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.

Maryland’s Mixed Economic Messages

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

Want another mixed message?

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

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

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

Conflicting Federal Signals

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

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

How do you rate that package, good or bad?

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

Maryland's Mixed Economic Signals

President Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia

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

Good for the U.S. economy, right?

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

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

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

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

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

Signed contracts could be a long way off.

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

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

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

Budget Blues

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

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

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

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

Maryland and Virginia could be the biggest losers.

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

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

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

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

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Preakness Week & Pimlico’s Future

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not likely.

Bare Minimum at Pimlico

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

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

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

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

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

Here Comes Phase 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stronach Group could do more, too.

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

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

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

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

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Hogan’s Worst Nightmare: Trumpcare

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfavorable Poll Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justifying Republican Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gift to Democrats

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

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

It is a gift from heaven for Democrats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Get Ready for Maryland’s Democratic Circus

By Barry Rascovar

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

Alec who?

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

Good luck on that one.

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

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

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Alec Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But will that be enough to win an election?

Resume Gap

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

He’s lacking a key element on his resume.

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

No elected office appears on Shea’s resume.

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Jim Shea

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

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

Making the Rounds

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

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

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

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

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Ben Jealous

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montgomery Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

Get Ready for the Maryland Democratic Circus

State Sen. Rich Madaleno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Larry Hogan Sr. – Courage When It Counted

By Barry Rascovar

It happened long ago. Congressman Larry Hogan, Sr. stood alone and defied his party, voting not once but three times to impeach Republican President Richard Nixon. It was the most principled stand taken by a Maryland politician in our lifetimes.

He did what was right, not what was politically correct.

Hogan died last week at 88, eclipsed in the public eye by his namesake, the current Maryland governor – an office the father was denied due to his impeachment stance.

Larry Hogan, Sr.

Congressman Larry Hogan, Sr. and his son.

Yet it was the father, consigned to the pages of history, who offered a lesson in what it means to take the perilous moral and legal high road rather than the easy partisan and career-advancing low road.

It’s a lesson we must remember given the sorry state of affairs in this country. The rules of fair play, truthfulness and integrity are being tossed aside in the manic quest for political power.

The good of the country is being replaced by the quest for personal gain and prestige.

Those Watergate Years

We can’t afford to forget the Watergate era that so stained our country. For those who were around, it was a terrifying time.

The president had been caught approving and even leading a massive conspiracy to conduct a break-in and robbery; blackmail and bribe witnesses, and cover up the hideous truth.

When his own attorney general refused to knuckle under to Nixon’s demands to crush the Watergate investigation, the president fired this nation’s highest-ranking law-enforcement officer. His deputy also refused to defy his constitutional duty and was sacked, too.

It became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. What a scary time. Many feared the end of American democracy.

Sadly, there are echoes in what’s happening today in and around the White House.

Facts are regularly tossed aside in favor of expedient fairy tales that glorify the president and his cheerleaders. The Big Lie is replacing the uncomfortable truth.

Above the Law?

For Larry Hogan Sr., the uncomfortable truth was that his party’s and his country’s leader had lied and hidden what had happened, had violated his constitutional oath and had engaged in illegal acts.

No one is above the law, Hogan announced, not even the most powerful official in the land.

Such independence and gutsy courage were rare in the early 1970s among Republicans. Hogan stood by himself when he announced on the eve of that crucial House Judiciary Committee session in 1974 he would vote to impeach Nixon. No other committee Republican joined him in defying the president.

He knew at the time his impeachment vote might doom his chances of running successfully for governor that November. Sadly, Hogan’s intuition proved accurate.

In September’s Republican primary, Maryland GOP voters turned their backs on the congressman who had sought to remove Republican Nixon. Instead, they nominated a hapless, socially prominent party loyalist, Louise Gore.

It was payback time for Republican ideologues and hardliners, even if it meant obliterating any chance of beating Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel. Indeed, Louise Gore was crushed in a laugher of a November general election.

Resurrection in Prince George’s

Yet the ex-congressman refused to be driven from the political stage. He resurrected his career two years later in a heavily Democratic jurisdiction and won election as Prince George’s County Executive.

