Political Redistricting — Inherently Unfair

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 13, 2018 — Warning to good-government types, Gov. Larry Hogan and others demanding non-partisan re-drawing of political districts for Congress: No matter how you slice it, re-districting will remain inherently unfair.

That’s the dilemma the Supreme Court faces as it considers whether to step in as it once did and lay down rules for re-districting.

How do you take a state with 5.7 million people (2010 Census), divide the state into eight districts each containing 721,529 people, and make everyone happy? It is Mission Impossible.Political Redistricting -- Inherently UnfairAdd in the complicity of computer-generated map gyrations and district configurations start to look like an out-of-control jigsaw puzzle.

There is no easy fix, though some would have us believe a non-partisan commission can wave a magic wand and congressional boundaries will be fair and impartial.

Don’t drink that Kool-Aid.

Even a de-politicized group (if such an animal exists) will produce distorted districts that unfairly discriminate against population groups — Republicans, Democrats, independents, minorities, rural or urban residents. Some counties, cities and communities will be torn apart no matter how you dice those eight districts.

It is inevitable. You will never please everyone.

Right now, Republicans want to re-jigger the congressional maps to gain at least one additional seat in Maryland by packing the 6th Congressional District with Western Maryland Republican voters and strip out all those Democrats who live in the district’s southern portion in Montgomery County.

New-Era Segregation?

That’s not a bipartisan notion. It’s a one-party plan — a new form of segregated map-drawing  favoring one political party to give Maryland a district that is all rural and nearly all white.

Such a move also would pack more minority voters into districts in the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis — more politically imposed segregation.

Western Maryland Republicans in their lawsuit claim they are being discriminated against, that their free-speech rights are being suppressed because Republicans in western portions of the state now are being outvoted by Democrats who were added to the district in 2011.

They want a pristine, rural congressional district, much like they enjoyed after the 2000 Census, which might stretch all the way through rural stretches of Baltimore and Harford counties on the east and Montgomery County on the south.

But to do so would wreak havoc in the other seven districts. What’s fair about that?

At it stands, there’s no guarantee a Democrat will win the open 6th District seat in November.

6th District History

After all, registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters outnumber registered Democrats (253,000 to 212,000). Indeed, incumbent Democratic Rep. John Delaney won by a mere 2,200 votes in 2014 over Republican radio talk show host Dan Bongino.

Historically, the 6th District has favored conservative or moderately conservative candidates of both parties. Over the past 48 years, the district has sent a Democrat to Congress 14 times (Goodloe and Beverly Byron, plus Delaney) and a Republican 10 times (Roscoe Bartlett).

The 6th has had multiple geographic permutations, tying Western Maryland to all of Montgomery County for several decades or sweeping directly east all the way to the Susquehanna River.

In the process of marching to the east, the 6th sometimes has chopped Howard County in half (leaving Democratic Columbia outside the 6th’s borders) and segmenting Baltimore and Harford counties according to political leanings.

Compared with other current congressional districts in Maryland, the 6th is one of the most compact and coherent. It respects the district’s natural borders and county lines. It does not tear apart towns and communities as is the case with many of the other districts.

The 6th does, though, tie rural Western Maryland with suburbanized portions of Montgomery County.

However, there’s common interest in that pairing: Large and growing numbers of Frederick and Washington county residents commute to jobs along the I-270 technology corridor in Montgomery. There’s an overlap of interests, not a disparity.

Gerrymandering is at the root of complaints about redistricting. Since the early 1800s when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry first concocted a partisan legislative map resembling a salamander, political parties have availed themselves of this manipulative tool.

Political Redistricting -- Inherently Unfair

Famous 1812 cartoon of Massachusetts Gov. Gerry’s ‘salamander’ district.

Nationwide, Republicans are the prime gerrymandering culprits. In heavily Democratic Maryland, the shoe has been on the other foot.

Obscene versions of gerrymandering can be seen in the districts drawn for Democratic Congressmen John Sarbanes, Elijah Cummings and Dutch Ruppersberger to ensure their reelections.

Sarbanes’ repugnant district is the one that should be under attack, not the 6th.

The notion of keeping counties intact is well-meaning but naïve. The Supreme Court requires districts of equal population size. Now, try drawing those eight districts without chopping Baltimore City and Baltimore County into four districts and Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties into three districts.

A safe, rural Republican 6th District can be constructed, but it could require so many drastic alterations in other districts that the lone Maryland Republican in Congress today, Andy Harris, could find himself in a more hostile 1st District in which his re-election would not be a sure thing.

Whatever the Supreme Court rules on the Maryland case and another from Wisconsin, it will not eliminate unfairness, distortions or inequities from the re-districting process. Someone is going to wind up with the short end of the re-drawn maps.

The best we can hope for is a high court ruling that reinstates an earlier mandate from the justices following the “One Man, One Vote” ruling of 1963. It required that each district be compact, consist of adjoining territories and give due regard to natural boundaries as well as political boundaries..

The General Assembly and voters incorporated those requirements for redrawing state legislative lines into the state constitution in 1972.

Why not return to the Supreme Court’s earlier congressional redistricting standards? That’s a logical way to impose a degree of sanity and ground rules on an age-old political tug of war that is sure to persist.

