Monthly Archives: May 2017

Hogan’s Political Veto

By Barry Rascovar

May 30, 2017—Re-election is never far from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s mind. His veto of the paid sick-leave bill crafted by General Assembly Democrats illustrates that point.

Not only did Hogan toss the bill in his “reject” pile, he also paved the way for an “alternative reality” by establishing a task force to study the impact of paid sick leave on small businesses and come up with an ostensibly better plan.

The he promised to work toward a compromise with the General Assembly – something he stubbornly has refused to do on this and most other issues over the past three legislative sessions. Few believe it will happen.

It all adds up to good politics for Hogan’s core voting groups.

Hogan's Political Veto

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

He once again portrays himself as a defender of small business owners, calling this “job-killing bill” “disastrous” for the state economy. That’s why he vetoed it, he says.

But he assures us he wants to help low-paid workers who don’t get paid if they take time off when sick or to care for an ill family member. He offered a weak-sister version of the Democrats’ bill last December and now pledges to fashion a new, improved version that he can support.

What’s not to like about those two propositions?

Veto Override?

Democrats, union advocates and the party’s far-left zealots want to turn Hogan’s veto into a cause celebre in advance of next year’s election, portraying him as “heartless” and out of touch with the 677,000 workers in the state who would have benefitted from the vetoed bill.

Democratic leaders in the legislature think they have the votes to override Hogan’s veto the next time the Assembly meets. What a slap-in-the-face this would be, right? It might even damage Hogan’s re-election bid.

That may be wishful thinking by Democrats, who can’t quite figure out Hogan’s political wizardry.

By continuing to muddy the waters with his own versions of the Democrats’ paid sick-leave bill, the governor blurs the public’s vision. There are stark differences between Hogan’s earlier plan and the Democrats’ bill – but few voters pay close enough attention to notice.

The governor’s latest tactic – a task force to show how damning the vetoed bill would have been and then suggest a slimmed-down façade of a paid sick-leave measure – will confuse the public even further, which may be what he wants.

There’s also the matter of timing.

Voters in the Dark

Hogan knows Maryland voters have short memories. By the time the November 2018 election rolls around, some sort of paid sick leave bill will be on the books – and most voters won’t know what’s in the bill and which political party deserves credit.

Hogan will campaign as a champion of a “common sense” paid sick-leave bill. His Democratic opponent will have a tough time making him the villain.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have paid sick-leave laws. Thus far, the results have not be calamitous. Last year in Maryland, Montgomery County implemented a paid sick leave ordinance with few repercussions.

The Department of Legislative Services says the Democrats’ measure would have a “significant impact” on small businesses, especially firms that employ large numbers of low wage-earners.

But DLS also notes the bill could result in lower turnover at those companies, reduce the spread of illness in the workplace and increase productivity.

Hogan, though, doesn’t buy it. For him, it is politically expedient to attack the Democrats’ paid sick-leave measure as a job-killer (without any back-up data) and offer tepid options in its place.

Will voters buy that strategy? There’s a good chance this will not be a hot-button issue 17 months from now. Once again, Hogan is proving a difficult politician to pin down.

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Maryland’s Mixed Economic Messages

By Barry Rascovar

May 22, 2017 – Talk about sending mixed messages, the latest jobs report for Maryland can be read as good news or the precursor of bad economic news.

Maryland added 3,500 jobs in April. That’s good, right?

Well, yes, but remember in March Maryland lost 7,900 jobs.

Want another mixed message?

Maryland’s unemployment rate rose slightly to 4.3%. That’s a disturbing sign, small though it may be.

It indicates more people who had dropped out of even trying to find a job are once again seeking work. A larger pool of job-seekers could keep the unemployment rate in Maryland on an upward path.

Yet it’s a good sign that Maryland’s jobless rate remains a notch below the national unemployment rate of 4.4%.

Conflicting Federal Signals

If you want to see an even bigger mixed economic message for the Free State, look at what’s about to happen in dysfunctional Washington.

President Trump will be releasing his first budget this week for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Early indicators point to a fiscal blueprint that slashes domestic programs especially for the poor and the environment but is exceedingly generous to the military.

How do you rate that package, good or bad?

