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.

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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Dems Grovel for Governor Nomination

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 30, 2017 — A humiliating scene played out recently at the Maryland State Education Association’s fall convention in Ocean City.

Eight candidates for governor, all Democrats, went before the 73,000-member teacher union gathering and tried to out-grovel one another.

By the time they were done, they had promised so much to elevate schooling and improve the lives of teachers you would think Maryland was home to the most magnanimous and well-healed citizens in the world, willing to accept giant tax increases to fund every wish of unionized educators.

  • Universal pre-kindergarten in every jurisdictions;
  • Fat teacher salary hikes and pensions increases;
  • Modern school buildings for everyone;
  • Extra learning assistance for kids living in poor school districts;
  • Enhanced pre-natal care for pregnant students;
  • A plan for recruiting talented teachers;
  • More career skills in vocations not requiring a college degree;
  • $50,000 more per year for every school in Maryland;
  • Another $2 billion a year to bolster existing K-12 public-school education.

It’s as though the Democratic gubernatorial candidates were contemplating a perfect world in which anything and everything is not only possible but mandatory.

Naturally, every Democratic candidate lambasted Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his failure to champion massive new education aid programs. They called him the “anti-education governor.”

The unionized teacher representatives loved it. And why not? Having a bunch of wannabe governors begging for the union’s endorsement must be an ego-enhancing experience.Dems Grovel for Governor NominationBut the question must be asked at some stage of this campaign: How are they ever going to pay for all this?

Where’s the Cash?

Benjamin Jealous won cheers for saying he would cut Maryland’s budget by five percent and give all that new-found cash — $2 billion — to education.

Since 80 percent of Maryland’s expenditures are mandated by law, Jealous has his work cut out for him.

Wait till he starts itemizing precisely where that $2 billion in coming from. Cutting billions from existing programs just isn’t possible without eliminating or savaging dozens if not hundreds of services used by millions of Maryland citizens.

Krish Vignarajah, another governor wannabe, also endorsed a $2 billion boost to education but without any sign she has a clue of how to realistically make good on her promise.

She also wants to give all 1,424 public schools in Maryland $50,000 in science and technology investments each year. How will she raise that $71.2 million each year?

Nearly all the candidates pledged, if elected, to require universal pre-kindergarten in every Maryland school district.

Old Promises

Funny, so did the Democratic candidates for governor in 2014.

Anthony Brown’s program would have cost $138 million in 2014 dollars. He would have taken that money out of Maryland’s taxes on gambling – most of which already goes toward K-12 education. That internal contradiction never seemed to faze the candidate, who lost big-time to Hogan.

Brown’s primary foes, Doug Gansler and Heather Mizeur, also supposed pre-K education. Gansler wanted an expanded, full-day program for more kids in poverty, at a cost of $20 million. He would have stripped those dollars out of an already-struggling horse-racing industry.

Mizeur’s phased-in full-day pre-K plan would have cost $280 million a year, paid for by legalizing and taxing marijuana. That idea still lacks political support.

At least candidates in 2014 were not only proposing sweeping programs but also putting a dollar figure and funding options out in the open so voters could judge how realistic their plans would be if put into effect.

That’s not so in the early stages of the current gubernatorial maneuvering. That is probably due to the excessively large field in which only a few stand a realistic chance of getting the Democratic nomination.

When a candidate is vying for attention and support from a powerful interest group along with seven others, what happens is an auction — a bidding war. Each tries to out-bid the others for the group’s affections.

The result is unseemly groveling, a pandering win the group’s endorsement – at any cost.

In this case, it means pie-in-the-sky promises that bear little relationship to the real world of Maryland state government, this state’s troubled budget situation and Maryland voters’ strong resistance to higher taxes.

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Hogan’s Off-Message Moments

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 23, 2017 – Gov. Larry Hogan is riding high with strong poll numbers, low unemployment and ambitious plans to turn Maryland into a cutting-edge economic-development state.

Yet amid these positives, Hogan has a tendency to veer into a form of pettiness and vindictiveness that to some degree mirrors Donald Trump’s off-message moments.

Hogan at times gets testy when his decisions are challenged. It’s as though he cannot stand even the mildest of criticisms.

A week ago, he briefly turned nasty after an event honoring his efforts as governor to support causes dear to the Jewish community of suburban Washington.

