Monthly Archives: March 2017

Hogan dodges Trump bullet, fracking, ‘road-kill’ & more

By Barry Rascovar

March 27, 2017Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan can thank his lucky stars the bitter and intractable Republican disputes in Washington sabotaged plans to do away with the nation’s current healthcare plan, the Affordable Care Act.

Passage of the Trumpcare alternative – imposing horrific added costs on older Americans, endangering Medicare funding and removing healthcare coverage for 14 million citizens next year – would have had cataclysmic effects in Maryland and placed Hogan on an untenable political hot seat.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

President Trump

Instead, Hogan gets a slight reprieve, which helps his chances of getting reelected next year.

Then again, if the president and GOP hardliners insist on pressing a second time to wipe out the ACA and succeed, Hogan will be in the bull’s eye when furious Maryland Democrats seek revenge at the polls.

Equally ominous for the first-term Republican governor is Trump’s obsession with making exceedingly deep cuts in the federal budget. Even if Congress ignores the president’s budget submission from last week, the administration has its marching orders – cut personnel wherever possible, cut back severely on spending wherever possible and hold back on doling out money for programs run by the states.

Take, for instance, Trump’s budget that eliminates all federal funds for Chesapeake Bay restoration. Any sizable elimination of funds will infuriate many moderates and independents who voted for Hogan in 2014. Anger toward Trump could be taken out on Hogan on Election Day next year.

Hogan Dodges Trump Bullet

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The Maryland governor’s silence about Trump’s assault on federal spending isn’t helping him, either. Of course he’s in an unwinnable bind – criticize Trump and Hogan’s conservative followers will feel betrayed; support the president and Democrats will unload on Hogan.

It’s a tough time to be a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state. Hogan has his work cut out trying to separate himself from a wildly unpopular president without alienating died-in-the-wool Republican voters.

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From the “sound and fury signifying nothing” department, here are two items of wasted energy by elected leaders in Annapolis who should know better:

Pointless fracking debate

Environmental activists are in a tizzy over their insistence that hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus shale rock formations deep beneath Garrett County and a portion of Allegany County be forever banned in Maryland.

They’ve made such a stink that Hogan has flip-flopped on the issue – abandoning his efforts to help Republican Western Maryland landowners who might some day benefit from extraction of oil and gas using this “fracking” technique that has been in use for over 60 years.

Yet here’s the reality:

·         There is no fracking taking place anywhere in Maryland.

·         There is no likelihood of fracking taking place in Maryland any time in the years to come.

·         Fracking in Maryland is uneconomical today and will be for a long time to come.

·         Regulations proposed by Hogan are so tough that no exploration companies in their right mind will venture into Maryland unless oil prices soar far beyond $100 a barrel – an unlikely scenario thanks to the glut of fracked oil wells in more hospitable, resource-rich regions of the country.

So environmentalists will win this empty victory and Hogan will win over some environmentalists come Election Day – but he might also lose votes from the Western Maryland landowners he betrayed.

Ludicrous “Road Kill Bill” dispute

Both Hogan and lawmakers are in the wrong here.

The governor has completely politicized a law that is so insipid and toothless it’s not worth arguing about.

The law in question has no enforcement provisions and leaves the governor in full control of road-building decisions. All it does is provide a bit of transparency on the relative value of each project being funded.

Hogan’s empty threat of not funding projects because of this law is strictly for next year’s campaign sloganeering. He’s made a mountain out of a teeny molehill just to win political points with rural and suburban voters.

Democratic lawmakers said they were going to amend the law this year to make it even clearer the law is strictly advisory. They also said they would simplify the evaluation process.

Instead, Democrats in the Senate are pushing for a two-year delay in implementing a toothless law while wasting time studying how to make the law even more meaningless.

The whole thing is pointless and a turnoff to voters of all stripes.

Surely the governor and lawmakers can spend the remaining days of this General Assembly session on something that really is constructive and helps Maryland citizens.

Moxie from the mayor

Here’s a shout-out to new Baltimore Mayor Catherin Pugh, who took an unpopular stand because it was the right thing to do.

