Monthly Archives: September 2016

Let Courts Decide Who Sets MD School Calendar

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 26, 2016 – Does Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. have the power to issue an executive order mandating when the school year begins and ends? It’s not the most pressing question facing Maryland – but the answer could have a dramatic impact on the state’s future governance.

Indeed, there’s an urgent need for someone on either side of this issue to take the matter to court. A constitutional question of enormous consequence is at stake.

Hogan’s claim to executive powers over local school systems appears shaky. They are not part of the executive branch.Similarly, the State Board of Education isn’t beholden to Hogan’s mandates. By law, the governor names board members but it then is up to this independent panel to pick a superintendent and enact statewide school policies without interference.

So how can Hogan claim authority to lay out parameters for the annual school calendar?

Setting a Precedent?

In a state where there’s a yawning gap between the Republican governor and Democratic legislature, Hogan’s action could set a dangerous precedent. In the future, Hogan might decide to rule by executive fiat rather than tangle with a legislature determined to block his moves.

Repeatedly, Hogan has expressed disdain for the legislature and frustration with lawmakers’ refusal to give him 100 percent of what he wants. He has mocked and derided Democratic legislators. In the dispute over when to begin the school year he accused Democrats of being in the pocket of the state teachers union.

In the past, lawmakers have defeated attempts to accommodate Ocean City businesses by commencing school after Labor Day. Opposition has come not just from the teachers union but from statewide groups representing local education boards, PTAs and local school superintendents.

Their argument is based on doing what is best from an education standpoint.

Hogan’s argument is based on doing what is in the best interests of Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake businesses that see a decline in revenue when families can’t extend their vacations through the Labor Day weekend because of early school openings.

Practical Considerations

Hogan is being a practical, tactical politician seeking to win cheers from parents and his political base. Returning Maryland to an earlier time when all school systems waited till after Labor Day to begin classes is in line with Republican ideology that insists we can, indeed, roll back the clock.

Educators want to be practical, too, but not in a political sense. If you want to keep the current time off for holidays, religious observances and professional training days, then the school year must start before Labor Day or extend nearly till July.

The other concern is that a later school-year start compresses the time students have to prepare for nationwide testing. Educators worry about lower test scores and harming students’ ability to qualify for gifted and talented courses or getting into colleges.

But there’s a much bigger issue at stake.

Can the governor promulgate additional executive orders telling local schools and the state education panel what to do or what they are forbidden from doing?

Can he, for example, prevent a local school system from closing for Muslim holidays? If local school boards truncate spring break to comply with his order, can Hogan then tell them not to eliminate Good Friday and Easter Monday as holidays?

Could he or a future conservative governor require the end to sex education in local schools? Could he overrule school board decisions on the treatment of transgender children?

Could he issue an executive order allowing students to attend local schools without having been vaccinated? Could he decree that the conservative constitutional doctrine of “original intent” be taught in all high school civics classes?

Dividing Line of Power

At the same time, Hogan might decide to issue an executive order requiring Baltimore City and Baltimore County to air-condition all of its schools immediately, regardless of the cost to local governments. He might also use executive orders to fire local superintendents or board members who don’t follow his commands.

What happens if a local school board defies Hogan this time and sets its 2017 calendar with a pre-Labor Day opening? How does Hogan make that board comply? Does he deny the jurisdiction state funds? Does he sue the board?

And where does Maryland’s law-making body come into play? Isn’t that the group given the constitutional power to enact statutes governing local education?

Where, precisely, is the dividing line between executive authority and legislative authority?

Definitive answers are sorely needed. Not off-the-cuff “I’m right” comments from the governor or “we feel strongly both ways” conclusions from the attorney general’s office. Only the Maryland Court of Appeals is in position to deliver a clarifying ruling.

It doesn’t help matters for the General Assembly to reverse Hogan’s school-schedule mandate in January and then pass a law setting out new ground rules for executive orders. This would only produce more bad blood and finger-pointing for political gain.

A court determination, on the other hand, would settle this dispute and resolve a murky area of constitutional law.

All it takes is someone to pursue legal action. So far, no one has had the courage to do so.

###

Medical Marijuana Meets MD’s Spoils System

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 19, 2016 – Maybe Donald Trump is right: The system is rigged. For proof, look at how interest groups are feverishly trying to “rig” Maryland’s choice of authorized medical marijuana growers and processors.

The Black Legislative Caucus wants to “rig” the selection procedure so that people of color get their share (and more) of the lucrative payoff from legalized pot-growing, despite their lack of high rankings in the objective selection process.The Spoils System Returns to Maryland

Others recently got the system “rigged” in a way that denies licenses to a few top-ranked growers who were chosen on merit. Instead, lesser-rated groups in politically sensitive geographic areas were awarded this rich financial prize.

