Monthly Archives: December 2015

Hogan’s Happy Holidays

By Barry Rascovar

(From The Community Times (a publication of the Carroll County Times)

Dec. 23, 2015

What a whirlwind year this has been for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. He’s seen phenomenal highs and
lows.

The year’s emotional peak came with his swearing-in as Maryland’s 62nd governor. The low point came when Hogan announced he had been diagnosed with advanced non-lymphoma Hodgkin’s disease that required prolonged and extensive chemotherapy.

As we near the end of 2015, Hogan has every reason to celebrate the holidays with joy and optimism.

Hogan's Happy Holidays

MD Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Hogan’s cancer is gone, oncology specialists at the University of Maryland Medical Center have told him; his hair is slowly growing back and his future looks sunny.

On the political front, Hogan goes into the holidays with high approval ratings. For a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state, that is heartwarming.

A note of caution is in order, though, at this time of good cheer and warm wishes.

Hogan’s high approval could be fleeting. Governors always see their ratings sink during legislative sessions when there’s controversy swirling around executive department proposals.

So Hogan can expect his numbers to drop when the General Assembly convenes next month.

No 2016 Honeymoon

This will be Hogan’s second legislative session. The first was pretty much a honeymoon for the new chief executive — except for a nasty tug-of-war over education funding. This time, Democratic leaders will be more aggressive in opposing Hogan initiatives. There won’t be an extended honeymoon.

Hogan has to keep in mind that Democrats will be far more anxious to criticize the Republican governor and block his proposals.

They don’t want to give him victories that might lead to his re-election.

So this winter could be a rocky period for the governor as Democratic leaders in the General Assembly try to gain the upper hand.

Hogan needs to remember that the most recent Republican governor also had high approval ratings through most of his term — only to lose his re-election bid.

At a similar stage of his governorship, Bob Ehrlich enjoyed very strong poll numbers, yet it wasn’t enough to win him another four years in office.

Inevitable Push-back

Next year could be a pivotal year from Hogan’s governorship. He’s had time to figure out how to run this huge ship of state. He now knows what he wants to change.

Streamlining government sounds easy in principle. Getting rid of costly and pointless regulations couldn’t be that hard, right?

Think again.

For every action Hogan takes to eliminate government rules and regulations, there will be an equal and opposite reaction from politicians and groups that fought hard to put those mandates on the books.

Similarly, if Hogan follows up on recommendations by his task force to reorganize state departments and agencies, he can expect fierce opposition.

Quarrels or Cooperation?

The governor will be tested on his ability to work cooperatively with Democrats in the legislature. Hogan got into a needless quarrel last time over education aid and then refused to compromise.

If the same things happens in 2016, there could be gridlock in Annapolis.

Hogan has a lot going for him right now. His public fight to overcome cancer won him countless admirers. He cut highway tolls — a popular move. He has avoided hot-button social issues that could stir an uprising against him.

But can he make headway on his key issues, such as reducing government spending and lowering taxes? Those will be tough to sell to Democrats, who see a need for more, not less, help from government for society’s underclass.

This year turned out to be a blessed one for Larry Hogan. Politically, though, he faces some daunting challenges in the year ahead.

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Hogan’s Spending Tightrope

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 21, 2015 – Larry Hogan, Jr. is the ideal governor to take on the difficult task of balancing the need for stronger economic growth in Maryland while at the same time slowing government spending.

Republican Hogan is a committed conservative who gained election by pledging to cut the fat out of state government and lower taxes (eventually).

But Hogan also was elected because he is a pro-business executive intent on slashing business regulation and making Maryland more business-friendly.

The problem is that Maryland isn’t bouncing back strongly from the Great Recession. Tax receipts in Annapolis from consumer-related spending (the sales tax) are still sinking. Taxes from personal income are barely nudging forward.

It’s a sluggish state economy with slow employment growth, little wage growth and new jobs being created at a disappointing pace.

Weak Recovery

November’s unemployment report confirmed Maryland’s agonizingly slow recovery.

Since early summer, the jobless rate has come down but remains above the national average. The number of people out of work is largely unchanged over the past six months. New jobs rose just 16,000 in that period.

The situation is far better than the 7.7 percent unemployment of 2010, yet Maryland continues to lag in job-creation.

All this points to the need for a cautious approach in the next state budget. Revenue growth remains modest. Hogan’s cabinet will have to deliver on the governor’s mandate to trim the size of agencies without harming services that aid Maryland’s underclass.

Restraining government expenditures isn’t all good news, though.

Cutting out state jobs and lowering spending can boomerang and end up harming Maryland’s economic recovery.

It gets tricky for the governor.

Large Surplus Helps

He’s lucky there’s a projected $561 million surplus for next year’s budget. He isn’t likely to dip into that fund to enlarge existing programs as Democrats want him to do.

