Monthly Archives: September 2017

Hogan, King of the Road(s)

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 25, 2017–Gov. Larry Hogan never met a highway project he didn’t like. He’s a 1950s type of politician – solve all the state’s transportation gridlock and congestion by paving the countryside with lanes of new concrete.

He’s got a $9 billion plan that is a lollapalooza: Let construction giants build and pay for toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and the busy I-270 corridor from the beltway to Frederick – 70 miles of exclusive Lexus lanes – and let those companies reap the toll rewards so they can recoup a staggering $7.6 billion investment (the actual cost is likely to be substantially higher).

Then Hogan says he’ll take the state’s part of the profits and turn the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, now owned by the U.S. Park Service, into curb-to-curb concrete with nary a tree or woodlands in between.

Hogan: King of the Road(s)

He could re-name it the B-W Speedway.

It’s an all-highway solution straight out of the mid-20th century.

While conversation over this stunning proposal has barely started – Hogan consulted very few people it seems – there are a slew of points that deserve consideration before his back-to-the-future initiative gets too far off the ground:

The environmental damage, especially along the B-W Parkway, could be substantial.

How can the Park Service, even under a run-amuck Trump administration, turn the parkway’s 30 miles of mature woodlands over to a state eager to destroy those trees and vast stretches of scenic greenery? Is such a move even legally permissible?

Eight lanes of concrete – four new toll lanes (plus wide shoulders) and four toll-free lanes – would convert the parkway into a high-speed, tension-filled raceway.

For homeowners and neighborhoods abutting or close to the three roadways, Hogan’s plan is a calamity.

When a two-lane expansion of the B-W Parkway was proposed in 2011, Greenbelt leaders loudly objected, fearing the intrusion of the busy highway directly into the town. Imagine what a four-lane toll expansion will do to Greenbelt and other communities along the route.

The situation is far worse along high-density sections of I-270 and the Capital Beltway. Gigantic lawsuits and protests await Hogan when he tries to seize all that private property from businesses and homeowners – and then turn the land over to a consortium that would profit from those government land-grabs.

At the end of this project, Hogan may have done little to relieve highway congestion.

Every expansion of I-495 and I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway) has meant more cars on those roads and a quick return to the same level of congestion and added pollution. Los Angles has experienced the same thing with the famed I-405, where a $1.4 billion expansion didn’t help ease congestion at all.

The notion that Maryland taxpayers won’t be on the hook for a lot of the expense of these mega-projects isn’t realistic.

Hogan’s no-cost-to-taxpayers assertion may sound good to voters, but there’s virtually no way he can make it happen. These are ultra-expensive projects. For starters, seizing private properties through eminent domain can’t be privatized and will be extraordinarily expensive in the high-priced Washington suburbs.

Hogan also says the state’s share of profits from the I-495 and I-270 toll lanes will pay for the four toll lanes on the B-W Parkway. That doesn’t compute given the woeful record of the state’s last two toll projects – the Intercounty Connector and the I-95 Express Toll Lanes from Baltimore to White Marsh. Neither has come near the revenue numbers anticipated prior to construction.

Maryland’s toll authority already is in a heap of long-term financial trouble that would be compounded by these mega-projects.

The Department of Legislative Services says that between now and 2022, Maryland’s tolling facilities will take in $267 million less than projected but operating expenses will be $588 million higher than anticipated. This will force $1.7 billion worth of cuts to future projects and reduce the toll authority’s ability to float bonds by $3.7 billion.

Adding Hogan’s toll-road projects, even with a public-private contract, will scare the heck out of bond-rating agencies, which know full-well the state isn’t getting a free ride on construction projects of this size.

Transportation trends are not on Hogan’s side.

In good times, more cars and trucks use highways and toll roads. But in bad times, the reverse is true. Experts almost universally note the nation is ripe for an economic downturn. That means a big drop in gas tax and toll receipts for Maryland’s transportation agencies.

Rising fuel-mileage standards are hurting Maryland’s gas-tax receipts, too. So is the growth of electric vehicles on the road.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Transportation Authority’s debt service is soaring – a nearly six-fold increase between 2007 and today with no decline in sight over the next 25 years.

The authority “will need to make long-term changes in order to remain financially stable,” DLS reported early this year. Hogan’s mega-projects ignore that suggestion and add to the state’s highway obligations.

Say goodbye to any future mass transit projects.

Hogan’s plan gives zero attention to a balanced transit solution in Central Maryland, instead putting all the state’s transportation eggs in a highway basket. That’s not the direction Virginia or other Eastern states with similar congestion woes are heading.