Picking the best, most qualified growers gave way to political “rigging” of the system.

So much for the commission’s carefully planned “double-blind” selection procedure designed to remove political favoritism and eliminate any hint of subjective bias.

Guarding Against Tainted Results

This well-established, scientific method works beautifully in drug-testing and picking the most skilled musicians for the Baltimore Symphony. So why not use this proven way to guard against tainted results in the state’s effort to find the best and most capable cannabis growers and processors?

Silly idea. An honest evaluation of the applicants proved too much for state politicians and lobbyists. Their favored applicants failed to make the cut.

Suddenly, criticism rained down on the medical marijuana commission. The cry went out: Bring back Maryland’s spoils system.

“This is a good modern-day civil rights fight,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Well. . . that’s a stretch.

It’s an effort to ensure that already financially well-off minorities get a slice of the action – regardless of their capabilities for handling the growing, processing and distribution of medical marijuana.

After all, this is expected to be a national multi-billion-dollar business.

To heck with selecting the most qualified cannabis growers. What Maryland needs is some good old favoritism!

Merit Selection Process

The commission tried its best to keep politics out of its decision-making. It came up with a way of choosing winning applicants that was devoid of political pressure and influence-peddling – a double-blind ranking system conducted by an outside group.

Applicants’ names, and their investors’ names, were removed from proposals so the rankings would be based entirely on merit.

It turned out, though, that none of the applications submitted by minority-controlled companies ranked high enough to gain a cultivation license. That’s when impartiality and merit-selection went out the window.

Attorney General Brian Frosh, in an incredibly two-faced action, contradicted his own assistant attorney general and other higher-ups in his agency, who had concluded the commission could not legally tilt the playing field.

Frosh rallied to the side of the Black Caucus. Gov. Larry Hogan expressed concern, too. Word came down from on high: Work something out.

Oh, well, so much for a color-blind government that allows only the best-qualified cannabis cultivators and processors to ply their trade in Maryland.

Gift-Wrapped Permits

The commission quickly buckled under the pressure.

In August, the panel stripped two winning companies of their licenses not because they had done something wrong but because one commissioner argued there wasn’t enough “geographic diversity” among authorized growers.

Lower-scoring applicants with more politically acceptable locations were gift-wrapped these valuable permits.

Not surprisingly, the disqualified applicants are threatening to sue. More litigation is inevitable.

If the Black Caucus succeeds in pulling the licenses of other applicants for the sake of diversity – or gets the entire process re-started – we’ll have enough legal action to set back the cause of medicinal marijuana for a long time.

Yet while minority groups fight for a bigger slice of the cannabis windfall, sick and terminally ill patients in excruciating pain are denied the relief cannabis might provide.

No one seems agitated about that. Mammon rules the day.

It’s a royal mess.

Politicians Get Involved

Years ago, attempts in Maryland to “rig” the system sent a vice president into shameful exile and a governor and several county executives to prison. The quest for money can be a corrupting influence.

So it is with legalizing medical marijuana – at least in Maryland.

Choosing the people who will grow marijuana plants and turn them into safe medicinal products is serious business. It seemed to make sense to pick them based purely on expertise and merit.

But not to the b’hoys in Annapolis.

So now politicians have their hands in the action. The result could be lengthy delays and a more expansive and pliable process that allows Maryland’s spoils system to work its magic.

Is an impartial, unbiased selection system about to be manipulated for the benefit of lesser-qualified applicants who have friends in high places?

You don’t need to be Donald Trump to answer that question.

###

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

Popular Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 12, 2016 – As Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., starts packing for the friendship/business-development trip to Israel that every Maryland chief executive takes, he can gloat about his crafty propaganda maneuvers that have him sky-high in popularity polls.

Expect more “good news” announcements. There always are when a governor’s entourage makes an economic prospecting tour. These visits don’t take place unless made-in-advance deals are set for unveiling during the VIP procession.

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and wife, Yumi, at 2014 inauguration

Hogan has become a master of positive image-making. He’s got a cheerful public persona, a hearty laugh and a back-slapping camaraderie.

He also recognizes Marylanders are fed up with politicians who flood the airwaves and newspapers with press releases and public utterances. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s declining popularity stemmed in part from the public’s fatigue with his constant campaigning and propagandizing.

These days, people want elected leaders to leave them alone. Staying out of the news is as much a reason for Hogan’s strong poll numbers as anything else.

