Ready, Fire, Aim

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 31, 2015 — A real-life drama — and personal tragedy — played out last week when the Maryland Board of Public Works took up the Hogan administration’s request to fire 59 state workers who don’t deserve to be coldly thrown out of their jobs.

Most of them have earned sterling performance reviews. They have worked diligently for the state, responsibly handling personnel matters.

Ready, Fire, Aim

Gov. Larry Hogan and Prisons Chief Stephen Moyer (left)

Yet now they have been accused — unfairly and without a whisper of truth — of being part of the state prison system’s “rampant criminal activity” and “corruption.”

It’s a classic case of Larry Hogan Jr.’s team rushing to carry out his reform agenda by shouting, “Ready, Fire, Aim” — and hitting unintended casualties.

Not Involved

In doing so, innocent victims are seeing their careers destroyed. They are, as many noted at the BPW hearing, being scapegoated — tarred with the corruption label even though these employees had nothing to do with the decades-old outrages taking place within prison walls.

Thank goodness, Hogan is taking the initiative to clean up Maryland’s abysmal prison system.  But his administration’s mass firing in the corrections department’s personnel office is misdirected.

The idea, as explained by prisons chief Stephen Moyer, is to streamline the department’s hiring and firing process for workers who deal directly with prisoners, especially the prison guards.

The current system is shockingly flawed. Wardens — some of them contributing mightily to the problem — by law appoint the guards. Each warden has set his or her own hiring standard.

Bad apples have been hired by the dozens. Fingerprinting of new hires has been exceedingly lax. When Moyer tried to fire some 200 guards involved in criminal activities at the Baltimore detention center, he found he couldn’t do so under state laws.

Hogan’s Prison Reforms

What a shameful situation. Moyer and Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. are right to press for a major overhaul to ensure that the jail keepers aren’t on the take.

But what Moyer wants to do first is fire 59 personnel workers who had nothing to do with hiring those bad actors. These workers handle questions correctional workers have about benefits, retirement and tons of paperwork dealing with complex employment issues.

The entire personnel staff of the state’s parole agency is being wiped out. Yet this office has nothing to do with what takes place within Maryland’s massive prison system. They are far removed from the problem.

Moyer wants to centralize personnel matters. The approach sounds good in theory but too often dehumanizes and devalues workers. It makes it maddeningly difficult, if not impossible, to get the simplest problem resolved or question answered.

He wants to eliminate all personnel employees in Western Maryland, except for three in Cumberland and three in Hagerstown. It’s absurd, given there are over 1,200 prison workers in Cumberland and close to 2,000 in Hagerstown. The small number of personnel experts he wants to retain in Western Maryland is off the mark.

The situation is even worse in the Baltimore area, where a three-member personnel staff would be overwhelmed by the workload.

This plan was designed without considering the human element.

Cutting the Fat

At the Board of Public Works meeting, heart-rending tales were told by employees whose jobs are being wiped out.

How is a 63-year-old woman with decades of outstanding performance evaluations going to find another job? Moyer & Co. had no realistic answer.

This has nothing to do with the much-needed development of a tough, effective hiring and firing system.

Instead, it is driven by Hogan’s campaign pledge to cut the “fat” from state government. He’s all about saving money without thinking through the consequences.

This time Hogan and Moyer got politely taken to task by Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

The anguish of the intended firing victims who testified before the state board was so palpable that both of these officials made it clear they wouldn’t approve the layoff plan as presented.

Franchot
Comptroller Peter Franchot

 

They took special offense to comments that this move was part of an effort to root out corruption in the prison system.

These 59 individuals aren’t the ones committing illegal acts.

They didn’t hire the miscreants. They’re not the ones responsible.

Collateral Damage

They are hard-working state employees who have done their jobs exceptionally well at modest salaries.

“These are very capable people being shown the door,” Franchot said. He bluntly told Moyer, “You are firing the wrong people here.”

Kopp urged Moyer to look beyond the budget savings. “People are not just collateral damage, she noted. “They are people” who need to be treated with dignity and respect, not summarily thrown out of work for no good reason.

State Treasurer Nancy Kopp

State Treasurer Nancy Kopp

Sue Esty, whose union represents some of those being fired, choked back tears as she described this as the most callous layoff she’s seen. Moyer & Co. displayed a “lack of understanding of how the department functions.” She, too, termed it as “a classic case of scapegoating.”

Moyer went by the book in formulating this mass firing. He conferred with budget and legal officials. But he never sat down and tried to work out a more humane plan with those affected or their union representatives.

It’s also a plan that looks good on paper but has serious flaws when tested against reality.

Fire, then Aim?

That seems to be par for the course in the early stages of the Hogan administration. Ready, fire and then aim.

We saw it when the governor killed the rapid rail Red Line for Baltimore before formulating a substitute transportation improvement plan.

We saw it when Hogan proudly cut tolls on bridges and tunnels without figuring out how urgent and expensive repair and replacement projects on the Hatem and Nice bridges could be financed on a shrunken budget.

We saw it when Hogan grabbed the headlines for shuttering the decrepit Baltimore detention center without first conferring with local elected, law-enforcement and judicial officials on how to avoid disruptions and unanticipated snafus.

Moyer now should take his time in putting together a new personnel approach within the department, one that considers the human element.

Delay in Order

A number of those targeted for firing were denied participation in the governor’s severance program last spring because they were deemed too valuable to the department. Now Moyer wants them out the door without any severance.

That’s unfair and makes no sense.

Kopp and Franchot should insist that Hogan delay the prison personnel-office downsizing until he submits his next budget, when the people targeted for firing can be offered a buyout package. That’s one approach.

Or what about implementing a multi-year plan to eliminate personnel jobs through attrition?

