Author Archives: Barry Rascovar

About Barry Rascovar

Since 1971, Barry Rascovar has reported, commented and editorialized on Maryland and national politics and government. He also is a communications consultant and writer in Hunt Valley, MD.

Hogan’s Good & Bad Poll News

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 15, 2018 — Yes, we’re a long way from the November elections but Gonzales Research and Media Services’  first poll of 2018 contained some tantalizing results for both Democrats and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

The governor remains remarkably popular — 71 percent overall approval rating. That includes 61 percent approval among Democrats and 78 percent among independents.

Given those sky-high numbers, plus the staggering sums of money Hogan is raising for his reelection campaign, he looks like a shoo-in.

Hogan's Good & Bad Poll News

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

Yet other numbers in the Gonzales poll tell a more cautionary story.

As Gonzales points out in a column he wrote for Maryland Reporter, a stunning 90 percent of Democrats who said they “somewhat” approved of Hogan’s job performance still would not vote for him in the fall.

Why? Because the  poll identified Hogan as a Republican — a highly negative connotation in some quarters these days.

Even worse news followed in the poll. Hogan only leads the most likely Democratic nominee, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, by 10 points.

Here’s the kicker: President Trump’s disapproval rating is a whopping 60 percent — and over 80 percent of those people feel strongly about that sentiment. Moreover, 41 percent of those polled said the most important issue of the day is “removing Donald Trump.”

If those trends continue, the anti-Trump tsunami that seems to be building might threaten Hogan’s hopes for a second term.

Similarities to Ehrlich

Remember that the last Republican governor in Maryland, Bob Ehrlich, enjoyed high approval numbers going into his 2006 reelection campaign. Yet Ehrlich ended up with just 46 percent of the vote.

Hogan also has to be concerned by the spanking Republicans received last November in the off-off-year elections for local offices in many states. A huge wave washed over those state campaigns prompted by voters’ anger, fear and dislike for Trump.

Syndicated columnist George Will pointed out, for instance, the shocking GOP losses in stronghold suburban Philadelphia counties: For the first time ever, Republicans lost all offices in Chester County, all but one office in Bucks County and had their worst showing in Delaware County since 1974.

That’s just one of many examples across the nation of the 2017 “wave” election that favored Democrats amid growing anti-Trump sentiment.

The Gonzales poll indicates that Baker could well consolidate a huge vote in the populous Washington suburbs. Should an anti-Trump wave wash over Baltimore City and portions of its suburbs, Hogan might find himself in a nip-and-tuck battle.

Rushern Baker

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker

The first- of-the-year poll also showed Baker with a 10-point lead over Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former NAACP president Ben Jealous. That lead could prove hard to overcome in such a large field, especially since there’s little difference among candidates on issues.

An early June primary also hurts candidates trying to catch up, as does the likelihood of a light turnout in early summer when folks are planning their vacations and trips to the ballpark.

For Hogan, though, the name of the Democratic nominee is less important than the Trump factor.

The president’s crude, uninhibited and spontaneous outbursts as well as his unconventional policy decisions have provoked an unprecedented furor. The more Trump engages in hot rhetoric and campaigns loudly for Republicans over the next ten months, the less secure Hogan’s chances become.

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2018 MD Assembly: All Politics, All the Time

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2018–Just in case there was any doubt the next 90 days in the Annapolis State House will focus like a laser on political opportunism, Gov. Larry Hogan tossed a Molotov cocktail into the air yesterday aimed at embarrassing Democrats.

Using Baltimore City’s weather-related school closings (extreme cold, bursting pipes, failing heating systems) as a foil, Hogan lashed out in a less than polite way at what he called a “horrendous crisis,” calling for the appointment of a state inspector general to police schools throughout Maryland — with subpoena power — looking for corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.

2018 Assembly Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

While you can debate the merits of a powerful state investigator sticking his nose into the operations of every single school system in search of wasteful spending, wrongdoing and poor judgment, keep in mind that Hogan’s theatrics are purely political: His suggestion doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in you-know-where when it is presented to the Democratic legislature. It will be dead on arrival.

And the governor knows it.

It’s a prime illustration of how the Maryland General Assembly session that starts Wednesday will be all about politics, all the time.

There’s no way House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller will allow Hogan a “win” during the 90-day session. It’s all about politics from their perspective, too. Anything these Democrats can do to put roadblocks in Republican Hogan’s re-election path is a victory in their eyes.

2018 General Assembly Session

Senate President Mike Miller

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

All Hogan really has is a bully pulpit to castigate Democrats in the party’s strongholds — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

He’s likely to continue his harsh rhetoric aimed at the struggling city in the months ahead.

It is raw meat for his devoted conservative followers. He might even gain some support from African-Americans by posing as the “savior” of their failing schools — even though he hasn’t lifted a finger to help solve this deeply entrenched problem.

Clash of the Politicians

Republican Hogan and legislative Democrats will clash on multiple fronts this session with political factors serving as the guiding light for both sides.

First up? Hogan’s veto last year of the Democrats’ paid sick-leave bill. The governor’s alternative plan may not even make it to a hearing, since a veto-override by both houses could happen almost immediately.

Call it a warning shot across the governor’s ship of state.

Some of Hogan’s appointments may find it rough sledding through the confirmation process, especially State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby of Worcester County, whom Hogan named to the Circuit Court late last month despite warnings the Legislative Black Caucus would vigorously oppose such an appointment.