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Slots for Tots–at a Steep Price

By Barry Rascovar
Feb. 6, 2018 — It sounds so appealing: Add $500 million to Maryland’s K-12 education funding stream by requiring every cent of the state’s take from casino slot machines be devoted to improving local schools.

But here’s the reality check. Such a feel-good move creates a $500 million hole in the state budget.

Where is that money going to come from? What social program will be cut to make room for this extra education aid?Slots for Tots--at a Steep PriceThat’s the rub in the “slots for tots” bill being pushed by Baltimore City lawmakers and House and Senate leaders. Instead of solving a problem, it creates a gigantic future headache.

And if a recession comes Maryland’s way — a likely event in the near future — such a move would create a catastrophic situation for social-net programs.

State colleges and universities are especially vulnerable during recessions and the “slots for tots” bill would further imperil their funding from the governor.

Some 83 percent of Maryland’s general fund budget already is locked in for specific programs. That leaves just 17 percent of the budget where the governor has flexibility. Take away the $500 million slots tax money and the governor’s options shrink even more.

Part of that flexibility comes from the governor’s ability to cut college aid. That aid isn’t locked in by law every year. Besides, the governor knows any budget trims he makes for colleges can be partly replaced by raising tuition and fees.

The Rationale

So if “slots for tots” becomes law this legislative session, the governor’s budget knife will be turned toward higher education next Janaury.

The rationale for “slots for tots” is the allegation that Maryland leaders have reneged on their promise to dedicate all state taxes from slot machine legalization to K-12 education.

That’s what the law says.

But Gov. Martin O’Malley needed every dollar he could find during the Great Recession to stave off massive cuts to social programs. Thus, the tax revenue from slots became fungible. It went into the education pot just as O’Malley withdrew an equal amount from the existing education revenue stream.

It became a zero-sum game. Education aid under the mandated Thornton formula continued to increase on schedule, but there was no extra boost in education dollars flowing to the counties and Baltimore City from casino slot machines.

Slots for Tots

Slot machines at Rocky Gap Casino Resort

Yet when Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say, “It’s time to keep faith with the people,” they’re being deceptive.

First, they were co-conspirators in denying local public schools that extra slots money. They did so for practical reasons — the slots money was needed elsewhere to plug budget holes in local health care and social welfare programs as state tax revenue shrank dramatically during the dark days of the Great Recession.

Second, they know full well “slots for tots” breaks the budget bank, sending the state into “deep doo-doo” in its next budget.

Third, they also know the Kirwan Commission later this year will be recommending another massive hike in education funding without any idea where that billion dollars or more will come from. “Slots for tots” compounds that budgeting dilemma.

Fourth, they also are aware that the Department of Legislative Services recently estimated Maryland’s long-term structural deficit at $3.8 billion over the next four years. “Slots for tots” would make that a $4.3 billion deficit hole and the Kirwan Commission proposal could push the state’s future red ink total over the $5 billion mark.

Suddenly, that feel-good education aid boost doesn’t look so hot.

In an election year, it’s no surprise that Democratic leaders would jump on board the teachers’ union “slots for tots” bandwagon. Slots for Tots -- at a Price

It’s an important and powerful union that can help elect more Democrats to the Annapolis State House.

But somewhere along the line, common sense ought to prevail.

Not only does “slots for tots” look like a political quid pro quo by the Democrats, it also seriously endangers Maryland’s ability to avoid a hefty tax increase after the November elections.

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State Center Re-do Inches Forward

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 29, 2018 — Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration last week unveiled a $79,000 “Alternative Land Use Study” of the 28-acre State Center site in Baltimore that merely tells us what we already know. It moves any re-do an inch forward, at best.

On the positive side, Hogan released the 103-page report with laudatory comments about the site’s potential and his commitment to a redevelopment plan that could “have a transformational and lasting impact for Baltimore City and its citizens.”

Yet what might be plunked down on those acres remains pretty much a mystery.

State Center Re-do Inches Ahead

A portion of the 280-acre State Center complex in midtown Baltimore

Once thing remains clear. The original development project conceived under former Gov. Bob Ehrlich and propelled forward vigorously by former Gov. Martin O’Malley remains trapped in Hogan’s purgatory.

It would have been a bad deal for the state, Hogan maintains, costing “outrageous sums” to lease state office space the government now occupies for free (minus, of course, operating costs).

The state Board of Public Works unanimously rejected spending money that would have pushed the project ahead but also might have caused Maryland to lose its coveted triple-A bond rating, shattered the state’s debt ceiling and required legislative approval.

Since then, the question has been: What comes next?

Where to Put State Workers

Hogan’s study confirmed the best land use might be turning State Center into a combination of retail space (including a grocery), commercial offices, medical buildings, apartments, senior care buildings and a public park. The only thing that differs from the rejected development concept is that there is no mention of where to move the 3,000 workers in the complex’ state-owned buildings.

It’s curious why Hogan opted to spend $79,000 on this study. It is so limited in scope and the conclusions so predictable that the governor might have been better off requesting conceptual ideas from private developers.

The authors of the study, Crossroads Consulting Services, went to great lengths to explain the limits of its report. It is merely “a cursory market evaluation.” Two state agencies instructed the consultants not to talk with “the outside development community.” Thus, this is not “an in-depth, detailed” market analysis. Nor does the report provide Hogan with “a future development or implementation strategy.”