He did so by capitalizing on voter anger over the high cost of supporting the county’s population boom and suburbanization, which translated into the need for ever-higher property taxes to pay for expanded public services. Hogan won by a 3-2 margin, despite his Republican label.

As county executive Hogan proved a tough man with a dollar, cutting spending even on schools and libraries, eliminating 3,000 government jobs, holding the line on pay raises and lowering the property tax rate 20%.

No wonder his son ran for governor in 2014 on the same promises as his dad – lower taxes and fiscal belt-tightening.

To an extent, the son has followed through on those promises. Like his father, he is in strong position to win reelection in a heavily Democratic state.

But that election is still 18 months away. Hogan Jr.’s biggest test may lie ahead, thanks to an eerily similar situation to the one faced by his father during those Watergate years.

Then vs. Now

By 1974, the Watergate scandal had made Nixon a highly unpopular and controversial president, much like Donald Trump.

Today, Maryland’s governor has tried to separate his own work from the incendiary comments and actions of Trump and Tea Party congressmen. He didn’t support Trump in the presidential campaign and cast a write-in vote for his father in November.

Still, Hogan has refused to make a public break with Trump for fear of alienating diehard Republicans he needs to get reelected.

Yet the more radical the Trump administration becomes in the months ahead, the more difficult it could be for Hogan to remain a dispassionate governor.

At some point Republican Hogan may have to forcefully oppose a Republican president, just as his father did in 1974.

This time the issue might be curtailment of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, elimination of health care coverage for low-paid workers and their families, the loss of tens of thousands of federal jobs in Maryland or violence tied to tough immigration enforcement efforts.

Separating Hogan from Trump may become more and more difficult in voters’ eyes by late 2018. It is one of the few ways he could lose.

Refusing to place party loyalty over what’s best for the country cost Larry Hogan, Sr. the governorship in 1974. He never regretted doing the right thing.

His son may end up facing a somewhat similar predicament.

Will he stay true to his inner moral compass or stubbornly stick to the Trump-Tea Party line? Far more than Hogan’s reelection may be at stake. ##

Sen. Kasemeyer Responds

This missive arrived the other day from Sen. Ed Kasemeyer of Howard County, chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee — a defense of his entire committee and his own role in the budget process.

Kasemeyer’s low-key approach to legislating — first in the Maryland House of Delegates and now in the Maryland Senate — rarely grabs the headlines. It is a refreshing reminder of how lawmakers can work effectively but quietly, with fewer partisan and parochial conflicts.

He chairs one of the hardest-working committees, given the unenviable task of cutting budget allocations rather than adding to them.

Sen. Kasemeyer Responds

Howard County Sen. Ed Kasemeyer

Here is Kasemeyer’s email:

“I was reading one of your articles in [MarylandReporter.com] dated 4/16/17 regarding the Maryland budget and the out-year predictions.

“I realize that most of the people who follow the legislature are constantly praising Sen. [Rich] Madaleno — and I totally agree that he is incredibly competent and intelligent.

“However, your comment about [Gov. Larry] Hogan, [Del.] Maggie McIntosh, and Sen. Madaleno working together to put the budget together is an insult to my committee and me.

“I met with Del. McIntosh from early in the session to deal with Baltimore City’s issues so that she knew we (the Senate) would be totally supportive. I think if you asked any of my members they would tell you I am firmly in control.

“As a progressive leader I am supportive of my members and try to put them in situations where they will shine (including Rich). Sometimes I wonder if you all know what is really going on.”

Ed Kasemeyer

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Maryland’s Balanced Budget – For Now

By Barry Rascovar

April 17, 2017 – Another Maryland General Assembly session has come and gone with Gov. Larry Hogan proclaiming victory and legislative leaders breathing a positive sigh of relief.

There were no big wins for Hogan but no shocking defeats, either. His ideologically driven, conservative agenda may sell well with die-hard Hogan backers but it was a non-starter with Democratic lawmakers.

His most solid step forward?

A compromise bill giving manufacturers tax breaks, especially if they provide workers with new job skills (that’s the part Democrats insisted on). It’s not a huge benefit for those companies but it is another incentive that could help persuade manufacturers to move to the Free State.