What about hammering out a better deal for employees with the union in the months ahead? There’s no need to rush.

A humane approach might require approval from the General Assembly for a new severance program and a change in the law so some of the workers can be moved into personnel vacancies in nearby state offices.

Let’s slow the process down so we get it right.

The governor’s determination to charge ahead quickly with his reforms is getting him in trouble.

A more deliberate and methodical approach that takes into account the impact on individuals whose lives are being affected would pay far larger dividends for Hogan in the long term.

# # #

Hogan’s Holt Problem

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 24, 2015–Maryland Housing Secretary Ken Holt may be a nice guy, a financial expert, a former member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore County, a cattle rancher and a breeder of thoroughbred race horses, but he has turned himself into a giant liability for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Holt’s stunningly ignorant claim made at the Maryland Association of Counties gathering in Ocean City — that some low-income mothers poison their children with lead weights to get free housing — was so far afield from reality that both Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford disassociated themselves from his assertions.

Hogan's Holt Problem

MD Housing Secretary Ken Holt

The governor then had choice words for Holt in private about his “unfortunate and inappropriate statement” — but is keeping him on as housing secretary.

Holt’s comments were far more than “unfortunate and inappropriate.”

They had no basis in fact and showed an abysmal understanding of Maryland’s lead paint law — an area that Holt’s department deals with.

Lacking Evidence

Even worse, it turns out Holt has no evidence to back up his claim that low-income moms intentionally poison their kids to receive free, long-term government housing. It was an anecdotal story, he said, that came from a housing developer.

Holt told the MACO attendees that he wanted to submit legislation to ease the legal burden on landlords if their rental properties contain lead paint that harms children.

That proposal is now DOA — dead on arrival.

Indeed, Holt’s credibility with Democratic legislators has been destroyed by his hideous comments and intentions. Easing landlords’ liability for lead-paint poisoning on their rental units is a terrible idea.

Who’s responsible for not taking steps to encapsulate or remove the lead paint in these rental units? Holt’s proposal would turn those who are poisoned, and their parents, into the culprits while freeing landlords from their clear responsibility.

It’s idiotic and gives the appearance Holt is pandering to the whims and desires of landlords.

Reductions in Lead Poisoning

Over the past 20 years, Maryland’s lead-paint laws have led to a steep, dramatic drop in  poisoning cases, from 14,546 in 1993 to just 371 cases in 2013.

Hogan's Holt Problem

Flaking lead paint can poison children.

The law is working and the children living in low-income rental housing are being protected. Why in the world would Holt move to weaken this law without even researching the topic?

It raises major questions about Holt’s fitness for the cabinet-level post. He had no low-income housing expertise when he took the job. It shows.

What an embarrassment for Hogan and his administration. Is this the sort of pro-business “reform” the governor has in mind?

Holt’s blunder pretty much closes the door on legislative changes coming from his department. Indeed, it puts a bull’s eye on just about anything Hogan proposes in the next legislative session that would weaken existing laws designed to protect the public.

Bad Timing

The timing of Holt’s indiscretion doesn’t help, either. It looks more and more like the Hogan administration is hostile to Baltimore City and its minority citizens.

The vast majority of lead-paint poisoning cases are in Baltimore, and nearly all the victims are African Americans.

Hogan also refused to allocate $11 million in sorely needed school funds to Baltimore City, where the vast majority of underperforming students are African Americans.

Then he killed the $3 billion Red Line rapid-rail project designed to help Baltimore’s inner city residents reach job centers and greatly improve their transportation options. The vast majority of citizens who would have benefited from the Red Line are black.

Just to rub it in, Hogan snubbed city officials in announcing the closing of Baltimore’s detention center. He didn’t even give the mayor the courtesy of a phone call before his announcement, which was highlighted by his harsh and gratuitous condemnation of his predecessor, Martin O’Malley.

Anti-City?

The Holt fiasco adds to the impression Hogan’s administration is anti-city and anti-black. At the least, it gives weight to the notion that the governor and his staff are insensitive and uncaring — and not well informed — when it comes to urban problems.

The best thing Holt could do to help the governor is make a quiet exit from state government later this year.

He’s become Enemy No. 1 to a large number of Democratic legislators. Everything he says or does from now on will be put under a microscope. He’s dragging the governor down.

Hogan, meanwhile, has yet to take any major step that shows he understands the state has a significant role to play in uplifting and improving life and economic opportunity in Baltimore.

Fortunately, it is still early in the governor’s tenure.

The situation in Maryland’s only urban center cries out for strong leadership and assistance from Annapolis. That is Hogan’s most complex and perplexing challenge, one he has yet to confront.

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Redistricting Reform: Mission Impossible?

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 17, 2015 — Reformers want to take partisan politics out of the redistricting equation. So does the governor. That may be Mission Impossible.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s Current Congressional Districts

On the surface, their goal sounds easy to achieve. Pass a state constitutional amendment empowering an impartial panel of citizens to revise Maryland’s congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years (after the new U.S. Census is taken) so the districts conform to the Supreme Court’s 1962 “one-man, one-vote” edict.

Conservative Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. has joined liberal reformers in this crusade. He’s positioned himself so it looks like those mean Democrats are defiantly standing in the way.

As usual, the situation is far more complicated than the cover story.

Hogan’s Goal

The governor’s motives are hardly pure. He’s looking for political advantage for his outnumbered Republican Party. Stripping control of redistricting from the Democratic controlled General Assembly is his objective.

Right now, thanks to manipulation of redistricting maps by Democratic leaders, seven out of eight Maryland congressmen are Democrats. Hogan thinks a 4-4 split would be more like it.

