Caution in Annapolis While Leaning Left

By Barry Rascovar

March 14, 2014–IT WAS A disappointment to liberal opinionators but the 2014 General Assembly proved surprisingly cautious and balanced in moving Maryland decidedly to the political left during its 90-day session that ended April 7.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, barely containing his national ambitions, took a hard-left turn in his legislative agenda. It was aimed at impressing liberal Democratic interest groups across the country.

But House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller wisely slowed the O’Malley Express and made sure Maryland didn’t get too far out in front of the Democrats’ march to the far left.

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Time and again, leaders in the House and Senate put a damper on overly ambitious liberal proposals. Here are a few examples:

–Minimum Wage. Yes, O’Malley is bragging that Maryland is leading the nation by passing a $10.10 minimum wage. But read the fine print.

The first wage boost next January is only seventy-five cents an hour. It won’t be till mid-2018 – over five years from now – when Maryland reaches O’Malley’s Nirvana, that $10.10 threshold.

This cautious approach is dictated by legitimate concerns that a rapid, 39 percent wage boost will hurt many small businesses and retail chains and could lead to layoffs, store closings or cutbacks in work hours.

Weakening the Bill

The final bill also exempts certain employers, adds a lower, trainee category, contains no automatic annual inflation boost and denies higher wages to tipped workers.

O’Malley can brag all he wants, yet the final version is a far cry from his original proposal. The new law does provide higher baseline wages for low-income workers, but it takes a decidedly conservative approach getting there.

Pit Bull Legislation

–Dog Bites. Yes, lawmakers finally found comity on reversing a dreadfully misguided ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals that called one breed of dog, pit bulls (though they are not really a breed) “inherently dangerous.”

Pit-bull owners aren’t off the hook, though. Lawmakers added language making all dog owners legally responsible if their pet bites someone. That thoughtful, moderate step levels the field and strikes a blow for individual responsibility when good dogs do bad things.

Puff-and-Pay

–Decriminalizing marijuana possession. This move is being hailed as the first step toward fully legalizing marijuana. In truth, lawmakers aren’t opening the floodgates.Marijuana smoker

A $100 fine for a first offense is a hefty price to pay for getting caught with pot. A $250 fine for a second offense will put a crimp in most wallets, and a $500 fine for a third offense comes with possible mandatory drug counseling.

That’s quite a penalty for inhaling this carcinogenic weed.

Perhaps the bill will reduce jail overcrowding in large jurisdictions, as some predict, and allow police to focus on serious criminal offenses. Or it could mean a deluge of new pothead offenders. We’re in virgin territory that could well require a re-thinking of this move by the 2015 or 2016 legislature.

Medicinal Pot Smoking

–Medical marijuana. This law could make it easier for seriously ill patients to get relief from their pain, anxiety and/or nausea. Academic medical centers refused to participate in the existing program for fear of endangering their massive federal research grants, so now legislative sponsors are trying a different approach through pre-approved physicians.

Still, drawing up the rules and regulations will be complicated and could take quite some time to complete — at least 18 months. Lawmakers continue their go-slow approach.

Creating a market for marijuana growers could easily spin out of control. Some physicians may abuse the privilege of prescribing this controlled substance. The law may have to be revised yet again in future years to make it effective.

Early Start to Schooling

–Pre-K expansion. Yes, Maryland is enlarging its program to give pre-kindergarten education to underprivileged children. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is crowing about this grand achievement.

But wait a minute: Only 1,600 kids will be helped under this legislation. That’s a drop in a very large ocean.

At that pace, Brown will be eligible for Social Security before all the needy kids in Maryland get into this worthwhile program. His claims of a great step forward ring hollow.

Easing the ‘Death Tax’

–Estate tax reduction. O’Malley could still veto this bill to impress ultra-liberal groups that idolize candidates who bash the rich. Keeping this punitive tax on the wealthy would appease the left wing of his party.

Still, there’s no denying wealthy Marylanders are moving to Florida and other states that don’t punish the heirs of an individual who happens to leave relatives great sums of money.

Both Miller and Busch recognized Maryland was losing many of its best and most committed civic leaders as result of this soak-the-rich policy.

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

They pushed through changes that will make the state’s estate tax identical to federal limits – but only gradually over the next five years.

It’s a nod to the business community from top lawmakers based on practical realities. It’s also a pullback from O’Malley’s perpetual, liberal business-bashing.