Republican Oglesby was accused four years ago of using racially insensitive language and creating a racially hostile work environment. He’s involved in a related federal lawsuit, too.

Advice to Ogelsby: In this politically charged atmosphere, don’t quit your day job.

Tax-Code Politics

Wherever you look in the State House, politics is the word of the day.

For instance, sorting out the impact of massive federal changes in the income-tax code took on a political coloration when Hogan leapt at the chance to get on the good side of taxpayers by announcing he’ll do everything in his power to make sure no one in Maryland pays more state taxes as a result of those changes made by his fellow Republicans in Washington.

He said Democrats should jump on board his no-new-taxes bandwagon without hesitating.

If only it were that simple.

Tax reform, as enacted by Congress, is a highly complex issue, fraught with implications for state and local governments. Rushing to offset the federal tax changes that hurt Maryland filers won’t be easy and shouldn’t be done on a whim.

At the same time, Democrats see an opportunity in Washington’s tax changes to fund some of their top priorities, such as the Children’s Health Initiative Program (CHIP), countering the Trump administration’s steps to curtail Obamacare, providing more aid for public schools and finding more money to fight the crime and opioid epidemics.

Hogan’s view and the Democrats’ view on the Republican tax-cut law are starkly different. They may not find common ground during the next 90 days. Indeed, clarity about the tax-code changes and their impact in Maryland may not be apparent until later in 2018.

A special session in an election year is highly unusual, but it may become necessary.

Gerrymandering Stand-off

Hogan and the Democrats also will squabble over redistricting, with the governor putting in a DOA bill that sets up a non-partisan commission. This is a continuation of his efforts to give Republicans a boost during redistricting and to get on the right side of voters on this matter.

Lawmakers in the majority will try to embarrass the governor by passing gun-control legislation, such as a ban on bump stocks similar to the ones used in the Las Vegas massacre. That would force the governor to veto the bill — and antagonize moderate voters he needs for reelection — or sign the bill — and enflame his conservative backers he also needs to gain a second term.

Each side will try to out-maneuver the other. Substance will take a back seat to gaining political advantage in ways that could influence the outcome in November.

So get ready for lots of name-calling and hyper-partisan rhetoric in the coming months. Agreement on solving Maryland’s most pressing problems will have to wait until 2019.

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Neall’s Obamacare Challenge

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 3, 2018 — First, the good news: Gov. Larry Hogan has named a new health secretary who not only knows what he’s doing health-care wise but also is an experienced “Mr. Fixit” when it comes to devising solutions to knotty problems.

Now the bad news: Bobby Neall has a king-sized dilemma staring him in the face as he steps into his Baltimore office suite on Jan. 9: The perilous steps taken by Republicans in Washington to subvert and eventually kill the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Robert R. Neall, the governor’s new health secretary.

Over 150,000 Marylanders signed up for Obamacare insurance coverage in the recently closed enrollment period, even though premiums are skyrocketing.

According to Chet Burrell, president/CEO of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, without rapid response from State House leaders “we believe the individual market segment” of Obamacare  “will catastrophically fail in the next 12 to 24 months leaving tens of thousands of individuals without affordable coverage options.”

Given that CareFirst is far and away the dominant insurer in Maryland’s individual market, that’s an alarming prediction but one many health care economists have been warning about.

Here’s the immediate problem: President Trump and congressional Republicans tacked onto their giant tax-cut law a provision that eliminates from Obamacare the mandate that every adult have health insurance or pay a penalty at tax time.

Thanks to Trump & friends, there no longer is any punishment if adults want to go without health-care coverage.

‘Death Spiral’

This move “constitutes a direct threat” to Maryland’s individual market, Burrell says in a letter, “because it will almost certainly accelerate a ‘death spiral’ already underway in this market segment by spurring younger and healthier people to exit the market — leaving too high a concentration of those who are ill to make premiums affordable to all.”

Since 2014, CareFirst has jacked up Obamacare premiums 150 percent — “horrific increases” Burrell calls them — yet the insurer lost over $400 million insuring people in this market.

He says his company expects to lose as much as $100 million more over the next year and could be forced to raise rates another 50 percent in 2019.

At that point, he notes, health-care coverage for this group — whose incomes are not quite low enough to qualify for government subsidies — could become unaffordable, both for individuals and for insurers.

Burrell suggests it is time for Annapolis to devise “sound public policy” that helps provide insurance for “a population that undeniably needs coverage.”

Enter, Bobby Neall.

He’s got years of experience running the state’s largest managed-care organization for Medicaid recipients. In short order, he turned a money-losing operation into a profitable business for Johns Hopkins Health Care while also increasing quality indicators. He’s exceptionally well-liked and respected by state legislators, too.

Yet there’s not much time to come up with a brand-new state insurance program. In four months, health-care insurers must submit their rates for 2019. Time is the enemy.

Burrell’s Proposal

Fortunately Burrell has put a plan on the table that might be controversial with his fellow insurance executives but points to a way out of this bind.

Here’s what he suggests:

  • Simplify Maryland’s public insurance option by offering just one plan with a $1,000 deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,500.
  • Create a state health-care fund to re-insure individuals with high medical costs and for people needing premium subsidies.
  • Impose a 3 percent fee on insurers who do business in Maryland but fail to participate in the ACA market (at the moment only CareFirst and Kaiser offer such policies).
  • Pass a law mandating that every adult in Maryland obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty that goes into the state health-care fund.
  • Base future premium subsidies on age and income so that younger adults are eligible for attractive insurance rates.