Yet the current distribution isn’t far off the voter registration numbers.

Had state and national Republican organizations given Sixth District challenger Dan Bongino more financial and organizational support last year (he lost by less than 2,800 votes), the congressional split in Maryland would be 6-2, or 25 percent. That’s almost precisely what the GOP’s registered voter figure is in Maryland today.

So maybe Republicans aren’t so bad off under the current redistricting process after all.

GOP Pickup?

Hogan, though, believes creating more evenly balanced districts would benefit the state GOP, particularly in the General Assembly. He’s placing his bet on a non-partisan revision of legislative district lines in 2021 or 2022.

That premise may not be valid, either.

Republicans currently hold 30 percent of the state Senate seats in Annapolis and 35 percent of the House of Delegates seats. Both figures exceed the party’s statewide voter registration percentages.

Even under Democratic control of the redistricting process, the GOP is doing better than expected.

What skews such comparisons are the large number of unaffiliated voters — 672,000 of them statewide. They are neither Republicans nor Democrats yet they make up 18 percent of registered Maryland voters.

Winning over these independents has been the GOP’s downfall in Maryland. When a Republican candidate reaches out to these middle-roaders, like Hogan did, success is more likely.

How unaffiliated voters will react under impartially drawn redistricting maps is unknown. Nothing may change. Or everything.

Miller’s Response

Hogan knows that Democrats in the legislature will not allow him to win this redistricting fight. Senate President Mike Miller, the savviest politician in Annapolis, has said, quite bluntly, “It won’t happen.”

Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch have nothing to gain from cooperating with the governor.  They understand that Hogan will do whatever it takes to help the Republican Party, with or without a new redistricting commission. They’re not going to help him in that effort.

The best practical outcome would be a pledge by both Hogan and the two Democratic legislative leaders to turn to a group of impartial redistricting experts and citizens for their preliminary re-mapping of Maryland after the 2020 Census.

Such early guidance from non-politicians might dissuade either side from creating the kinds of grotesque districts that now dominate Maryland’s congressional boundaries. It also might lead to more sensible boundary lines for legislative districts that respect communities of interest.

Ever since the Supreme Court removed itself from most redistricting decisions, the two political parties have had a field day throughout the country twisting and turning congressional and legislative districts to their advantage. Each party has sinned mightily.

Gerrymandering is a longtime American tradition, starting with Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812.

Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry, Vice President and Mass. governor forever linked to “gerrymandering.”

Trying to remove all political partisanship from this politically sensitive process is wishful thinking.

Still, we can do better than what Maryland has now.

###

There is No ‘Plan B’

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 12, 2015 –Instead of tamping down the furor surrounding Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s cancellation of the Baltimore region’s $2.9 billion rapid-rail Red Line, his administration is adding fuel to the fire.

Instead of presenting alternative rapid transit proposals to Baltimore regional officials at a Monday meeting, Hogan’s transportation chief, Pete Rahn, offered nothing concrete.

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn

Meanwhile, Hogan’s press spokesman continues to spew invective on anyone or any organization that dares dispute that decision.

In sixty days Rahn says he’ll having something to announce on faster bus service.

Wow.

What Happened to Plan B?

The sad truth is that there never was a Plan B.

Hogan fulfilled a campaign pledge by killing the Red Line and shifting all that anticipated state spending over the next six years to road and bridge projects elsewhere in Maryland.

That’s why there are zero plans coming from the governor’s office to bolster the Baltimore area’s sad excuse for rapid transit.

Better travel by bus is a great concept but it is one that Rahn’s department has worked to achieve for decades — with little success. The failure of Baltimore’s bus routes lies entirely at the feet of state officials.

The state owns the buses. The state set up the bus routes. The state pays the drivers. The state manages the bus agency. The state has conducted countless public hearings on improving service. We’re still waiting for dramatic improvements.

Officials know what’s not going right. Can they fix it? So far, the answer is “no.”

Congestion and Buses

Giving riders real-time information on bus arrivals doesn’t get the buses to their destination any faster. How is Rahn going to move buses through congested downtown quickly?

Buses, like cars, sit in backed-up traffic. Too many vehicles clog busy intersections and arterial roads, especially at rush hour. What is Rahn going to do about that?

Subterranean rapid rail bypasses time-consuming street congestion with ease. New York and Washington are great examples of this.

But Hogan won’t pay for digging the tunnels. He wants mass transit projects only if they are cheap and bare-bones. That means no tunnels.

Both Rahn and his boss are highway-centric suburbanites. That’s where the state is putting its money over the next six years, not rapid rail or other urban transportation programs.

On-Time Buses

Regional officials can complain about Hogan’s disrespect toward Baltimore’s rail deficiencies but that won’t move the ball forward.

Once and for all they need to face reality. There won’t be a Plan B coming from the Hogan administration. It was never on Hogan’s game board. He’s already redistributed the Red Line money to non-Baltimore projects.

At best, Rahn might offer Baltimore crumbs in the form of getting buses to run on-time and new bus routes connecting suburban job centers to the city.

Those would be welcome, long overdue steps. Yet they are small, incremental improvements on the cheap.

Between now and next January, the governor can do pretty much anything he wants. He’s running state government without meddling from the Democratic legislature.

He’s setting up a fractious clash next year, though.

Uncaring Governor?

The impression is growing that Larry Hogan doesn’t care about Baltimore City. It’s a hostile political environment for a Republican governor. The city’s chronic problems are difficult and expensive to address. He’d rather spend state dollars in communities that vote Republican. He also doesn’t seem to grasp the deep societal woes that are dragging down a once-great American community.

Yet the decline is happening on his watch.