A handful of people told Hogan how disappointed they were he had mandated a post-Labor Day start to the school year because it could lead to the elimination of days offs in Montgomery County schools for the Jewish high holidays. (The same situation is cropping in Baltimore County schools).

Hogan’s glad-handing, smiling demeanor changed. He said he was “outraged” by even the suggestion his move would result in no days off for those two sacred Jewish holidays.

“That’s nonsense,” he said, then suggested angrily that the entire Montgomery County school board should be defeated at the next election.

Sounds like one of Trump’s tantrums in which the president responds to the slightest critique with searing criticism of the speaker and urges his defeat on Election Day.

Tag-Team Nastiness

A few days later, Hogan displayed moments of ill temper at a Board of Public Works meeting in which he laced into the interim school chief of Baltimore County for failing to have all county schools air-conditioned immediately.

This is an old tale, one Hogan and state Comptroller Peter Franchot have used yearly to vilify Baltimore County officials. The county has embarked on a billion-dollar system-wide renovation to solve this decades-old problem but it cannot happen overnight – though the tag-team of Hogan and Franchot imply that it can.

To conclude his week, Hogan assailed a federal appeals court for daring to conclude a giant, 40-foot cross-shaped war monument on government property violates the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

An “outrageous . . . overreach,” Hogan wrote. The court’s conclusion, he concluded, is un-American. “Enough is enough.”

He also vowed to fight the court decision – though the state does not own the land where the “Peace Cross” sits at a busy intersection in Bladensburg and thus is not a party in the lawsuit.

Hogan's Off-Message Moments

Bladensburg Peace Cross

This is the kind of social issue Hogan avoided during his campaign for governor in 2014 so as not to inflame a sensitive issue that might hurt him with voters.

Yet defending a Christian symbol erected on government land plays well with Hogan’s conservative Republican base.

That minorities might find a 40-foot Latin cross objectionable doesn’t seem to enter the governor’ calculations.

Unpleasant Parallel

Hogan’s stance on the Peace Cross has similarities to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s revisionist approach to constitutional provisions regarding church and state.

Moore was removed as his state’s top judge for installing a two-and-a-half-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the state Supreme Court building’s rotunda and then refusing to remove it when this was deemed unconstitutional.

Moore, like Anne Arundel County Councilman Michael Peroutka, is a zealous believer in Christian “moral law” superseding constitutional law. The two men would concur with Hogan’s stance on the Bladensburg Peace Cross.

The irony is that earlier this year Hogan removed a statue from the State House grounds due to its inflammatory, racist implications. He respected the sensitivity of offended minority groups.

Yet in the case of the Peace Cross and the possible elimination of school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan appears not to care about offending minority groups.

He seems oblivious to the fact a giant Latin cross on public land might offend non-Christians, or that this imposing religious symbol at a busy intersection gives the impression that government is endorsing Christianity.

What if a similar-sized Latin cross dedicated to soldiers were placed on the grounds of the Maryland State House? Would Hogan see anything wrong with that?

There’s really no difference between that hypothetical and the Bladensburg situation.

The Peace Cross issue could be resolved by moving the monument to a private location or urging the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to turn the land and monument over to a non-profit group, such as the American Legion.

That would be a common sense answer, but Hogan is more interested in reaping political points with his conservative voters, not in solving a problem that has deep constitutional overtones.

Political Danger?

As for school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan’s criticism may strike some supporters the wrong way.

The governor has captivated many Jewish voters by giving scholarships to parochial schools, increasing ties to Israel and increasing aid to Jewish social agencies.

But his post-Labor Day school commencement edict is creating problems. In some years, local school boards may not be able to schedule 180 days of classes and also give days off for the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar.

If that happens, there could be a political reaction against Hogan’s stance.

There is a middle-ground, common-sense way out for the governor that avoids offending Jewish voters: Make it clear that the state school board has the authority under his executive order to grant a waiver to local school systems if such a bind crops up when creating future school calendars.

That would be more of an on-message approach Hogan could take to would avoid making issues like these a point of contention in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign.

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‘Free’ Tuition Isn’t Free

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steep Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Free' Tuition Isn't Free

Benjamin Jealous

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

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

Threat to Private Colleges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, it is hypothetical savings that may never materialize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starting at the Top

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That puts the judge in a bind.

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

Vignarajah’s lawsuit may be premature.

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

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

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

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

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

Maryland, My Maryland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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