CareFirst analysts believe these steps could lower premiums up to 40 percent, cut out-of-pocket expenses for most individuals and draw many more younger, healthier Marylanders into the program.

That would be a win-win-win.

This plan may not check all the boxes. It may draw considerable opposition. But it gives the new health secretary a concrete starting point and knowledge that the state’s largest insurer stands behind the plan.

Prompt Action Required

Burrell points out, though, that his proposal requires a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and General Assembly action. Lots of actuarial and economic analysis must be submitted and lots of discussions must take place to hammer out a consensus in Annapolis in short order.

From the governor’s perspective, finding an answer is a political imperative. Hogan cannot afford to be saddled with the charge he failed to help middle-income Marylanders keep their health insurance coverage.

The last thing he wants is to face that charge in the midst of his re-election campaign. It’s a potential issue that could anger and energize interest groups favoring broad health-care coverage.

Burrell is offering a public-private solution, which should appeal to the governor — not a state handout.

There’s much to like in his plan. But Health Secretary Neall knows only too well the proverbial devil lies in the details.

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‘Mr. Hopkins’ Departing After 44 Years

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 18, 2017 — Ron Peterson isn’t your stereotypical leader of a renowned $8 billion enterprise. He’s quiet, reserved, extraordinarily polite and lacking in ego.

Yet time after time he has worked miracles at Johns Hopkins in his 44-year career at the East Baltimore academic medical center, the last 21 running its huge health-care system as well as the famed “mother ship” — Johns Hopkins Hospital.

More than any individual, Peterson has come to embody the spirit and commitment to superior health care envisioned by the founder.

Hopkins Medicine is Maryland’s crown jewel, the most prestigious and best-known enterprise in the state with a world-wide reputation as best in class.

It also is a giant economic engine for the state, encompassing six hospitals, 40 outpatient care sites, home care, managed care insurance, extensive medical activities abroad and a staff of over 40,000.

The place is a booming success because of Peterson’s steadying hand. Had he not been at the helm in 1996, Hopkins Medicine may have imploded.

Hopkins stood on the brink of tearing itself apart. A bitter, angry war had erupted between the hospital system’s assertive CEO and its prized medical staff.

Flash back to those tumultuous times when the managed-care revolution threatened the survival of hospital systems, especially high-cost academic medical centers that specialized in taking on the most difficult — and thus the most expensive — cases.

Block vs. Johns

Dr. James Block, a hard-charging CEO, had been brought in to meet the managed-care challenge, trying to bulldoze through deep budget cuts while extending the Hopkins universe to community hospitals and clinics. Both moves provoked the ire of the Hopkins medical faculty, represented by the highly regarded dean of the medical school, Dr. Michael M.E. Johns.

Open warfare erupted between the hospital CEO and the medical school’s leader.

At that pivotal moment, Block brought in Ron Peterson to act as a stabilizing force.

And why not? He had engineered a remarkable turnaround at the money-losing City Hospitals that today is known as Johns Hopkins Bayview and is ranked high for its expansive research and quality patient care.

Earlier in his career, Peterson had crafted a cost-reduction plan that by 1977 had Hopkins Hospital in the  black for the first time in 88 years.

The Block-Johns rift, though, proved impossible to bridge even for a unifier like Peterson.

Johns left in disgust, taking over Emory University’s medical school and hospital (where he dramatically increased the quality of care and research as he became president and CEO of Emory Health in Atlanta).

Then the Hopkins trustees forced Block out.

To no one’s surprise, Peterson was asked to replace Block, but this time in a revised management structure that made it clear the dean of the medical school, not the health system president, would have the final say.

That turned out not to be a problem.

The new dean, anesthesiologist Dr. Edward Miller, impressed the trustees and medical staff so much as interim leader he was named the first Dean/CEO of a novel umbrella entity, Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The Miller-Peterson Era

Miller and Peterson hit it off right away. A bond of trust developed between the two team players, whose modus operandi was consensus-seeking.

Well-liked and respected by colleagues, Miller was a good listener, accessible, decisive and delegated responsibility easily. He believed in the Hopkins culture of collegiality and collaboration. It helped that he looked the part of a presiding officer.

'Mr. Hopkins' Departing After 44 Years

Ron Peterson standing beside Hopkins Medicine’s Dean/CEO Ed Miller

His skills meshed with Peterson’s, who is obsessively detail-oriented, a financial whiz and sensitive to others’ feelings. Miller took care of the medical side and Peterson handled the administrative side of 21st-century health care. They never took major action without talking it over. No bitter rivalries or hard feelings.

They worked in tandem from their new office suites down the hall from one another.

Within a few years, the Hopkins civil war was history, the managed-care threat had eased and Hopkins Medicine enjoyed over a decade of rapid advances in patient care, teaching and innovations on the medical side and a big expansion of medical services, a community-based delivery model and billions of dollars in patient-care and research towers rising in East Baltimore.

Miller retired in 2012 but Peterson stayed on to tutor the new dean, Dr. Paul Rothman, and make sure the Hopkins ship of state was in tip-top shape for his own retirement.

He found an ideal successor to run the mother ship, Dr. Redonda Miller, whose specialty is medical education management and women’s health.