Such a vast expansion of I-295, I-495 and I-270 will create massive new gridlock at exit and access points.

How in the world could Russell Street in Baltimore handle an additional two lanes of rush-hour traffic? Ditto as the BW Parkway flows into New York Avenue in D.C. It would be a nightmare. Arterial roads and cut-through streets in adjacent neighborhoods along these three interstate highways would be clogged. The law of unintended consequences could kick in.

Passing environmental tests posed by federal and state laws and regulations could delay construction for many years, especially on the B-W Parkway.

Rest assured, legal challenges to every aspect of Hogan’s plan will be posed by environmental groups, well-to-do neighborhood associations along these routes and local governments.

Indeed, Hogan may be out of office by the time the first ground-breaking ceremony takes place – which may be part of his strategy.

What happened to helping Joe Six-Pack and the “forgotten Americans” who can’t afford E-ZPass transponders or Lexus lanes?

There’s nothing in Hogan’s transportation vision that helps people at the lower end of the economy. No expansion of commuter buses, no shuttles connecting workers to spread-out job sites, no future mass transit such as a desperately needed east-west line through Baltimore.

Hogan’s highway proposal creates a windfall for the well-to-do and transportation businesses.

The plan is a winner for candidate Hogan.

Expect hefty campaign contributions from the construction and highway industries, from trucking concerns and from companies along these routes that figure to benefit from additional high-speed, interstate concrete lanes.

For voters, Hogan’s plan sounds great and makes an ideal campaign pitch. The devil is in the details, though, which Hogan won’t mention to voters.

How Democrats react to Hogan’s mega-plan will be fascinating to watch. Commuters want highway relief. But will they like what comes with the relief Hogan is offering?

Putting specifics before voters won’t be easy because the topic is complex. Voters like simple solutions and Hogan is very good at giving simple answers to exceedingly complicated problems.

How will the two other members of the Board of Public Works vote on Hogan’s plan?

They hold the key. Without BPW approval, Hogan’s super-highway plans are dead.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp will have to dissect the extensive financial ramifications of Hogan’s proposal, the environmental impact, the legal liability such a huge seizure of private property might entail and the impact this would have on the lives of thousands of residents and businesses along those interstate routes.

About the only thing that seems assured is this: Hogan’s sweepingly ambitious highway-building plan is a long way from getting built.

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Hogan’s Strong-Arm Schools Tactic

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 18, 2017 – In one of the oddest situations Annapolis has seen in recent times, Gov. Larry Hogan is trying to sabotage his own education commission.

That’s right. A state school board made up almost exclusively of Hogan appointees is scheduled today to submit to federal officials a plan for turning around under-performing schools.

The panel agreed to this improvement plan after 19 months of intense study that included five “listening tours,” 205 meetings, testimony from education experts and extensive staff research.

Yet the governor is intent on blowing up his school board’s plan before it arrives in Washington.

Hogan wrote a scathing letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos denouncing the school-improvement program approved by his own education panel. He says it preserves “the status quo in failing schools.”

Hogan's Strong-Arm Schools Tactic

MD Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meet with children at a Bethesda elementary school.

A reading of the state’s submittal doesn’t appear to support Hogan’s objection, which is rooted almost completely in politics, not education.

Hogan wants to turn under-performing schools over to private contractors to be run as charter, non-unionized schools. He’d like to strip counties and Baltimore City of authority over those schools and lump them into “recovery districts” controlled by the state. He’d love to shut down failing schools and give students vouchers to attend private schools.

Multiple-Choice Education

His notions are rigidly conservative and radical. He would sweep away much of the underpinnings of Maryland’s public school system, including local control. Hogan wants to replace weak-performing schools with a privatized, multiple-choice system for educating children.

That idea hasn’t gotten off the ground in the Maryland General Assembly. The Democratic-controlled legislature repeatedly has rejected Republican Hogan’s attempts to privatize parts of the state’s public education system.

To make sure Hogan can’t embed his conservative education ideas by way of state school board decisions, the legislature passed a measure earlier this year limiting reforms the state panel can include in a plan it must submit to Washington to deal with failing schools.

Essentially, Democratic lawmakers instructed the state board that reform efforts must deal directly with student deficiencies and teacher deficiencies at existing schools. The board’s remediation plan must be implemented within the current education structure. No radical steps like charter schools, privatized management, vouchers or recovery districts allowed.

Lawmakers also rankled Hogan by limiting how much weight can be given to controversial standardized tests in determining if a school is failing.

