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.

Hopeless in Baltimore?

By Barry Rascovar

June 17, 2015 — Sometimes you just want to scream, “What an outrage!”

Book burning

That certainly is the case with the “Baltimore Book Burning” revealed in The Baltimore Sun — hundreds of books mindlessly trashed by city school officials who seemed to have forgotten their raison d’etre: to create a love of learning among children and to better the community.

Instead of taking the textbooks and library books from the now-closed Heritage High School (shuttered as a cost-saving move) and wisely offering them to students, their parents or others in the community who might benefit from the knowledge and pleasure books can impart, bureaucratic knuckleheads opted to “recycle” them — a polite, modern-day way of conducting an old-fashioned book-burning.

Any book published before 2000 was deemed outdated and thus useless to other schools or to the citizens of Baltimore who might benefit from reading a good yarn, or a book that helps them learn.

That’s right, books the same age as the one I wrote, entitled, “The Great Game of Maryland Politics,” were deemed antiquated. All those words about the politicians and government actions during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were judged to be useless by so-called “educators.”

So were books by Mark Twain, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare and Elie Wiesel.

Anti-education Educators?

There were plenty of newer books in the junk pile, too, because no one from school headquarters bothered to supervise this mass destruction of knowledge printed on paper.

It’s hard to remain hopeful about Baltimore’s future when the school system seems dominated by anti-education paper-pushers and numbers-crunchers.

No wonder many teachers, parents and elected officials were anguished by this flagrant display of uncaring hostility toward the written word.

How can they have faith in the city’s education leaders after witnessing this sickening waste and intentional destruction of essential learning tools?

Back to the Basics

Baltimore is a struggling, aging urban city with serious poverty, employment, housing and crime issues that urgently need addressing. It also has a school system filled with too many unthinking placeholders more concerned about their paychecks than the basics of education.

Humanity suffers when there are intentional book-burnings like this one. Ignorance flourishes when bureaucrats fail to open their eyes to simple, creative solutions that would benefit society.

What happened at Heritage High School is unacceptable. Baltimore City’s political leaders need to act.

Either the school system becomes a partner in educating and uplifting the city’s communities or it becomes an enemy of the people.

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Hogan: Hero or Goat?

By Barry Rascovar

June 15, 2015 — Decision time is nearing on the future of Baltimore’s planned Red Line rail route. Will Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. be celebrated as a hero or lambasted as a goat?

Baltimore's Planned Red Line Route

Baltimore’s planned Red Line route

That question has hovered over the Republican governor ever since he won election last November.

Will he appease his conservative followers and live up to his campaign pledge to kill both the Red Line and the Purple Line in suburban Washington?

Such a move would be a stunning waste of half a billion dollars in state taxpayer dollars already spent. But think of the message it would send to the tea party crowd and Republican ideologues who coalesced around Hogan as a budget-cutter.

Yet it would end any chance of détente between Republican Hogan and the heavily Democratic General Assembly. Such a crushing blow to the three largest Democratic jurisdictions would guarantee all-out warfare — and gridlock — over the next three years in the State House.

Even worse, Hogan would look like a heartless ogre turning his back on impoverished Baltimore right after the dreadful damage of April’s civil unrest.

Rookie Mistake in Japan

The governor’s recent, all-out embrace in Japan of magnetic levitation high-speed trains between Baltimore and Washington was the sort of mistake a rookie politician makes.

Does this mean Hogan supports an unproven technology with a minimum price tag of $10 billion (under the fiction the state wouldn’t pay anything) but not the far more important — and cheaper — Red and Purple Lines?

Adding an inside-the-beltway, east to west light-rail route between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties makes enormous sense.

Purple Line

The planned Purple Line in suburban Washington

Commuting would prove far easier for tens of thousands of people living in suburban communities south of the Capital Beltway. It also would serve poor minority neighborhoods in those two counties. These are the Marylanders who need rapid transit the most.

However, the Washington region already has an extensive Metro system heavily financed by the federal government. If the Purple Line fades to black under Hogan, it’s not a crushing blow.

It would be a stupid move politically and from an economic development standpoint — and a waste of hundreds of millions already spent. But it would hardly be a calamity.

On the other hand, deep-sixing the Red Line would be another nail in Baltimore’s’ coffin.