All of these measures indicate that the state’s legislature remains stubbornly moderate in tone, fearful of moving too quickly or too aggressively on social issues. Rarely do Maryland’s legislative leaders fully embrace the knee-jerk crusade du jour. They keep worrying about the unintended, negative consequences.

Cooler heads prevailed in Annapolis this session. Though the legislature is increasingly dominated by liberal Democrats, it’s a positive sign that caution remains an integral part of the Maryland General Assembly’s DNA.

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Stonewalling MD Health Exchange Probe

By Barry Rascovar

April 7, 2014 – The Maryland General Assembly concludes its 2014 session Monday in good shape – except for one monumental omission: the mystery surrounding Maryland’s fatally flawed health exchange, which has squandered uncounted tens of millions of dollars.

It’s now clear both Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown are content to stonewall and impede any detailed investigation of what went wrong in setting up the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange until well after the June 24 primary election.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

Is there a cover-up going on?

Judge for yourself.

On Thursday, the state’s legislative auditor told lawmakers he had been thwarted in his attempt to conduct a meaningful review of the health exchange.

Because the exchange’s leaders only gave state auditors what was available to the public, ”We don’t have the complete story,” said the chief auditor, Thomas Barnickel III. “There’s a lot we don’t know.”

Heavily Redacted

The documents auditors received were heavily redacted — a sure sign things are being hidden from view.

It’s also not in line with accepted auditing practices of state government agencies.

But when the governor and lieutenant governor want to make sure no one gets to the bottom of this historic debacle any time soon, the administration knows how to obfuscate.

No Sign of Rebecca Pearce

For instance, the exchange gave auditors 600 emails to or from Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein — the administration’s spokesman on this issue – but nary a single email involving Rebecca Pearce, who ran the troubled exchange until December.

Could such an astounding omission have been accidental?

The redactions were so numerous in the 14,500 documents that auditors couldn’t determine if the controversial contract awards were done legally or appropriately.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

Auditors also couldn’t figure out how the exchange went about selecting the vendor who screwed up the exchange’s computer program — Noridian of North
Dakota – or how in the world the exchange opted to buy off-the-shelf software — as opposed to customized software — from IBM.

This software proved incapable of doing the job.

Auditors did learn from documents there was confusion within the exchange over points of contact, meeting schedules, lack of a program manager and even a lack of details about the project plan.

They made one definitive finding: The exchange conducted no performance testing whatsoever.

Is it any wonder this lemon of a software program crashed on Day One and has yet to fully recover?

Limited Document Release 

Exchange leaders also saw to it auditors didn’t get enough information to figure out who made those horrendously poor decisions, who was really in charge and who should be held to account for this debacle.

Democratic leaders in the legislature aren’t in any hurry, either, to pin some of the blame on Brown because that would hurt his campaign for governor.

So no one was indignant when it became clear last Thursday at a hearing in Annapolis that the legislature’s own auditors had been stonewalled.

Earlier in the week,  O’Malley and Brown laid out their own line of attack: We’re not at fault because it’s the evil contractors who messed up.

And who, exactly, hired those contractors? Aren’t those the ones who ought to be fingered?

What was Brown’s role as co-chair of the exchange’s oversight committee?

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Didn’t he have to approve those contracts? Or was he only a figurehead?

It’s clear now the prime contractor never should have been chosen in the first place. Is that the contractor’s fault or the O’Malley-Brown administration’s?

What genius decided to launch the state’s most complex and expensive IT project with off-the-shelf software?

Is it IBM’s fault the O’Malley-Brown administration decided to take the cheaper route  and ended up with a turkey that was never designed for the tasks assigned it by the exchange?

Bait-and-Switch Tactic

Is it Noridian’s fault the O’Malley-Brown administration pulled a bait-and-switch?

Exchange leaders signed a fixed-price contract with Noridian that included 261 requirements for the software program – and then later added 227 new requirements, changed 28 of the original requirements and dropped 73 of the mandates Noridian had bid on.

O’Malley seems content to blame IBM for what went wrong. Yes, IBM made the off-the-shelf software, but it was never tailored for the complicated interfaces envisioned by the IT gurus in Maryland government. Yet IBM is now the governor’s fall guy.

Now IBM is pushing back. The computer giant says it went the extra mile to fit a round peg into a square hole, but it couldn’t “overcome the state’s failure to properly manage the implementation of the exchange.”