She vetoed a bill mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage for most workers in the city – a move that would have been an economic calamity for Baltimore.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh at her inauguration in December.

We all want every worker to take home a decent paycheck. But not if it means businesses will fire personnel, reduce hours for their remaining staff and consider moving across the city-county line.

Those weren’t idle threats when this well-meaning but idealistic bill passed the naively liberal City Council.

Such an ordinance would leave the city deep in debt, according to its own financial analysts, with businesses fleeing to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to take advantage of a lower minimum wage, far lower property taxes and lower insurance rates.

Baltimore City must be competitive. The state’s minimum wage already is scheduled to rise this July and in succeeding years, too.

Besides, minimum-wage jobs are not intended to be permanent positions but rather a starting point for people eager to work their way up the economic ladder to more responsible and good-paying jobs with long-term career potential.

Pugh’s veto protects Baltimore’s economic well-being, even if liberal critics unfairly condemn her.

She’s been quiet and withdrawn during her initial months in office. Yet when it truly mattered, Pugh didn’t hesitate to analyze the facts and make a tough, courageous decision.   ###

Pimlico’s Improving Future

By Barry Rascovar

March 20, 2017 – Thanks to revenue from Maryland’s successful slots casinos, the state’s thoroughbred racing industry has seen a re-birth that hints at prosperity for the Free State’s billion-dollar horse industry in future decades.

Breeders are returning to Maryland to take advantage of the huge jump in purse money fueled by slots proceeds. Off-track gambling revenue is rising. And the state’s most important day of sports entertainment, the Preakness, is breaking attendance and wagering records.

To keep those good times a-rollin’, though, will require a major investment by Annapolis political leaders and by their counterparts in Baltimore City.

Pimlico's Improving Future

The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course as horses near the first turn.

It won’t be easy but it is achievable.

The centerpiece of Maryland horse racing is the Preakness, run at historic Pimlico Race Course since 1873 (108 consecutive years since 1909). Last May’s second jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown drew 135,256 fans to Old Hilltop – a record turnout for any sports event in Maryland.

But Pimlico is badly in need of a facelift.

Stronach’s One-Track Plan

The Stronach Group that owns Maryland’s two major race tracks at Pimlico and Laurel, would love to shutter the Baltimore facility and run exclusively in the Washington suburbs to multiply its profits. Laurel is where Stronach is putting all its improvement money.

That would be a wise business decision if not for the history, tradition and psychic ties between the Preakness and Baltimore. Move the race to a more southern location and the race loses all its history and records. Close Charm City’s race track and the community, already in bad straits, suffers mightily.

A new Preakness site can never duplicate the warmth and friendliness that exists between Baltimoreans and the nation’s racing community during Preakness week. Ask any trainer of a Preakness entrant and you’ll hear nothing but kudos. Pimlico, despite its physical limitations, is far and away their favorite stop on the Triple Crown circuit.

Preakness guests are received like old friends and acquaintances and get VIP treatment in a relaxing, comforting environment.

If the Preakness moved to Laurel, where would Stronach take racing’s VIPs that week for fabulous, down-home evening functions? Beautiful downtown Laurel? The nearby Holiday Inn?

Move the Preakness and a century-old bond would be broken. The gloss and mystique of the Preakness would disappear. Stronach would be devaluing one of its most valuable commodities.

Legal Barriers

Beside, Stronach can’t move the Preakness or shutter Pimlico without approval of the state racing commission and the Maryland General Assembly. Neither is in a mood to oblige. Not now and in all likelihood not ever.

But Stronach certainly is trying to present a case for such a move.

This year it has put Pimlico on a starvation diet of just nine days of racing. That’s an insult to Baltimore area racing fans and to Baltimore officials. Mayor Catherine Pugh should take note.

There is a glimmer of hope, though.

Thanks in large measure to Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg, the Maryland Stadium Authority has come forth with a plan for modernizing and saving Pimlico.

