Monthly Archives: March 2014

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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Common Sense and LNG Exports

By Barry Rascovar

March 10, 2014 — FINALLY, a dose of common sense in the swirl of hysterical hype and fear-mongering by environmental groups over the proposed liquid natural gas export project at Cove Point in Southern Maryland.

Cove Point LNG Terminal in Lusby, MD

Cove Point LNG Terminal in Lusby, MD

If you listen to the protesting greenies, this $3.8 billion project by the large energy company Dominion will send natural gas prices higher, promote the use of dirty energy sources like oil and coal, pollute the Chesapeake Bay, pollute Maryland’s air, worsen global warming and encourage more shale-oil fracking.

Few of those assertions have much credence. Some are bald-faced, and intentional, twisting of the truth.

More on target is Virginia-based Dominion’s assertion that environmentalists are trying to use this LNG project as a proxy for their war on hydraulic fracturing of shale rock and the Keystone Pipeline. Neither has a direct link to what Dominion wants to do.

‘Clear and Unambiguous’

That’s why it was refreshing to hear common sense applied to this propaganda battle by Judge Michele Hotten of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, who strongly supported a circuit court ruling in Dominion’s favor.

It was “clear and unambiguous,” the judge wrote in a recent 3-0 decision, that an LNG export terminal is permitted at Cove Point under a 2005 agreement with environmental groups. Period. End of argument.

Those groups won’t let it end, though. They are intent on litigating this project ad infinitum — anything to delay and eventually kill this evil proposal.

The problem is that what Dominion wants to do at Cove Point isn’t evil. It isn’t a pox on the environment. Quite the contrary.

Proposed expansion at Cove Point LNG Terminal

Proposed expansion at Cove Point Terminal

Dominion wants to export $6 billion a year in LNG to India and Japan, two nations that are heavy polluters of the air by burning huge amounts of oil and coal. Natural gas, by contrast, is a far cleaner-burning substitute source of energy and a far more energy-efficient commodity.

Which is better: Burning coal and oil or burning natural gas?

We should know the answer since Maryland and most other states are forcing utilities to shutter their existing oil-burning and coal-burning electric plants in favor of the vastly superior alternative, natural gas.

Double-hulled Tankers

But won’t Cove Point harm the bay?

Not really. Dominion expects about 85 double-hulled tankers to visit its terminal annually — the same number as visited Cove Point at its peak when it served as an import terminal between 1978 and 1980. Besides, LNG is super-safe. If there’s a spill, the natural gas evaporates and dissipates because it is lighter than air. There has yet to be an environmental disaster caused by an LNG tanker.

But won’t Cove Point stimulate more fracking?

Of course not. That’s a manufactured canard. Cove Point’s exports won’t influence the decision by energy companies to drill for oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing techniques. The rush is on to discover more of this country’s abundant supply of cleaner-burning natural gas. If Cove Point never exports a cubic foot of LNG it will have zero impact on the future of fracking.

Nor will Cove Point have anything to do with the Keystone Pipeline decision. Connecting the two is preposterous and an indication of extreme paranoia.

Given that Cove Point is one of 21 LNG export proposals seeking regulatory approval — plus another six that have gotten the federal go-ahead, its impact in the greater scheme of things is being incredibly overblown.

Impact on Pricing

Won’t Dominion raise natural gas prices by exporting this commodity?

Pure buncombe. Two years from now, U.S. production of natural gas is projected to exceed domestic consumption. Energy independence is within reach.

Once the U.S. starts exporting energy, it will have a positive impact on shrinking this country’s trade deficit.

A new office within the State Department is vigorously pursuing “energy diplomacy” based on the growing U.S. ability to export vast quantities of LNG. Natural gas exports are likely to become a key geopolitical weapon against Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine and a way to draw that struggling nation away from Vladimir Putin’s grasp.

Cove Point exports, starting in 2017, will be part of that American effort. The LNG plant also will provide a big boost for Maryland’s economy. Thousands of high-paying construction jobs. Seventy-five new permanent jobs. A 60 percent boost in Maryland’s exports. A big jump in sales and income taxes for the state and Calvert County.

No wonder an overflow crowd at a March 1 hearing in Southern Maryland overwhelmingly supported Dominion’s project.

