocks and blocks of vacant housing. Yet when his budget was released, not one penny had been allocated for this effort.

Pressed by the legislative black caucus, Hogan included a portion of the demolition funds in a supplemental budget, but not before he generated a good deal of ill will among legislators.

He also agreed to legislative demands to add $12.7 million to help Baltimore schools compensate for declining enrollment.

It was left, though to Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch to cobble together a multi-pronged package of economic and social initiatives to help Baltimore in its hour of need.

Such a move is not ordinarily the province of the Maryland General Assembly. Large bail-out and economic rebound efforts normally come out of the governor’s office.

But since Republican Hogan failed to formulate a Baltimore recovery agenda (other than the vacant housing plan), state legislators stepped into the void.

Legislative Plan

Their $290 million proposal, spread over five years (thus limiting the fiscal impact on the state) helps not only Baltimore but other parts of the state.

  • It offers Baltimore assurance that Hogan’s housing-demolition and replacement plans will be mandatory in future years, not voluntary.
  • It expands existing scholarship programs for disadvantaged kids throughout Maryland.
  • It adds mentoring and other support for middle-school kids in Baltimore and promises them scholarships if they stay out of trouble and get good grades.
  • It adds money to keep city libraries open longer.
  • It allocates funds for after-school and summer programs for children.
  • It provides grants for community groups to develop blighted city areas.
  • It gives Towson University funds to train Baltimore residents as construction workers.
  • And it provides $16.5 million to improve the city’s important system of public parks.

The Miller-Busch package roared through the House last week. The same thing is likely to occur in the Senate.

Hogan hasn’t said much about this important package of bills. His spokesman supported the good intentions of the legislative initiative but worried about the fiscal impact – even though state funding is limited to five years.

Now is the time for the governor to get off the fence and involve himself in shaping a significant Baltimore recovery effort coming from Annapolis.

The legislative package aims at improving depressed neighborhoods. It focuses on giving youngsters better schooling, more positive activities away from school, involving universities and non-profit groups in reviving communities and making Baltimore a more inviting city for those living there.

Time to Act

This is the moment for both Baltimore and the governor to join hands with the legislature in this ambitious undertaking.

With assistance from the governor’s office, objectionable elements of the bills can be modified, new ideas can be added and city officials can come together with the two branches of government in forming a triad of commitments for making Baltimore better.

Hogan brings to the table a businessman’s eye for how to help Baltimore. Even better, he is a businessman with expertise in private-sector land development. He needs to be involved.

Creating the environment for a phoenix-like bounce-back by Baltimore is important for Maryland. The city remains the state’s economic center as well as its regional population, cultural and education center. Tackling the city’s worst problems and overcoming them will pay handsome dividends for the governor in the long run – and for Maryland.

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