Monthly Archives: October 2016

Medical Miracle in Largo?

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 24, 2016—It took over three years to surmount the bureaucratic, regulatory and political hurdles but it finally looks like a half-billion-dollar, state-of-the-art regional medical center will rise slowly in populous Prince George’s County.

It’s way overdue. For a county of 900,000 people, Prince George’s lacks a premier hospital. No wonder so many local residents go outside the county for their medical care.

The organization that runs aging

Medical Miralce in Largo?

Aging Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly

medical facilities in Cheverly, Bowie and Laurel, Dimensions Health Corp., has been a disaster for the county over the past quarter-century. Political hacks and cronies filled management posts. The quality of health care suffered.

For a jurisdiction with a high rate of chronic diseases and the second-largest pool of indigent patients in Maryland (after Baltimore City), there’s long been a crying need for dramatic change.

Now it finally may be coming.

Last week, the Maryland Health Care Commission gave unanimous approval to the 205-bed University of Maryland Prince George’s Regional Medical Center in Largo Town Center. The 11-0 vote masked the enormous, complicated struggle that preceded it.

Plenty of Political Resistance

For years, county politicians with vested interest in maintaining the status quo fought furiously to block efforts to overhaul the Dimensions system. The group’s tentacles extended into the county executive’s office and the county council.

Compounding the situation was the war cry of these officials that white outsiders were trying to oust black Dimensions leaders. In a county with a large African American majority, this vocal objection proved loud enough to ward off reforms.

Finally, the current county executive, Rushern Baker, pressed hard for a Dimensions housecleaning. He brokered a deal with the University of Maryland Medical System to assume control – of both the medical and management staffs. It wasn’t easy getting the Dimensions higher-ups to agree.

Capital contributions from Annapolis proved daunting as well. Lawmakers and governors have been reluctant to pour big bucks into the Prince George’s medical system as long as Dimensions remained in control.

Then Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. objected to paying $20 million a year to Dimensions to keep the existing medical centers afloat until a regional medical facility can be built.

The legislature eventually had to mandate an annual state contribution to keep the current medical facilities in operation until the opening of the new center in 2020.

Total cost: $543 million, with $208 million coming from the state, $208 million from the county and $127 million in bonds issued by the new hospital entity.

Downsized Project

The total would have been higher but for the fact Robert Moffit of the health care commission, who carefully reviewed and analyzed the project, insisted that the new facility be financially viable. The size of the high-rise was reduced and so was the price – by $100 million.

What sealed the deal, though, was the fact UMMS now will be the owner-operator of the regional medical center. With its close ties to the state’s largest medical school, UMMS dominates Maryland’s hospital landscape.

It has a proven track record of turning around deep-in-debt medical centers and bringing superb talent and health care to under-utilized facilities it manages.

Such a reversal still is some years away but already UMMS’ presence at Dimensions hospitals has improved the quality of care and brought down operating expenses.

Medical Miracle in Largo?

Proposed University of Maryland Prince George’s Regional Medical Center in Largo

But UMMS faces another challenge: attracting enough physicians and physician groups to the county to minister to this underserved population. That’s a slow process but the work has begun.

Once the new regional medical center is fully staffed by UMMS personnel and filled with the latest in medical technology, physicians and patients are likely to develop a magnetic attraction to the Largo facility – which Moffit of the health care commission termed an “excellent” location in the heart of the county’s population.

Now that the worst of the regulatory and political barriers seem to have been surmounted, there is light at the end of this long tunnel – and the prospect of greatly enhanced health care for people living in the state’s second-largest jurisdiction.

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Business Comes First, Education Second

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 17, 2016 – He’s at it again! Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. issued another executive order that makes it even clearer he intends to usurp the powers of the Maryland State Board of Education and every local school system in the state.

So far, no one is challenging Hogan’s decree setting the start of the school year statewide after Labor Day and the last school day no later than June 15.  Nor is any school system threatening to defy his order, which screams “overreach.”

There is no valid education reason for Hogan’s action.

Business Comes First, Education Second

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The two orders are designed to bring cheers from Ocean City businesses and parents happy to take their kids to the beach in late August instead of getting them ready for an early return to classes.

Yet even Hogan’s own appointees to the state board are complaining the governor wants to neuter the board and that his order is not grounded in any education rationale.

Larry Hogan is, indeed, the “Maryland is Open for Business” governor. Perhaps his next slogan will be: “In Maryland, Business Comes First, Education Second.”

Perplexed School Leaders

Local school boards are in a quandary. Following Hogan’s directive means a loss of control over the school year. It could be just the first step in more gubernatorial dictates on which holidays to honor, what to teach in classes and what to forbid in local schools.

For instance, Hogan has repeatedly lashed out at teacher unions and accused them of calling the shots on education policy. Will he use future executive orders to crack down on them and strip from the school calendar the “professional training days” now built into the school schedule as days off for kids?

