Monthly Archives: October 2017

‘Free’ Tuition Isn’t Free

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 16, 2017 – Talk on the far left about “free” college tuition got a boost last week from an acolyte of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the foremost proponent of this marvelous-sounding idea.

Benjamin Jealous, former head of the NAACP who is running for governor, told a group of college students and progressive activists, to no one’s surprise, that his gubernatorial pitch includes free education for Marylanders at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Naturally, in this Trumpian world of headlines without facts to back them up, Jealous later admitted he had no cost estimate, didn’t know who might be eligible for the program and had no details on how such a proposal would work.

He did say he’d pay for free tuition by reducing the number of people in prison.

Such pie-in-the-sky, emotional rhetoric – which brings cheers from progressives — falls quickly to earth with a thud when closely examined.

Jealous does a disservice to the electorate by speaking before he can support what he says with cold, hard facts.

Demagogic rhetoric may have elected Donald Trump, but growing public skepticism now greets sweeping political pronouncements – and for good reason.

Steep Price

The notion of free college education isn’t new. It has been around at least 120 years. For decades, California footed the tuition bill in its state higher education system – until the price tag became unaffordable. New York now offers a modified “last dollar” scholarship for many of its college-age students.

But don’t get fooled. Free tuition isn’t free. It comes at a steep price.

First, while a free-tuition policy results in a zero-tuition bill for parents, universities get around this financial roadblock by charging whopping fees.

For instance, the best-known public university in Los Angeles, UCLA, hits in-state students with fees of $13,000. For out-of-state-students the fee is $41,000.

Add in other assorted charges such as room, meals, textbooks, travel and living expenses and  “free” takes on a whole new meaning.

Jealous’ plan is an expensive entitlement program. It grows dramatically in cost for the state during recessions as jobs become scarce and more high school graduates opt for college instead.

'Free' Tuition Isn't Free

Benjamin Jealous

The flood of new students drawn to state universities and colleges by a free tuition plan also adds significant extra expenses to public university systems, which can’t hike tuition to accommodate this vast expansion.

Lecture classes become enormous in size. Quality declines. Without extra revenue, student amenities at public universities suffer. Maintenance is postponed.

Threat to Private Colleges

Even worse, a sweeping free tuition plan for public higher education would devastate private colleges in Maryland. Many of them cannot compete for students when there’s such a huge cost differential. Some could close.

We live in an era where voters almost never approve of raising their own taxes. And their elected leaders are fearful of infuriating the electorate. Thus, a free tuition program means sharp budget cuts in other state programs – a shifting of priorities.

For example, in the 2017 General Assembly session HB 931 called for full tuition waivers for students attending community colleges in the state. The cost: a minimum $60 million a year. A legislative analyst concluded “significant additional costs are likely.”

The bill’s sponsors sought to pay for free tuition at community colleges by taking this money out of slot-machine taxes designated for Maryland’s K-12 public schools.

The bill’s sponsors wanted to strip funds from struggling public schools.

Imagine the price if all of higher education had been covered by this free-tuition bill, which mercifully died in committee.

Moreover, the real winners of no-cost public college tuition aren’t children living in poverty. They already receive sufficient federal, state and college education aid to make higher education possible.

The free-tuition winners are middle- and upper-income families (depending on how the program is structured).

Additionally, free tuition takes away a powerful incentive for students, and their parents, to make sure they get a degree. Putting skin in the game – a personal financial commitment – is a great way to ensure students focus on good grades and a diploma.

As for Jealous’ plan to pay for free tuition by emptying state prisons of inmates, it’s nonsense.

First, it is hypothetical savings that may never materialize.

Second, the Justice Reinvestment Act, which went into effect Oct. 1, already is designed to do the same thing – get thousands of lower-level offenders out of jails and into rehabilitation programs.

The law earmarks expected savings for post-incarceration programs. The idea is to help ex-cons avoid a return to prison.

Does Jealous intend to strip that money away from rehabilitation programs to pay for free college tuition?