'Mr. Hopkins' Departing After 44 Years

Dr. Paul Rothman, Ron Peterson and Dr. Redonda Miller of Hopkins Medicine

Then last week, the trustees named Kevin Sowers, a longtime executive at Duke University’s medical system as the next chief of Hopkins’ extensive medical enterprise, but still No. 2 within the chain of command.

When Sowers takes over Feb. 1, Hopkins Medicine won’t have Peterson around for the first time in decades.

Unanswered Questions

Indeed, Peterson has been a Hopkins “lifer,” starting as an undergraduate on the Homewood campus (with the unfulfilled goal of becoming a physician) and ending his career nearly a half-century later as “Mr. Hopkins.”

He will leave behind plenty of unanswered questions:

  • Will Sowers and the current medical school dean develop the same compatibility as the Miller-Peterson team?
  • Or will Sowers, a Duke “lifer” until now, bring a totally different health management style to Hopkins that reignites the old conflict?
  • Will the medical staff welcome an outsider (much as they did for Rothman)?
  • Or will tensions arise with a health system CEO unimpressed by Hopkins’ engrained culture of collaboration and consultation?

Much is riding on the outcome of this transition.

The initial signs are promising: It was Rothman who suggested Sowers would be a good fit for the job.

'Mr. Hopkins' Departing After 44 Years

Kevin Sowers, the next Johns Hopkins Health System president

Sowers’ background as an oncology nurse (with an R.N. and a masters in nursing), his focus on improved patient safety and bedside care as a Duke administrator, and his teaching and research resume seem ideal for his new role.

Still, these are perilous times for academic medical centers. Under the Trump administration, federal funding for health care — especially Medicare and Medicaid — could be sharply curtailed, in part to pay for the Republican tax cut plan.

Meanwhile, Maryland is trying to convince the administration in Washington to approve an extension of the state’s unique all-payer hospital cost services system, one that places more pressure on hospitals to improve patient outcomes at lower cost.

Peterson has been in the middle of that fight, too.

So while he might be stepping down from his Hopkins duties (though remaining as a special adviser to Rothman), Peterson continues to have an impact in trying to save Maryland’s one-of-a-kind hospital payment system — a huge success story that could become a national model some day.

We may not have heard the last of Ron Peterson when it comes to crafting solutions to health-care problems. That would be very good news, indeed.

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What’s an URDL?

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 10, 2017 — It’s been exactly 50 years since planners in Baltimore County came up with one of the weirdest-sounding bureaucratic acronyms — URDL — that in time has become a national model for sensible growth management. So what’s an URDL?

The Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (pronounced hurdle, but with the “h” silent) was a response to the phenomenal population boom suburban counties experienced after G.I.’s came home from World War II.

In the 1950s, Baltimore County experienced an 82 percent surge in residents. In just one decade, 220,000 people decided to call Baltimore County home. This set off a massive construction wave of housing and retail developments.

This, in turn, put enormous pressure on county government to build an unheard-of number of new schools, extend water and sewer lines and dramatically increase government services to new residents.

Particularly troubling was the helter-skelter nature of this post-war suburban boom, much of it posing a threat to the rural character of the county and an even greater threat to the financial health of county government.

Novel Notion

URDL was created by the Baltimore County Planning Board in 1967 with the then-novel idea that the county should focus population growth in a handful of prime areas inside the URDL while land beyond the demarcation line retains its rural qualities.

Today, URDL is the crown jewel of Baltimore County, having been recognized by the American Planning Council as the “gold standard” for preserving rolling hills and valleys while at the same time concentrating residential and retail growth in compact areas where services can be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively.

What's an URDL?

Baltimore County’s URDL–Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (in red).

Other jurisdictions in Maryland facing similar urban-rural conflicts have followed the lead of Baltimore County. And why not? It’s about as smart a “smart growth” plan as anything you can think of.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a ceremony last week honoring URDL’s golden anniversary that in his near-quarter century as an elected official nothing else has come close to matching the significance of the adoption of this demarcation line.

It was a “prescient move,” he noted, probably the most important step taken by county leaders. No doubt Kamenetz, who is running for governor, will repeatedly remind voters in next year’s campaign about his championing and embrace of the URDL.

For five decades elected officials in the county have resisted developer pressure to shrink the rural portion of the URDL. Thank goodness for that.

Today, Baltimore County devotes two-thirds of its land — 258,000 acres — to rural and environmentally protected uses. The county’s 831,000 residents live on the remaining 130,000 acres, with designated centers such as Owings Mills, Towson and White Marsh targeted as sites for future growth.

What this means is that many county residents can hop in a car and within a matter of minutes find themselves surrounded not by suburban retail mania and clustered housing but in pristine, green countryside.

Proximity of the URDL

Try it. Drive to the Hunt Valley Towne Centre with its shops, Wegmans and dining. To the east lies the busy York Road shopping corridor.  To the south lies the large McCormick Business Park, but to the north and west lie scenic rolling hills and lots and lots of horse farms.

Indeed, the only direct route from Reisterstown to Hunt Valley takes you through one of the most wondrous byways imaginable — horse country with virtually nothing to mar the view as far as the eye can see.

It’s a tribute to the county’s leadership that such a large, suburbanized jurisdiction — part of metropolis of 2.7 million — still holds on with determination to its rural character.

Preservation of rural land keeps agriculture thriving, protects the county’s watershed, maintains the environmental purity of forests and green spaces and gives residents an enhanced quality of life.