Popular Side Issues

He’s latched onto tangential issues that sound good to people at first glance. He cut tolls – always a winner with voters – a bit. He lowered some government fees. He ordered schools not to start classes before Labor Day. He held back millions from Baltimore City and Baltimore County for failing to air-condition all school classrooms immediately.

Every one of those actions brought a resounding huzzah and another rise in Hogan’s numbers. At this stage, he looks like a shoo-in for re-election in 2018.

That’s the positive side of the equation.

But here’s the rub. He’s got an abysmal relationship with Democrats who run the General Assembly. Worse, he seems determined to keep it that way into his next term.

Despite phenomenal poll numbers, Hogan can point to few legacy achievements. That’s due largely to his stubborn refusal to seek compromise with opposition-party lawmakers.

Unfinished Business

Yes, he closed the Baltimore City Jail – but he has yet to demolish the eye-sore because he tried to use funds intended for Baltimore-area universities for the jail tear-down. Nor did he bother to consult with community or city leaders about his secretive decision.

Yes, he helped end the 2015 Baltimore civil unrest by sending in the National Guard and touring a few riot-torn streets. But since then he’s been an absentee leader rarely showing his face.

As for a rejuvenation package to aid the state’s most distressed jurisdiction, Hogan has turned a blind eye. Baltimore’s horrific poverty and crime problems remain the albatross around Maryland’s neck – and Hogan is taking the silent, “benign neglect” approach.

Yes, he signed a bill reforming the criminal justice system for low-risk offenders, but credit belongs to Chief Legislative Officer Christopher Shank for that effort at reaching across the aisle to find common ground with Democrats.

The governor talks about joining hands and singing from the same hymnal, but in truth he’s a hard-nosed, partisan Republican who seems to relish insulting Democrats.

Negotiating isn’t in his vocabulary unless it is 100 percent on his terms. His legislative agenda has been thin on substance and thick on unpassable conservative ideology.

Thin Agenda

No wonder Democrats in the legislature have buried much of his agenda. Last session, the governor even ordered his staff not to work with lawmakers behind the scenes to hammer out differences.

There’s been no education package from Hogan in two years, no environmental package, no health-care package, no natural resources package, no major economic-development package, no energy package, indeed no comprehensive proposal except the criminal justice bill.

He killed Baltimore’s mass-transit expansion but has yet to put in place his so-called replacement – a modestly revamped bus system.

Instead, Hogan has directed his energy toward minutia, like feuding with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz over that county’s dwindling number of schools without air-conditioning.

He also humiliated and bad-mouthed the long-time and much-praised director of the state’s school construction program, prompting his resignation.

He has refused on occasion to let foes of his administration’s plans speak at Board of Public Works meetings. Clearly, he doesn’t like to hear criticism.

He issued his executive order mandating that local school systems begin fall classes after, not before, Labor Day without consulting affected educators who overwhelmingly opposed such a move. They say this imperils students’ ability to prepare for national placement tests and could mean an end to spring and winter school breaks.

Appeal to Voters

It’s been a curious year and three-quarters, indeed.

Hogan has picked his issues carefully, keeping in touch with his conservative base, appealing to voters’ base instincts on marginal matters and blaming Democrats for anything and everything that has gone off-track in Maryland.

So far it is a formula for short-term success. Hogan may become the first Republican to serve two gubernatorial terms in Maryland since Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin did it in the 1950s.

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin (1951-1959)

But McKeldin, a liberal Republican who would be drummed out of the party today, amassed a spectacularly successful record in office thanks in large measure to his ability to work with the Democratic legislature.

Hogan is heading in the opposite direction.

He may rival hapless Republican Gov. Harry Whinna Nice (1935-1939) for his paucity of accomplishments during his time in office. (Nice’s sole, lasting contribution was changing the architectural style of the governor’s mansion from Victorian to Georgian.)

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice (1935-1939)

Where’s the Beef?

Hogan was elected with great promise and anticipation, but he has yet to deliver.

Where is the promised major de-regulation package that would free businesses and individuals of unnecessary and expensive bureaucratic red tape?

Where is the elimination of waste and inefficiency from state agencies? Where is the reorganization of state departments?

Where is the downsizing of the state’s work force?

Where is the smaller but smarter state spending program?

Time is on Hogan’s side, though.

He still could recognize that cooperation yields more than constant confrontation.

He could get serious about bringing sound Republican principles to Maryland government rather than following bellicose conservative proposals that stands no chance of becoming law.

Hogan has the opportunity to demonstrate what sensible Republican governance means. He hasn’t done much in that direction so far, which is a shame because it could be a lasting legacy.