Here’s one more: Trump trumpeted his “great day” in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, where a series of tentative agreements were announced.

Maryland's Mixed Economic Signals

President Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia

The White House claimed these still-evolving deals could be worth $110 billion, much of it in military equipment, plus a still-murky $40 billion joint infrastructure investment fund.

Good for the U.S. economy, right?

But these are merely “understandings” between the two governments. Nothing is written in stone.

First, these purchases may take a long time, if ever, to materialize. Tough and lengthy negotiations lie ahead.

Moreover, the Saudi government is demanding that a vast amount of the spending take place outside the U.S. – in the Arabian kingdom.

Lockheed Martin is trying to lock down $28 billion worth of military contracts with the Saudis, including air-missile defense systems and aircraft.

How much of this work will end up in Maryland remains unclear.

Signed contracts could be a long way off.

And the Saudi government is insisting much of this work be done in their own country. It’s part of the push by the deputy crown prince to move the Saudi economy away from its current over-dependence on petroleum production.

There’s also a sense of urgency in the kingdom to bring down the high unemployment rate among young adults who are well-educated but can’t find work.

So there may be less in Trump’s Saudi agreements for the U.S. economy than at first blush.

Budget Blues

Maryland’s bigger problem lies in the soon-to-be-unveiled Trump budget proposal.

The Environmental Protection Agency budget alone is scary: Eliminating the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, doing away with lead-abatement funding, cutting air and water quality cleanup grants by nearly half and tossing out lots and lots of environmental regulations.

There’s even $12 million set aside for buyouts and early retirement offers – part of the EPA’s determination to shrink the agency and restrict its role in state and local environmental efforts.

The good news is that Congress can disregard Trump’s draconian domestic spending agenda, though it is likely to give the military a huge budget boost. How the American public perceives this dramatic spending shift may remain uncertain until the 2018 elections.

Maryland and Virginia could be the biggest losers.

Trump can accomplish a massive government downsizing without congressional consent. While Capitol Hill may give Trump more money than he requests for domestic programs, the president need not spend that money.

This could mean more Marylanders thrown out of work. For state government, it could lead to a drop-off in tax revenue, a budget crisis in the State House and rising demands from localities for the state to step in and fund programs losing federal support.

Yes, the glass these days can be viewed as half-empty or half-full.

Yet it is hard to see how this is good news for those in Annapolis who must deal with the economic fallout stemming from Republican downsizing efforts in Washington.

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Preakness Week & Pimlico’s Future

By Barry Rascovar

May 15, 2017 – Kentucky may have the biggest horse race of the year but Maryland has the most entertaining “people’s party” on the infield at Pimlico Race Course on Preakness Day, which takes place Saturday.

While the week is filled with more quality horse-racing than Pimlico will see the rest of the year, the Preakness Stakes is without question the biggest and most important day of entertainment on Maryland’s calendar each and every year.

But will it continue?Preakness Week & Pimlico's Future

For decades skeptics have proclaimed “the end is near.” Pimlico’s facilities are antiquated, unable to comfortably accommodate 137,000 patrons, as it did last year.

Racing, the negativists say, is a dying sport and Maryland should pull the plug on Pimlico.

That’s not likely.

Bare Minimum at Pimlico

Support for keeping the Preakness in Baltimore and rejuvenating the historic Pimlico track is strong among political leaders. Almost no one in the State House voices a desire to abandon Baltimore and concentrate thoroughbred racing at Laurel.

The Stronach Group that owns both tracks has spent heavily upgrading Laurel Race Course. It has spent the bare minimum on Pimlico to keep up appearances.

Yet an earlier comment by a Stronach official favoring Pimlico’s closure while consolidating racing dates at Laurel met with such hostility in Annapolis that the track owner is taking a more neutral stance.

If city and state leaders come up with a plan – and financing arrangement – to modernize and expand the Pimlico acreage, the Stronach Group will join the discussion.

While a total re-build is the group’s preference – Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh leans in that direction, too – the Maryland Stadium Authority’s preliminary report outlines a $300 million overhaul and expansion of the existing track structure that is eye-catching.