Other Maryland counties faced with the same problems have done likewise — neighboring Harford and Carroll counties, for instance, as well as Montgomery County. All of them have taken steps to keep growth tightly focused and to preserve as much as possible of their rural heritage.

Too often, we only hear about problems and woes of local governments. Once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded of good news.

So happy 50th anniversary, URDL.

May this planning mandate continue to provide officials around the nation with a sound and sensible way to promote economic growth and vitality while also preserving the integrity of our irreplaceable countryside.

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Taxing Time for Maryland

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 3, 2017 — Now that a massive trillion-dollar tax cut is a virtual certainty in Washington,  Maryland officials must quickly figure out if the appropriate reaction is panic or relief.

The impact on budget-makers in Annapolis and in the counties is enormous. Since Maryland’s tax laws are coupled to rules for the federal income-tax collections, what happens on Capital Hill tax-wise reverberates almost immediately in Maryland.

But will it mean more state and local tax revenue or less? At the moment, there is no easy answer.

State legislators have little time to react, since they go into session for just 90 days starting Jan. 10. At this point, they have no hard data on a) what will be in the final bill that hurts or helps Maryland and its subdivisions, and b) what changes must be made immediately in state tax laws.

We do know many Marylanders could have their lives turned upside down.

People who spend large sums supporting themselves or family members in assisted living or nursing home facilities, or those with giant family medical expenses, no longer get to claim these payments as a tax offset under the House-passed version.

That could lead to hefty rises in tax bills for them, putting themselves and their loved ones in financial difficulty.

No more write-offs for state and local taxes. This adds to every Marylander’s tax burden. How will this affect the state’s tax receipts?Taxing Time for MarylandEvery analysis of the dueling House and Senate tax bills confirms that well-to-do Marylanders will reap huge tax savings, middle-class folks could receive either a small reduction in federal taxes or a larger tax bill from the IRS, and the lower class will see its tax bracket rise.

The rich get vastly richer, the poor get little if any help and the middle class get a relatively middling savings.

The “trickle-down” theory of economics is alive and flourishing in the Grand Old Party.

But how will this play out in government budgets in the Free State?

There will be far more uncertainty among Marylanders who joined the Obamacare program. Health-care insurance bills are likely to rise 10 percent or more each year under the GOP’s tax-cut bill. Potentially 13 million Americans could lose health care coverage.

That could reverberate in Maryland with hospitals bearing the brunt of thousands of newly uninsured citizens flooding emergency rooms with little or no money to pay for medical treatment.

More to Come

Meanwhile, Republicans are making no secret of their real targets: safety-net programs, especially Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio admitted as much last Wednesday, stating the “next step” is going after these big-ticket federal programs.

Why? Because the GOP’s tax-cut bill saddles the nation with gigantic new deficits — $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Another federal law requires Congress to make budget cuts as an offset.

Additionally, economists say the tax-cut bill will spawn rapid increases in inflation, which has been virtually nil in recent years. Rising inflation dampens economic growth, which was the raison d’etre for the GOP tax cuts.

How will all this impact Maryland?

Will companies with major Maryland employment centers reward stockholders when the corporate tax rate is chopped nearly in half or will they reward workers? Will firms hire additional employees or use the tax savings to automate production facilities and cut back on employment?

These are the kinds of questions fiscal analysts in Annapolis and county seats had better get a handle on sooner rather than later.

Placing a Big Bet

The Republican tax cut has not been wildly popular with Americans, according to polls. They seem to grasp that the vast majority of financial benefits flow to those who already live comfortably or to corporations.

Yet the GOP is placing a gigantic bet on the party’s ability to persuade voters that the tax-cut bill is a win-win for everyone. The fate of Republican dominance in Congress could depend on voters’ sentiment toward the tax-cut measure likely to gain final approval by Christmas.

Meanwhile, Gov, Larry Hogan, county executives and legislators have to cope with the impact of these fiscal changes on state and local budgets now being put together.

Hogan already is  planning to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of private-activity bonds before year’s end because the House bill eliminates these kinds of bonds — a move by Washington that could undercut all kinds of private-public partnerships like the Purple Line, affordable housing and student loans.

What other government funding programs are at risk?

When the Board of Revenue Estimates meets later this month, it could still be largely in the dark as to the ramifications of those taxing negotiations in Washington.

By the time the board meets again in March, far more will be known about the tax bill’s impact on states and localities. The board’s revenue revisions that month could prove pivotal in determining what immediate steps are necessary to adjust state tax policy.

Will the General Assembly have time in its 90-day session to make those adjustments? Will the governor fight or accept those changes?

Even in an election year, lawmakers might find themselves facing an extended session or a special session to grapple with the impact of the GOP tax bill on Maryland’s finances.

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Downsizing That Hurts

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 27, 2017 — We live in a Trumpian world of propagandizing and denial of reality, with the accusers distorting the truth and calling it “fake news.”

Unfortunately, some of this manipulation is taking place in the Maryland State House. Far too often, spokesmen for Gov. Larry Hogan engage in blame-pointing rather than fess up to the cold, hard truth.

Case in point: The adamant denial that Maryland state government is suffering from huge personnel vacancies in some of its key agencies.

“Nonsense,” said the governor’s spokesman. There’s no shortage of state workers, he asserted, as he questioned the validity of the Department of Legislative Services report.