His biggest defeat?

A set of restrictions imposed on the Hogan-selected state school board, which had its hands tied by Democratic lawmakers to prevent state intrusions into local school board autonomy on figuring out how to turn around failing schools.

Constitutional Mandate

Still, the most important issue of every General Assembly session revolves around dollars and cents.

Passing a balanced budget is the only constitutional requirement both the governor and legislature must achieve every year.Maryland's Balanced Budget--For Now

This time, they cobbled together a fiscal blueprint that avoids deep spending cuts while expanding state aid and services in targeted areas.

The outcome is a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 that grows only 1.2%, to $43.6 billion.

The general fund budget essentially remains level. The state workforce holds at 80,000 (no pay raises or longevity increases).

That is a tribute to Hogan’s ability to hold down spending without taking a Trumpian axe to state government and local aid.

That’s the good news.

Dark Days Ahead?

The bad news: Those ominous storm clouds coming from the nation’s capital – potentially massive federal job losses, large cuts in healthcare, medical research and local aid.

This could give Hogan an Excedrin-sized headache he doesn’t need as he approaches an election year.

There’s an additional problem, too.

The respected Department of Legislative Services (DLS) predicts that over the next five years, Maryland’s revenue will grow 3.5% annually – versus a 5.4% rise in state spending.

That yawning gap was partially closed in the just-passed budget, eliminating 88 percent of the state’s structural budget gap.

The trouble is that this budget magic was achieved by stripping out money from the state’s Rainy Day reserve fund and moving other money around –$202 million worth of “fund transfers.” Another $185 million was saved through budget cuts by the legislature.

Thus, Hogan, Del. Maggie McIntosh and Sen. Rich Madaleno, among others, worked together in the budget process and balanced the state’s books with $91 million to spare.

Tepid Economy

Yet DLS predicts the budget gap will reach $716 million next year, $1 billion in two years and a staggering $1.5 billion by FY 2022.

Why?

“. . .a combination of tepid revenue growth, fueled by a lackluster economy, and growth in mandated spending and entitlements.”

DLS concludes “the Administration will need to take action to address a shortfall in excess of $700 million in Fiscal Year 2019.”

It adds, “The magnitude of the projected shortfalls suggests that discussion will need to focus not only on what services are provided by the State but also the fundamental revenue structure currently in place.”

That’s a polite way of announcing tax INCREASES could be back on the table, whether Hogan likes it or not.

This is especially true if the dire forecasts of historic Trump budget cuts become reality.

Closing a $700 million fiscal gap next year in Annapolis exclusively through spending reductions would be extraordinary – and painful. If Trump multiplies that deficit through massive federal budget cuts and layoffs of Maryland residents, the state could face a financial crisis.

For now, though, the state’s revenue and spending plan for the next fiscal year is in good shape.

But things could change in a hurry between now and year’s end as Trump and the Republican Congress get serious about slashing federal programs, positions and aid to local counties and states.

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MD General Assembly muscles up at Hogan’s expense

By Barry Rascovar

March 10, 2017 – When the clock strikes 12 tonight, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan will breathe a huge sigh of relief. With luck, the Maryland General Assembly – which has been increasingly aggressive in opposing the Republican chief executive – won’t return to Annapolis until next January.

There have been few reasons for Hogan to take comfort in his dealings with the state legislature this year – or indeed for the two earlier 90-day sessions.

Hogan and President Trump want to run things the way they did as private-sector real estate CEOs. Working cooperatively with a large, diverse and divisive legislature isn’t in their DNA. Nor is give-and-take compromise.

Yet that’s the very nature of the legislative branch, where no one ever gets 100 percent of what he or she wants.Md General Assembly gains power at Hogan's expenseLawmakers come to realize they must settle for a half-step forward or a partial victory while the opposition gains concessions that make tolerable what, in their eyes, could have been a truly bad law.

That sort of meeting of the minds hasn’t happened all that often during Hogan’s time in the governor’s mansion.

Going Nowhere on Bills

In many respects, 2017’s legislative session was the most miserable for Hogan. His No.1 objective – eliminating a paper-tiger of a law requiring transparency in ranking transportation projects – went nowhere.