Here Comes Phase 2

The MSA is now gearing up for Phase 2 of its study: A development strategy delving into whether to fix what’s there or start from scratch; cost projections, a benefit analysis and funding plans.

Ironically, assembling the financial pieces may be the easiest element.

  • Revenue from the state’s casino slot machines contributes $7 million a year to a Racetrack Facility Renewal Account that can be used for the Pimlico project.
  • Some of the $50 million from slots now going each year into the Horse Racing Purse Account could be diverted for five or six years to help underwrite Pimlico’s revival.
  • $20 million in lottery revenue is given to the MSA to pay off construction bonds for the Ravens and Orioles stadiums at Camden Yards. In two years, the bonds will be paid off and that annual contribution could be dedicated to the Pimlico project.
  • Both the state and city have enough fiscal flexibility to commit funds through 15-year bonds to a Pimlico re-build. Since the project is likely to take five-plus years to complete, the fiscal impact of government contributions to a state-of-the-art race track can be minimized.
  • The Stronach Group has made it known that if the city and state step up to the plate, it might form a public-private partnership with the goal of turning Pimlico into a showcase for the Preakness and extending the spring racing season.

Stronach has invested large sums of money into the group’s premier tracks, including a $130 million investment at its Florida race course, Gulfstream. Frank Stronach believes strongly in thoroughbred racing as a sport and as a business. A gleaming, appealing Pimlico could be another part of his grand plan for racing.

Stronach already gains enormous prestige and substantial profits from the Preakness. A revived track could further those ambitions.

Part of the key is agreeing to upgrade the distressed Pimlico neighborhood to the south and west of the track. Pugh is committing funds to start reviving the Belvedere corridor to the south. But a larger investment from the state is missing.

The Stronach Group could do more, too.

A major competitor, Churchill Downs, this month purchased $13 million in houses, vacant lots and commercial strips surrounding its Louisville track. Couldn’t Stronach do something similar in Pimlico to improve the neighborhood?

Returning this community to its historic roots as a stable place for working-class Baltimoreans will take time, money and a strong commitment from both the city and state.

The next move is up Tom Kelso, chairman of the MSA, and his good friend, Gov. Larry Hogan.

Putting together a solid proposal the governor can present to the 2018 General Assembly – with strong backing from both Stronach and Pugh – would be good politics in an election year and a good move for racing and Baltimore.

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Hogan’s Worst Nightmare: Trumpcare

By Barry Rascovar

May 8, 2017 – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s worst nightmare is starting to come true. Trumpcare has passed the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Senate finds a way to give President Trump what he wants, it could spell a heap of trouble for Hogan in 2018’s general election.

The Republican Party’s mania with obliterating Barack Obama’s massive health insurance law has led the majority party in Washington to ignore common sense.

“Repeal and replace” is a GOP obsession – though an estimated 24 million people could lose their insurance, tens of millions more could be out of luck due to pre-existing conditions and medical programs for the poor could be cut 25%.

It also would damage the nation’s economy. That’s especially true in Maryland, where healthcare is one of the state’s biggest employers.Hogan's Worst NightmareIt is almost certain to be the No. 1 issue in the 2018 mid-term elections, even if the Senate approves a diluted Trumpcare bill.

What a devastating state of affairs for Republican Hogan. Until the House vote last week, he appeared in excellent shape to win a second term.

Now he has to figure out how to tiptoe around this explosive issue that already is proving highly unpopular.

Unfavorable Poll Numbers

A Washington Post-ABC poll last month found 61% of Americans opposed Trumpcare. A Quinnipiac poll the month before found Trumpcare support stood at just 17%.

Most Americans, it appears, would rather stick with the existing – though seriously flawed – Obamacare medical insurance program and fix parts that aren’t working well (“keep and improve” as opposed to the GOP’s “repeal and replace”).

Wait until the Congressional Budget Office issues its cost and impact analysis of the House-passed version of Trumpcare. It could expose the bill’s soft underbelly. Public resistance could grow louder.

For Hogan, House passage of Trumpcare might be the beginning of bad news.

He could be trapped in a nearly untenable position: A Republican who might have to disavow his own party leaders in Washington to survive.