It’s a “situational analysis” that paints an exciting future for a rejuvenated race track – if Pimlico’s owners are willing to take a realistic look at the state’s political landscape and accept a two-track solution.

Achievable Solution

This is a much-needed first step. It outlines a $285 million renovation program that is eminently achievable. There are amply ways to pay for this, thanks to the fact that it will have to be done on a multi-year basis.

By way of comparison, Churchill Down, home of the Kentucky Derby, underwent a $121 million renovation starting in 2001; it took nearly four years to complete. More renovations took place at Churchill in 2015 and 2016 (ultra-luxury suites, a fully renovated clubhouse and plans for a $37 million suite tower).

There’s no reason Pimlico’s re-make can’t be done in a similar phased-in way that divides the re-make into chunks with workable price tags over a decade.

Pimlico's Improving Future-2

Any they’re off on Preakness Day at Old Hilltop in Baltimore.

Stronach will have to chip in big-time if it wants Maryland and Baltimore to contribute handsomely, too. A public-private partnership only succeeds if all sides are fully committed financially.

Millions toward a Pimlico renovation could come from the 1 percent of slots revenue that already flows into a race track improvement fund. The $2 million in tax revenue generated each year by the Preakness also could be dedicated toward paying the interest on bonds for the renovations.

And remember how the Ravens’ football stadium was built: With special instant scratch-off lotteries. A similar money-raiser through the lottery agency could be devised for Pimlico’s facelift.

With bond interest rates near historic lows, this is an ideal time to start getting serious about what a beautified Pimlico will look like, the timing of improvements and the financing arrangements.

Racing Revival?

Moving the Preakness is out of the question. From a sports perspective, such a move would be a PR and financial disaster. It would be devastating to Baltimore and a black eye if the state of Maryland allowed such a travesty to take place.

Thoroughbred racing once was the Sport of Kings with huge crowds flocking to the tracks daily. The sport has been in decline in recent decades but there are signs of a rebound.

That rebound is clearly evident in Maryland. Additionally, cutting-edge technology advances such as virtual reality, augmented reality and electronic sports gaming hold immense potential to boost racing’s popularity and profitability.

For all those reasons, it’s time to get serious about making Pimlico a first-rate race course with all the creature comforts fan expect. It would be a big win for the surrounding communities, the city and the state.

Pimlico is an economic resource that holds considerable potential, but only if we take advantage of the opportunity.

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Hogan, Trump & Trouble?

By Barry Rascovar

March 13, 2017–Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, Jr., has done all in his power to separate himself from the new, controversial Republican president, Donald Trump.

Given Trump’s unpopularity in Maryland – he lost by a whopping 25% in November – that wall of separation keeps Hogan in good stead with most voters in this top-heavy Democratic state.

His popularity remains sky-high and Hogan continues to skirt controversial social issues that could bring him trouble with liberal voters while losing the backing of GOP conservatives.

Hogan, Trump & Trouble?

MD Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

His prime objective is getting reelected in 2018 while dragging in with him enough Republican legislators to ensure a veto-proof state Senate.

Then Hogan would have more leverage and ability to help the state GOP turn the corner in Maryland and become a truly viable statewide alternative to Democrat hegemony.

But that scenario could blow up in Hogan’s face through no fault of his own.

Trump Referendum?

The 2018 election is looking more and more like a national referendum on Donald Trump’s manic, unpredictable presidency. If that become the case, Hogan’s continuation in office could hang by a thread.

The beginning of the end for Hogan may have commenced last week with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s rush to eliminate Obamacare and replace it with a haphazard health-care insurance program that punishes the lower-middle class, the poor and citizens nearing retirement age.

It also is sending the nation’s health-insurance industry into a prolonged period of chaotic uncertainty. The result could be a rapid pullout next year by insurers from what’s left of Obamacare to avoid gigantic losses caused by the program’s slow, agonizing demise mandated by Ryan’s legislation.

The Congressional Budget Office on Monday estimated a whopping 14 million Americans would lose their health insurance coverage next year under the Republican plan being rammed through the House of Representatives. That’s terrible for Republicans who have to run for reelection in the fall of 2018.