We may never know if that’s true because O’Malley won’t launch an impartial investigation. Indeed, he’s not launching any investigation into how potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars were wasted.

This is the guy who wants to run for president?

Permanent Stain?

What an unmitigated calamity. No authority figure in Maryland state government wants to get to the bottom of this disgrace. No public group is pressing for action, either.

We’re left with an appalling mess.

The lack of accountability, transparency and responsibility — if not remedied – will become a permanent stain on the record of O’Malley and Brown. History will not remember this episode kindly.

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Negro Leagues Museum Opens in Owings Mills

From the Community Times

By Barry Rascovar

April 2, 2014–SOMETIMES POLITICIANS ATTEND events they really enjoy.

It surely looked as though this was the case last Thursday for Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz as he cut the ribbon for a permanent exhibit honoring Negro League baseball.

Hubert Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball

Hubert Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball

The exhibit is a reminder of this nation’s shameful past. The National Association of Baseball Players banned interracial play in 1867. Nothing changed for 80 years.

The Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball conveys the importance of the courage of Negro League ballplayers who laid the groundwork for today’s integrated American pastime.

Spread out over three floors of the Owings Mills building that houses the newest branches of the public library and the Community College of Baltimore County, the Simmons museum is an eye-opener.

Thanks to Kamenetz’s perseverance, Baltimore County has a unique exhibit that tells a story everyone should know.

Segregated Baseball

Until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, non-white baseball players had to show off their skills in “a league of their own.”

They performed on miserable fields, were paid low wages, were subjected to hostility from whites and had to navigate around segregation-era Jim Crow laws.

They did it “for the love of the game.”

Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball

Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball, Owings Mills

Maryland hosted two Negro League teams, the Baltimore Elite (pronounced “E-light”) Giants and the Baltimore Black Sox.

The Black Sox started playing in Baltimore in 1916. In 1927, the barnstormers won 70 percent of their games.

The hometown Giants ruled the roost here from 1938 to 1950.

The team provided a launching pad for baseball stars Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, Joe Black and Leon Day – as well as a pretty good pitcher-outfielder, Bert Simmons.

Traveling Exhibit

After Simmons retired, he taught in the city school system for 30 years while coaching Little League, high school, American Legion and college baseball for 40 years.

His burning desire was to build a museum highlighting the Negro Leagues’ players and their struggles and triumphs. This led to traveling exhibits and a display in a Lochearn church basement.

Bert Simmons died two months after the church display opened. His cause was taken up by his widow and Ray Banks, a longtime friend and troubadour for the Negro Leagues.

When their paths crossed with Kamenetz, the politician’s creative mind started seeing possibilities.

Eventually, he persuaded the County Council to approve $125,000 to create a permanent home for this memorabilia and erect display panels, showcases, pictures and biographies of Negro League greats – from Satchel Paige to Josh Gibson.

Satchel Paige (L) and Josh Gibson (R)

Satchel Paige (L) and Josh Gibson (R)

The Owings Mills multi-purpose building proved ideal: it sits astride the Red Line transit terminus, across the street from a large residential development, draws thousands of people to the library and community college and is an education mecca for the community.

“Bert loved the game,” said his widow, Audrey Simmons. He also was “devoted to education,” she added. The county’s museum is the perfect place “where the story can be told.”

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Obamacare Accountability — Oregon, not MD, Got It Right

By Barry Rascovar

March 31, 2014–Today’s the deadline for folks in Maryland to start the application process for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. If you miss this deadline, you face a tax penalty next year.

The good news is that tens of thousands of people have health insurance who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — obtain it before.

The bad news is that Maryland’s health exchange has been an unmitigated disaster — a painfully small number of people actually applied and paid their initial insurance bill.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

Those responsible for this stupendously costly debacle aren’t going to be held accountable.

Those at the top of Maryland’s political food chain still stonewall this issue hoping it fades from public view.

State legislators have ordered a slow-motion assessment of the damage by their own analysts. It’s doubtful this will be a detailed, CSI-style examination of what went wrong.

By the time the report surfaces in mid-summer it will be too late: The decision on what comes next – most likely connecting Maryland to Connecticut’s software system — will be made (as early as this afternoon).

And by the time that legislative report appears, the June 24 primary will have come and gone — and with it any danger Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s gubernatorial campaign might be fatally damaged by the findings.

