Monthly Archives: February 2018

Political Redistricting — Inherently Unfair

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 13, 2018 — Warning to good-government types, Gov. Larry Hogan and others demanding non-partisan re-drawing of political districts for Congress: No matter how you slice it, re-districting will remain inherently unfair.

That’s the dilemma the Supreme Court faces as it considers whether to step in as it once did and lay down rules for re-districting.

How do you take a state with 5.7 million people (2010 Census), divide the state into eight districts each containing 721,529 people, and make everyone happy? It is Mission Impossible.Political Redistricting -- Inherently UnfairAdd in the complicity of computer-generated map gyrations and district configurations start to look like an out-of-control jigsaw puzzle.

There is no easy fix, though some would have us believe a non-partisan commission can wave a magic wand and congressional boundaries will be fair and impartial.

Don’t drink that Kool-Aid.

Even a de-politicized group (if such an animal exists) will produce distorted districts that unfairly discriminate against population groups — Republicans, Democrats, independents, minorities, rural or urban residents. Some counties, cities and communities will be torn apart no matter how you dice those eight districts.

It is inevitable. You will never please everyone.

Right now, Republicans want to re-jigger the congressional maps to gain at least one additional seat in Maryland by packing the 6th Congressional District with Western Maryland Republican voters and strip out all those Democrats who live in the district’s southern portion in Montgomery County.

New-Era Segregation?

That’s not a bipartisan notion. It’s a one-party plan — a new form of segregated map-drawing  favoring one political party to give Maryland a district that is all rural and nearly all white.

Such a move also would pack more minority voters into districts in the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis — more politically imposed segregation.

Western Maryland Republicans in their lawsuit claim they are being discriminated against, that their free-speech rights are being suppressed because Republicans in western portions of the state now are being outvoted by Democrats who were added to the district in 2011.

They want a pristine, rural congressional district, much like they enjoyed after the 2000 Census, which might stretch all the way through rural stretches of Baltimore and Harford counties on the east and Montgomery County on the south.

But to do so would wreak havoc in the other seven districts. What’s fair about that?

At it stands, there’s no guarantee a Democrat will win the open 6th District seat in November.

6th District History

After all, registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters outnumber registered Democrats (253,000 to 212,000). Indeed, incumbent Democratic Rep. John Delaney won by a mere 2,200 votes in 2014 over Republican radio talk show host Dan Bongino.

Historically, the 6th District has favored conservative or moderately conservative candidates of both parties. Over the past 48 years, the district has sent a Democrat to Congress 14 times (Goodloe and Beverly Byron, plus Delaney) and a Republican 10 times (Roscoe Bartlett).

The 6th has had multiple geographic permutations, tying Western Maryland to all of Montgomery County for several decades or sweeping directly east all the way to the Susquehanna River.

In the process of marching to the east, the 6th sometimes has chopped Howard County in half (leaving Democratic Columbia outside the 6th’s borders) and segmenting Baltimore and Harford counties according to political leanings.

Compared with other current congressional districts in Maryland, the 6th is one of the most compact and coherent. It respects the district’s natural borders and county lines. It does not tear apart towns and communities as is the case with many of the other districts.

The 6th does, though, tie rural Western Maryland with suburbanized portions of Montgomery County.

However, there’s common interest in that pairing: Large and growing numbers of Frederick and Washington county residents commute to jobs along the I-270 technology corridor in Montgomery. There’s an overlap of interests, not a disparity.

Gerrymandering is at the root of complaints about redistricting. Since the early 1800s when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry first concocted a partisan legislative map resembling a salamander, political parties have availed themselves of this manipulative tool.

Political Redistricting -- Inherently Unfair

Famous 1812 cartoon of Massachusetts Gov. Gerry’s ‘salamander’ district.

Nationwide, Republicans are the prime gerrymandering culprits. In heavily Democratic Maryland, the shoe has been on the other foot.

Obscene versions of gerrymandering can be seen in the districts drawn for Democratic Congressmen John Sarbanes, Elijah Cummings and Dutch Ruppersberger to ensure their reelections.

Sarbanes’ repugnant district is the one that should be under attack, not the 6th.

The notion of keeping counties intact is well-meaning but naïve. The Supreme Court requires districts of equal population size. Now, try drawing those eight districts without chopping Baltimore City and Baltimore County into four districts and Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties into three districts.