Denying the Obvious

Yet there is a glaring problem — according to data from Hogan’s own government agencies, a judge and state prison officials.

Instead of admitting the obvious and explaining what’s being done to find creative solutions,  Hogan’s office sought to denigrate a non-partisan research office with a sterling tradition of “calling it like it is.”

The “fake news” is coming from Hogan’s suite, not Legislative Services.

The argument is over the size of state government in Maryland.

Hogan, a believer in conservative budgeting, has consistently clamped a lid on state spending, including hiring. Part of this effort is grounded in the old Republican saw that government bureaucracies are always “bloated,” overflowing with people filling make-work jobs.

That has led to a drive to hold down new hiring, even in cases where there is a dire need for more personnel.

Contempt of Court

Take the Maryland Department of Health, where top brass nearly went to jail after they repeatedly they failed to hire enough psychiatric nurses and physicians to handle all of the patients being sent to state hospitals for court-ordered mental-health treatment.

This has been a longstanding problem that started well before Hogan. His aides could have pointed that out.

Instead, the governor’s minions circled the wagons and refused to cooperate with the judge — until the state health secretary was held in contempt of court.

Or take the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which continues having a devil of a time finding qualified prison guards with clean records. Over 1,700 vacant positions exist in the department — a whopping vacancy rate of 9 percent.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances but there’s a critical shortage of guards in state prisons. There was no effort by the governor’s office to explain how the administration is working to proactively meet this serious challenge.

Instead, the governor’s spokesman put the onus on the prior Democratic administration.

That line of attack ignores the fact that Hogan has been in office nearly three years — more than enough time to craft an effective plan to remedy this dangerous worker shortage.

Too Many Unfilled Jobs

DLS reported to a legislative committee that in a number of key agencies — corrections, health, human services, juvenile services and the State Police — the vacancy rate is more than twice the norm — over 7 percent.

That should be viewed as unacceptable by leaders of the executive branch. Instead, Hogan seems fixated on budgetary hold-downs — and denying there is a problem.

The English would describe his view as “penny wise and pound foolish.”

It makes sense to trim the size of government if it is done carefully. Problems begin when the needs of individual agencies are ignored for the sake of downsizing and budget cuts..

The Hogan administration may succeed in papering over most staffing shortages until after next year’s elections. But eventually lack of skilled job-holders could diminish state government’s ability to perform basic obligations. There’s a limit to downsizing in the public sector, a point Hogan’s team may have started to reach.

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MD’s Transportation Travails

By Barry Rascovar

Nov.  20, 2017 – When it comes to improving transportation for citizens and businesses in Central Maryland, the state has dropped the ball.

A crucial east-west connecting subway line in Baltimore was summarily cancelled, foregoing $1 billion in federal dollars to save the state money.

An east-west light-rail line to relieve congestion on the Capital Beltway and provide more public transit access for less-affluent citizens in the Washington suburbs was reduced dramatically to save the state money.

A much-needed revamp of Baltimore’s third-rate bus system remains controversial and so far hasn’t produced any new riders.

A plan to experiment with high-tech traffic controls on busy state roads is so modest that the impact on the driving public could be virtually nil.

MD's Transportation Travails

Baltimore’s century-old Howard Street Tunnel

And now CSX, the railroad born and bred in Baltimore as the B. & O., has pulled out of a plan to enlarge the Howard Street Tunnel, sacrificing potentially enormous future benefits for the sake of short-term, cost-saving profits for its stockholders.

Those first four items are bad news for Jane and Joe Citizen; the last item is terrible news for Baltimore’s vital maritime industry, which badly needs a better way to move more shipping containers to and from the Port of Baltimore.

Priority No. 1: Highways

The Hogan administration is clearly interested in highways over mass transit. But even there, improvements could be a long way off.

Take the much-publicized $50 million upgrade of traffic signals. The governor called it “transformational.” But the “Smart Signals” program doesn’t do much more than experiment with signaling technology that holds great promise but may not be fully ready for prime time.

The sites picked for this upgrade won’t help drivers much, if at all. Take the upgrade in Towson – Charles Street between the traffic light at Kenilworth Drive and I-695 – a mere 1,200 feet. Not much will be gleaned from that “improvement.”

Or take the upgrade in Brooklyn Park, where the new technology will control traffic lights on just an eight-block stretch along Ritchie Highway.

Look at the Annapolis smart signal corridor, extending through just four intersections along Route 2 south from Annapolis Harbor Center. Not much help for drivers there, either.

It’s great the administration is embarking on “smart” transportation technology. If fully implemented, this technology could possibly reduce idling time and carbon dioxide emissions as well as speed commutes. But the choice of such short driving distances means citizens will benefit minimally from this $50 million investment.

Traffic Jam for Buses

Similarly, the much-heralded, $135 million re-make of the Baltimore bus system hasn’t markedly improved travel time for bus commuters. It has done little to effectively connect city residents to suburban job centers. It’s another expensive transportation exercise that seems stuck in traffic.

Meanwhile, CSX’s new CEO has delivered a crushing blow to the governor’s hopes for an economic boost through a public-private effort to enlarge the century-old Howard Street Tunnel. He is out to prove to stockholders he can slash costs, boost quarterly profits and boost stockholder profits.

The $425 million tunnel project became a victim of Wall Street’s lust for short-term earnings gains even if it seriously erodes CSX’s long-term ability to capitalize on Baltimore’s booming container shipping traffic.