###

A Third Bay Crossing?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 6, 2016 – It was ironic that news of Jerry Wolff’s death this past week coincided with the splashy announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. of a $5 million study to examine the site and funding options for a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossing.

Wolff was the last all-powerful head of the State Roads Commission during the late 1960s under Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. He was the mastermind behind legislative approval and construction of the parallel bay bridge span.

That 1973 structure cost $148 million. The original Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which was built after a 15-year battle for a mere $45 million, opened in 1952.

The next bay crossing could cost a staggering $7 billion – and probably double that by the time it opens 10 or 15 years from now.

Or rather, if a third span is ever built.

Mega-bucks Needed

Even with federal assistance, Maryland would be hard pressed to find that staggering amount of money for a project that mainly alleviates monster traffic backups on summer weekends. The rest of the year the existing parallel structures easily handle two-way traffic between the eastern and western shores.

Moreover, a critical part of any funding solution – bridge and tunnel tolls – was cut by Hogan to fulfill a campaign promise to lower taxes.

That means a revenue loss to the Maryland Transportation Authority that could approach $1 billion over the next 15 years – just when a third bay span would need to be financed.

A Third Chesapeake Bay Bridge?

Parallel Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans between Sandy Point and Kent Island, MD

Having foreclosed that pivotal revenue source, how in the world does Hogan intend to pay for this massive undertaking?

Answer: He doesn’t.

Hogan is passing the buck, this time to a study group that conveniently won’t report back to him until 2020. Then Hogan can flip the hot potato of how to pay for such a stunningly expensive construction project to the Democratic legislature and blame them for inaction.

Another ‘Boondoggle’?

Ironically, it was Hogan who killed the Baltimore-area’s major transportation initiative, the $3 billion Red Line project – which had $900 million in federal funding lined up. He claimed it was way too expensive. Hogan sneeringly called the Red Line’s downtown tunnel “a boondoggle.”

Yet now he is promoting a third bay crossing at double or triple that amount at a time when the state is short on transportation funds, in part due to Hogan’s populist toll reductions.

Maryland has other enormously expensive toll-road needs that Hogan doesn’t want to confront – or pay for.

The dangerously steep and narrow two-lane Harry W. Nice Bridge spanning the Potomac River between Charles County and the northern neck of Virginia is 76 years old. It’s not in great shape.

Hogan blocked $50 million allocated by his predecessor for planning and design of a new four-lane span, claiming a new $1 billion crossing would be too expensive.

He favors a far cheaper Band-Aid approach to the existing, aging structure, which is a bottleneck and lacks shoulders. Powerful lawmakers, though, are trying to force him to bite the bullet and replace the Potomac crossing.

Then there’s the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge connecting U.S. 40 between Harford and Cecil counties. It, too, is 76 years old. It cost just $5 million when built. But giving it a foundational overhaul will be extremely expensive. Hogan hasn’t allocated a penny for that undertaking.

Playing Politics

Instead, the governor wants to win political points with beachside merchants and summer vacationers headed “downy ocean” by holding out the promise of easy travel across the Chesapeake but leaving the tough funding decisions to someone else.
Already critics are calling Hogan’s plan a new boondoggle.

Even if the state turned to a public-private partnership – which would hand all the revenue and control of the span (and possibly the parallel crossings, too) to a for-profit company – paying the state’s share for a third bay bridge would crowd out virtually every major toll and bridge improvement for years to come.

There’s also the complicated matter of expanding roads leading to the third span on both sides of the bridge. It can’t be done inexpensively or without an environmental cost. Local opposition could be intense.

Hogan, of course, might try to get the job done with a patch-up by adding a single lane to the original bay bridge. But even that falls into the mega-billion-dollar range.

Why a Third Span?

All this begs the question as to whether a third span is essential.

Given the reality of climate change and rising sea levels, by the time a third crossing opens for vehicles much of Ocean City’s beach could be under water. The rush to O.C. might slow dramatically in a quarter-century.

Sen. John Astle, whose Annapolis district includes the western bay bridge approaches, calls this an “impossible problem.” Maryland can’t afford the incredibly high price of a third bay bridge and Hogan has shown zero inclination to raise revenue to pay for it.

Thus, the Hogan study group is likely to produce another report that will gather dust on a shelf. That was true of a study under Gov. Bob Ehrlich and a report under Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Hogan just wants to curry favor with beach-going voters and Ocean City businesses without having to take the unpopular step of raising tolls and other taxes to build a third crossing of the nation’s largest estuary.
###