Like it or not, Hogan will be blamed if Baltimore’s slump accelerates while he is governor and he fails to take action.

Baltimore badly needed the economic boost the Red Line would have provided. Having killed that project, Hogan haven’t come forth with an alternative stimulus.

Where are the state jobs programs and reconstruction plans for riot-torn West Baltimore? Couldn’t the governor piece together a major housing demolition-and-rehabilitation initiative? There’s a crying need for more and better drug treatment programs. Recreation activities for youth are lacking. So are after-school programs.

Three-plus months since the destructive unrest in Baltimore, the governor has yet to produce a package of helpful initiatives to make life better for inner-city residents. He knows the city’s leaders are strapped for funds. Only the state has the resources to step in and help in a big way.

That is Hogan’s challenge, especially after he axed the city’s only major economic hope.

At this point, the governor should make a point of showing he has not forgotten Baltimore. The city requires large-scale, innovative assistance from Annapolis.

Baltimore’s future lies, to a large extent, in Hogan’s hands.

###

 

State Pension Confusion

By Barry Rascovar

August 10, 2015 — For Maryland’s 388,500 state workers and teachers — active and retired —  interpreting the pension news these days is confusing business.Maryland retirement agency logo

Item: Over the past 12 months, the state’s pension fund gained 2.68 percent on its investments.

Is that good or bad?

On June 30, the fund’s market value stood at $45.8 billion, a gain of $400 million over the prior fiscal year. All well and good.

But the state failed to come close to hitting its investment target of 7.65 percent. That’s not so good.

Mystifying, isn’t it?

Manipulating Numbers

Welcome to the fuzzy world of actuarial pension and retirement funding. Depending on the statistics and the way they are manipulated, your retirement accounts may be in fine shape or in the toilet.

Since the media loves bad news, headlines routinely give prominence to the state’s unfunded pension liabilities of nearly $19 billion.

What’s not headlined is the slow progress being made in reducing that actuarial shortfall or the misleading way that number is bandied about.

What needs to be kept in mind is that pension investing has an extended timeframe. That applies to the state retirement fund as well as folks contributing to their IRAs.

As the retirement board’s manual notes, “The investment strategy is long-term, recognizing that the average age of the System’s liabilities is relatively long.” It also notes that taking a long-term view of pension investments “could result in short-term instability.”

Ups and Downs

Over the past five years, the state’s investment returns have been darned good, raising the market value of its holdings from nearly $32 billion to nearly $46 billion. That’s an annual average rise of 9.4 percent.

Let the good times roll!

Yet good times don’t last forever. And they didn’t in the last fiscal year, with stock markets delivering an uneven performance. That downer has persisted into this year, too.

The moral is not to get caught up in year-to-year market reports and investment reports. As long as returns are heading upward by a decent amount over the decades, things will come out all right in the end.

What worries critics of the state retirement fund is that the program falls far short of being fully funded. That actuarial ratio stood at roughly 69 percent last year (or 72 percent if you look at the fund’s market value).

Ample Reserves, Ample Time

Here’s the catch: The state doesn’t need to be fully funded today. It has ample reserves to write current pension checks to former teachers and state workers. The rest of its IOUs will come due in the years and decades ahead as the fund’s active members start to retire.

Some will do so soon but the bulk of active teachers and state workers will be at their jobs for one, two or three more decades. The retirement fund has plenty of time to accumulate the dollars needed to write those future checks.

Pension reforms instituted belatedly by the General Assembly in 2011 are now kicking in. This means higher contributions from active members, a less generous pension plan for newer workers and an increase in what state government pays into the pension fund each year.

Past and present legislators, though, often tend to play games with the state’s annual contribution to the retirement accounts. Sometimes they re-write the law so they can adjust the state’s payment by $50 million, $100 million or more to bolster a favored program or balance the budget.

Governors over the decades have been known to play that game, too.

Still, the state’s pension board seems on a path to reach 80 percent of full funding within 10 years and 100 percent of full funding within 25 years — regardless of the ups and downs of the stock market and politicians’ tendency to see the state’s mandatory pension payments as “flexible.”

###

Hogan Column — Readers Respond

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 5, 2015 — It’s clear I hit a nerve with my Aug. 3 column on Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and what I perceived as a new, sharply condemnatory tone in his statements.

If you are on my blog, politicalmaryland.com, you can read the printable responses sent to the website — 14 of them — in the right-hand column under the heading “Recent Comments.”

Gov. Larry Hogan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. shows off his new look for reporters.

Here are other reactions that I’ve received:

Kevin wrote: “I was very sad and disappointed in the tone of your column about Governor Hogan.

In a follow-up missive, he elaborated: “As the son of a high school graduate and a high school dropout, your comment, ‘most with limited education’ is mean-spirited and what are your facts behind this quote? People can have limited education and have decency and intelligence. Does it make you feel good to belittle individuals and groups?”

Jeffrey wrote: “I used to always agree with you, but perhaps not as much in recent years. . . However, I APPLAUD you for the outstanding journalism vis a vis Gov. Hogan.  Many of us have diseases or injuries but don’t use that as an excuse for anything.  There is no reason to treat the Governor any differently just because he has cancer. I am glad you continue to be hard-hitting, honest and objective.  You are a credit to your profession. Personally, I feel that the Governor should resign and take care of himself rather than short-changing the state with his current limited leadership.  (It was quite ‘limited’ even before he was diagnosed!!).  And, yes, he has become mean and nasty and it’s only going to get worse.”

Mike, on the other hand, let Len Lazarick of MarylandReporter.com (which ran the column) know he was outraged: “There was a lot of false information used and it was clearly emotional. . . ‘Uneducated white people’? Really? LOL good luck with that. Welcome to the world of propaganda. Not everyone can handle responsibility.”