Getting federal approval for this project may have been a longshot anyway, according to Mark Reutter in the Baltimore Brew. Yet give the Hogan team credit for pushing ahead in the quest for a solution to the freight-traffic bottleneck caused by the antiquated tunnel beneath downtown Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the governor is pushing forward on an impossibly expensive ($9 billion), largely privatized plan to widen the Capital Beltway, I-270 to Frederick and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Yet the obstacles are immense, the price-tag is sure to rise substantially and the benefits have been called into question by members of the Montgomery County Council.

Even if these improvements are in place a decade from now, the rapid evolution of travel technology may make these super-expensive construction projects obsolete before they open.

Driverless cars are coming sooner than you think, which could create a radical transformation of American highways. Among other things, those “Lexus” toll lanes could fail to live up to revenue expectations.

So while the publicity from the governor’s suite promotes a positive image for Hogan’s transportation programs, not much is going smoothly. There have been more detours and bumps in the road than progress.

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Bad Omen for GOP?

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 12, 2017 – No one predicted it: A tidal-wave election last Tuesday swept through numerous states, sending even entrenched Republican incumbents into retirement and shocking the most optimistic Democrats by the enormity of their party’s sweeping victories.

Does this foretell a similar tsunami a year from now, when control of Congress could be at stake? Does this indicate Maryland’s popular Republican governor, Larry Hogan, faces a far more daunting challenge in 2018 than previously expected?

Before we get carried away by the surprising results, let’s keep in mind that all elections are not created equal.

Some are endowed with predictable outcomes while others are swayed by outside forces.

Last Tuesday, outside forces held the winning hand.

If you’re looking for one, overriding factor in all these election upsets, it’s the guy living in the White House.

With the latest polls showing barely more than one-third of voters approving of Donald Trump’s performance as president, it had to be expected that anti-Trump sentiment would show up in the November balloting.

Surprising Results

What came as a stunner was the breadth and depth of anger toward Trump – from enraged Democrats who showed up to vote in far larger than expected numbers, from independents who sided by a lopsided margin with Democrats, from college-educated women in the suburbs who have been turned off by Trump’s boorish and destructive behavior.

The result: Anti-Republican sentiment that wiped out even well-meaning moderate Republican officeholders.

Bad Omen for GOP?The two governorships up for grabs, in New Jersey and Virginia, went to Democrats by very large numbers. A tight race in the Old Dominion turned into a rout and Democrats came achingly close to re-capturing the Virginia House of Delegates for the first time in decades.

Some of the most conservative and longest-serving officeholders in those states got walloped by candidates from the other end of the political spectrum – a transgender, a Peruvian immigrant and a 32-year-old African-American woman who had never run for office before.

In a “wave election” anyone on the wrong side of the wave is vulnerable.

That could include Larry Hogan next year.

Demographic trends throughout the country and in Maryland may have been accelerated by Trump’s distasteful actions as president. Suddenly millennials, Latinos, African Americans, gays and college-educated suburban women are taking the time to show up at the polls and register their anger.

Frederick and Annapolis

Look at Annapolis, where incumbent Republican Mayor Mike Pantelides should have had smooth sailing to another term. Instead, he got clobbered by Australia native and restaurateur-businessman Gavin Buckley, a first-time Democratic candidate. Pantelides lost by a stunning 24 percentage points.

The same thing happened in Frederick city, where Democratic Alderman Mike O’Connor ousted two-term Mayor Randy McClement in a runaway race (22 percentage points). Democrats swept all five alderman seats by landslide margins, too.

Upsets are bound to occur in politics. But when so many long-established Republican figures are defeated in one-sided elections across the country, the GOP had better take notice.

Even Hogan, despite his popularity, could find himself a victim of the “send Trump a message” sentiment that dominated on Nov. 7.

Still, Maryland’s governor won’t be a sitting duck for Democrats next year. He’s proved to be a crafty, difficult-to-categorize politician who remains a staunch conservative but knows how to appease moderates.

He’s still an overwhelming favorite next year, but now there’s an asterisk attached to his name:

*If the country remains deeply angered by Trump’s presidency in November 2018, it won’t matter that Hogan is a likeable guy with sky-high approval numbers. He could be swept out to sea in spite of the fact he parted ways with the president long ago.

The same might apply to other moderate conservative Republicans with high popularity numbers, such as Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. If Democrats can find a decent Eastern Shore candidate to run against far-right conservative Rep. Andy Harris, the incumbent also might find the going rough next year.

No Republican is immune. The Trump influenza could infect all sorts of unsuspecting Republicans.

Different Issues

But don’t expect 2018 to be a carbon copy of 2017. The issues will be different. Congressional seats will be at stake with huge sums of GOP money thrown into races to preserve Republican control of Capitol Hill.

Hogan will vastly outspend his Democratic opponent. He’s also got the power of incumbency, which can’t be ignored.

Still, Hogan has to be having a sense of déjà vu: In 2006, incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, with approval ratings nearly as high as Hogan’s, was shown the door, receiving just 46 percent of the vote.

In short, the only thing Larry Hogan has to fear is fear itself – in the persona of Donald Trump. This year’s astounding results could be a preview of things.

Or next year’s results could mark as return to the status quo for Republicans.

The one thing we know is that the world will look quite different in 12 months when voters get another chance to express themselves.

Either way, Republicans are on the hot seat. Much like football’s Baltimore Ravens, they had better up their game.