Besides, the savings envisioned in the Justice Reinvestment Act is only $10 million a year – a drop in the free-tuition ocean.

There are far better ways to ensure that Maryland students can afford a higher education which prepares them for 21st century jobs:

  • More state support for community colleges that is contingent on lowering tuition.
  • More state aid to supplement federal Pell grants.
  • Far more government support for vocational and technical programs.
  • More scholarship aid directed toward economically struggling students.
  • State aid to encourage high school/community college collaborations.
  • State tax credits for businesses that offer career-education work-study programs.

Free tuition is a misnomer. In this world, nearly everything comes at a price.

Voters should beware of candidates offering “solutions” that, upon examination, are too good to be true.

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Starting at the Top

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 9, 2017 – There’s nothing like starting your political career at the top.

No need serving an apprenticeship in a low-level elective office or working your way up in a methodical manner to gain essential expertise and experience.

The new, Trumpian model is to convince voters you’re the most exciting anti-establishment neophyte in the race who is capable of transforming Maryland’s government “swamp” into a modern-day Nirvana — even if you may not meet the legal qualifications needed to run for governor.

Exhibit A is Krishanti Vignarajah, a Sri Lankan by birth who held jobs in the State Department and the First Lady’s office during the Obama administration.

Now she wants to begin her Maryland career as governor, though her local political credentials are close to zero.

Worse, she may not be eligible to enter the governor’s race.

Vignarajah announced she’s running for governor but she has yet to formally file. She is asking a judge in Anne Arundel County to issue a sweeping declaration that she’s qualified.

Vignarajah is suing the campaign of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for a comment made by Hogan’s campaign lawyer questioning Vignarajah’s claim that she meets the state’s eligibility standards.

How Hogan’s campaign ended up as a defendant is unclear since the governor runs in the Republican primary and Vignarajah is attempting to gain the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Hogan’s campaign has nothing to do with the Democratic shoot-out.

There’s also the matter of free speech. The comment by Hogan’s campaign official is one man’s opinion, which isn’t normally subject to judicial review.

The state elections board also is being sued. Why is unclear, too.

First, Vignarajah hasn’t officially filed with the board. So it’s not surprising that the board has yet to say a word either pro or con about Vignarajah’s eligibility.

That puts the judge in a bind.

The judge is being asked to rule about a candidate’s eligibility even though the candidate has yet to submit the formal paperwork and pay the filing fee.

Vignarajah’s lawsuit may be premature.

If she does file with the elections board for governor, she still might not be able to get a judicial determination of her eligibility until the March 1 withdrawal deadline for candidates.

At that point, the elections board might make a decision on whether she meets the legal standards required of a gubernatorial candidate.

That’s when she could contest an unfavorable ruling in court.

Vignarajah was a District of Columbia resident and D.C. voter as recently as 2014. She worked, lived and voted in D.C. – not in Maryland.

Is it possible for her to meet Maryland’s requirement that candidates for governor be residents and registered voters for five years at the time of their filing?

Maryland, My Maryland

In her lawsuit, Vignarajah declares that her heart belongs in Maryland, which she feels should be enough to let her run for governor. She grew up in Woodlawn and now owns a home in Gaithersburg. She considers herself a Marylander.

Yet she voted in D.C. elections from 2010 to 2014, which requires residency in D.C. and seems to foreclose the possibility that she was a Maryland resident during that period.

Yes, she has retained her voter registration in Maryland as well, which could become a point of judicial interest if Vignarajah gets a chance to make her case before a judge.

She raises some interesting issues which could use judicial clarification at some point during the campaign:

  • Are the state’s eligibility election laws discriminatory or deficient?
  • Is it legal for individuals to hold dual voter registration cards if they own property in each jurisdiction? Can they then pick and choose which place they cast their votes or run for offfice?
  • What is the legal definition of residency in Maryland for the purposes of state election laws?