A tweeter wrote: “Closing the Baltimore jail was absolutely the right decision. Hooray for Gov. @LarryHogan

David H. chimed in: “I disagree with your article wholeheartedly. Your way of thinking is what has screwed up Maryland in the first place. People are tired of the media and their ‘opinion.’ I’m glad we cleaned house in Maryland, it was high time. I’m glad BALTIMORE is on Larry Hogan’s agenda. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake  is a worthless dud and has done nothing to support her constituents. Look at the condition of the police department, countless murders every day and the roads, just to name a few.  Not Larry Hogan’s fault.  It’s an absolute mess. The liberal agenda is to blame.  Time to wake up and smell the coffee. Your way doesn’t work. Never has, never will.”

S.B. sent in this: “Mr. Rascovar, I have never heard of you before but after reading the article you so viciously wrote recently regarding our fine governor, I had to respond. Gov. Hogan is the best thing that has ever happened to MD. No doubt you are a Democrat who has enjoyed the one-party rule in our state that we have suffered through forever here in MD. Finally we have a fair-minded governor whose decisions are well thought-out, common sense, non-political, and looking out for the best interest of all Marylanders. For the record, Donald Trump is a joke. . . Larry Hogan is the real deal, sorely needed in this world of such political divisiveness that you obviously relish. Larry Hogan compromises, he reaches out & brings people together. He has in his administration people of other political parties, and, yes, he makes tough calls when needed. A great leader for MD, how refreshing. . . If only we had such a leader in the White House. You should be writing instead about our president; your article actually sounds like him & the way he has ruled our country.

Here’s a response from N.L.: “It would be a miracle if someone were to read your column and see you refer to angry black voters as people with a ‘limited education.’ We all know you do not have the guts.  Of course, according to elitists like you, citizens without advanced degrees are too stupid to be involved in their own government.”

D.R. pounced on the column this way: “First impression from skimming your piece: Look at the pot calling . . . Takes one to know one. Looks like the media double standard again.  I can’t see how Hogan’s purported unilateral dissing of Democrats is much different from O’Malley’s treatment of Republicans.”

John W. wrote: “I am saddened that you made mention of Gov. Hogan’s illness in your attempt to explain his decisions. By any measure, this is way out of bounds. You are better than that and you know it. Someone once said that the last defense to a weak argument is to get personal in criticizing your opponent.”

On that point, R.M. added, “Even for you, the attack on Gov. Hogan was pretty superfluous.”

M.B.. took a different slant: “Yeah. I agree he could have done things better. Could those actions be his response to us acting like the Republicans in Congress? I really hope that he will be more collaborative with Democrats in the General Assembly and with the locally elected officials, otherwise we will be in deep. . . . I live in Howard County and I see the same situation between the county executive and the county council. I am a tried-and-true Democrat and the election of Gov. Hogan in a Democratic state has to tell us something. The question is what?  We can’t do anything until that question is discussed, analyzed and answered.”

Andrew F. takes a broader view of the situation: “I tend to blame both [Martin] O’Malley and [Anthony] Brown. Gov. O’Malley seemed to burn out rather early and he left Mr. Brown high and dry, never letting him share in the spotlight.”

Patricia R. emailed this one: “And so the real Hogan emerges. . . Is anyone really surprised? If the state’s Democrats had actually put forth a decent candidate, rather than assuming that Anthony Brown, who had accomplished nothing during his terms as Lt. Governor, we might have a governor who actually understood government. Now we’ve got Dirty Larry — at least for the next four years.”

Meyer M., meanwhile, resented discussion of Hogan’s health issues: “What ugly comment to refer to his chemotherapy! The New, Nasty Larry Hogan.”

Bob B. sent this message: “I like Hogan’s smoke screen. Let B-more rot. They are just killing their own. Go Hogan for 8 more years!!!!”

T.V. had this response: “I must say I’m not shocked by the disappointment I had when I read your article. You had many good points, and in some of them I agree with you even as a Republican. However, while to a point bringing up his illness might not be taboo and to some point should be discussed, the way you did it (as perceived by me) seems like a childish attack, and quite frankly why I don’t pay much attention to the mainstream or left-leaning medias. I know asking you to change the way you write to show more respect to elected officials will be moot. I will just say the negative overtone I felt makes me not want to agree with anything else you might bring to mass attention whether it is warranted or not. Hopefully this might at the very least cause a brief millisecond of counter-thought before you attack a man’s character rather then his actions.”

J. M. added another perspective: “A big standing ‘O’ for ya for the nasty-Hogan column and follow-up. If there’s anything that makes me livid about current GOP politics (well, there are a LOT of things), it’s how everything is reduced to emotionalism and whether you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ someone. It’s a way of avoiding real policy discourse, which of course they can’t engage in because they have no policy ideas beyond opposing anything Obama, immigrant, urban, female, etc. They latched onto a single line in your column, re: chemo, to avoid actually disputing the entire list of policy decisions you detailed concerning the Red Line, etc. Anyway, glad you struck a nerve, and I just wish there were as organized an on-line commentariat on the other side as there is with the whole Red State set.”

Then there’s this from R. L.:  “Add to the Hogan list not only the abrupt curtailment of a recent, difficult-to-achieve toll increase, which jeopardizes the near-  and long-term maintenance needs for most [toll] facilities, but also virtually eliminates replacement or some other solution to the problems of the Nice Bridge [in Southern Maryland] (for which there would have been major federal funding), but also the abrupt firing of probably the most highly qualified and effective airport administrator in the country — a finalist for [the] Atlanta [airport’s top job] who turned down [offers to run Chicago’s] O’Hare Airport and under whose leadership BWI had its greatest growth phase. Really hard to understand.”