It’s also possible any legislative report will be sanitized by House and Senate leaders so as not to embarrass Brown (by then he could be planning his inaugural) and Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has national aspirations.

What a shocking lack of accountability to the public.

The Oregon Way

It stands in stark contrast to the way another liberal, Democratic state, Oregon, handled its own Obamacare calamity.

Oregon, like Maryland, has a two-term Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber. It has Democratic majorities in both houses of its Legislative Assembly.

But unlike Maryland, Oregon has a strong second party. Republicans hold 26 of 60 House seats and 14 of 30 Senate seats.

With such a potent countervailing force, it’s no wonder Governor Kitzhaber wasted little time launching an independent probe of his state’s dysfunctional health exchange, known as Cover Oregon.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber

Its Oracle-based software crashed so badly on Day One that all applications were done by hand. Yet Oregon still signed up more people for health insurance than Maryland.

What the independent review in Oregon found is likely to be mirrored in Maryland — if there’s ever a similar third-party critique.

Among the Oregon findings:

–”There was no single point of authority on the project.”

–The governance structure “was not effective.”

–There were “competing priorities and conflicts between [state] agencies.”

–Cover Oregon failed to hire a prime contractor or a system integrator.

–The governor and others were repeatedly warned by Cover Oregon’s quality assurance firm, Maximus, that the project was seriously off-track. These warnings started years ago and were ignored.

–In 2011, Maximus wrote that the state was acting as its own prime contractor and thus was assuming “more of the overall project risk.” How true.

–There was no Plan B as required by federal law – but there was a backup plan in case the lights went out.

–Cover Oregon picked off-the-shelf software; Oracle claimed it required only 5 percent customization. The actual number was 40 percent.

–The selected software ”was not stable” and to this day “more items are breaking than are being repaired.”

–Top state officials “did not understand or acknowledge the significance of the website issues” until it was too late.

–There was a lack of “a consistent, cohesive enterprise approach to management of the project.”

–There was “no authoritative direction.”

–There was “Ineffective and at times contentious” communications and a “lack of transparency.”

Cover Oregon

The Oregon report is highly critical of the Executive Steering Committee leading the project — similar to Maryland’s oversight panel co-chaired by Brown and Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein:

–”Oversight authority was inconsistent and at times confusing or misinterpreted.” This led to “unclear or incorrect understanding about the true state of the project approaching the Oct. 1, 2013 deadline.”

–The steering group lacked “formal meeting notes and decision tracking and documentation.”

–Perhaps worst of all, the Oregon project did not have “a single enterprise decision-tracking tool to document and manage decisions across entities.”

When Kitzhaber received the damning 77-page report in March, he cleaned house.

He fired the state’s top health official — a longtime friend and ally – who had been running the exchange since January. The chief operating officer and chief information officer of Cover Oregon also got the heave-ho. (The exchange’s original leader had been forced out in December.)

The Maryland Way

Don’t expect such drastic action in Maryland. It doesn’t fit the image O’Malley and Brown want to project going forward. Accountability is giving way to practical political considerations.

Still, the Oregon autopsy rings many familiar bells in Maryland. What happened in Oregon seems to have happened here.

Here’s what a forensic analysis of Maryland’s failed healthcare sign-up effort is likely to show:

*O’Malley and Brown created the exchange as an independent agency unshackled from the state’s formal procurement process. Support services and the normal chain of command within state government were lacking.

*Brown and Sharfstein never gave the project the intense oversight and strong, authoritative leadership it needed.

*They hired the wrong contractor — a minor-league player in the world of healthcare IT — who then quarreled bitterly with the sub-contractor it hired to do the IT project’s heavy lifting.

*No one was riding herd on the contractor.

*The state’s IT gurus picked off-the-shelf software to save money and time, software that never had been used in this way.

*There was no back-up plan in case Plan A failed (as it did).

Quality assurance and system integration were lacking. There was no general manager and no effective tracking system.

*There was no exhaustive trial period built into the schedule. 

*There was a lack of clear and honest communication up and down the line. Transparency continues to be a problem.

What Citizens Deserve

That pretty much sums up what went wrong in Maryland — even without an impartial investigation by outside experts.

But it is worth considering whether Maryland citizens deserve the same type of no-holds barred forensic autopsy Oregon conducted into its health insurance debacle.