He pilloried the Democrats’ “Protect Our Schools Act” designed to prevent state school board conservatives appointed by Hogan from stripping local school systems of autonomy to deal with underperforming schools.

The result? A humiliating defeat as the bill passed by large margins. The governor then vetoed the measure – as promised – only to see Democrats easily override the veto.

Hogan harshly assailed Attorney Genera Brian Frosh’s bill to expand his powers and allow Frosh to sue the Trump administration without first gaining the governor’s consent. That’s a huge increase in Frosh’s clout at Hogan’s expense.

Lawmakers also stripped Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot of their authority to dole out school construction funds in the humiliating “begathon” sessions imposed on school superintendents. The duo had withheld millions from Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools a year ago and that helped precipitate this session’s payback.

Hogan as Trump

In lawmakers’ eyes, Hogan came to symbolize President Trump, even though the two Republicans disagree more often than not.

Legislators approved language that would use state dollars to replace any federal funds taken from Planned Parenthood by Republicans in Washington. Maryland Public Television received the same assurances from Democratic lawmakers.

There were some areas of agreement in the State House, though.

Hogan and lawmakers worked together on a bill to stem opioid overdoses through treatment and prevention.

They found middle ground on a partial relief measure to help Baltimore City schools dig out of their deficit by tying this aid to school funds for Republican-voting counties with a similar lower-enrollment problem.

Broadsides and Animosity

Hogan did a convenient flip-flop on banning hydraulic fracturing in drilling for oil and gas in Maryland to assuage environmentalists – a meaningless action since no such drilling takes place in Maryland or is likely any time soon.

But the governor kept hammering away at Democrats in the General Assembly with broadsides that only deepened the animus.

He was especially harsh of lawmakers indicted for a string of alleged wrongdoing, from campaign finance violations to local liquor board shenanigans to shady actions tied to the award of medical marijuana licenses to a payoff scam in return for promising passage of special legislation.

Yet when the legislature finally agreed on tougher ethics laws, Hogan was full of praise, though the result came nowhere near achieving what the governor had demanded.

Hogan did a good job working out differences on the state budget – largely because he proposed little that was new or controversial. He deserves credit for keeping a tight lid on spending as Maryland approaches a time of enormous economic uncertainty.

Unmet Needs

One thing the governor failed to do was formulate a comprehensive relief plan for beleaguered Baltimore City. Two years after the Freddie Gray riots, scant progress has been made. Hogan has been conspicuously absent.

He also has yet to take steps to prepare the state for what appear to be massive federal spending cuts that could cost Maryland and Virginia tens of thousands of jobs and create an enormous economic ripple effect.

So as legislators finish their chores and head for home, they can look back on a session in which they reversed roles with the governor. Lawmakers were the pro-active initiators of actions, not the chief executive, who became a reactive and largely ineffective objector.

It was not Larry Hogan’s best 90 days of work. That may be because his main focus continues to be winning a second term next year – not working out public policy deals with lawmakers.

For the rest of 2017, he’s likely to have Annapolis and state government all to himself.

That’s the way he likes it, especially as he moves into campaign mode to ease his way into another four-year stay in Maryland’s top elective office.

Barry Rascovar‘s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

 

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

By Barry Rascovar

April 3, 2017–When it comes to dealing with the Maryland General Assembly, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan could well be called “Mr. Irrelevant.”

He’s threatening to veto a batch of bills recently enacted by Democrats in the state legislature – yet he lacks the votes to support his negative actions.

It amounts to more venting of angry “sound and fury” by the highly partisan governor that gets him nowhere.

He still insists on playing “Mr. Nasty” when he goes on conservative talk shows or holds a staged media event, denouncing Democratic lawmakers and their proposals in harsh terms as though their proposals will bring down the wrath of a furious GOP deity on Maryland citizens.

He demands that Democrats abandon their ideological beliefs and join Hogan’s Heroes in marching lockstep behind his decidedly conservative agenda.

A Week of Vetoes

This State House drama is nearing a climax in what could be called “veto week.” Democrats rushed through a number of bills Hogan could well reject – but there’s still time in the General Assembly session for near-certain veto-override votes.