Wiedefeld Firing

I concur on his last point. Sadly, no reporters have delved into the heavy leadership turnover in the state’s Transportation Department and the mysterious firing of Paul Wiedefield at BWI, a true all-star airport and transportation administrator.

Gov. Harry Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing of the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

R.L. also raises a valid point that Hogan’s decision to lower tolls will have serious long-term consequences. Critical bridge repair/replacement work on the ancient Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac River and the aging Thomas Hatem Bridge on U.S. 40 over the Susquehanna River are badly needed. But now there’s no money to do the job.

All that may be fodder for future columns. For now, it’s good to hear from readers, whatever their points of view.

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Hogan’s Health and Harsh Words

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 4, 2015 — Complaints and harsh words have poured in about my Aug. 3 column, for daring to raise the possibility that Gov. Larry Hogan’s health may have played a role in his turn toward nastiness.

Let’s be clear: The governor’s treatment for late Stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma cannot be ignored.

Everyone wishes Hogan a speedy return to good health. Doctors I’ve spoken to have been optimistic about his recovery chances given today’s advancements in chemotherapy.

But the situation — and its ramifications for governing Maryland — cannot be swept under the rug.

Gov. Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail announcement. Hogan's Health and Harsh Words.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Corrections Secretary Stephen Moyer at Baltimore jail announcement.

Could the governor’s unseemly swipes at Democratic leaders be partly related to how he’s feeling during and after his intense medical treatments?

It is a possibility. You don’t have to agree, but it’s a thought worth considering — which is why it was raised ever so briefly (17 words) in my previous column.

Governor’s Response

Hogan’s spinmeisters used my column to reject the notion he has turned from Mr. Nice to Mr. Nasty. In a Facebook posting, Hogan asserted:

“In spite of 10 days of 24 hour chemo I haven’t become mean and nasty, I’m still the same nice guy I have always been, and we are still accomplishing great things for Maryland.”

He also defended his failure to notify Democratic legislators before announcing the closing of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Why? Because he didn’t want to tip off the gangs about what was about to happen.

Fair enough.

Gangs and the City Jail

For the record, here’s what Mr. Nice Guy had to say in blaming the disgraceful gang problems of the city jail on former Gov. Martin O’Malley:

“When the first indictments came down the previous governor called the case ‘a positive achievement in the fight against gangs.’ It was just phony political spin on a prison culture created by an utter failure of leadership.”

The facts tell a slightly different story that Hogan conveniently ignored in his spiteful comments.

It was O’Malley’s corrections secretary, Gary Maynard, who uncovered the deplorable Black Guerilla gang control of the city jail and called in the FBI. Maynard wanted to act immediately to end the gang’s stranglehold on the detention center and prosecute the guards involved, but the FBI insisted on months and months of further investigation.

This long delay was a huge, inexcusable mistake, but that failure of leadership should not be blamed on O’Malley. Hogan needed to point an accusing figure at the FBI.

Attacking the Opposition

It was easier and more useful politically to demonize the opposition party leadership.

Thus, Hogan politicized the jail-closing announcement in terms that pilloried both O’Malley and the Democratic legislature.

Such “smack-down” rhetoric doesn’t further cooperative governance.

Two of the most level-headed Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Ed De Grange of Anne Arundel County and Sen. Guy Guzzone of Howard County, co-chaired a commission that studied the city jail situation and developed a long-term, bi-partisan solution.

Hogan not only disregarded their work, he bragged about the fact he had “never even looked at” this plan.

Legislative Response

Is it any wonder the co-chairs accused Hogan of having “circumvented the Legislature” and of  “making decisions behind closed doors”?

That last accusation has surfaced on other Hogan decisions, too. He doesn’t seem to believe in listening to a wide-range of divergent views before making up his mind. That approach is not always helpful.

Closing the Baltimore jail was absolutely the right decision. Hooray for Hogan.

He is correct it should have happened long ago — perhaps even under the governorship of the last Republican chief executive, Bob Ehrlich.

But there was no reason to turn the announcement into a political tongue-lashing.

It only exacerbates the growing gulf between the governor and Democratic lawmakers, the very people he needs if he hopes to make headway in achieving his large-scale goals for Maryland.

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The New, Nasty Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 3, 2015 — What happened to the friendly, smiling, easy-going Larry Hogan? Mr. Nice Guy has morphed into Mr. Nasty.

Gov. Larry Hogan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan poses at Baltimore City Detention Center. (AP)

Perhaps he’s spent too much time with his pal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the combative presidential hopeful with the mouth that roars.

Perhaps his new Kojack look, as well as his grueling chemotherapy sessions, help explain what’s going on.

Or maybe it’s just a recognition by Maryland’s Republican governor that tough talk and decisive action go over well with his conservative-to-moderate constituents. Excoriating hapless, fumbling Democrats and going it alone make you look like John Wayne riding to the school marm’s rescue.

Whatever the reason, Hogan has taken a turn down a dark alley. It may lead to a promising political future but from a governing standpoint it could turn into a disaster.

Alienating Democrats

In less than nine months, Hogan has managed to offend or alienate much of the Democratic elected leadership in Maryland. He has:

  • Immediately shuttered the disgraceful Baltimore City jail and detention center without even bothering to inform local officials, judges or prosecutors — or provide any details about how this is feasible.
  • On an impulse, unilaterally re-opened the old Senate Chamber in the State House while the prime mover in this historic restoration, the Democratic Senate President, was out of the country.
  • Punitively eliminated $2 million in renovations for an arts center cherished by the Democratic House speaker.
  • Slashed education aid to Democratic strongholds, then reneged on a compromise.
  • Killed the Baltimore region’s rapid rail Red Line without any backup plan.
  • Stripped to the bone the state’s contribution for the Washington area’s rapid rail Purple Line, them squeezed two counties for $100 million more.
  • Shifted all the money saved to rural and exurban road and bridge projects.
  • Named a commission to do away with regulations and made sure the member solidly pro-business and Republican.