Crossroads did, though, study similar situations in 11 other “peer cities” and bored  in on how Kansas City, Minneapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh and St. Louis have handled similar development planning.

The consultants also zeroed in on a key problem that has gotten little attention — the highly congested and unaddressed road situation surrounding the site. It made suggestions as well on how to erect pedestrian bridges that would safely connect this “island of land” to nearby services and communities.

What is missing from the report is obvious:  Input from the private sector, Baltimore City, highway and urban planners. Each group needs to put forth visions for State Center’s future.

Nothing immediate is on the horizon, though: The state and the previous developer group are battling bitterly in court over the state’s refusal to move forward.

Hogan-Pugh Connection

Still, Hogan could simply pick up the phone and call Mayor Catherine Pugh so they can start cooperating on a number of State Center questions:

  • Where is the best place to move those 3,000 state workers?

The former Social Security annex near Lexington Market, undergoing renovation, might be an ideal site, pumping life into downtown’s west side and linking the state work force to the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus and the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Another option is re-locating workers to the Downtown Business District, which has a high vacancy rate, low rents and needs an economic boost.

Either option would be far cheaper than the now-discarded plan, which called for the state to pay sky-high rents at a new office building on the State Center site.

  • What do nearby communities want to see at a re-imagined State Center?

The voices of those diverse neighborhoods need to be heard, not just the carefully choreographed support of residents who have lined up behind the previous developer group.

  • How can re-development lift opportunities and the quality of life for lower-income residents in adjacent Upton?                                                                                                                                          
  • How can the massive Fifth Regiment Armory — site of the 1912 Democratic National Convention — find a beneficial and practical re-use? The heating and cooling bills alone for this immense structure might  sink most commercial projects.
State Center Re-do Inches Ahead

Fifth Regiment Armory, historic, fortress-like building in Baltimore’s State Center.

  • How might nearby academic and medical institutions play a role?

The University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and UMB all should get a chance to put proposals on the table. For example, why not a joint indoor fitness center/gymnasium that not only serves all three institutions but the community, too?

  • Health Care. How can the former Maryland General Hospital, now part of the University of Maryland Medical System, expand its health-care offerings and enhance its campus by occupying space on the adjacent State Center grounds?

 

  • Highways. What can city and state highway experts devise to improve traffic flow on heavily traveled Howard Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard? Where should pedestrian bridges be located to make this “island of land” accessible to all?

 

  • Housing. How can the residential character of Eutaw Street to the north best be extended into State Center?

There’s a prime opportunity for Hogan and Pugh to join hands on this major undertaking. Early planning is a natural next-step even as the court battles rage.

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Baltimore, oh Baltimore!

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 22, 2018 — Baltimore, oh Baltimore! How low can your situation go?

–A killing crime wave that won’t stop. Corrupt cops. A fired police commissioner.
–Losing its bid for the Amazon-East headquarters.
–Frigid school buildings caused by bursting pipes.
–Homes going without water for weeks due to crumbling infrastructure.
–Historic monuments horribly defaced by far-left vigilantes.
–A governor who practices “benign neglect” toward the city — and cuts $21 million from the state’s aid-recovery programs.
–An embarrassing screw-up at a downtown city hospital that leaves a mentally ill woman wandering the frigid streets in a hospital gown.
–An NFL team that blows its playoff hopes not once but twice in its final games.
–A baseball team about to lose its most popular and best player, with no signs of a recovery plan.

Baltimore, oh Baltimore!Yes, it’s been a terribly rough patch for Mayor Catherine Pugh in her first year. Can it get worse? Possibly. Then again, perhaps we’ve hit the low point:

–A new police commissioner, not an outsider but a 30-year veteran of the force. He comes with high praise and a plan to target the worst criminal offenders that he implemented immediately.
–A downtown residential building boom as the strong demand from millennials to live and work in the heart of the city persists in spite of its problems.
–The progress by Kevin Plank at Port Covington to create a city within a city — with or without an Amazon to embellish this already ambitious project.
–An aggressive city delegation in Annapolis that isn’t likely to allow the Hogan administration to treat Baltimore City as harshly as the governor indicated in his new budget.

The mayor herself seems to be breaking out of her lethargy — another good sign. Baltimore needs strong, proactive leadership, especially at this moment in its history.

Missing Partner

What’s missing is a true partner in the governor’s office in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget gives no sign of recognizing a role for the state in turning around a dreadful situation in the state’s most important metropolis.

Instead, the Republican governor has used the city’s woes as a political punching bag to boost his reelection drive.

There’s no extra money to transform Baltimore’s schools, its social welfare safety net, its rehabilitation programs or its under-staffed law-enforcement efforts.

Instead, Hogan has played to his right-of-center audience, hectoring city officials in mean-spirited jabs in which he condemns incompetence, bureaucracy, the mayor and always Democrats in charge.

That’s fine from a reelection standpoint. But on the ground, where people’s lives and futures are at stake, Hogan’s jabs merely deepen the problem and do little to reverse the tide.

Politics vs. Governance

It will be up to state legislative leaders to come up with creative ways to persuade the governor to become more than a sideline critic.

In an election year, Democratic lawmaker may also try to turn the tables on Republican Hogan — embarrassing him politically while directing more aid to make Baltimore safer and less of an albatross around the state’s neck.

At some point, Hogan has to recognize that Baltimore’s nationally publicized plight is damaging Maryland’s economic development efforts.