Otherwise, 2018 could be a blowout year in which candidates such as Hogan and Kittleman might be lucky to avoid turning into collateral damage.

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Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

 

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 6, 2017 – Once upon a time, campaign endorsements mattered. Some of those nods of approval even tilted elections. That’s no longer the case in Maryland.

The power of an endorsement is waning as the communications revolution provides multiple sources of information about candidates running for office. Millions are spent on advertising in every media format to be sure voters hear from candidates directly.

That wasn’t true years ago, when the main form of getting your political message to voters was by mail and through the newspaper. Televised debates sometimes gave you a brief glimpse into the thinking of contenders for the top office.

Back then, an endorsement by a trusted group gave a voter reassurance and direction.

Today’s gubernatorial race on the Democratic side so far has been a rush by some candidates to gain endorsements. They seem transfixed on what may turn out to be a desert mirage.

Brief Notice

This summer, Benjamin Jealous grabbed TV face-time and news stories with endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Corey Booker. That gained Jealous brief public notice 10 months before the Democratic primary. But little beyond that.

Booker is a popular though second-tier New Jersey senator whose backing for Jealous has even less weight in the Democratic primary for governor than his support from the militant National Nurses United and Maryland Working Families.

Jealous also has the ringing endorsement of the hero of far-left Democrats, Bernie Sanders. That is to be expected since Jealous toured the country as a Sanders surrogate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (left) and Benjamin Jealous

Bernie’s support does help Jealous identify himself as a Sanders acolyte but remember, Sanders got just 34 percent of the Maryland primary vote. Still, in a crowded campaign that slice of the party vote could prove important.

Yet there’s no assurance Sanders backers will flock to Jealous’ side just because the failed presidential candidate supports him. It doesn’t work that way in this era. In the top races, today’s voters don’t like being told what to do.

Endorsements from labor unions used to be a potent force. For instance, what the AFL-CIO or the United Auto Workers union said mattered to members. No longer. Donald Trump gained few labor endorsements yet blue-collar workers strongly backed him.

Jealous’ endorsement from the service workers’ union, SEIU, could help produce volunteers for his campaign, especially in parts of Baltimore City. Yet the impact of that endorsement could prove modest statewide.

Similar Views on Education

Similarly, the backing of the Maryland State Education Association – a coveted honor contenders for governor badly want – will provide the honoree with some manpower and organizational help, but the vast majority of teachers will make up their own minds. They aren’t going to be dictated to by their union, especially since all the Democratic candidates have quite similar pro-education and pro-teacher positions.

The primary is still eight months away yet the cycle of endorsements began last summer – way, way before voters start contemplating the party’s gubernatorial candidates.

Even worse, the primary campaign could change dramatically before the filing deadline in late January, leaving early endorsers in a bind.

For instance, Emily’s List last week gave an early endorsement to a little-known candidate with zero elective experience, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings. This was more a function of the candidate’s inside-the-beltway networking skills than anything having to do with the Maryland governor’s race.

Emily’s List can provide a chunk of money for the endorsee, which will be helpful. But what if the campaign landscape takes an unexpected twist before the filing deadline?

Perhaps former Rep. Donna Edwards decides to switch races and files for governor rather than run for Prince George’s County Executive.

What if former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, an icon among feminist groups, finds retirement boring and runs for governor?

What if former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake takes a look at the gubernatorial field and jumps in?

What does Emily’s List do then?

Early endorsements can backfire. They also have little influence if announced hundreds of days before the actual balloting.

Taking a Chance

One endorsement that could continue to hold weight is Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s public backing for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Van Hollen and Baker have worked together politically for decades. Baker took a risky step by endorsing Van Hollen over Edwards in the 2016 Democratic Senate primary. (He won by 14 percentage points).

Now the senator is returning the favor.

Here’s the real significance: Van Hollen is a respected and popular officeholder, especially in his longtime home, Montgomery County, which is a key jurisdiction in the Democratic primary.

His support of Baker will matter there, especially if Van Hollen campaigns for Baker in the Washington suburbs, where the party’s political fulcrum now rests.

Harry Who?

Newspaper endorsements used play a pivotal part in elections. Having the backing of the Baltimore Sun or Washington Post was BIG news. One Baltimore politician once told me that gaining The Sun’s endorsement in his legislative district could mean as much as 10,000 extra votes. Now that’s power.

Dwindling newspaper readership, though, has altered that perspective. No longer are newspapers the main source of campaign information. Nor do voters trust newspapers the way they did in past decades.

Even in the case of Maryland’s most famous newspaper endorsement – the Baltimore Sun’s surprise backing of Harry Hughes for governor in 1978 – the potency of that front-page editorial turned out to be more legend than fact.

No, The Sun and The Evening Sun didn’t “elect” Harry Hughes. The endorsement wasn’t the difference-maker (he won by nearly 4 percentage points).

It did, though, add to the momentum for Hughes, a trend that had started weeks earlier. It gave him credibility.

Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

News-American story, by David Ahearn, on Harry Hughes’ surprise victory in 1978 Democratic primary for governor.

A post-election analysis by a respected pollster concluded, “The newspaper endorsement made Hughes a plausible candidate and the voters did the rest.”

So take this round of 21st century Maryland gubernatorial endorsements with a healthy dose of skepticism.

They aren’t what they used to be. In some elections, endorsements may not matter much at all.

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