Hogan won election in 2014 by promising “no new taxes.” Does that mean he will let Trumpcare’s 25% cut in federal Medicaid funds lay waste to Maryland’s health programs for the poor and near-poor? Where would he find hundreds of millions in state dollars to cover those unfunded programs?

How does he run for reelection with Trumpcare hanging over his head?

Justifying Republican Plan

How does Hogan justify to voters his party’s plan to let insurance companies charge outrageously high premiums – or deny coverage entirely – for people with “pre-existing conditions”? This could be anyone with acne, anxiety, depression, diabetes, obesity, cancer, pulmonary problems, asthma or even allergies.

How does he tell older working Marylanders that under his party’s plan their insurance premiums could jump an unaffordable 500%?

How does he explain a cut of $600 billion in taxes that supported Obamacare – a massive windfall for wealthy Americans, insurance companies and medical device companies?

How does he justify $880 billion in healthcare cuts to Medical Assistance for the poor?

Hogan & Company should be praying that the Senate junks the House bill and takes a few years to figure out what to do next.

Otherwise, the GOP across the country – including here in Maryland – could take a shellacking for its all-out effort to appease its conservative base.

Gift to Democrats

There’s no doubt Democratic candidates for Maryland governor will tie Hogan to Trumpcare.

Every candidate will be running ads with tales of how middle-class and working-class Marylanders would be hurt, how lives hang in the balance.

It is a gift from heaven for Democrats.

One Republican pollster called the GOP’s insistent quest to wipe out Obamacare “political malpractice.”

Until recently the notion of Democrats regaining control of the House by picking up 24-plus seats next year appeared wishful thinking. Thanks to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s determination to pass a draconian Trumpcare bill, that’s no longer the case.

Little wonder Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi – the former Nancy D’Alesandro from Baltimore’s Little Italy – was practically giddy.

Every Republican will be vulnerable, unless he or she disowns the GOP’s No. 1 issue and risks losing support from Trump’s supporters. “This vote will be tattooed to them,” Pelosi vowed.

That includes Republican Hogan, who has made an extensive effort to distance himself from Donald Trump and his controversial comments and proposals.

That may not be enough to give him immunity from this highly contagious political disease.

When virtually every healthcare group – from the American Medical Association to the American Hospital Association to AARP – as well as virtually every insurance group vehemently opposes the Republicans’ “repeal and replace” crusade, smart politicians should pay attention.

Failure by the GOP to “listen and learn” could prove fatal come November 2018 – both in Maryland and nationwide.

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Get Ready for Maryland’s Democratic Circus

By Barry Rascovar

May 1, 2017–If the election for Maryland governor were held tomorrow, Alec Ross would win: He’s the only one who officially has announced his candidacy.

Alec who?

Get ready for a circus of a gubernatorial campaign among Democrats. Ross is just the first of what could be a carload of clowns pouring out of a small VW Bug with the bumper sticker: “Dump Hogan.”

Good luck on that one.

Ross’ slick, four-minute video introducing himself is instructive. He lays out the “poor boy makes good through education” saga. The opening line of the video:

“Growing up in coal country taught Alex Ross about hard work.”

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Alec Ross

He stresses his days teaching sixth-graders at an inner-city Baltimore school.

Ross preaches the need for bold thinking and innovation, especially in the area of education. More than anything, he hammers at Gov. Larry Hogan “for allowing Donald Trump to bring his agenda to Maryland.”

That’s THE theme of the upcoming Democratic primary campaign. Every gubernatorial candidate will be shouting it from the hilltops.

Ross zeroes in on Hogan joining Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, in a much-publicized photo-op session in a Montgomery County classroom. DeVos would love to see mass privatization of public schools – a radical but necessary solution in her eyes.

Ross attacks the education problem from the Democratic far-left rather than the Republican far-right. He’d use technology and a massive boost in schooling that prepares students for 21st century jobs. He wants to employ innovation to bolster public schools, not obliterate them.

He goes on to attack Hogan for “not standing up to Trumpism,” for failing to oppose Trump’s budget plan that would wipe out Chesapeake Bay cleanup funds.

It’s the first direct shot across Hogan’s bow in the governor’s race – but it will sound all too familiar by the June 28, 2018 primary.