So long as Baltimore remains poor, under-educated and lacking in jobs for its residents, the city will drag down the rest of the state — not only financially but also in terms of the state’s reputation.

It’s a dicey dilemma for Hogan, who seems to relish his rants against what’s going wrong in Baltimore because it brings cheers from his followers in the suburbs and rural communities. Yet in his role as governor, Hogan is not burnishing his legacy by ignoring the steep decline of Maryland’s major city.

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Hogan’s Good & Bad Poll News

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 15, 2018 — Yes, we’re a long way from the November elections but Gonzales Research and Media Services’  first poll of 2018 contained some tantalizing results for both Democrats and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

The governor remains remarkably popular — 71 percent overall approval rating. That includes 61 percent approval among Democrats and 78 percent among independents.

Given those sky-high numbers, plus the staggering sums of money Hogan is raising for his reelection campaign, he looks like a shoo-in.

Hogan's Good & Bad Poll News

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

Yet other numbers in the Gonzales poll tell a more cautionary story.

As Gonzales points out in a column he wrote for Maryland Reporter, a stunning 90 percent of Democrats who said they “somewhat” approved of Hogan’s job performance still would not vote for him in the fall.

Why? Because the  poll identified Hogan as a Republican — a highly negative connotation in some quarters these days.

Even worse news followed in the poll. Hogan only leads the most likely Democratic nominee, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, by 10 points.

Here’s the kicker: President Trump’s disapproval rating is a whopping 60 percent — and over 80 percent of those people feel strongly about that sentiment. Moreover, 41 percent of those polled said the most important issue of the day is “removing Donald Trump.”

If those trends continue, the anti-Trump tsunami that seems to be building might threaten Hogan’s hopes for a second term.

Similarities to Ehrlich

Remember that the last Republican governor in Maryland, Bob Ehrlich, enjoyed high approval numbers going into his 2006 reelection campaign. Yet Ehrlich ended up with just 46 percent of the vote.

Hogan also has to be concerned by the spanking Republicans received last November in the off-off-year elections for local offices in many states. A huge wave washed over those state campaigns prompted by voters’ anger, fear and dislike for Trump.

Syndicated columnist George Will pointed out, for instance, the shocking GOP losses in stronghold suburban Philadelphia counties: For the first time ever, Republicans lost all offices in Chester County, all but one office in Bucks County and had their worst showing in Delaware County since 1974.

That’s just one of many examples across the nation of the 2017 “wave” election that favored Democrats amid growing anti-Trump sentiment.

The Gonzales poll indicates that Baker could well consolidate a huge vote in the populous Washington suburbs. Should an anti-Trump wave wash over Baltimore City and portions of its suburbs, Hogan might find himself in a nip-and-tuck battle.

Rushern Baker

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker

The first- of-the-year poll also showed Baker with a 10-point lead over Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former NAACP president Ben Jealous. That lead could prove hard to overcome in such a large field, especially since there’s little difference among candidates on issues.

An early June primary also hurts candidates trying to catch up, as does the likelihood of a light turnout in early summer when folks are planning their vacations and trips to the ballpark.

For Hogan, though, the name of the Democratic nominee is less important than the Trump factor.

The president’s crude, uninhibited and spontaneous outbursts as well as his unconventional policy decisions have provoked an unprecedented furor. The more Trump engages in hot rhetoric and campaigns loudly for Republicans over the next ten months, the less secure Hogan’s chances become.

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2018 MD Assembly: All Politics, All the Time

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2018–Just in case there was any doubt the next 90 days in the Annapolis State House will focus like a laser on political opportunism, Gov. Larry Hogan tossed a Molotov cocktail into the air yesterday aimed at embarrassing Democrats.

Using Baltimore City’s weather-related school closings (extreme cold, bursting pipes, failing heating systems) as a foil, Hogan lashed out in a less than polite way at what he called a “horrendous crisis,” calling for the appointment of a state inspector general to police schools throughout Maryland — with subpoena power — looking for corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.

2018 Assembly Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

While you can debate the merits of a powerful state investigator sticking his nose into the operations of every single school system in search of wasteful spending, wrongdoing and poor judgment, keep in mind that Hogan’s theatrics are purely political: His suggestion doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in you-know-where when it is presented to the Democratic legislature. It will be dead on arrival.

And the governor knows it.

It’s a prime illustration of how the Maryland General Assembly session that starts Wednesday will be all about politics, all the time.

There’s no way House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller will allow Hogan a “win” during the 90-day session. It’s all about politics from their perspective, too. Anything these Democrats can do to put roadblocks in Republican Hogan’s re-election path is a victory in their eyes.

2018 General Assembly Session

Senate President Mike Miller

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

All Hogan really has is a bully pulpit to castigate Democrats in the party’s strongholds — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

He’s likely to continue his harsh rhetoric aimed at the struggling city in the months ahead.

It is raw meat for his devoted conservative followers. He might even gain some support from African-Americans by posing as the “savior” of their failing schools — even though he hasn’t lifted a finger to help solve this deeply entrenched problem.

Clash of the Politicians

Republican Hogan and legislative Democrats will clash on multiple fronts this session with political factors serving as the guiding light for both sides.