Hogan vetoed the legislature’s bill, which Democrats then easily voted to override.

Much of the language approved by the legislature is what the powerful state teachers union wanted to protect its members from being fired in a mass privatization movement.

Dealing with Failed Schools

Yet the legislature’s restrictions hardly amounts to “preserving the status quo.” It did restrain what Hogan’s school board can propose as far as school takeovers and other sweeping moves to turn to private-sector solutions.

Yet the final product gives a detailed description of how schools will be judged and how the state will support comprehensive improvements in the weakest public schools.

It’s a far more challenging and thoughtful plan than an “off-with-their heads” approach that would re-create faltering public schools along privatized lines.

Hogan could well gain backing for his subversion from DeVos in Washington. After all, the pair made a joint guest appearance at an elementary school in Montgomery County earlier this year. Their education ideas seem to mesh.

She, too, is an ardent believer in privatization of schooling, though that approach has a mixed record.

Despite reservations from some of its members, the state education board’s submission to Washington is a solid, commendable effort to directly confront failings in schools across Maryland. The stress is on comprehensive efforts to improve teaching skills and student performance.

That may not be radical enough for Hogan, who is using all his tools to try to gum up the works. The danger is that he succeeds, with $250 million in federal school aid hanging in the balance.

But don’t count on Democrats in the legislature letting the Republican governor have his way on education privatization, even if DeVos sides with him. They are unlikely to yield.

This could well turn into an election issue next year with Hogan appealing to his conservative political base, accusing Democrats of pandering to the teachers’ union and resisting wholesale reforms.

On the other side, Democrats are sure to exploit Hogan’s unyielding advocacy of school privatization as part of his effort to diminish state support of public education.

DeVos’ decision on Maryland’s school-improvement proposal could play a prominent role in the state’s upcoming elections, especially the race for governor. It could have ramifications far beyond the classroom.

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

By Barry Rascovar

Gov. Larry Hogan can’t make up his mind.

Last year he was a gung-ho advocate of “soft-on-criminals” reforms aimed at cutting Maryland’s prison population by 1,000 and putting more resources into helping low-level offenders avoid a life of crime.

This time, though, Hogan is sporting his “tough on criminals” campaign button, calling for “truth-in-sentencing” as part of a crime-fighting package he’ll introduce in the next legislative session.

So, is Hogan soft or tough on crime?

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

As the 2018 election campaign draws closer, Mr. Tough Guy wins the day.

It’s good publicity to be seen as eager to crack down hard on thugs and violent offenders making Baltimore City one of America’s crime capitals.

So what if Hogan’s truth-in-sentencing idea negates all the savings of his Justice Reinvestment Act that commences in October?

So what if his plan creates extreme hazardous conditions for correctional guards and for inmates in Maryland’s prisons?

So what if it ties the hands of judges and virtually eliminates the need for a parole board and a probation division?

And so what if Hogan’s idea will do virtually nothing to stem Baltimore’s historic criminal rampage?

Atmospherics Count

It’s all about the atmospherics, the sense that the governor is mad as hell and won’t take it anymore, that he’s fed up with molly-coddling prisoners, that he’s doing something.

Hogan tried to set up city judges as the bad guys. He demanded they attend a criminal justice meeting on Aug. 29 where he’d sternly tell them to hand out lengthy sentences.

After the state’s chief judge informed him no member of the judiciary would attend because it would impinge greatly on judicial independence and the constitution’s separation of powers, Hogan played the role of offended party.

He used their absence to pound on judges as one reason Baltimore’s crime situation is “out of control.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh piled on, too, expressing disappointment in the judges’ absence. “We have repeat offenders continuing to walk the streets,” she said because judges are handing out too many suspended sentences.

If only it were that simple.

Even State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby couldn’t resist taking a shot, indicating that long, long prison terms for violent, repeat offenders would make Baltimore safer. (So would a better record of successful prosecutions by the state’s attorney’s office – a point Mosby artfully ignored.)

View from the Judiciary

Mary Ellen Barbera, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, later tried to talk common sense in a commentary article but was drowned out by the emotional political rhetoric.

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals

She noted those suspended sentences primarily relate to cases in which the defendant has been convicted of multiple crimes.

This results in an extended prison term on the most serious crimes and a conditional suspension of extra time in prison on lesser offenses.

That means inmates leaving prison still remain under state watch through the parole system for years to come. They’re also required to meet other terms set by judges, such as mandatory drug testing, employment, weekly check-ins, etc.