The biggest Hogan hissy fit is likely to surround the “Protect Our Schools Act of 2017,” a Democratic measure that more accurately could be called “Protect Our State from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.”

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

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

The bill stems from fear that Hogan wants to impose a Republican education agenda on local school systems – dozens of charter schools, lots and lots of vouchers for kids to opt out of public schools, more aid to religious schools, private companies running under-performing schools and a state takeover of the worst-performing schools.

Democratic legislators fear the new U.S. Department of Education secretary will move heaven and earth to eliminate public schools and replace them with charter, religious and privatized schools. That’s what DeVos – who married into the billionaire family that founded and runs Amway – has loudly advocated for years.

It’s pretty much what Trump trumpeted on the presidential campaign trail last year, too.

And it’s awfully close to what Hogan has been seeking as his way to “improve” education in Maryland.

He tried to get a bill passed this session creating a special board with the power to authorize charter schools at the drop of a hat and without local school board approval. Private schooling is Hogan’s panacea for improving education achievement.

Sounding the Alarm

No wonder Democrats in Annapolis are alarmed. They aren’t going to let Hogan undercut public education systems in Maryland’s 24 subdivisions, which is what privatization, charter schools and a wide-spread voucher system could do.

Hogan falsely claims the Democrats’ bill he plans to veto will cost Maryland $250 million in federal funds under an improvement plan the state must submit to Washington.

But he intentionally ignores the fact that the new Republican president has essentially gutted that required improvement plan put in place by the Obama administration.

What Hogan has pledged to veto is a defensive bill Democrats urgently want on the books to block the Hogan-DeVos-Trump triumvirate from directly imposing their will on failing schools or creating – without local approval – charter schools and vast voucher systems.

The Baltimore Sun’s editorial page rightly pointed out that the legislature is stepping too forcefully into education matters better left to the state education board. The state board has complained, too, about legislative overreach.

Yet given the fact that the Republican governor is slowly converting that board into a conservative panel that could well embrace the Hogan-DeVos-Trump education agenda, the restrictions spelled out in the Democrats’ bill are quite understandable.

Reelection Takes Priority

None of this needed to happen.

Had Hogan opted to make love not war with Democratic legislators, Maryland could be making greater headway on classroom achievement – including agreements on permitting more charter schools in the state.

But Larry Hogan is first and foremost a political survivalist who appears most interested in his reelection, not in finding compromises on sensible bills that improve life in Maryland.

The result is a preventive measure drafted by alarmed and worried Democrats that almost certainly will go on the books. Hogan could have avoided this confrontation, but unlike General Electric, progress is not his most important product – politics is.

He’ll continue to denounce and demonize Democrats alleging that Maryland will lose federal school funds. He’ll continue to ream out Democrats for “outrageous and irresponsible” actions that he asserts are blocking his education reforms.

It’s all designed to construct a reelection campaign story in which the poor, underappreciated underdog governor, a man trying to do the right thing, finds himself once again under attack from mean, corrupt, unethical Democrats in Annapolis.

Meanwhile, the exceedingly difficult task of finding ways to improve learning in Maryland’s public schools gets shuttled to the sidelines. Politics, not policy, must come first. ###

Hogan dodges Trump bullet, fracking, ‘road-kill’ & more

By Barry Rascovar

March 27, 2017Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan can thank his lucky stars the bitter and intractable Republican disputes in Washington sabotaged plans to do away with the nation’s current healthcare plan, the Affordable Care Act.

Passage of the Trumpcare alternative – imposing horrific added costs on older Americans, endangering Medicare funding and removing healthcare coverage for 14 million citizens next year – would have had cataclysmic effects in Maryland and placed Hogan on an untenable political hot seat.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

President Trump

Instead, Hogan gets a slight reprieve, which helps his chances of getting reelected next year.

Then again, if the president and GOP hardliners insist on pressing a second time to wipe out the ACA and succeed, Hogan will be in the bull’s eye when furious Maryland Democrats seek revenge at the polls.

Equally ominous for the first-term Republican governor is Trump’s obsession with making exceedingly deep cuts in the federal budget. Even if Congress ignores the president’s budget submission from last week, the administration has its marching orders – cut personnel wherever possible, cut back severely on spending wherever possible and hold back on doling out money for programs run by the states.