LNG hearing in Southern Maryland

LNG hearing in Southern Maryland

That hasn’t stopped the greenies, who rounded up supporters from the Baltimore area to stage a big protest as the Maryland Public Service Commission began hearings on this case.

Anti-Cove Point protesters in Baltimore

Anti-Cove Point protesters in Baltimore

But the PSC’s role is narrow: Whether to permit construction of two natural gas turbines that will provide the energy for compressing the natural gas to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s when the gas turns to liquid).

Baltimore protest of LNG Terminal project

Baltimore protest of LNG Terminal project

The PSC’s staff has recommended approval. It’s pretty much a straight-forward proposal — two clean-burning turbines to power the liquefaction. The heat generated during that process would be recycled to provide energy for the rest of the Cove Point facility, thus reducing the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This project is being studied to exhaustion. Twenty-one thousand pages of reports and information have been prepared for regulatory agencies. Fifty more permits and approvals are still needed before the three-year construction phase commences. Final approval rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

That’s why it was refreshing to see the courts take a no-nonsense approach and examine the facts rather than heeding the heated, emotional rhetoric of opponents. But this battle is far from over, which is a shame.

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Redistricting, Minimum Wage & TV Debates

A Weekly Roundup

By Barry Rascovar

March 7 — TODAY’S House of Delegates session will mark the halfway point for a bill raising Maryland’s minimum wage in phases from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2017 — nearly 40 percent.

Recent minimum wage protest

Recent minimum wage protest

Without question, the O’Malley administration’s bill will pass. The votes are there. But it’s not exactly the bill Gov. Martin O’Malley presented in January.

There’s no automatic inflation clause. Amusement park workers are exempted (largely to accommodate Six Flags in chairman Dereck Davis’ Prince George’s County). Implementation is delayed six months to ease the transition for businesses.

Senate Action Next

Most of the changes are sensible, but more may be coming in the Senate, where there is a little more skepticism about the advisability of such a major increase in business expenses during the weakest economic recovery in memory.

Rural counties in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore may need special attention. Living expenses are a lot less there. A 40-percent hike in wages for many small, rural businesses might prove counter-productive. Ocean City’s minimum-wage summer help is primarily college students, not adults raising a family.

Too Much in a Weak Recovery?

The bill’s three-year phase-in may be too aggressive during this exceptionally mild recovery. It might be wise to adopt a more gradual rise.

But one way or another, an increase in Maryland’s minimum wage is coming — and is necessary.

It’s now a matter of how willing lawmakers are to heed warnings by business that O’Malley’s original bill  could have unintended consequences.

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ON THE OTHER END of the economic spectrum, Senate and House leaders (but not O’Malley) are pushing a bill to lower Maryland’s estate tax. This is overdue.

Wealthy Marylanders are switching their residences to avoid this state tax. Some of Maryland’s most respected business leaders are among them. The tax makes no sense, especially when surrounding states are benefiting.

A gradual return to the days when Maryland’s estate tax matched the federal levy seemed likely to pass until revised estimates on Thursday showed a new quarter-billion-dollar hole in O’Malley’s budget. That may force lawmakers to delay implementation of the phase-in.

O’Malley has not been part of the estate-tax movement. It doesn’t fit into his presidential playbook.

Instead, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch are leading the charge. They’ve finally recognized the need to start reforming parts of Maryland’s unbalanced tax laws. They’ve figures out that chasing wealthy Marylanders out of the state is a terrible strategy.

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A SIDELIGHT of the minimum wage debate this week was an attempt by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur to go beyond O’Malley’s bill and raise the standard to $11.37 an hour by 2023.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

Mizeur’s amendment bombed.

She got just eight votes, including her own.

That indicates the narrowness of Mizeur’s ultra-liberal appeal, even in a liberal General Assembly. It does not bode well for her statewide campaign.

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A HANDFUL of bills in the General Assembly seek to reform Maryland’s politicized redistricting process. They aren’t going anywhere.

That’s too bad, because turning redistricting over exclusively to those in power has gotten out of hand.

The current maps are undemocratic and a disservice to voters. Maryland’s congressional maps, for instance, are appalling. No effort is made to create compact districts or keep communities together.

MD's gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Yet until the Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals change their tunes on redistricting, legislative reforms are meaningless.