Indeed, Democratic lawmakers are calling for an expansion of state spending by nearly 5 percent, even though that could be risky.

Hogan’s budget chief assures us the governor will be well under the Democrats’ affordability limit.

But how do you hold down government spending while simultaneously pumping more dollars into jobs and economic growth?

It can be done.

Hogan needs to take one important step: Turn that $561 million surplus into capital spending to build worthwhile projects.

Jobs and Growth

By using surplus cash in this way, Hogan can create good-paying jobs in the construction trades and stimulate growth through the purchase of construction-related goods and services.

Using cash instead of state bonds serves another important purpose. It relieves pressure on Maryland’s costly capital bond program and lowers the state’s expenses not just in 2016 but for the next 15 years.

Paying cash for $500 million worth of new state buildings, rather than issuing bonds, is just what the state needs right now.

A large and continuing pay-as-you-go state construction program would eliminate a huge amount of future debt. It would trim Maryland’s long-term structural operating deficit by a substantial margin.

There’s an added bonus in a large “pay-go” construction program if it is focused on buildings that can lead to long-term economic growth.

Hogan can fortify the Baltimore area’s importance as a generator of health and technology advances (and jobs) by supporting a third health-sciences research tower at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; a life sciences building at UMBC, and a behavioral and social sciences building at Morgan State University.

Constructing a $100 million bioengineering building at the University of Maryland, College Park would do the same thing in the Washington suburbs.

Spurring Economic Growth

A cash investment of roughly $300 million in these science-related structures would be a wise use of the surplus – no interest payments or principal payments in future years.

The economic-development potential tied to such research and education-related buildings could spur job growth in key industries for years to come.

Hogan is walking a tightrope in trying to trim state government’s size and expenses while simultaneously enhancing Maryland’s economic-growth prospects.

If he uses the state’s projected surplus strategically, he can achieve equilibrium that might achieve both goals.

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Education Politics

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 14, 2015 – He masks it well, but Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. plays a good game of partisan politics. Behind that smile and friendly voice is a fierce Republican eager to further the conservative cause.

Education is a prime example of Hogan’s conservative partisanship trumping over sound public policy.

First, he needlessly nixed $68 million in education aid to 14 high-cost subdivisions, basing his action on the false premise that this money was needed to bolster the state’s pension fund. (The money instead sat unused in the state treasury.)

He tossed a bunch of moderate non-partisans off the Baltimore County school board and named one replacement who is an outspoken social conservative with views on public education that are far from mainstream.

Then he announced a surprise gift of $5.6 million to three Republican-voting counties to help them with their loss of state funds due to shrinking enrollment.

That announcement was bogus, too.

No Done Deal

Hogan is talking as though he can write a check to the three counties – Carroll, Garrett and Kent. He can’t.

In reality, he’s only putting a request for this appropriation in his next budget, due in January. It will be up to the Democratic General Assembly to determine if Hogan’s “gift” to three of 24 school systems is warranted.

It’s highly unlikely Hogan’s maneuver to aid just the three Republican counties will be approved as submitted.

Moreover, this funding from Hogan is only a temporary, one-year sop to the three Republican counties. It does nothing to solve their long-range education budget woes caused by too many school buildings and a dwindling number of students.

But the governor got raves from some Republican politicians and angry parents in Carroll County, who have been waging a concerted effort to keep three schools open, despite the fact that flat migration and slowing birthrates has led to a 7 percent drop in school enrollment, with more losses expected over the next five years.

Education Politics

Declining enrollment in Carroll County schools poses dilemma.

Hogan’s aid plan merely kicks the proverbial can down the road – the very same tactic Candidate Hogan railed against when attacking the O’Malley-Brown administration during last year’s campaign.

Carroll’s Conundrum

Following lengthy studies and deliberations, Carroll’s school superintendent recommended closing three under-capacity schools next fall and possibly two more later. This would save at least $5.2 million. He wants to address $14 million in unmet needs within the school system caused by the county leadership’s refusal to raise more local tax dollars for education.

Hogan is pandering to a few of Carroll’s Republican legislators, who want the state to bail them out of this education dilemma of their own making. The cold, hard reality is that maintaining a quality school system is a costly proposition for local governments.

The option they sought to avoid: Closing no-longer-needed schools, which are expensive to maintain. Such a move is intensely unpopular with those that are affected – parents and their children.

But Carroll’s school board refused to take Hogan’s bait. Members recognized they were being offered fool’s gold. They understood this would only add to the anguish and costs.

A true conservative wouldn’t play this type of political game.

Instead, a true conservative would let the downsizing (or “right-sizing”) commence so the school system spends its limited dollars more wisely and efficiently.

Isn’t the conservative approach espoused by Hogan all about eliminating wasteful government spending?