First up? Hogan’s veto last year of the Democrats’ paid sick-leave bill. The governor’s alternative plan may not even make it to a hearing, since a veto-override by both houses could happen almost immediately.

Call it a warning shot across the governor’s ship of state.

Some of Hogan’s appointments may find it rough sledding through the confirmation process, especially State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby of Worcester County, whom Hogan named to the Circuit Court late last month despite warnings the Legislative Black Caucus would vigorously oppose such an appointment.

Republican Oglesby was accused four years ago of using racially insensitive language and creating a racially hostile work environment. He’s involved in a related federal lawsuit, too.

Advice to Ogelsby: In this politically charged atmosphere, don’t quit your day job.

Tax-Code Politics

Wherever you look in the State House, politics is the word of the day.

For instance, sorting out the impact of massive federal changes in the income-tax code took on a political coloration when Hogan leapt at the chance to get on the good side of taxpayers by announcing he’ll do everything in his power to make sure no one in Maryland pays more state taxes as a result of those changes made by his fellow Republicans in Washington.

He said Democrats should jump on board his no-new-taxes bandwagon without hesitating.

If only it were that simple.

Tax reform, as enacted by Congress, is a highly complex issue, fraught with implications for state and local governments. Rushing to offset the federal tax changes that hurt Maryland filers won’t be easy and shouldn’t be done on a whim.

At the same time, Democrats see an opportunity in Washington’s tax changes to fund some of their top priorities, such as the Children’s Health Initiative Program (CHIP), countering the Trump administration’s steps to curtail Obamacare, providing more aid for public schools and finding more money to fight the crime and opioid epidemics.

Hogan’s view and the Democrats’ view on the Republican tax-cut law are starkly different. They may not find common ground during the next 90 days. Indeed, clarity about the tax-code changes and their impact in Maryland may not be apparent until later in 2018.

A special session in an election year is highly unusual, but it may become necessary.

Gerrymandering Stand-off

Hogan and the Democrats also will squabble over redistricting, with the governor putting in a DOA bill that sets up a non-partisan commission. This is a continuation of his efforts to give Republicans a boost during redistricting and to get on the right side of voters on this matter.

Lawmakers in the majority will try to embarrass the governor by passing gun-control legislation, such as a ban on bump stocks similar to the ones used in the Las Vegas massacre. That would force the governor to veto the bill — and antagonize moderate voters he needs for reelection — or sign the bill — and enflame his conservative backers he also needs to gain a second term.

Each side will try to out-maneuver the other. Substance will take a back seat to gaining political advantage in ways that could influence the outcome in November.

So get ready for lots of name-calling and hyper-partisan rhetoric in the coming months. Agreement on solving Maryland’s most pressing problems will have to wait until 2019.

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Neall’s Obamacare Challenge

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 3, 2018 — First, the good news: Gov. Larry Hogan has named a new health secretary who not only knows what he’s doing health-care wise but also is an experienced “Mr. Fixit” when it comes to devising solutions to knotty problems.

Now the bad news: Bobby Neall has a king-sized dilemma staring him in the face as he steps into his Baltimore office suite on Jan. 9: The perilous steps taken by Republicans in Washington to subvert and eventually kill the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Robert R. Neall, the governor’s new health secretary.

Over 150,000 Marylanders signed up for Obamacare insurance coverage in the recently closed enrollment period, even though premiums are skyrocketing.

According to Chet Burrell, president/CEO of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, without rapid response from State House leaders “we believe the individual market segment” of Obamacare  “will catastrophically fail in the next 12 to 24 months leaving tens of thousands of individuals without affordable coverage options.”

Given that CareFirst is far and away the dominant insurer in Maryland’s individual market, that’s an alarming prediction but one many health care economists have been warning about.

Here’s the immediate problem: President Trump and congressional Republicans tacked onto their giant tax-cut law a provision that eliminates from Obamacare the mandate that every adult have health insurance or pay a penalty at tax time.

Thanks to Trump & friends, there no longer is any punishment if adults want to go without health-care coverage.

‘Death Spiral’

This move “constitutes a direct threat” to Maryland’s individual market, Burrell says in a letter, “because it will almost certainly accelerate a ‘death spiral’ already underway in this market segment by spurring younger and healthier people to exit the market — leaving too high a concentration of those who are ill to make premiums affordable to all.”

Since 2014, CareFirst has jacked up Obamacare premiums 150 percent — “horrific increases” Burrell calls them — yet the insurer lost over $400 million insuring people in this market.

He says his company expects to lose as much as $100 million more over the next year and could be forced to raise rates another 50 percent in 2019.

At that point, he notes, health-care coverage for this group — whose incomes are not quite low enough to qualify for government subsidies — could become unaffordable, both for individuals and for insurers.

Burrell suggests it is time for Annapolis to devise “sound public policy” that helps provide insurance for “a population that undeniably needs coverage.”

Enter, Bobby Neall.

He’s got years of experience running the state’s largest managed-care organization for Medicaid recipients. In short order, he turned a money-losing operation into a profitable business for Johns Hopkins Health Care while also increasing quality indicators. He’s exceptionally well-liked and respected by state legislators, too.

Yet there’s not much time to come up with a brand-new state insurance program. In four months, health-care insurers must submit their rates for 2019. Time is the enemy.

Burrell’s Proposal

Fortunately Burrell has put a plan on the table that might be controversial with his fellow insurance executives but points to a way out of this bind.