The region lacks a legitimate rapid-rail system. It’s got a Toonerville Trolley of a light-rail route running north-south, from Hunt Valley to the outskirts of Glen Burnie. And it’s got a heavy-rail subway between Johns Hopkins Hospital and Owings Mills in northwest Baltimore County.

Sadly, the two lines don’t connect. There is no fixed rail route through East or Northeast Baltimore, no rapid rail available to residents of West Baltimore where the disturbances took place.

A True Rail Network

The Red Line would create an imperfect but viable rail system.

East and West Baltimore residents could quickly and easily commute across town as well as north-south. Thousands of workers employed at Social Security headquarters and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn would have fast, convenient train service to their campuses.

The woeful Security Square Mall in western Baltimore County would be given new life for residential, commercial and retail purposes.

The Red Line also would serve nearly every recreational and cultural event in downtown Baltimore.

For West Baltimore residents desperate for jobs, the Red Lines would be a crucial help line. Employment centers in diverse parts of the region suddenly would be within reach by rail connections.

Red Line logo

The 19 Red Line stations could become catalysts for small-scale economic growth and job-creation, too. That’s what has happened in other cities as new rail-transit lines open.

Let’s not forget, as well, the enormous economic boost that the Red Line and Purple Line would give Maryland’s still-lagging economy.

The Red Line alone means 10,000 direct construction and related jobs — all of them paying solid wages. These workers would earn $540 million, at a minimum, as the line is built. The economic impact is far larger if indirect jobs are counted.

For once, Baltimore would have a connected mass transit system, a key lacking ingredient in its attempt to attract the car-less, millennial generation to Charm City.

Forfeiting a Billion Dollars

Here’s another reason why Hogan’s rejection of the Red Line or Purple Line would be penny wise and pound foolish: There’s nearly a billion dollars of federal funds already budgeted for the two projects.

If Hogan tosses the planned routes in the waste can, all that federal money disappears. Maryland then goes to the back of a long line of cities seeking funds for mass transit projects of their own. New transit lines in Maryland would be set back a decade or more.

Yes, Hogan campaigned as a foe of the Red and Purple lines. If he’s smart, though, he will wiggle out of that bind by finding ways to trim construction costs and requiring a larger local match.

We tend to forget that while rapid rail is expensive to build initially — $3 billion for the Red and Purple lines — those tracks will serve the Central Maryland community, where most of the state’s citizens live, not for decades but for centuries.

The London Underground, with 270 stations, is over 150 years old and more popular than ever.

Governors must make hard, difficult choices. Giving the go-ahead on the two rapid rail lines might prove temporarily uncomfortable for Hogan but it is clearly the right thing to do — for future generations of Marylanders and for his own place in the history books.

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

Hogan’s ‘incredible’ maglev gaffe

By Barry Rascovar

June 8, 2015 –In the name of improved economic ties with Japan, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. allowed himself to be used as a marketing tool for a pie-in-the-sky, ultra-expensive transportation project known as “maglev.”

Maglev train in Japan on test track.

Maglev train in Japan on test track.

It’s “an incredible experience” Hogan said of his 300-mile-an-hour ride on a test track in Japan during an economic development trip to Asia.

What’s really “incredible” is Hogan’s willingness to become a promoter of a still-emerging technology with eye-popping costs just as he nears a decision on building two crucial, but far cheaper, conventional mass-transit routes in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs that he previously called “too expensive.”

Supporters of maglev (magnetic levitation) say a Washington-to-Baltimore route would cost a mere $10 billion. Others says the price tag would be many times higher just for the first 40 miles of a route eventually stretching to New York.

Maglev, which glides on a cushion of air and is powered by super-conducting magnets, requires a straight track. It cannot use existing rail rights of way. Thus, the Baltimore-Washington route, through an intensely developed part of Maryland, will have to done by way of a 40-mile-long tunnel.

Now we’re talking REALLY big bucks.

Transformational?

Yet there was Maryland’s governor calling maglev “the future of transportation” that would be “incredibly transformative” for Maryland’s economy.

Huh?

It’s one thing to be polite and complimentary to your host on an overseas economic venture. It’s quite another to join hands with the promoter, the Japanese government, to support a Japanese company’s technology and request $27.8 million from the U.S. government to study a speculative maglev route between the nation’s capital and Charm City.