Longer-range Perspective

Rather than taking a partisan, piecemeal and temporary approach to this problem, why not examine the need to make long-range changes in Maryland’s school-aid formula?

Schools with declining enrollments shouldn’t suffer such immediate and deep aid cuts. That’s a flaw in the state’s education formula. Garrett County, impoverished and isolated, is a prime example of how this portion of the formula unfairly harms jurisdictions most in need.

At the same time, other parts of the formula need fixing. Baltimore City is being penalized because its property wealth grew last year due to waterfront developments. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into more local money for schools.

There’s an even bigger question not being discussed.

With the state likely to show a huge surplus in January, isn’t it time to take a bipartisan look at possibly raising Maryland’s per-pupil spending as the state’s economy gains momentum?

A panel is studying changes in the school-aid formula, with its final report due next fall. Republicans need to open their minds to supporting a future increase in state funding if they truly want to help schools in Republican counties.

Partisanship won’t disappear, though. We can expect a major tug of war on this issue starting in January and extending through the next gubernatorial election.

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Emily’s Mistake?

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 7, 2015 – What in the world was Emily’ List thinking when it threw $1 million into the Maryland Senate primary race for a candidate who could be an easy mark for Republicans next November?

Why would the women’s political empowerment group try to defeat a much stronger Democratic candidate who has an unblemished pro-choice record and strong support from elected female leaders in Maryland and women’s rights advocates?Emily's Mistake

It’s a baffling call, especially in an election season where a $1 million advertising blitz could make a huge difference in a number of pivotal general election Senate races around the country involving other Democratic, pro-choice, female candidates.

Emily’s List early on endorsed Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County for the Senate seat held by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring after next year’s election.

Edwards is running against Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who has a big lead in the most recent poll, the vast majority of endorsements from elected Democratic officials and a solid corps of female supporters, including the former national board chair of NARAL, a leading pro-choice advocacy group.

Million Dollar Blitz

Yet Emily’s List insisted not only on snubbing Van Hollen’s two decades of solid pro-choice support but then decided to become an issue in the Democratic primary race with its $1 million Edwards ad campaign.

It’s an independent expenditure committee ad campaign, which by law means Emily’s List cannot coordinate its activities with the Edwards camp. But the obvious similarities of Edwards’ campaign pitch and the Emily’s List ad is striking and raises concerns.

Even more troubling is Emily’s List’s attempt to target its ad to an African-American audience, with an obvious African-American narrator proclaiming Edwards will “work for us.”

If the same language had been used in support of a white candidate, there would be hell to pay – and rightly so.

What’s so odd about Emily’s List’s love affair with Edwards is that her victory in the April 26 Democratic primary would be a gift from heaven for Republicans.

While Edwards has a legitimate shot at winning on April 26, in the general election she might not be the favorite, even in heavily Democratic Maryland.

Wider Support

That’s not the case with Van Hollen, who enjoys far broader statewide support than Edwards.

Republicans are hoping for a repeat of Larry Hogan’s upset win in the governor’s race last year. He defeated Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who lacked broad statewide support among Democrats, independents and elected officials.

If either of the two GOP front-runners, Del. Kathy Szeliga or Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is nominated, they could duplicate Hogan’s success if Edwards is the Senate opponent.

Both are good campaigners who want to come across as smiling, Hogan-esque figures.

Edwards, on the other hand, is a lightning rod for controversy. Her hard-edge political approach is far to the left of the Democratic center, she does not work well with her fellow politicians and she often has forgotten to tend to the services demanded by constituents.

In contrast, Van Hollen has spent two decades networking within Maryland’s political establishment. He’s popular with his colleagues and has worked relentlessly to pass meaningful legislation rather than showboat on behalf of liberal causes.

Choice Supporters

The ultimate irony is that Van Hollen and Edwards are on the same page when it comes to defending abortion rights. There’s no difference in their level of support.

That’s why Emily’s List’s $1 million worth of aid for Edwards is so puzzling.

It may not have much of an impact, though.

Far more valuable may be Van Hollen’s endorsement by a key labor union, SEIU, which redrew its prior support for Edwards in previous elections.

One SEIU official said Edwards had turned her back on the labor movement after SEIU helped get her elected in 2008.

Union Strength

SEIU brings considerable on-the-ground organizational muscle to Van Hollen’s campaign.

The labor union works hard to get out the vote for its endorsed candidates. Moreover, the core of SEIU’s 40,000 members live in areas of the state Edwards needs to win big-time: Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County.

That’s one reason SEIU’s endorsement of Van Hollen is so meaningful.

It’s surprising that Emily’s List didn’t look at the bigger picture, both in Maryland and nationally, before tossing $1 million into its Edwards advertising effort.

The group’s decision could turn out to be a very costly Pyrrhic victory.

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