Here’s what he suggests:

  • Simplify Maryland’s public insurance option by offering just one plan with a $1,000 deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,500.
  • Create a state health-care fund to re-insure individuals with high medical costs and for people needing premium subsidies.
  • Impose a 3 percent fee on insurers who do business in Maryland but fail to participate in the ACA market (at the moment only CareFirst and Kaiser offer such policies).
  • Pass a law mandating that every adult in Maryland obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty that goes into the state health-care fund.
  • Base future premium subsidies on age and income so that younger adults are eligible for attractive insurance rates.

CareFirst analysts believe these steps could lower premiums up to 40 percent, cut out-of-pocket expenses for most individuals and draw many more younger, healthier Marylanders into the program.

That would be a win-win-win.

This plan may not check all the boxes. It may draw considerable opposition. But it gives the new health secretary a concrete starting point and knowledge that the state’s largest insurer stands behind the plan.

Prompt Action Required

Burrell points out, though, that his proposal requires a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and General Assembly action. Lots of actuarial and economic analysis must be submitted and lots of discussions must take place to hammer out a consensus in Annapolis in short order.

From the governor’s perspective, finding an answer is a political imperative. Hogan cannot afford to be saddled with the charge he failed to help middle-income Marylanders keep their health insurance coverage.

The last thing he wants is to face that charge in the midst of his re-election campaign. It’s a potential issue that could anger and energize interest groups favoring broad health-care coverage.

Burrell is offering a public-private solution, which should appeal to the governor — not a state handout.

There’s much to like in his plan. But Health Secretary Neall knows only too well the proverbial devil lies in the details.

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‘Mr. Hopkins’ Departing After 44 Years

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 18, 2017 — Ron Peterson isn’t your stereotypical leader of a renowned $8 billion enterprise. He’s quiet, reserved, extraordinarily polite and lacking in ego.

Yet time after time he has worked miracles at Johns Hopkins in his 44-year career at the East Baltimore academic medical center, the last 21 running its huge health-care system as well as the famed “mother ship” — Johns Hopkins Hospital.

More than any individual, Peterson has come to embody the spirit and commitment to superior health care envisioned by the founder.

Hopkins Medicine is Maryland’s crown jewel, the most prestigious and best-known enterprise in the state with a world-wide reputation as best in class.

It also is a giant economic engine for the state, encompassing six hospitals, 40 outpatient care sites, home care, managed care insurance, extensive medical activities abroad and a staff of over 40,000.

The place is a booming success because of Peterson’s steadying hand. Had he not been at the helm in 1996, Hopkins Medicine may have imploded.

Hopkins stood on the brink of tearing itself apart. A bitter, angry war had erupted between the hospital system’s assertive CEO and its prized medical staff.

Flash back to those tumultuous times when the managed-care revolution threatened the survival of hospital systems, especially high-cost academic medical centers that specialized in taking on the most difficult — and thus the most expensive — cases.

Block vs. Johns

Dr. James Block, a hard-charging CEO, had been brought in to meet the managed-care challenge, trying to bulldoze through deep budget cuts while extending the Hopkins universe to community hospitals and clinics. Both moves provoked the ire of the Hopkins medical faculty, represented by the highly regarded dean of the medical school, Dr. Michael M.E. Johns.

Open warfare erupted between the hospital CEO and the medical school’s leader.

At that pivotal moment, Block brought in Ron Peterson to act as a stabilizing force.

And why not? He had engineered a remarkable turnaround at the money-losing City Hospitals that today is known as Johns Hopkins Bayview and is ranked high for its expansive research and quality patient care.

Earlier in his career, Peterson had crafted a cost-reduction plan that by 1977 had Hopkins Hospital in the  black for the first time in 88 years.

The Block-Johns rift, though, proved impossible to bridge even for a unifier like Peterson.

Johns left in disgust, taking over Emory University’s medical school and hospital (where he dramatically increased the quality of care and research as he became president and CEO of Emory Health in Atlanta).

Then the Hopkins trustees forced Block out.

To no one’s surprise, Peterson was asked to replace Block, but this time in a revised management structure that made it clear the dean of the medical school, not the health system president, would have the final say.

That turned out not to be a problem.

The new dean, anesthesiologist Dr. Edward Miller, impressed the trustees and medical staff so much as interim leader he was named the first Dean/CEO of a novel umbrella entity, Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The Miller-Peterson Era

Miller and Peterson hit it off right away. A bond of trust developed between the two team players, whose modus operandi was consensus-seeking.

Well-liked and respected by colleagues, Miller was a good listener, accessible, decisive and delegated responsibility easily. He believed in the Hopkins culture of collegiality and collaboration. It helped that he looked the part of a presiding officer.

'Mr. Hopkins' Departing After 44 Years

Ron Peterson standing beside Hopkins Medicine’s Dean/CEO Ed Miller

His skills meshed with Peterson’s, who is obsessively detail-oriented, a financial whiz and sensitive to others’ feelings. Miller took care of the medical side and Peterson handled the administrative side of 21st-century health care. They never took major action without talking it over. No bitter rivalries or hard feelings.

They worked in tandem from their new office suites down the hall from one another.