Ross was a Hillary Clinton adviser on technology in the Obama administration. Innovation and looking at problem-solving differently is his thing.

But will that be enough to win an election?

Resume Gap

Ross, like many of the likely candidates, is a new face to most Marylanders. He has never been elected to political office for dog catcher or anything else. He’s taught in a classroom, written a book, held a federal job as an adviser but never been in the thick of local or state politics.

He’s lacking a key element on his resume.

That’s also the case for Jim Shea, a highly regarded Baltimore attorney who ran Maryland’s largest law firm for 22 years. Shea devoted considerable time serving on civic boards and public service commissions. His slogan: “A Fighting Voice for Maryland.”

No elected office appears on Shea’s resume.

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Jim Shea

His theme is similar to Ross’. On his website Shea says, “Maryland and our country are under attack by Donald Trump, a man who cares only about himself and who is hostile tour American way of life. Meanwhile, our governor sits silently, watching from the sidelines, even as the progress we have made in Maryland is threatened on a daily basis.”

This is why Shea is “laying the groundwork” to run for governor. “There is simply too much at stake.”

Making the Rounds

Funny, but that’s what all the governor wannabes are saying.

Both Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker have been making the political and publicity rounds for months laying their own groundwork for a gubernatorial run focusing on the Trump threat and Hogan’s “go along to get along” attitude.

Kamenetz and Baker, though, have limited appeal and are widely unknown outside their home regions.

Baker has an added problem: Another African-American, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, is talking about a run for governor. That could split this large, influential Democratic primary vote.

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Ben Jealous

Jealous wants to be the far-left Bernie Sanders clone in Maryland, preaching a social agenda of drastic change. That may have limited appeal in a state where Sanders lost by nearly 30% to the more moderate Clinton in Maryland’s presidential primary.

Meanwhile, three-term Rep. John Delaney is looking at a run for Government House.

He’s much more in the moderate, “blue dog Democrat” camp, touting his own innovative plan for a massive re-building of America’s infrastructure and sharply taking Trump to task for his radical proposals.

Delaney, too, is little known outside his sprawling Western Maryland/Montgomery County congressional district.

One advantage: He made a fortune (estimated net worth: $180 million) by establishing two New York Stock Exchange companies that helped small and mid-sized businesses obtain loans.

Delaney could self-finance a very expensive campaign (think former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to make himself and his ideas a household word.

Montgomery Candidates

Name recognition would not be Doug Gansler’s problem – a two-term state attorney general and a two-term state’s attorney in populous Montgomery County.

Gansler, though, is remembered for a disjointed and sometimes comical race for governor in 2014 when he received only 24% of the Democratic primary vote.

He’s  now got the advantage of being an outsider (working for a Washington, D.C. law firm) and he has a statewide network of contacts and voters who supported him in the past.

He and Delaney, however, might split the key Montgomery County vote.

Gansler’s plight could become even more perilous if another Montgomery politician jumps into the race – state Sen. Rich Madaleno, a vocal foe of Hogan’s legislative policies.

Get Ready for the Maryland Democratic Circus

State Sen. Rich Madaleno

Madaleno would capture much of the state’s gay vote (as Del. Heather Mizeur did in the 2014 primary with 22%) and would be a popular choice in his home district.

His leadership role in Annapolis on budget issues isn’t well known and could relegate Madaleno to a back seat in a statewide race.

There’s also a chance still another Montgomery County politician could be pushed into the governor’s race – Attorney General Brian Frosh.

He’s been a popular AG and has not hesitated to criticize Trump. Frosh is positioned to grab tons of headlines in the next year, thanks to legislation passed over the governor’s veto giving Frosh full power to file suit against Trump actions if he deems it appropriate.

Frosh is a quiet, often cautious, liberal Democrat who could be viewed as a bridge-building unifier within the party. 

All of these contenders will be singing from the same “Dump Trump/Hogan” hymnal. How Democrats figure out which one is best positioned to take on a hugely popular, moderate Republican governor is the big question.

Or will the Democratic primary turn into a destructive civil war in which the party’s far-left, “progressive” wing wins a Pyrrhic victory, with little or no chance against Hogan in November? 

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