In nearly every case, Hogan’s made it clear he’s the act-now, think-later governor of Maryland who doesn’t need to consult with Democratic lawmakers or local officials who might offer valuable input. That would complicate matters.

It’s his party and he’ll do what he wants.

Hogan is giving the public what it wants: Simplistic, quick answers to difficult, highly complicated problems. It’s also how he campaigned for governor.

Sort of reminds you of Donald Trump, doesn’t it?

Fixing the Mess 

Here’s the catch: If easy solutions could fix government’s worst dilemmas, they would have happened long ago.

If simply closing the Baltimore City jail and detention center could solve that jurisdiction’s incarceration and detention nightmare, that step would have been taken by Republic Gov. Bob Ehrlich or Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Governor Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail-closing announcement.

Governor Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail-closing announcement.

Hogan’s quick action at the Baltimore jail opens a new can of worms. You can’t mix people awaiting trial with convicted felons, but that’s apparently the plan. How do you tend to the medical and transportation needs of 1,000-plus former city jail inmates about to be spread among other state prison facilities? Where’s the intake center for new arrivals?  Are you overwhelming nearby state prisons? Will the state face additional, unwinnable ACLU lawsuits?

Hogan says he won’t build a replacement city jail. That would make Baltimore unique in the United States. How is this going to work? Hogan is mum on that point. What does he know that other correctional expert don’t?

The city jail announcement came with gratuitous, nasty and factually inaccurate swipes at  O’Malley. It sounded like a re-hash of Hogan in last year’s campaign.

Nor did the Republican governor spare Democratic legislators from his wrath. Then again, he displayed a stunning lack of preparation: He admitted he hadn’t read a detailed report from a special legislative commission on handling Baltimore’s chronic jail/detention situation.

Another Agnew?

Hogan is playing to his political crowd: angry white men and women — most with limited education — that Spiro Agnew appealed to. If the governor continues along this combative line of attack, he could well become a talked-about contender for the Republican vice presidential nomination, just like Agnew.

We live in an era of presidential campaigning dominated by sound bites, blunt talk, insults and easy answers. Hogan seems to be following that path, too.

The difference is that presidential candidates don’t have to govern. Hogan does, and he has now made that part of his life far more difficult. Maryland could be in for at least three years of government gridlock in Annapolis. It may not be pretty or helpful for Marylanders, but it could well serve Larry Hogan’s political purposes.

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Hogan’s 20th Century View of Transit

By Barry Rascovar

July 27, 2015–You’ve got to give Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn credit for one thing: honesty.

He fessed up at a legislative hearing last week that Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. had stripped every last cent from Baltimore’s Red Line rail-transit initiative – as well as most of the state’s previously allocated dollars for the Washington area’s Purple Line – and shifted the entire amount into highway and bridge projects far removed from Maryland’s population centers.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr

All of those hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for rapid rail expansion now “have been committed to roads,” an unapologetic Rahn said.

In place of a $3 billion rapid rail Red Line for Baltimore, Rahn and Hogan say they will make “cost-effective” improvements to the region’s slow-moving, underperforming bus system.

Those will be largely cosmetic fixes. Why? Because Rahn set up a situation where there’s no money to undertake major improvements.

Asphalt and Concrete

Road projects are what Rahn and Hogan care about. Money talks and in this case, Maryland’s governor is stating in a loud and clear voice his overriding objective is to throw more and more dollars into asphalt and concrete highways and bridges.

That’s a 20th century response that fails to address 21st century problems.

Rahn was brought in by Hogan to build roads, not mass transit. Hogan wants to live up to his campaign promise to kill the Red Line and the Purple Line. Rahn delivered.

He not only wiped out the Red Line but he’s come up with a delayed, bare-bones Purple Line option for the Washington suburbs. Hogan’s dramatic slashing of the state’s contribution could lead to the line’s demise for any number of reasons.

That would be fine with the Republican governor, allowing him to pour even more transportation dollars into rural and exurban road-building – where his most fervent supporters live — and once again snub mass transit.

Naturally, all of this is papered over with politically correct rhetoric. Hogan is good at that.

Tunnel Costs

Both the governor and Rahn blame the Red Line’s demise on the high cost of tunneling. Rahn even raised the bogus issue of unexpected obstacles that might increase the price tag for this tunneling.

He dredged up Seattle’s problems with a gigantic piece of tunneling equipment called Big Bertha that got stuck, causing construction delays and overruns.

But an engineer with decades of mass transit experience called this a phony argument.

“It’s apples and oranges,” he said. Baltimore’s tunneling wouldn’t have been anything like Seattle’s. “Many, many other cities have used the same tunneling approach we wanted to use in Baltimore without any problems.”

Now Hogan and Rahn say they are studying “dozens and dozens” of options for Baltimore. But others who have talked to state transportation officials say that’s not so. There was, and there remains, no backup plan.

It’s a political smoke screen.

State Responsibility

Here’s another smoke screen created by Hogan and Rahn. They say they won’t move forward until Baltimore’s regional leaders first present them with new mass transit proposals.

But wait: Isn’t mass transit a state responsibility in Maryland?

This is another delaying tactic and a way to shift responsibility.

From a transportation standpoint, Baltimore is dead in the water, thanks to Hogan.