In a lopsided one-party state like Maryland, that may prove far too embarrassing for those in power to let it happen.

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Is a Higher Minimum Wage Counter-Productive?

By Barry Rascovar

March 24, 2014 — Since it’s an election year, Democratic politicians in Annapolis are eager to pass an increase in the minimum wage. Gov. Martin O’Malley is poised to promote a higher minimum wage law in Maryland as part of his incipient campaign for national office.

But is it a good idea? Will there be unintended consequences in the form of job reductions?

That could well be the case, based on a recent Texas A&M economic study. It’s also the findings of a February study by the Congressional Budget Office.

Minimum Wage Increases

Minimum Wage Increases

Bottom Line: A jump in the minimum wage by 10 percent (Maryland’s proposal is 13 percent in Year One and a cumulative 39 percent over three years) will have a significant negative impact on future job hiring.

The non-partisan CBO forecasts that a federal hike in the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour could mean a likely loss of 500,000 jobs nationwide, although there’s a chance the job loss could top one million.

The Texas A&M study may be more relevant in that it looked at new job creation in the year following previous minimum wage hikes. “Net job growth falls in response to an increase in the minimum wage,” it concludes.

Tom Firey of the Maryland Public Policy Institute figures this could mean the loss of 25 percent of all newly created jobs in Maryland if the General Assembly ups the minimum wage.

His adds: “In this miserable economy, the last thing we need is to further handicap job growth and business start-ups.”

All this is fascinating data and under normal circumstances the facts and figures should prove persuasive.

Not for politicians in an election year, though. Not when labor unions and liberal advocacy groups are going overboard promoting a higher minimum wage as the Second Coming.

Minimum Wage protester

But beware of the side effects: Higher consumer prices, a contraction of small retail businesses and unemployment for many now employed at the minimum wage rate.

The trade-off: help for the lowest salaried workers, who would see their pay (before taxes) go up by 3 percent.

Yet raising the minimum wage amounts to a shotgun approach: Only 19 percent of those who would receive this raise come from households below the poverty threshold of $15,730 for a family of two and $23,850 for a family of four.

Indeed, 29 percent of those benefiting from a $10.10 minimum hourly wage would come from households earning three times the poverty level ($46,190 for a family of two, $68,450 for a family of four).

An Alternative Route

A far better way to deliver financial support to the lowest-paid workers is increasing the federal and state earned income tax credit. One hundred percent of that money winds up in the hands of a low-wage worker earning less than $15,000 annually (the cap is $54,000 for a couple with three children). It’s a highly effective income supplement for low-wage workers.

That’s not going to happen in Maryland because a more generous EITC means a big hit to the governor’s budget, whereas raising the minimum wage socks it to small businesses primarily, not the government.

Yet given Maryland’s shaky economic recovery, lawmakers in the Senate are beginning to have second thoughts about sharply raising the state’s minimum wage. After all, Maryland lost nearly 10,000 jobs in January. Passage of the governor’s bill might accelerate those job losses.

It’s a Catch-22 for liberal Democratic lawmakers. Advocates standing on the sidelines promote this bill as a huge boost to the economy. Yet no impartial economic study comes to that conclusion.

Middleton’s Demand

Now a key senator, Thomas McLain (Mac) Middleton from Charles County, has thrown a new issue on the table. The governor’s bill ignores the plight of workers who care from the state’s developmentally disabled. They’d end up earning less than the new minimum wage.

Middleton won’t move the governor’s bill until this oversight is addressed. Developmental workers — 18,000 in community settings — deserve far more in wages than they’re paid ($9.82). They perform some of the most emotionally trying work in society tending to 25,000 developmentally disabled people in Maryland.

Even more egregious, the state pays its own developmental workers in rural state residential facilities much more. That fundamental inequity makes no sense except in terms of saving money when the state budget is formulated.

O’Malley’s minions are negotiating with Middleton and likely will find a way to satisfy the senator. Yet this problem is just the tip of the iceberg.

How many other job categories within state and local governments will have to be adjusted because of a $10.10 minimum wage? Is it affordable?

Passage Coming

There’s no doubt a modified version of O’Malley’s bill will be approved.

It may not have all the bells and whistles far-left advocates and the governor desire, such as an automatic cost of living increase and a big boost in salaries for tipped workers.

