Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Laurel Preakness? Get Real

By Barry Rascovar

May 25, 2015 — The Stronach Group, which owns Maryland’s two thoroughbred one-mile tracks, is making noise, once again, about moving the crown jewel of Free State racing, the Preakness Stakes, to Laurel Race Course.

 

Pimlico Race Course

Pimlico Race Course

It’s a non-starter — and the Stronach folks probably know it.

Legally such a move can’t take place without General Assembly approval, which won’t happen.

From a racing standpoint, owner Frank Stronach would have to be brain-dead to transplant the Preakness.

All the fabled history would be lost. Laurel races couldn’t be compared with the 140 years of past Preakness performances at Pimlico. Different track, different racing surface, different times for traversing a mile and three-sixteenths.

Laurel, as built, can’t hold 140,000 fans; Pimlico can and did this month. Nor is it a certainty Laurel could draw even a respectable Preakness crowd.

It’s an isolated, suburban site where families are more interested in their kids’ soccer games than a horse race. No one can walk to the track, or catch a bus, easily. Few folks from the Baltimore region would make the long trek.

Sure, Laurel’s a nice, more up-to-date track, but to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.”

Diminished Triple Crown

A Laurel Preakness would diminish the prestige and currency of racing’s Triple Crown, thus devaluing Stronach’s Maryland holdings.

It also would be perceived as a huge slap at Baltimore just when the city is trying to recover from April’s civil unrest and the black eye it received nationally and internationally. The bitterness from such a move would be harsh and unforgiving.

On paper, consolidating Maryland thoroughbred racing at one track might appear a no-brainer, but it isn’t once you start peeling back the multi-layers of reality.

What the Stronach folks really want — given the fact a one-track racing schedule is illegal and probably a long-term money-loser — is concessions from Baltimore City and the state of Maryland to offset the two tracks’ operating losses, estimated at $5 million to $8 million annually.

There are a number of ways politicians could provide the track owner with financial help.

Subsidy Options

The state legislature, for instance, could revise the division of slots revenues slightly to allocate up to $10 million annually if the Stronach Group holds a spring-summer meet at an upgraded Pimlico.

The state already guarantees each of Maryland’s two standardbred tracks $1.2 million a year for just 40 days of racing. The money comes out of the slots revenue designated for bolstering purses at those harness-racing tracks at Rosecroft and Ocean Downs.

Stronach’s thoroughbred tracks are expected to receive nearly $46 million in slots revenue for purse awards in fiscal 2017 and close to $50 million by 2020. Surely the law could be amended to let the tracks apply for a subsidy from that account to offset operating losses .

Pimlico logo

Both the state and city also could work with the Stronach Group to float inexpensive bonds for some of the improvements at Pimlico.

Baltimore City, which already is giving over $100 million in tax breaks and another $300 million in public subsidies to developers of Harbor Point downtown, could offer a similar but smaller package of infrastructure improvements and long-term tax rebates if the Stronach Group turns Pimlico into a redeveloped, multi-entertainment center.

Stronach’s Contribution

While Frank Stronach has dragged his feet in putting dollars into his Maryland tracks, he has been a good corporate citizen, even footing the bill for an expensive machine tool-and-dye training school south of the Pimlico track that taught inner-city residents the skills needed to secure good-paying, in-demand jobs.

Thanks to millions in slots revenue already designated for future race track improvements, Maryland has signaled its willingness to help revitalize thoroughbred racing.

Now it needs to seal the deal in a way that ensures Pimlico’s future and offers hundreds of new jobs for the depressed community that lies to the historic track’s south and west.

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Hogan’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Rascovar

May 18, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. makes it sound like he’s riding to the rescue of Maryland’s underfunded pension program that has been continually “raided” by evil Democratic legislators in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Gov. Larry Hogan (left) & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

What a bunch of hogwash. It’s pure Hogan hypocrisy.

Hogan’s stance — torpedoing a $68 million education appropriation to the state’s most populous jurisdictions and shifting some of that money into the state pension fund — is based on politics, not policy.

Indeed, Hogan is a late convert to the cause of pension-fund integrity.

Silent Secretary

When legislative analysts went before House and Senate budget panels and proposed a 50 percent reduction in Hogan’s $150 million supplemental appropriation to the pension fund, the governor’s budget secretary not only failed to object but congratulated lawmakers for their assiduous work in responsibly paring Hogan’s budget request.

Not until it became politically expedient later in the session to slam Democrats for cutting the supplemental appropriation in half did Hogan belatedly turn into a pension-funding hawk.

Since then, he’s continually referred to Democratic lawmakers’ “raid” of pension money.

Another bit of Hogan flummery.

The pension agency got so offended at this misguided gubernatorial propaganda pitch that it issued a press release regarding “the mistaken impression that the pension fund had been ‘raided’ by the General Assembly during the recently-completed session. This is not the case.”