Maryland sets a minimum standard that statewide candidates must meet to qualify for the ballot.

Vignarajah is old enough to run for the state’s highest elective office. The unanswered question is whether she meets the five-year residency and voter requirements.

At some point a judge may rule on that question and other related issues. This controversy has just begun. We may not know the outcome for many months.

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Warning: Beware of Polls

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 2, 2017—According to a recent Goucher Poll, the winner of next year’s Democratic primary for governor is . . . “none of the above.”

The second-place finisher in the poll?

An individual who wasn’t even an announced candidate. He’s since said he won’t be running for governor in 2018.

So much for the validity and value of this public opinion survey.

It should be a warning to voters: Beware of polls.

Too many Americans look upon polls as Gospel, the definitive word on how elections will come out.

Wrong.

Polls can be useful at times but only as an indicator of the shifting winds of public sentiment.

They cannot predict accurately the outcome because polling is an art, not a science.

Wide Variety of Methods

Methodologies vary among polling organizations.

Indeed the Goucher survey, conducted by student interviewers, stated in its press release that errors in the results could come about due to the wording of questions, the order of the questions and the non-response bias of those taking the survey.Warning: Beware of Polls

Some polls are conducted only through personal interviews. Some are conducted entirely through the internet. Some just ask viewers or listeners to call in randomly. Others contact only people with telephone landlines.

The Goucher survey consisted of contacting people who use either kind of phone (77% through cell phone numbers and 23% through landlines).

The size of the poll matters a lot.

Goucher’s results were culled from just 324 registered Democrats, or at least people who told interviewers they were Democrats.

That’s a small sample.

But it gets worse.

None of the Above

A stunning 44% indicated they didn’t have a clue who they were going to vote for nine months from now in the June 26 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Thus, only 161 people in the survey actually expressed an opinion.

Of those, 36 people said they favored former Attorney General Doug Gansler, who thought about running for governor but decided against it.

So in actuality, just 125 people in the survey expressed a judgment that matters – hardly enough to draw conclusions.

Of the 324 Democrats surveyed, a mere 10 people lived in Western Maryland. Their viewpoints are supposed to represent the political inclinations of the 112,000 registered Democrats in the state’s western-most counties.

In Southern Maryland, only 19 people were surveyed. On the Eastern Shore, just 16 people were contacted for their opinions.

That’s hardly a viable way to judge the political landscape in the Democratic governor’s race in those regions.

There is no way you can call these tiny samplings scientific.

Imperfect Crystal Ball

Polling is a tough business because polls are trying to predict the future – and that’s an impossibility.

If polling were scientific, the overwhelming majority of professional political surveys taken in early November 2016 would have told us conclusively Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, would be the next president.

Only a tiny number of polling organizations came to that conclusion. Most of them got it wrong.

Few voters recognize a public opinion poll is merely a Polaroid snapshot of the moment. It lets us know how people are thinking about a politician or a topic at an instant in time.

Unfortunately, polls can’t not tell us enough about how those same voters will feel toward politicians or issues nine months from now.

Public sentiment is fickle. It changes rapidly. What a survey reveals about voter sentiment today may be radically different next summer.

Thus, opinion polls should be viewed with a good deal of skepticism.

Too Early in the Race

The Goucher survey showed that none of the legitimate Democratic candidates running for governor is well-known. Since the campaign has yet to begin in earnest, that’s not surprising.

With no clear front-runner or a widely recognized figure in the race, it will take time for Democrats to figure out who these candidates are and which ones are the most appealing, the most qualified and the most viable in the general election against a popular Republican governor.

The good news for the Democratic Party – which holds a 2-to-1 registration majority in Maryland – is that a heavy number of people in this survey said they would almost definitely vote at election time next year – 83%.

If that polling number turns out to be true a year from November when the general election is held, the party’s nominee for governor could give Gov. Larry Hogan a run for his money.

Then again, we’re so far away from that election this may be idle speculation. It’s certainly not scientific evidence you can take to the bank.

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