The path to $10.10 might be phased in more slowly. More exemptions might be added to cover college students working the summer beach season in Ocean City.

In the end, though, Maryland lawmakers will put a higher minimum wage on the books — even though it may not make sound economic sense and might prove the wrong way to address this dilemma.

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Voters must choose governor’s image

Barry Rascovar For the Community Times

March 19, 2014 – Have you seen the first batch of TV ads in the race for Maryland governor?

They are introductory commercials but tell us quite a bit about Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Brown is the early front-runner. He’s got the full weight of the O’Malley administration and much of the Democratic establishment behind him.

Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Gansler, although he’s been the state’s top legal officer for seven-plus years, is running as the outsider, the candidate who — in the words of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, “can’t get no respect” from Democratic powers that be.

Atty. Gen. Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

He started his TV campaign on March 6, which spurred Brown into action the next day.

They take different approaches, which are reflective of the candidates’ styles and strategies.

Gansler’s Direct Approach

Gansler’s ad is casual, personal and direct. He’s dressed in a red polo shirt, looking right into the camera and speaking to viewers at home.

His tone is soft and relaxed.

As he mentions the legal battles he’s won, pictures flash on the screen showing the kinds of individuals he’s helped:

Brianna (a $4.6 billion settlement against polluters), Karen (a $1.6 billion mortgage relief settlement), Myra and her kids (bringing “the beltway snipers to justice” while Montgomery County state’s attorney and fighting child pornography), Eric and Mitchell (fighting for marriage equality in court) and for “thousands of Baltimore kids” (starting an inner city lacrosse league).

“That’s who I am” Gansler says directly to viewers, “I take on tough fights and get thing done. . .”

The ad is meant to convey the impression that Gansler is a doer, not a talker, and that he has fought uphill battles on behalf of John and Jane Q. Citizen and delivered quantifiable results.

Brown’s Indirect Approach

Brown’s ad conveys a different impression. He is stiffer and more formal in appearance and in his speaking. He’s also talking to someone off-camera, not directly to TV viewers.

The words sound strikingly similar to lines he has delivered thousands of times before at campaign appearances describing his parents, his upbringing, his commitment to public service and his military service.

Brown lets viewers know his father was a Jamaican physician who “served others all his life.” That example, a narrator says, inspired Brown to choose “the military over Wall Street.” He joined the Army Reserve. Nineteen years later, Brown explains, he was called to active duty in Iraq.

“It was my responsibility to serve,” he says in the ad.

What Brown doesn’t talk about is his accomplishments in office, probably because as lieutenant governor he’s not in position to do much on his own.

Choice of Image

The viewer is left with an image of Gansler as a candidate who faces up to tough issues and has something to show for it. The image of Brown is less focused — a man on a mission to serve the public.

Voters can judge for themselves which is the more compelling image. Hopefully, the candidates will fill in most of the blanks before the June 24 primary.

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Re-fighting the Holocaust

By Barry Rascovar

March 17, 2014 – IT’S THE CLASSIC tug of war between emotion and logic, a crusade by legislators in Annapolis to enact punishment on a corporate Holocaust collaborator versus the cold reality that such a move would cost Maryland a new mass-transit line in suburban Washington.

So far, the emotion side of the human equation is winning.

Purple Line

The Purple Line

Lawmakers, especially those who are Jewish, are determined to right a terrible wrong by punishing the French national railroad, SNCF, and denying it any chance of gaining lucrative transportation contracts in Maryland unless it pays reparations to American Holocaust victims.

During World War II, the French railroad was seized by the Nazi regime, placed under German military commanders and forced to help transport 76,000 Jews and others to concentration camps.

Twenty-one hundred railroad workers who resisted or refused to assist the Nazis were executed – along with their families.

The French government pays reparations to Holocaust survivors, but only if they are French citizens or citizens of nearby countries.

SNCF

SNCF pays no reparations because it is 100 percent owned by the French government. It is considered an integral part of that government – similar to the U.S. Postal Service.

This tragic, 70-year-old tale of man’s inhumanity to man has re-surfaced at the Annapolis State House for the second time in four years.

MARC’s Saga

In 2011, the same group of lawyers pushing this year’s reparations bill conducted a six-month campaign against SNCF’s bid to run the state MARC commuter rail lines. This led to some of the nastiest hearings seen in the state capital. SNCF officials were verbally pummeled and abused by angry lawmakers. One hearing resembled a kangaroo court.