The highest federal court has washed its hands of redistricting, claiming it is purely a political matter. So much for ensuring fairness and sane congressional districts.

Interference By Appeals Court

The state’s highest court, meanwhile, has become too deeply involved in redistricting, imposing archaic thinking in drawing legislative boundaries.

As a result, cross-jurisdictional districts that follow neighborhood growth patterns are virtually forbidden. Rigid adherence to county and city lines trumps everything, even when citizens pay no heed to those boundaries in their daily lives.

What a mess. Redistricting, as currently practiced, is giving representative democracy a bad name.

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TELEVISED DEBATES in the race for governor have been set. All three of them.

Don’t expect much.

The candidates will be well rehearsed, especially the front-runner, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who needs careful scripting.

Televised Political Debates

Don’t expect one of these in MD’s 2014 TV debates.

But the real laugher will be the lone televised debate among lieutenant governor candidates.

These hopefuls aren’t elected on their own: They are the conjoined twins of gubernatorial candidates. So on TV, they will mimic positions taken by their far-more important running mates.

No Assigned Duties

That’s because their own views don’t count.

Under the state’s constitution, the lieutenant governor has no designated powers. He (or she) is there in case the governor drops dead or comes down with a disabling disease.

So if you happen to miss the scintillating debate among wannabe lieutenant governors, don’t fret.

Tuning in would be a waste of your time.

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MD’s Obamacare Fiasco Continues

By Barry Rascovar

March 3, 2014 – HOW HIGH will it go? How much more will it cost the O’Malley-Brown administration to fix or totally replace the dysfunctional online health insurance system that it bragged about until it crashed on Day One?

It already is the most costly debacle in state history.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

None of the state’s options are appetizing.  Meanwhile, the problems keep mounting, the latest being $30 million in extra taxpayer expenses due to the computer software’s inability to identify recipients no longer eligible for free Medicaid insurance.

Just fixing this deeply flawed software will cost untold tens of millions of dollars. Moving to a new, proven software system used in another state could send new spending into the stratosphere. Converting to the federal system has heavy costs as well as severe limitations and the potential for more breakdowns.

Frantic Scramble

“It seems like we’re shooting in the dark,” said an exasperated Del. Addie Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican at a hearing last week. She’s right.

State officials have been frantically scrambling ever since the administration’s highly touted online system froze and refused to work as promised on Oct. 1.

Officials are still grasping for straws, hoping the new prime contractor can make lemonade out of this lemon of an IT jalopy.

As for the next step once insurance enrollment closes on March 31, it’s another shot in the dark. Whatever the choice, it will be very expensive.

But will it work? There’s no guarantee that it will.

What a mess.

Loss of Federal Funds

Complicating matters is the looming end of federal largesse. Come 2015, the state is supposed to foot the entire bill for its health insurance exchange.

Maryland has expended $182 million in federal funds with little to show for it.  How much the state will be on the hook after Jan. 1 is another unknown, but we do know it will no longer by Martin O’Malley’s problem.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley on the air

What a distasteful present he’s leaving on his successor’s desk.

It’s baffling that no one running the legislator or the administration is insisting on an immediate and thorough investigation of this historic screw-up. This won’t be viewed favorably by future historians.

Not only is accountability lacking but the O’Malley-Brown administration is running away from this question as fast as it can.

Where’s Anthony Brown?

Note that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the widely promoted point man on healthcare reform, continues to be missing in action. Yet he owes the Maryland public a full and frank explanation of his central role in this debacle.

How this affects Brown’s candidacy for governor remains of pivotal importance.

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Does his “deer caught in headlights” performance disqualify him from serious consideration?

Is this the type of evasiveness on vital issues we can expect from him if he’s elected governor?

Do we want a governor who takes cover when controversies rage and lets underlings take the heat for him?

As Desi Arnaz famously said to Lucy, Brown has got “some ‘splainin’ to do.”

More Sinkholes Ahead?

Meanwhile, legislative committees continue to treat this disgraceful public embarrassment with kid gloves. History will not look kindly on their performance, either.

Digging out of this enormous sinkhole hasn’t been easy. The road ahead looks susceptible to similar perils.

What’s lacking is responsible, accountable leadership. That could become a dominant bone of contention as the June 24 primary approaches.

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Read other columns by Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com