Within a few years, the Hopkins civil war was history, the managed-care threat had eased and Hopkins Medicine enjoyed over a decade of rapid advances in patient care, teaching and innovations on the medical side and a big expansion of medical services, a community-based delivery model and billions of dollars in patient-care and research towers rising in East Baltimore.

Miller retired in 2012 but Peterson stayed on to tutor the new dean, Dr. Paul Rothman, and make sure the Hopkins ship of state was in tip-top shape for his own retirement.

He found an ideal successor to run the mother ship, Dr. Redonda Miller, whose specialty is medical education management and women’s health.

'Mr. Hopkins' Departing After 44 Years

Dr. Paul Rothman, Ron Peterson and Dr. Redonda Miller of Hopkins Medicine

Then last week, the trustees named Kevin Sowers, a longtime executive at Duke University’s medical system as the next chief of Hopkins’ extensive medical enterprise, but still No. 2 within the chain of command.

When Sowers takes over Feb. 1, Hopkins Medicine won’t have Peterson around for the first time in decades.

Unanswered Questions

Indeed, Peterson has been a Hopkins “lifer,” starting as an undergraduate on the Homewood campus (with the unfulfilled goal of becoming a physician) and ending his career nearly a half-century later as “Mr. Hopkins.”

He will leave behind plenty of unanswered questions:

  • Will Sowers and the current medical school dean develop the same compatibility as the Miller-Peterson team?
  • Or will Sowers, a Duke “lifer” until now, bring a totally different health management style to Hopkins that reignites the old conflict?
  • Will the medical staff welcome an outsider (much as they did for Rothman)?
  • Or will tensions arise with a health system CEO unimpressed by Hopkins’ engrained culture of collaboration and consultation?

Much is riding on the outcome of this transition.

The initial signs are promising: It was Rothman who suggested Sowers would be a good fit for the job.

'Mr. Hopkins' Departing After 44 Years

Kevin Sowers, the next Johns Hopkins Health System president

Sowers’ background as an oncology nurse (with an R.N. and a masters in nursing), his focus on improved patient safety and bedside care as a Duke administrator, and his teaching and research resume seem ideal for his new role.

Still, these are perilous times for academic medical centers. Under the Trump administration, federal funding for health care — especially Medicare and Medicaid — could be sharply curtailed, in part to pay for the Republican tax cut plan.

Meanwhile, Maryland is trying to convince the administration in Washington to approve an extension of the state’s unique all-payer hospital cost services system, one that places more pressure on hospitals to improve patient outcomes at lower cost.

Peterson has been in the middle of that fight, too.

So while he might be stepping down from his Hopkins duties (though remaining as a special adviser to Rothman), Peterson continues to have an impact in trying to save Maryland’s one-of-a-kind hospital payment system — a huge success story that could become a national model some day.

We may not have heard the last of Ron Peterson when it comes to crafting solutions to health-care problems. That would be very good news, indeed.

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What’s an URDL?

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 10, 2017 — It’s been exactly 50 years since planners in Baltimore County came up with one of the weirdest-sounding bureaucratic acronyms — URDL — that in time has become a national model for sensible growth management. So what’s an URDL?

The Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (pronounced hurdle, but with the “h” silent) was a response to the phenomenal population boom suburban counties experienced after G.I.’s came home from World War II.

In the 1950s, Baltimore County experienced an 82 percent surge in residents. In just one decade, 220,000 people decided to call Baltimore County home. This set off a massive construction wave of housing and retail developments.

This, in turn, put enormous pressure on county government to build an unheard-of number of new schools, extend water and sewer lines and dramatically increase government services to new residents.

Particularly troubling was the helter-skelter nature of this post-war suburban boom, much of it posing a threat to the rural character of the county and an even greater threat to the financial health of county government.

Novel Notion

URDL was created by the Baltimore County Planning Board in 1967 with the then-novel idea that the county should focus population growth in a handful of prime areas inside the URDL while land beyond the demarcation line retains its rural qualities.

Today, URDL is the crown jewel of Baltimore County, having been recognized by the American Planning Council as the “gold standard” for preserving rolling hills and valleys while at the same time concentrating residential and retail growth in compact areas where services can be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively.

What's an URDL?

Baltimore County’s URDL–Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (in red).

Other jurisdictions in Maryland facing similar urban-rural conflicts have followed the lead of Baltimore County. And why not? It’s about as smart a “smart growth” plan as anything you can think of.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a ceremony last week honoring URDL’s golden anniversary that in his near-quarter century as an elected official nothing else has come close to matching the significance of the adoption of this demarcation line.

It was a “prescient move,” he noted, probably the most important step taken by county leaders. No doubt Kamenetz, who is running for governor, will repeatedly remind voters in next year’s campaign about his championing and embrace of the URDL.

For five decades elected officials in the county have resisted developer pressure to shrink the rural portion of the URDL. Thank goodness for that.

Today, Baltimore County devotes two-thirds of its land — 258,000 acres — to rural and environmentally protected uses. The county’s 831,000 residents live on the remaining 130,000 acres, with designated centers such as Owings Mills, Towson and White Marsh targeted as sites for future growth.

What this means is that many county residents can hop in a car and within a matter of minutes find themselves surrounded not by suburban retail mania and clustered housing but in pristine, green countryside.

Proximity of the URDL

Try it. Drive to the Hunt Valley Towne Centre with its shops, Wegmans and dining. To the east lies the busy York Road shopping corridor.  To the south lies the large McCormick Business Park, but to the north and west lie scenic rolling hills and lots and lots of horse farms.