No Dipping Allowed

The agency explained that the dispute centered on how much extra should be spent to help the state more quickly reach full funding to pay for future pension payouts. The state’s required $1.8 billion budget contribution to the retirement account this year remained untouched.

Indeed, it’s illegal for the legislature or the governor to “dip into” the $45.7 billion pension fund. That money can only be used to make pension payouts. No “raids” are permitted. But you’d never know that from listening to the governor’s spiel.

Hogan’s pension purity pursuit was his way of diverting attention from his other action — denying important state dollars to Baltimore City and other high-cost subdivisions to help them avoid layoffs or cuts in school programs.

He said it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to give that money to the schools instead of pouring it into the pension fund.

He’s got his priorities reversed.

The greatest immediate urgency is bolstering education achievement in distressed communities like West Baltimore. That takes money.

Further fortifying the state’s pension program can be done more gradually over the next decade or two.

Harsh Consequences

Especially in light of civil unrest in poor, racially blighted Baltimore neighborhoods, Hogan’s decision to yank $11.6 million away from the city school system seems short-sighted and counter-productive.

The consequences of his action could be quite harsh when the General Assembly meets next January.  This slap in the face to Baltimore schools won’t be forgotten. Nor will legislators from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties forget Hogan’s slight, either. They lost a combined $37 million in school money.

The governor’s next big decision could be the fate of the two mass-transit lines affecting those three major jurisdictions — the east-west Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

His actions on the two lines could prove pivotal in his dealings with Democratic lawmakers. Deep-sixing either project will prompt an uproar. Yet Hogan is intent on appeasing his conservative base by finding ways to sharply reduce mass-transit costs.

He’s playing with political dynamite.

If he sets off a Democratic explosion over the fate of the Red and Purple lines, the resulting fallout could cripple Hogan’s efforts to constructively deal with the General Assembly over the next three years.

Judging from his rejection of supplemental education aid, this governor seems determined to restrict Maryland’s future spending habits at all costs. His goal is to lower taxes. Everything else is secondary.

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

May 11, 2015 — Larry Hogan Jr. is proving to be an unusual governor for Maryland, in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessors, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Both Democrat O’Malley and Republican Ehrlich love publicity and making a PR splash. They craved the spotlight, issued a tidal wave of propaganda pitches and tried to dominate the daily news coverage.

Republican Hogan wants none of the above. He’s such a modest, low-key governor that he brings to mind the gubernatorial years of an equally low-key Maryland chief executive, Harry Hughes.

But there’s a difference. Hughes came to Maryland’s top office steeped in state government and political expertise. Hogan, in contrast, was a novice who had never held an elective post.

During his campaign last year, Hogan followed a disciplined KISS strategy — “keep it simple, stupid.” His themes purposely avoided divisive social issues and stuck to a few key promises — cut the state budget and then cut taxes.

Narrow Legislative Focus

Hogan followed a similar KISS approach in his first legislative session. His one and only focus: developing a slimmed-down budget that came close to wiping out Maryland’s chronic structural deficit.

The rest of his so-called “agenda” consisted of leftovers from the campaign trail — unrealistic Republican proposals that stood no chance in a heavily Democratic General Assembly.

During those 90 days in Annapolis, Hogan held few press conferences, issued few press releases and remained pretty much in the background.

By session’s end, he had won much of the budget battles, setting the stage for a similar push next year to make room for tax cuts.

He gave us a preview of his intentions last week by announcing reduced tolls on Maryland’s roads and bridges.

Bay Bridge toll cut

While this puts a giant crimp in Maryland’s efforts to replace aging bridges and improve interstate roads, the symbolism of Hogan’s toll-cutting action is what counted for the governor.

Even when dealing with the volatile protests and unrest in Baltimore, the new governor kept his participation low-key — and simple.

His actions were few but decisive — calling in the National Guard when requested, moving his office to Baltimore and delivering daily updates in which he basically introduced law-enforcement leaders to brief the media.

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

When cornered by reporters, Hogan refused to blame the mayor for what had occurred and refused to discuss details of events. He sounded a one-note response: “We are here to keep the peace.”

Compared with the frenetic, 24/7 campaign styles O’Malley and Ehrlich brought to the governor’s mansion, Hogan’s modest and even shy approach is a refreshing change.

His eternal optimism, concern and ready smile serve him well with Marylanders.

Next Big Test

That widespread popularity soon could be tested when Hogan decides what to do about two costly but critical mass-transit projects — Baltimore’s Red Line and the suburban Washington Purple Line.

He called them unaffordable during the campaign, but rejecting either project will create deep antagonisms and hostility toward the Republican governor that could dog him in the legislature for the rest of his term.