A safe, rural Republican 6th District can be constructed, but it could require so many drastic alterations in other districts that the lone Maryland Republican in Congress today, Andy Harris, could find himself in a more hostile 1st District in which his re-election would not be a sure thing.

Whatever the Supreme Court rules on the Maryland case and another from Wisconsin, it will not eliminate unfairness, distortions or inequities from the re-districting process. Someone is going to wind up with the short end of the re-drawn maps.

The best we can hope for is a high court ruling that reinstates an earlier mandate from the justices following the “One Man, One Vote” ruling of 1963. It required that each district be compact, consist of adjoining territories and give due regard to natural boundaries as well as political boundaries..

The General Assembly and voters incorporated those requirements for redrawing state legislative lines into the state constitution in 1972.

Why not return to the Supreme Court’s earlier congressional redistricting standards? That’s a logical way to impose a degree of sanity and ground rules on an age-old political tug of war that is sure to persist.


Slots for Tots–at a Steep Price

By Barry Rascovar
Feb. 6, 2018 — It sounds so appealing: Add $500 million to Maryland’s K-12 education funding stream by requiring every cent of the state’s take from casino slot machines be devoted to improving local schools.

But here’s the reality check. Such a feel-good move creates a $500 million hole in the state budget.

Where is that money going to come from? What social program will be cut to make room for this extra education aid?Slots for Tots--at a Steep PriceThat’s the rub in the “slots for tots” bill being pushed by Baltimore City lawmakers and House and Senate leaders. Instead of solving a problem, it creates a gigantic future headache.

And if a recession comes Maryland’s way — a likely event in the near future — such a move would create a catastrophic situation for social-net programs.

State colleges and universities are especially vulnerable during recessions and the “slots for tots” bill would further imperil their funding from the governor.

Some 83 percent of Maryland’s general fund budget already is locked in for specific programs. That leaves just 17 percent of the budget where the governor has flexibility. Take away the $500 million slots tax money and the governor’s options shrink even more.

Part of that flexibility comes from the governor’s ability to cut college aid. That aid isn’t locked in by law every year. Besides, the governor knows any budget trims he makes for colleges can be partly replaced by raising tuition and fees.

The Rationale

So if “slots for tots” becomes law this legislative session, the governor’s budget knife will be turned toward higher education next Janaury.

The rationale for “slots for tots” is the allegation that Maryland leaders have reneged on their promise to dedicate all state taxes from slot machine legalization to K-12 education.

That’s what the law says.

But Gov. Martin O’Malley needed every dollar he could find during the Great Recession to stave off massive cuts to social programs. Thus, the tax revenue from slots became fungible. It went into the education pot just as O’Malley withdrew an equal amount from the existing education revenue stream.

It became a zero-sum game. Education aid under the mandated Thornton formula continued to increase on schedule, but there was no extra boost in education dollars flowing to the counties and Baltimore City from casino slot machines.

Slots for Tots

Slot machines at Rocky Gap Casino Resort

Yet when Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say, “It’s time to keep faith with the people,” they’re being deceptive.

First, they were co-conspirators in denying local public schools that extra slots money. They did so for practical reasons — the slots money was needed elsewhere to plug budget holes in local health care and social welfare programs as state tax revenue shrank dramatically during the dark days of the Great Recession.

Second, they know full well “slots for tots” breaks the budget bank, sending the state into “deep doo-doo” in its next budget.

Third, they also know the Kirwan Commission later this year will be recommending another massive hike in education funding without any idea where that billion dollars or more will come from. “Slots for tots” compounds that budgeting dilemma.

Fourth, they also are aware that the Department of Legislative Services recently estimated Maryland’s long-term structural deficit at $3.8 billion over the next four years. “Slots for tots” would make that a $4.3 billion deficit hole and the Kirwan Commission proposal could push the state’s future red ink total over the $5 billion mark.

Suddenly, that feel-good education aid boost doesn’t look so hot.

In an election year, it’s no surprise that Democratic leaders would jump on board the teachers’ union “slots for tots” bandwagon. Slots for Tots -- at a Price

It’s an important and powerful union that can help elect more Democrats to the Annapolis State House.

But somewhere along the line, common sense ought to prevail.

Not only does “slots for tots” look like a political quid pro quo by the Democrats, it also seriously endangers Maryland’s ability to avoid a hefty tax increase after the November elections.