Will he dictate what he will allow the supposedly independent state school board to do on its own and what he intends to unilaterally mandate from his second-floor state House office?

Hogan has never been regarded as an education expert. His pronouncements on the subject have been few and far beyond –usually encapsulated in a brief one- or two-sentence quip.

He hasn’t even claimed his school-year decree is designed to improve the learning environment. For him, the executive order is all about boosting summer business sales and winning popularity for extending the summer season. Those are his priorities.

Hogan’s Power

The problem for local school systems is that Hogan can be vindictive if challenged. He might withhold millions in school construction funds for petty reasons. After all, he’s already done it to Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

He could hold back other education dollars from systems that refuse to knuckle under and instead honor their commitment to crafting a school calendar that furthers students’ ability to learn.

There are other flaws in the decrees. What if there’s a harsh winter that forces many more lost school days than anticipated? Or other emergency closures? Even stripping spring break to the bone might not be enough to avoid post-June 15 schooling. What happens then?

Hogan hasn’t said and he’s taken the power away from the state school board.

If a school system ignores Hogan because it feels the executive orders are unlawful intrusions on local education autonomy, what happens?

Does Hogan direct more executive orders at the wayward school system? Does he call out the National Guard to enforce his orders? Does he pull a Trump-like tantrum and say to the local school board members he appoints, “You’re fired”?

Education Losses

Meanwhile, the governor’s school-calendar mandate will hurt students’ ability to prepare for standardized tests whose dates cannot be changed. Kids lose ground in their learning when the long summer break is extended. Poor kids lose out on decent meals they don’t get at home. Research has clearly established those facts. But Hogan doesn’t seem to care.

It is unfortunate Attorney General Brian Frosh took a dive when asked to examine the legality of Hogan’s attempt to extend his power. Frosh’s agency issued an opinion that failed to give clear guidance, even though it concluded:  “. . . it is likely that a reviewing court, if presented with the issue, would conclude” Hogan exceeded his authority.

What Hogan has done is unprecedented. It could set a dangerous precedent.

Even if the orders are not challenged in court, there’s a strong chance the General Assembly will pass legislation sharply restricting and defining the limits of the governor’s power to issue executive orders, especially on matters pertaining to education. Lawmakers also are likely to pass such a law early in next year’s session so they can override an almost certain Hogan veto before adjournment.

Hogan’s handlers relish the chance to blame Democratic legislators for denying families a longer August vacation with their kids.

But it won’t be lawmakers reestablishing a longer school year that starts prior to Labor Day. Instead, they will simply return decision-making power to local school boards and the state education board – where it belongs.

Hogan may be looking for a way to win political points in this ludicrous dispute, but in the end all he’s doing is hurting Maryland school children’s ability to learn.

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More Reasons for Marylanders to Vote

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 10, 2016 – This year’s apparently one-sided presidential election in Maryland may encourage some people to consider not voting.

Polls consistently have Democrat Hillary Clinton ahead of Republican Donald Trump by a whopping 30 percentage points – and this was before release of Trump’s X-rated remarks about his sexual pursuit of women.

While there are few other races of consequence on most local ballots, there are plenty of other reasons to show up at the polls or cast an absentee ballot.

This is especially true for Republicans who may have had enough of Trump’s over-the-top sexism and egomania. The worst thing they could do would be to take a pass on voting.More Reasons for Marylanders to VoteThis year’s election will be a good barometer on the GOP’s efforts to build a more competitive party in heavily Democratic Maryland.

Hogan’s Coattail

The party has a wildly popular governor, Larry Hogan, Jr., who isn’t on the ballot but has endorsed some Republican nominees who share his moderate-conservative philosophy.

How close will these candidates come to pulling an upset?

That could tell us much about Hogan’s “coattail” abilities and set the stage for an even better GOP performance in 2018 when he is up for reelection.

In the U.S. Senate contest, Democrat Chris Van Hollen is a heavy favorite over Republican Kathy Szeliga. But Szeliga, a state delegate, has Hogan’s endorsement. Will voters who tend to support moderate politicians see Hogan’s backing as reason enough to support her?

Or will voters be turned off by Szeliga’s “having it both ways” comment about Trump’s sexism? She has deplored Trump’s outrageous sexual remarks but says she still is voting for him.

Hoeber vs. Delaney

In the Sixth District congressional race (far Western Maryland and a chunk of western Montgomery County), Republican Amie Hoeber, also endorsed by Hogan, is seeking to upend incumbent Democrat John Delaney, who barely won reelection last time. His margin of victory in 2014: less than 2 percentage points.

Hoeber, 74, is a defense expert on chemical and biological warfare and has poured substantial sums of his family’s money into her campaign. A heavy turnout in Republican portions of the district and Hogan’s backing might draw her closer to Delaney than expected.