So far, Hogan has avoided these kinds of flash points, knowing that a Republican governor can ill afford alienating a large chunk of the legislature’s majority party.

How he navigates between his campaign statements and strong public sentiment for the Red and Purple Lines in three of Maryland’s largest and most politically influential jurisdictions will tell us much about Hogan’s ability to navigate his way through perilous political situations.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. Contact him at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Heartbreaking Failure of Leadership

By Barry Rascovar

May 4, 2015 — Baltimore deserves better. The citizens of Charm City, black and white, dutifully worked for decades to overcome obstacles of urban decline, including poverty and joblessness, with the goal of creating a thriving neo-urban, multi-racial environment attractive to residents and employers.

Those intent on achieving that dream have suffered a heartbreaking setback.

Failure of Leadership

Baltimore’s younger generation of African Americans decided anger and violence were more important than taking constructive steps toward empowerment.

They seized on a failure of leadership at multiple levels and drove their inflammatory actions, like a spear, through Charm City’s armor.

Partial Responsibility

The roots of this civil unrest will be analyzed for decades.

One obvious flash point could become a bone of contention in the Democratic presidential campaign. Another could dominate next year’s election for mayor.

History may record that both Martin O’Malley and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, mayors past and present, bear partial responsibility for what went wrong in Baltimore over the last week.

O’Malley, who has set his sights on the U.S. presidency, won election in 1999 to Baltimore’s top position with the courageous support of Rawlings-Blake’s father, Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings, one of the most influential power brokers in the Maryland General Assembly and a staunch defender of black Baltimore.

The O’Malley mayoral campaign of 1999 centered on the need for tougher police enforcement after eight years of a failed community policing policy under Baltimore’s first elected black mayor, Kurt Schmoke.

Indeed, O’Malley made a name for himself on the Baltimore City Council as a persistent critic of the soft, ineffective policing tactics put in place by Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

Discontent with Violence

Baltimore is a heavily African American city. For a white to win the city’s top elected post speaks volumes about the discontent with the violence and rising crime rate in 1999. Pete Rawlings’ endorsement of O’Malley over two major black contenders proved pivotal.

Martin O’Malley came into office promising a tough law-and-order stance that would deter crime. He initiated a zero-tolerance approach based on New York City’s successful “broken windows” theory — go after petty crimes, such as vandalism or a broken window, and it would prevent more serious criminal action. Young blacks simply congregating on street corners ended up in jail on suspicion of drug dealing.

Over 100,000 arrests were made one year (in a city of 650,000). O’Malley also embraced New York City’s statistical analysis, renamed Citistat, to pinpoint crime hotspots.

The two initiatives led to a dramatic drop in law-breaking. At the time, O’Malley was lauded for his tough stance that seemed to have made Baltimore safer. It also eased the way for his reelection as mayor.

Residue of Anger

But zero-tolerance sowed the seeds of discontent and bitterness among young black men. Much of the fury expressed on the city’s streets last week flowed from those mass-arrest sweeps and the targeting by police of young blacks during the O’Malley years.

His tough-on-crime approach as mayor stands in stark contrast to O’Malley’s current attempt to position himself as the ultra-liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, zero-tolerance policing is the antithesis of what Democratic liberals believe in.

His hard line on law enforcement could well dog O’Malley during presidential campaign debates and interviews.

His successor as mayor, Sheila Dixon, quickly discarded O’Malley’s zero tolerance strategy in favor of a more humanizing law-enforcement tool — increased on-the-street patrols and closer affiliation with community groups.

O-Malley and Rawlings-Blake

Mayors past and present in happier times

Rawlings-Blake has continued that less confrontational approach to policing.

Some now contend the mayor’s permissiveness on that first night of clashes encouraged young blacks to engage in looting, arson and attacks on policemen and firefighters knowing there would be no crackdown.

In hindsight, the mayor’s critics may have a point. But on-the-spot decisions are easily faulted after the fact.

No Rapid Response

Rawlings-Blake will be dogged over the next year and a half by those who point to her failure to go after the miscreants immediately — before the violence got out of hand.

Her mystifying refusal to request help from Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. in the critical hours leading up to the outbreak of lawlessness now looks like a tragic mistake. Her standoffishness from the governor since then defies explanation.

Prior to last week’s upheaval, Rawlings-Blake looked like an easy winner in next year’s mayoral election.

That’s no longer the case — especially with the hero-worshipping status accorded Baltimore’s new state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, who rushed to charge six police officers with a kitchen sink of wrondoing.

Winning convictions may prove infinitely harder, though, which could color the public’s perception of Mosby in the months ahead.

Former Mayor Dixon looms as a potential contender, too.

Clearly, Rawlings-Blake has some serious repair work to do politically, once things return to normal in Baltimore, if she hopes to remain in the mayor’s office for another term.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.