Hogan’s Unappetizing Choices

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 5, 2015 — The New Year belongs to the victors, like Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr. But reality will set in quickly once hard, unappetizing choices pit campaign pledges against on-the-ground reality.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

Here are some examples:

RED LINE/PURPLE LINE

During the campaign, Hogan criticized both mass transit lines as too expensive for Maryland’s financial situation.

He said the money would be better spent on roads, not rapid rail.

At the same time, Hogan pounded away at the need for aggressive job and business creation. He pledged to energize the state’s lackluster economic development effort.

Killing the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs would, indeed, save lots of money for Maryland — $1.035 billion on the Red Line and $637 million on the Purple Line.

But not a penny of the savings will help Hogan close the $1 billion general fund budget deficit staring him in the face. Transportation funds are segregated in a separate account.

Even worse, the savings probably wouldn’t pay for much in the way of local highways work, either. That’s because the state would only be paying one-sixth (or possibly less) of the cost each year during the lengthy construction stage.

Compounding matters, revenue estimates for transportation taxes are proving overly optimistic, leaving a $441 million hole in the state’s six-year transportation plan.

Killing the Red and Purple lines would close that gap, but what’s left wouldn’t have much of an impact on local road-building when spread over six years, plus inflation.

The demise of Maryland’s two major transit projects, meanwhile, would be devastating for transportation contractors and the thousands of workers who wouldn’t be employed building the two rail lines.

That hurts Maryland’s jobless rate and the state’s economic growth.

So killing the two projects outright may not be the smartest step.

Baltimore badly needs the Red Line to connect its inadequate transit system and get low-income city workers to job sites. The Purple Line is crucial for near-the-beltway, lower-income neighborhoods and for lessening the crunch in rush hours on the Capital Beltway.

Then there are the political ramifications.

Kill the two transit lines and the new governor immediately makes enemies of the three largest delegations in the Maryland General Assembly — Baltimore, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County.

Together, the three have enough votes to make life miserable for Hogan.

There’s got to be a middle-ground way, which would involve a construction delay while engineers search for cost-effective options to lower the price tag for the two rail routes.

When the Woodrow Wilson Bridge crossing the Potomac River near National Harbor was reconstructed, the cost soared out of sight. Only after an innovative project engineer, Tom Mohler (now a partner with RK&K Engineers in Baltimore) devised a cheaper approach — chopping the massive project into smaller chunks — did the price tag diminish enough for Maryland, Virginia and the District to proceed with construction.

That’s what may have to take place on the two expensive mass transit routes, too.

SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION

Hogan faces a huge budget deficit, which may require a deep cut in school construction funding, from the $300 million level favored by the O’Malley administration to the $200 million level.

The problem is that many of the counties where Hogan was wildly popular are the very counties lobbying the state for more new-school dollars to handle a surge in students.

Hogan might end up disappointing the very voters who put him in office.

Clearly the state’s budget hole, plus the state’s over-reliance on floating bonds, call for reductions in spending.

School construction sticks out like a sore thumb.

Hogan might attempt to do more with less — by putting the state’s money into renovations of existing schools instead of costly new construction. He may be able to stretch fewer dollars further.

But it won’t make all his supporters happy, especially those with kids attending overcrowded public schools.

FILM TAX CREDIT

Maryland’s generosity toward the film industry led two TV production companies in recent years to work in the state on “Veep” and “House of Cards.”

Since 2012, this has cost Maryland taxpayers $62.5 million in tax credits to the production companies.

Yet it has put hundreds of skilled laborers to work behind the scenes: designing sets, arranging the lighting, working on the sound and engineering crews, preparing the costumes and working as extras. Hundreds more have been hired locally to play roles in the TV series.

If the tax credit is killed, one of the biggest losers would be Harford County, which, ironically, gave Hogan an overwhelming victory in November.

The Department of Legislative Services claims the film tax credit has generated little in the way of a return on the state’s investment, but the DLS may have been looking at the wrong indicators.

As an economic development tool, the tax credit is nurturing a local film industry. It is responsible for the evolution of a solid core of high-quality, skilled craftsmen and artists — just the right ingredients for luring more film crews to Maryland.

Kill the film tax credit and you likely kill any chance of Maryland retaining “Veep” and “House of Cards.” Hogan would be chopping off any possibility of Maryland gaining a reputation in Hollywood as a welcoming place for film production.

For a governor promising to grow jobs and the state economy, Hogan would be sending the wrong signal by taking an ax to the film tax credit.

Such unappetizing choices put him in a bind.

Hogan must find a way to balance the state’s books while not forsaking his pledge to jump-start Maryland’s quest for jobs and business — while at the same time not alienating his supporters or powerful groups in the legislature that could potentially subvert his agenda.

It won’t be easy.

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Barry Rascovar writes a blog, www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com