In Baltimore City, a Republican has a legitimate shot at winning a City Council seat for the first time in 74 years. Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-1 in the city yet Republican Matt McDaniel is competitive in Southeast Baltimore’s First District.

Hogan won this area two years ago, 53 percent to 47 percent, and he has endorsed McDaniel over Democrat Zeke Cohen. Will Hogan’s support prove pivotal? Or will the heavy Democratic registration figures and Cohen’s activism in the community give him a decided advantage?

Questions on the Ballot

Two ballot questions hold considerable interest in important counties – Howard and Montgomery.

In Howard County, public financing of elections for county executive and county council will be up for voter decision. A positive outcome could set a trend in other large subdivisions with a liberal voter base.

Term limits is the issue in Montgomery County. Perennial political gadfly Robin Ficker has petitioned to the ballot a question on forcing the county executive or members of the county council to step down after three four-year terms. That might benefit outsiders like Ficker and Montgomery Republicans.

There’s also a statewide ballot question on filling attorney general and comptroller vacancies that pits Democratic legislative leaders against Republican Hogan.

The proposal would strip Hogan of his current power to name a replacement of his choice – almost certainly a fellow Republican – if there’s a vacancy in either office (both now held by Democrats).

Instead, the constitutional amendment would require Hogan to name a temporary replacement from the vacating official’s political party and then set a special election to fill the office for the remainder of the term.

So there are plenty of reasons beyond the presidential election to cast a ballot. Early voting in Maryland begins in a little over two weeks.

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Maryland Budget Myths

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 3, 2016 – Maryland is dealing with another revenue shortfall and a budget that must be trimmed to make the state’s books balance.

Yet to hear Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. tell it there’s no revenue problem –only “a spending problem” caused by Democrats in the General Assembly.

Let’s get the facts straight on this one: If there’s a problem with spending the buck stops on Hogan’s gubernatorial desk.Maryland Budget Myths

He’s the one who puts together the state’s annual budget. He’s the only one who can increase spending.

The legislature, by law, cannot raise the governor’s budget request. All lawmakers in Annapolis can do is cut the budget.

Who’s Responsible?

Hogan, like Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, wants to create his own version of the truth.

He refuses to admit he is responsible for submitting a budget earlier this year that is out of balance by some $783 million over a two-year cycle due to a faulty estimate of future revenues.

Democrats share partial responsibility for not cutting more deeply into Hogan’s budget last April. They, too, misjudged the state’s plodding economic rebound from the Great Recession.

It’s no surprise that liberal Democrats are reluctant to reduce spending on social programs.

The irony is that Maryland’s conservative Republican governor failed to clamp down harder on spending in the face of slow-growth revenue numbers.

Hogan’s attempt to turn around and blame Democratic lawmakers for his own budget mistakes doesn’t hold water. He draws up the state’s massive spending plan, not the legislature.

Myth No. 2

The other budget myth Hogan has been spreading is that he can solve the state’s financial woes if only Democratic legislators eliminate spending mandates that lock up over 70 percent of the state’s budget.

Were that to happen, Hogan would have unrestrained power to cut deeply into education and health care programs as well as environmental and social service programs.

It would mean a loss of historic checks and balances between the legislature and executive in favor of an all-powerful governor. No wonder Democratic lawmakers refuse to budge.

Yet Hogan persists in blaming the state’s budget shortfalls on the spending mandates. It’s as though the governor had nothing to do with submitting a budget that failed to exercise sufficient caution.

Plea for Caution

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has repeatedly urged a conservative approach to budgeting in light of an exceptionally slow recovery. Maryland is gaining jobs but not high-paying jobs.

Hogan may proclaim “Maryland is open for business” but he seems not to have noticed a shift in the job market is occurring which requires a conservative governor to take a more cautious approach at budget time.

In putting together next year’s budget, the governor now must reduce earlier spending targets by about 2 percent due to the predicted revenue shortfall. That is eminently do-able.

Judicious reductions and reallocations of program funds could close much of the budget gap.

Hogan has on his staff one of the most creative budget minds in Annapolis – former state Sen. Bobby Neall – tasked to find thoughtful ways to reduce spending while improving efficiency. His suggestions will come in handy over the next three months.

Two Options

Yet deeper cuts will not come about if Hogan continues to blast the legislature for refusing to give him near-dictatorial powers over the state budget.

Fortunately, a middle road exists for the governor to work with lawmakers to make changes in spending mandates that could eliminate Maryland’s long-term structural deficit.

But that calls for Hogan to work cooperatively with the legislative branch – a reversal of form. He knows that criticizing free-spending Democrats wins him votes, even if it makes it nearly impossible to gain General Assembly support for his programs.

Is he willing to alter his approach?

Good governance requires compromise and negotiation between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, especially on passage of the state budget. So far, Hogan has fallen short in that area.

He gets another crack at changing his tune early next year.

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