He has zero blueprints for improving traffic flow and rush hour gridlock in metropolitan Baltimore. He has killed any chance of a new rail transit line during his time in office. He’s also cleverly arranged things so he has zero money for any big mass transit initiative.

Illegal Bus Fare Increase?

On top of that, Hogan and Rahn illegally raised bus fares for Baltimore residents – while simultaneously lowering fares for drivers on state toll roads and bridges. That’s what a legislative analyst and some mass transit advocates maintain.

It’s yet another indication of what matters to Hogan.

Again, Rahn and Hogan don’t seem to care. They simply assert they’re right and the legislature’s analyst and other experts are wrong. The last thing they intend to do is ask the attorney general for a legal ruling.

Politics, Hogan-style, has trumped long-range policy considerations.

Under Hogan, mass transit improvements in Baltimore appear remote in our lifetime. His supporters in rural and suburban Maryland are cheering, which is what counts for this governor.

Disappearing Baltimore

It’s more than ironic that when the governor announced the death of the Red Line, his aides produced a map of the state showing all the rural and suburban road and bridge improvements going forward, thanks to the death of Baltimore’s Red Line.

Lo and behold, Baltimore had disappeared from the state map. It had sunk into the Chesapeake Bay.

This is increasingly what we are seeing from Hogan and Rahn. They couch it in gentler terms so it appears they really do care.

But when it comes to taking action, and putting state money on the table, the only thing that matters to this pair is turning away from urban transit and pouring every last dollar into more and better roadways far from Maryland’s most densely populated areas.

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The Debtor President

By Barry Rascovar

July 20, 2015 – Should we elect as president a candidate who can’t seem to handle his own family’s finances?

Presidential Candidate Martin O'Malley

Presidential Candidate Martin O’Malley

Martin O’Malley, presidential contender and former Maryland governor, ran up $339,000 in college education debt for just two of his four children – a staggering amount – on an annual family income that easily topped $300,000.

The O’Malleys lived for eight years in a rent-free mansion where all meals and other household expenses were picked up by the state. They had no mortgage payments to make. They were driven everywhere in state-owned cars by State Troopers. They didn’t have to pay for gas, insurance or car repairs.

Given their minimal living expenses, why couldn’t the former governor and Judge Katie O’Malley contribute more of their hard-earned paychecks (and Martin’s pension as Baltimore mayor) to pay down their daughters’ college loans?

With two more children approaching college age, it’s possible the O’Malleys’ college debt soon could exceed $500,000 or $600,000.

Checkbook Juggling

That doesn’t say much about Martin O’Malley’s ability to balance his family’s checkbook without going heavily into debt – even on a two-income figure that most couples only dream about.

Would you trust a debtor presidential candidate to take on the far more arduous task of handling the federal government’s heavily out-of-balance budget?

What kind of message does this send to voters if Candidate O’Malley had to load himself down with IOUs to make ends meet despite a hefty family income?

To critics, it’s indicative of the kind of state government O’Malley ran, in which he repeatedly sought more and more social spending even though he was driving Maryland deeper and deeper into a sea of red ink.

By the time the Democratic governor left office, his replacement, Republican Larry Hogan Jr., said he was facing a $1.3 billion gap between spending and incoming revenue.

O’Malley was able to paper over the state’s structural deficit most years by raising taxes – dozens of fee and tax hikes. But with a family budget, you can’t turn to that kind of legerdemain.

A Catholic Education

It is entirely understandable that Mr. and Mrs. O’Malley, devout Catholics, want to give their children a solid parochial education. That costs a pretty penny in Baltimore’s private schools.

Plenty of parents make that same choice knowing it will place them behind the financial eight-ball for decades. It is a sacrifice they feel is worth the pain to ensure their kids receive quality schooling that includes religious instruction.

College is a totally different matter.

The O’Malleys let their daughters select high-cost, out-of-state campuses – Georgetown and the College of Charleston. Premier institutions, no doubt.

Georgetown University

Georgetown University

Yet with the O’Malleys still sending two sons to parochial schools and then onto college, didn’t it dawn on them that they were digging a hole of future debt that could prove embarrassing and keep them paying off loans for the rest of their lives?

It was not a smart move financially.

Homeland Heaven

The O’Malleys moved out of the Annapolis governor’s mansion in January and into a four-bedroom, 1928 lake-view house in Baltimore’s toney Homeland community they bought for $549,000. They put down $65,000 in cash and took out a whopping $494,000 mortgage, according to federal filing reports.

That brings the couple’s debt burden – education loans plus mortgage – to $833,000. If their two sons also get to select expensive out-of-state schools, the O’Malley debt load could top $1 million.

As has been pointed out by MarylandReporters’ Len Lazarick, the former governor and District Court judge could have invested a chunk of their salaries in Maryland’s college tuition savings plan to offset higher-education expenses. If the parents had put their foot down and insisted their children attend in-state public universities and colleges, the couple probably could have paid those tuition bill out of their bank accounts.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Maryland’s four-year public institutions by a Maryland governor – even though there are numerous gems to choose from, such as St. Mary’s College, UMBC, the flagship University of Maryland College Park campus, and well-regarded schools in Frostburg, Towson and Salisbury.

Voter Perception

If Martin O’Malley eventually becomes a legitimate contender for the Democratic presidential nomination (at this point he’s being heavily outspent and out-polled by Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders), his questionable handling of his family‘s education finances could become a legitimate bone of contention.

Sure, our children deserve a chance to gain a high-caliber education, even it is requires the parents to dig deep into their pockets. But like everything in life, there are limits to what that sacrifice should entail.

O’Malley hasn’t used good fiscal discipline in dealing with his family’s education expenses. Does this put a damper on voters’ perception of him as a viable presidential contender?

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