The net result: passage of a measure against SNCF that jeopardized federal funding for the MARC line because it illegally tainted the bidding process. Maryland got around that problem by fully funding aspects of the contract that previously had received federal dollars.

Then the state put the narrowed MARC contract out to bid. With so much negative pressure applied to the O’Malley administration, the outcome was never in doubt. SNCF lost the contract.

(Ironically, the contract winner — and the only other bidder – has a tainted history, too. Its parent company in Germany made munitions for the Nazi government during World War II and employed slave labor – mostly Jews – to aid the Nazi cause and reap a large profit. No stink was ever made about that horrific situation by state lawmakers.)

Reparations Bill

This year’s anti-SNCF effort seeks to force SNCF to pay reparations to Holocaust victims living in the United States. The bill makes it a prerequisite for bidding on the $2.3 billion Purple Line contract. SNCF is part of a consortium that wants to bid on this public-private partnership arrangement that could be worth $6 billion over the 35-year life of the contract.

Problems with the reparations bill are numerous. Under French law, SNCF can’t pay reparations, only the French government can. So the bill seeks to accomplish the impossible.

Such a bill violates international law because SNCF is part of the French government, not a private corporation. Maryland can’t demand reparations from an arm of a foreign nation. That’s the job of the U.S. State Department.

The bill also violates federal law by tainting the bidding process on federally funded programs. This bill clearly aims to punish SNCF by setting unrealistic barriers before the railroad can bid on the Purple Line contract.

Red-Headed Eskimo

That kind of one-company discrimination (a “red-headed Eskimo” bill in legislative lingo) is blatantly illegal in state and federal contracting law.

The state attorney general’s office has declared that to be the case. So has the Federal Rail Administration. So has the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Indeed, state DOT officials told lawmakers it would be impossible to win federal funds for the Purple Line if this bill is passed and signed into law.

That’s $900 million in cash, plus a $732 million low-interest federal loan, that would disappear. The Purple Line would vanish as a viable undertaking.

The bill’s House sponsor, Del. Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County, says he will revise the measure to get around these problems.

Del. Kirill Reznik

Del. Kirill Reznik

Surely the lawyers who have pursued SNCF for years will come up with a different approach, but any punitive action designed to force SNCF to pay reparations will be deemed discriminatory and illegal.

Trying to rectify a 70-year-old outrage isn’t realistic in this case.

The Nazis left SNCF in shambles after the war. No one profited from the transports. Besides, anyone at the railroad who had a role in the Nazi collaboration is dead or long since retired.

Today, the new SNCF is one of the world’s largest and most respected transportation systems. It does a considerable amount of business with Israel, which surely would never engage in commerce with a Holocaust enabler.

It’s also a big supporter of Holocaust remembrance programs and Holocaust museums. It has expressed regret and, given the historical record, asked for forgiveness for what happened.

SNCF’s Atonement

The Jewish community in France long ago accepted SNCF’s atonement, recognizing those who worked at the railroad during the war were forced to do so at the point of a gun.

Only the American Jewish community, egged on by lawyers, continues to target SNCF.

The Maryland Jewish community is at the head of this pack.

An SNCF subsidiary already operates Virginia’s commuter rail system that terminates in Union Station.

Last year, the subsidiary won a huge contract to manage Boston’s 660-mile commuter rail system – a contract that could be worth $4.3 billion over the next 12 years. In neither case did the Holocaust issue become a bone of contention.

When this controversy arose in 2011, the O’Malley administration and legislators found ways to implement the anti-SNCF bill without harming the state’s interests.

Forgo the Purple Line?

That looks impossible to achieve with the 2014 reparations bill.

Unless Montgomery County legislators are willing to forgo the Purple Line, there’s no way to go after SNCF without winding up on the wrong side of international law and anti-discrimination laws dealing with competitively bid contracts.

Any legislative actions that delay the bidding process for the Purple Line could result in a withdrawal of federal support. There are too many other rapid rail projects clamoring for those same federal dollars.

Negotiations are under way between France and the U.S. to hammer out a reparations deal for Holocaust victims who are American citizens. SNCF is not  part of those negotiations.

But by the time that deal is sealed, we may be into 2015 or 2016 – long after the bidding on the Purple Line concludes.

In this instance, logic needs to triumph over emotion in the legislative hallways of Annapolis.

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