Cutting subsidies out from under Obamacare also would devastate state health budgets. Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders now receiving health insurance support or care through Medicaid could be cut off without the resources to afford health-care protection (CBO says premiums could rise 20 percent next year alone).

Ryan’s plan calls for Maryland and other states to receive far less to undergird their health insurance programs. Hospitals could be flooded by non-paying patients with nowhere else to go. Preventive health care, a key component of Obamacare, would disappear; people would show up at emergency rooms needing far more costly medical treatment.

Bad timing

For Hogan, the timing couldn’t be worse. By next year, Maryland’s entire health care network could face an unprecedented financial and medical crisis. Maryland’s health expenditures could balloon, and many of the state’s citizens could be panicking over the loss of their medical safety net.

That’s a recipe for problems at the polls.

Unfortunately for Hogan, this could be just the initial blow coming from Trump’s Washington.

Sweeping federal layoffs this year and next seem in the cards — the largest cutbacks since the end of World War II by one account.

Last week, Comptroller Peter Franchot wrote down state revenue estimates for the next 18 months by $33 million and warned of the likelihood of major job losses in federal agencies employing hundreds of thousands of Free State citizens.

The budgets for programs affecting all aspect of the Maryland economy are at risk, from housing assistance critical in poor communities like Baltimore and rural Maryland to severe reductions in funding for the Coast Guard that could hurt the state’s important maritime economy and policing of the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland impact

Massive budget cuts in the space program, food and drug enforcement, agriculture, the Census Bureau, the Medicaid agency, education aid, medical research and environmental protection would reverberate ithrough Maryland, home to many of these agencies.

All of this is dreadful news for Hogan.

He’s got nothing to do with what Trump and his Republican allies are foisting on the American public. Yet he may end up paying the ultimate political price.

Let’s face it. Hogan’s 2014 election victory was a fluke, the result of a well-run campaign and exceedingly good luck: Democrats nominated a historically bad candidate (Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, now a member of Congress) who ran one of the worst-ever gubernatorial campaigns.

Given Maryland’s 2-1 Democratic voter registration edge, Hogan’s re-election was always less than certain, even with his high poll numbers. Inflame the state’s Democratic voters and any Republican, even a popular incumbent, could have big problems.

So if Marylanders are infuriated with Trump & Friends; if hundreds of thousands are scared, angry and afraid of having little or no health coverage; if the state’s large federal workforce endures unprecedented layoffs and spending cuts, and if Democrats are so enraged they take out their fury on Election Day, Hogan had better prepare for the worst.

Déjà vu?

It’s happened before.

In 2006, Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich enjoyed exceptionally high polling numbers right up till the general election. Most people said Ehrlich had done a pretty good job. Yet he lost by 6% – nearly 120,000 votes.

How could that happen?

Ehrlich’s loss was linked to the unpopularity of a Republican president, George W. Bush, saddled with a wobbly economy, a flagging war on terrorism, an unnecessary, trumped-up war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and ineptness in the White House.

By the November 2006 election, Bush’s poll rating – which hit 90% after the 2001 terrorist bombings, had plunged to 38%. (It would continue to sink to a low of 25%).

Voters wanted to send Bush a message – and in Maryland the only way to do that was by voicing disapproval of the top Republican candidate on the ballot that year – Bob Ehrlich.

Hogan should be alarmed that Donald Trump’s approval rating as of two weeks ago was just 38% – identical to Bush’s low appeal in 2006. The Obamacare controversy and the new president’s angry Twitter insults, unsubstantiated allegations and inflammatory rhetoric could shrink Trump’s approval numbers to record lows for an American president.

Should 2018 turn into a “message” election, Larry Hogan’s “good guy” image and Marylanders’ lack of animus toward him may prove all but worthless.

He could well become, for state voters, Donald Trump’s surrogate on the ballot.