Indeed, the only direct route from Reisterstown to Hunt Valley takes you through one of the most wondrous byways imaginable — horse country with virtually nothing to mar the view as far as the eye can see.

It’s a tribute to the county’s leadership that such a large, suburbanized jurisdiction — part of metropolis of 2.7 million — still holds on with determination to its rural character.

Preservation of rural land keeps agriculture thriving, protects the county’s watershed, maintains the environmental purity of forests and green spaces and gives residents an enhanced quality of life.

Other Maryland counties faced with the same problems have done likewise — neighboring Harford and Carroll counties, for instance, as well as Montgomery County. All of them have taken steps to keep growth tightly focused and to preserve as much as possible of their rural heritage.

Too often, we only hear about problems and woes of local governments. Once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded of good news.

So happy 50th anniversary, URDL.

May this planning mandate continue to provide officials around the nation with a sound and sensible way to promote economic growth and vitality while also preserving the integrity of our irreplaceable countryside.

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Taxing Time for Maryland

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 3, 2017 — Now that a massive trillion-dollar tax cut is a virtual certainty in Washington,  Maryland officials must quickly figure out if the appropriate reaction is panic or relief.

The impact on budget-makers in Annapolis and in the counties is enormous. Since Maryland’s tax laws are coupled to rules for the federal income-tax collections, what happens on Capital Hill tax-wise reverberates almost immediately in Maryland.

But will it mean more state and local tax revenue or less? At the moment, there is no easy answer.

State legislators have little time to react, since they go into session for just 90 days starting Jan. 10. At this point, they have no hard data on a) what will be in the final bill that hurts or helps Maryland and its subdivisions, and b) what changes must be made immediately in state tax laws.

We do know many Marylanders could have their lives turned upside down.

People who spend large sums supporting themselves or family members in assisted living or nursing home facilities, or those with giant family medical expenses, no longer get to claim these payments as a tax offset under the House-passed version.

That could lead to hefty rises in tax bills for them, putting themselves and their loved ones in financial difficulty.

No more write-offs for state and local taxes. This adds to every Marylander’s tax burden. How will this affect the state’s tax receipts?Taxing Time for MarylandEvery analysis of the dueling House and Senate tax bills confirms that well-to-do Marylanders will reap huge tax savings, middle-class folks could receive either a small reduction in federal taxes or a larger tax bill from the IRS, and the lower class will see its tax bracket rise.

The rich get vastly richer, the poor get little if any help and the middle class get a relatively middling savings.

The “trickle-down” theory of economics is alive and flourishing in the Grand Old Party.

But how will this play out in government budgets in the Free State?

There will be far more uncertainty among Marylanders who joined the Obamacare program. Health-care insurance bills are likely to rise 10 percent or more each year under the GOP’s tax-cut bill. Potentially 13 million Americans could lose health care coverage.

That could reverberate in Maryland with hospitals bearing the brunt of thousands of newly uninsured citizens flooding emergency rooms with little or no money to pay for medical treatment.

More to Come

Meanwhile, Republicans are making no secret of their real targets: safety-net programs, especially Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio admitted as much last Wednesday, stating the “next step” is going after these big-ticket federal programs.

Why? Because the GOP’s tax-cut bill saddles the nation with gigantic new deficits — $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Another federal law requires Congress to make budget cuts as an offset.

Additionally, economists say the tax-cut bill will spawn rapid increases in inflation, which has been virtually nil in recent years. Rising inflation dampens economic growth, which was the raison d’etre for the GOP tax cuts.

How will all this impact Maryland?

Will companies with major Maryland employment centers reward stockholders when the corporate tax rate is chopped nearly in half or will they reward workers? Will firms hire additional employees or use the tax savings to automate production facilities and cut back on employment?

These are the kinds of questions fiscal analysts in Annapolis and county seats had better get a handle on sooner rather than later.

Placing a Big Bet

The Republican tax cut has not been wildly popular with Americans, according to polls. They seem to grasp that the vast majority of financial benefits flow to those who already live comfortably or to corporations.

Yet the GOP is placing a gigantic bet on the party’s ability to persuade voters that the tax-cut bill is a win-win for everyone. The fate of Republican dominance in Congress could depend on voters’ sentiment toward the tax-cut measure likely to gain final approval by Christmas.

Meanwhile, Gov, Larry Hogan, county executives and legislators have to cope with the impact of these fiscal changes on state and local budgets now being put together.

Hogan already is  planning to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of private-activity bonds before year’s end because the House bill eliminates these kinds of bonds — a move by Washington that could undercut all kinds of private-public partnerships like the Purple Line, affordable housing and student loans.

What other government funding programs are at risk?

When the Board of Revenue Estimates meets later this month, it could still be largely in the dark as to the ramifications of those taxing negotiations in Washington.

By the time the board meets again in March, far more will be known about the tax bill’s impact on states and localities. The board’s revenue revisions that month could prove pivotal in determining what immediate steps are necessary to adjust state tax policy.

Will the General Assembly have time in its 90-day session to make those adjustments? Will the governor fight or accept those changes?

Even in an election year, lawmakers might find themselves facing an extended session or a special session to grapple with the impact of the GOP tax bill on Maryland’s finances.

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