Take, for instance, Trump’s budget that eliminates all federal funds for Chesapeake Bay restoration. Any sizable elimination of funds will infuriate many moderates and independents who voted for Hogan in 2014. Anger toward Trump could be taken out on Hogan on Election Day next year.

Hogan Dodges Trump Bullet

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The Maryland governor’s silence about Trump’s assault on federal spending isn’t helping him, either. Of course he’s in an unwinnable bind – criticize Trump and Hogan’s conservative followers will feel betrayed; support the president and Democrats will unload on Hogan.

It’s a tough time to be a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state. Hogan has his work cut out trying to separate himself from a wildly unpopular president without alienating died-in-the-wool Republican voters.

******

From the “sound and fury signifying nothing” department, here are two items of wasted energy by elected leaders in Annapolis who should know better:

Pointless fracking debate

Environmental activists are in a tizzy over their insistence that hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus shale rock formations deep beneath Garrett County and a portion of Allegany County be forever banned in Maryland.

They’ve made such a stink that Hogan has flip-flopped on the issue – abandoning his efforts to help Republican Western Maryland landowners who might some day benefit from extraction of oil and gas using this “fracking” technique that has been in use for over 60 years.

Yet here’s the reality:

·         There is no fracking taking place anywhere in Maryland.

·         There is no likelihood of fracking taking place in Maryland any time in the years to come.

·         Fracking in Maryland is uneconomical today and will be for a long time to come.

·         Regulations proposed by Hogan are so tough that no exploration companies in their right mind will venture into Maryland unless oil prices soar far beyond $100 a barrel – an unlikely scenario thanks to the glut of fracked oil wells in more hospitable, resource-rich regions of the country.

So environmentalists will win this empty victory and Hogan will win over some environmentalists come Election Day – but he might also lose votes from the Western Maryland landowners he betrayed.

Ludicrous “Road Kill Bill” dispute

Both Hogan and lawmakers are in the wrong here.

The governor has completely politicized a law that is so insipid and toothless it’s not worth arguing about.

The law in question has no enforcement provisions and leaves the governor in full control of road-building decisions. All it does is provide a bit of transparency on the relative value of each project being funded.

Hogan’s empty threat of not funding projects because of this law is strictly for next year’s campaign sloganeering. He’s made a mountain out of a teeny molehill just to win political points with rural and suburban voters.

Democratic lawmakers said they were going to amend the law this year to make it even clearer the law is strictly advisory. They also said they would simplify the evaluation process.

Instead, Democrats in the Senate are pushing for a two-year delay in implementing a toothless law while wasting time studying how to make the law even more meaningless.

The whole thing is pointless and a turnoff to voters of all stripes.

Surely the governor and lawmakers can spend the remaining days of this General Assembly session on something that really is constructive and helps Maryland citizens.

Moxie from the mayor

Here’s a shout-out to new Baltimore Mayor Catherin Pugh, who took an unpopular stand because it was the right thing to do.

She vetoed a bill mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage for most workers in the city – a move that would have been an economic calamity for Baltimore.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh at her inauguration in December.

We all want every worker to take home a decent paycheck. But not if it means businesses will fire personnel, reduce hours for their remaining staff and consider moving across the city-county line.

Those weren’t idle threats when this well-meaning but idealistic bill passed the naively liberal City Council.

Such an ordinance would leave the city deep in debt, according to its own financial analysts, with businesses fleeing to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to take advantage of a lower minimum wage, far lower property taxes and lower insurance rates.

Baltimore City must be competitive. The state’s minimum wage already is scheduled to rise this July and in succeeding years, too.

Besides, minimum-wage jobs are not intended to be permanent positions but rather a starting point for people eager to work their way up the economic ladder to more responsible and good-paying jobs with long-term career potential.

Pugh’s veto protects Baltimore’s economic well-being, even if liberal critics unfairly condemn her.

She’s been quiet and withdrawn during her initial months in office. Yet when it truly mattered, Pugh didn’t hesitate to analyze the facts and make a tough, courageous decision.   ###