Hogan is getting pushback from some within his administration on the merits of turning Maryland toward the rigid, “life-without-parole” model.

It’s a huge drain on the prison system’s budget and the prison staff. It increases the chance of recidivism once these inmates are released. And it does very little to stem the rising tide of violence.

Hogan got it right the first time with the Justice Reinvestment Act.

Crime in lower-income communities is a multi-faceted, complex problem. Dealing with it by locking up felonious offenders for lengthy periods won’t change the underlying causes of disrespect for the law.

But it does play well with voters, and 2018 is, indeed, an election year for Maryland’s governor and the city’s state’s attorney.

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Standstill at State Center

 

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 4, 2017 – Here we go again. Every so often, the prospective developer of the long-stalled State Center re-do in Baltimore stirs the waters and agitates community groups to denounce Gov. Larry Hogan for not giving the A-OK to its $1.5 billion project.

And why not? On paper it is sparkling, exciting effort to energize and uplift a depressed portion of mid-town Baltimore with high-rise apartments, modern office space for state workers and retail space – perhaps even a much-needed grocery – in the historic Fifth Regiment Armory.

The redevelopment would replace an aging array of state buildings that needs to go.

That’s the developer’s public “spin.”

Left unsaid is the gigantic taxpayer giveaway to the State Center developer if the project is re-started.

Standstill at State Center

Proposed State Center Redevelopment

Last month, Hogan toured State Center along with Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. They agreed on the need for an alternative plan.

To Hogan that means something other than what the developer has in mind. And for good reason.

Different Economic Times

The deal hatched originally by Gov. Bob Ehrlich and then substantially revised by Gov. Martin O’Malley gave the developer an immense government subsidy, both from the state and city.

That economic scheme might have worked in 2004 under Ehrlich, when the economy was roaring and there were sufficient resources to support such a heavily subsidized undertaking.

But the Great Recession rendered the original plan unworkable. The initial developer withdrew and a new team started lobbying O’Malley for a new deal, which turned out to be even better for the builder.

O’Malley, though, never got the massive project approved by the three-member Board of Public Works. The deal, as structured, violates the state’s debt ceiling and threatens the state’s much-treasured triple-A bond rating.

Details of the agreement reveal other bad news for the state, such as an exorbitant lease arrangement in which the state would be obligated to pay sky-high rent – equivalent to harbor-view office space — for at least the next 20 years and perhaps as long as 50 years.

Baltimore, meanwhile, obligated itself to waive property taxes on the property for decades, erasing any financial advantage for a city sorely in need of more – not fewer – revenue sources.

Both Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp consistently objected to the State Center contract. Last December, Hogan joined them in opposing the redevelopment. All of them voiced deep concern for what the deal would do to Maryland’s legal debt obligations.

All three had a fiduciary responsibility that could not be ignored. As Hogan put it during his recent State Center tour, the deal is no longer viable. He called it “a crazy proposal that didn’t make any economic sense” for the state.

What Next? 

Yet everyone agrees something should be done with the aging properties. How to pull it off given the one-sided nature of the current proposal is likely to leave State Center at a standstill for a long time.

The two sides are fighting in court, but the odds are long that the developer team can pull off a miracle. That would require the court to upend the state constitution that instructs the Board of Public Works to “guard the public interest” and give its assent to any state government public project, big or small.

Nevertheless, Hogan and Pugh can work on other arrangements for state workers while State Center is tied up in li tigation.

Leasing space for state workers in renovated, older high-rises in the Central Business District would be a far cheaper option.

Or the state might negotiate a favorable deal with another developer refurbishing the giant former Social Security Administration annex near Lexington Market. This, too, would be a cost-effective way to improve government working conditions at a reasonable price, while giving an economic boost to a struggling section of West Baltimore.

Either of those options could be pursued while the tug-of-war in court proceeds.

What’s needed at State Center is a clean slate. The current developer group won’t go away without compensation for the preliminary work they’ve done. That could be the price the state must pay to move forward.

Earlier legal challenges to the developer’s plan raised serious questions about the financial viability of the overall proposal. A series of reports by the Department of Legislative Services also shot huge holes in the developer’s project.

It’s often forgotten during community protests against Hogan that he wasn’t alone in opposing the State Center contract. It was a 3-0 vote to deep-six the project.

These well-meaning community protesters are being used as pawns in this fight. If something good is going to happen at State Center, it most likely requires a different set of developers, a different concept and a far larger commitment of private-sector dollars and fewer public-sector dollars.

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