It could be 2006 all over again in Maryland.  ##  

Morhaim’s Moment of Shame

By Barry Rascovar

March 6, 2017—It had to be one of the most painful and humiliating moments of Dan Morhaim’s life.

Last Friday he sat in the House of Delegates chamber as his colleagues voted 138-0 to reprimand him for not informing them and a state commission he had a conflict of interest on medical marijuana issues.

Morhaim's Moment of Shame

Maryland House of Delegate in State House chambers

All the while he was offering reams of advice and guidance to the very commission setting up rules for awarding those lucrative state licenses.

He broke no laws but he stepped far over the ethics line for elected legislators.

While Morhaim continues to insist “I did nothing wrong,” his colleagues unanimously disagreed.

Panel’s Findings

As the legislature’s joint ethics committee wrote in its report, Morhaim’s “belief that he could keep his role as a legislator, advocating for the implementation of policy and regulations for the use of medical cannabis, separate from his position as a paid consultant for a company seeking to enter the medical cannabis business reflects poor judgment to the detriment of the broader interests of the public. . .”

Further, the panel concluded Morhaim’s less than forthright actions “eroded the confidence and trust of the public and other governmental officials who work with legislators, bringing disrepute and dishonor to the General Assembly.”

The panel not only recommended a public reprimand but asked Morhaim to consider making a public apology. He did so in writing but declined to speak on the House floor.

He had not violated disclosure laws, Morhaim wrote. Nor had it been his “intent” to use his elective office for monetary gain. His sin, he explained, was that “I failed to appreciate the public perception of these issues.”

It was not much of an apology. A day earlier he had issued a three-page defense, blaming the media for “erroneous” reports of his activities. He later called the whole thing a “circus” in which his actions had been badly distorted.

Placing the onus on others for his predicament may salve Morhaim’s ego but it won’t sit well with elected leaders or with the public.

Who’s to Blame?

After reading the 17-page committee report, it is clear only Morhaim is at fault for what went wrong. It cost him his credibility, his subcommittee chairmanship and his leadership post in Annapolis.

Morhaim's Shame

Del. Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County

He agreed to have no future communications with the medical marijuana commission or its staff and to exclude himself from legislative activities regarding cannabis.

That’s a big concession from a politician who fought relentlessly and passionately for over a decade to bring medical cannabis to Maryland.

He also is giving up his financial arrangement with the medical marijuana company, Doctors Orders, a compensation deal the joint ethics committee called “substantial.”

Some legislators and ethics groups denounced the punishment as insufficient. Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., in his haste to throw dirt on Democrats totally mischaracterized Morhaim’s actions, refused to acknowledge he had gotten the facts wrong and then called for Morhaim’s removal from office.

The governor used the Morhaim case to trumpet his call for tougher ethics laws and for placing enforcement under an executive office agency.

While it is obvious language in the ethics statute needs greater clarity, turning adjudication over to the executive branch could be unconstitutional and certainly is impractical.

Public shaming, such as Morhaim’s reprimand, has proved an effective tool for disciplining wayward public officials since biblical times. It’s the General Assembly’s responsibility to police conduct of its members, just as is true for the U.S. Congress.

Ultimately, though, it is up to voters to determine the fate of lawmakers who stray over the line of acceptable conduct.

Re-election Challenge

That is where Morhaim’s toughest battle may lie.

When campaigning begins next year in his northwest Baltimore County district, the physician-delegate will face constant questions and criticism. He could confront significant challengers harping loudly on his reprimand and denouncing his lack of responsible ethical judgment.

It’s an unfortunate turn of events for Morhaim. In his 23 years as a state delegate, he had developed into a standout lawmaker. His medical expertise as an emergency-room physician prove invaluable to his colleagues as they grappled with complex and often technical health-care issues. He has been a leader in much-needed procurement reform efforts in state government, too.

While public shaming is tough for any politician to swallow, Morhaim remains in a position to rehabilitate his badly damaged reputation.

How?

Put his grudges and hurt feelings aside, focus on using his knowledge and experience to help enact solid, progressive legislation and never again be tempted to abandon a strict standard of ethical conduct.

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