Just the notion that it won’t cost the state of Maryland one red cent if a Washington-to-Baltimore maglev becomes a reality — backers say it could be funded by Japan, a Japanese railroad and the U.S. government — is enough to wonder what was in the water Hogan drank while in Tokyo.

Hogan and wife Yumi on the test maglev train in Japan

Gov. Larry Hogan and his wife, Yumi, aboard the experimental maglev train in Japan

Sure, it’s a great technology on a test track. But the first maglev train, built in Shanghai, China, has been a flop. That line is only 18 miles long, linking Shanghai’s international airport with a suburb: You still have to transfer to a cab or a light-rail line to reach Shanghai’s downtown.

That route was built by German companies as a sales tool. It didn’t work. When it came time to select a technology for an 800-mile super-speed line between Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese government chose a proven, wheels-on-track bullet-train.

Shouldn’t that tell Hogan something?

Facing Reality

Better to improve what you have with the limited transportation money on hand than jump into a questionable technology that isn’t ready for prime time and costs a fortune.

Does Hogan truly expect the budget-cutting Republican Congress to approve spending tens of billions of dollars on a maglev route through a heavily Democratic state?

Where’s the money going to come from now that Congress refuses to raise the federal gasoline tax — the main source of federal transportation funding?

Congress almost certainly would require Maryland to ante up a big chunk of the money, 50 percent or more.

Transportation Challenges

Hogan has limited state transportation funds and far too many priorities to address. Why divert state resources and waste the time of the state’s transit experts when you’re already faced with:

  • A decision on the Red Line for Baltimore, an absolutely pivotal project.
  • A decision on the Washington area’s Purple Line serving the state’s two most populous and congested counties.
  • A decision on a badly needed new rail tunnel through Baltimore. This directly affects the future of Maryland’s leading economic engine — the Port of Baltimore.
  • A decision on vastly improving Maryland’s commuter-rail line, MARC, so that its popularity continues to grow.
  • A decision on major repairs or replacement of railroad bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush and Gunpowder rivers.
  • A decision on how quickly to repair/replace dozens of deteriorating highway bridges throughout Maryland.
  • A decision on replacing the scary, congested, 75-year-old, two-lane, deteriorating Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac River in Southern Maryland — a billion-dollar-plus project.
Gov. Harry Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

With all this on his transportation plate, why in the world would Hogan champion a highly questionable maglev project with a stratospheric price tag and a completion date so far in the future it can’t be seen?

(Note: Japan is building a 175-mile maglev rail line between Tokyo and Nagoya. Construction started last year. The opening date? 2027.)

Unresolved Questions

Maglev is a great idea yet to be fully proven as a power source for long-distance travel. Oodles of engineering and technical issues remain unresolved. Huge political and geographic obstacles remain.

Isn’t it far more sensible to improve existing rail lines and projects nearing the construction stage?

Hogan didn’t help himself by making glowing maglev comments, signing a memorandum of cooperation with the Japanese government on maglev and announcing that he’s seeking federal funds to study a high-speed route in Maryland.

Instead, he needs to get serious about easing travel for Marylanders today, especially in the state’s most crowded regions.

Maglev should be taken off the table.

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

Presidential Dreamin’

By Barry Rascovar

June 1, 2015 — What a surprise. . . . Martin O’Malley is running for president.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Martin O’Malley

It’s now official but it hardly was a secret Maryland’s former governor and Baltimore’s former mayor would be spending the next nine months trooping around Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other key Democratic primary states.

At the moment, he’s a long, longshot. Ireland’s largest bookmaker, Paddy Power, puts O’Malley’s chances at 25-to-1. (Let’s hope he plucked some four-leaf clovers when he visited the Old Sod recently.)

That’s better than the odds on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (33-to-1) or former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (50-to-1), but they’re not O’Malley’s problem.

Climbing to the Top

Mount Hillary is the former governor’s Mount Everest of a challenge. Hillary Clinton is given an even-money chance of winning the presidency by Paddy Power. (Her closest rival, according to the bookmaker, is Republican Jeb Bush. His odds are 7-to-2.)

The latest (May 28) Quinnipiac Poll shows Clinton with 57 percent of the Democratic primary vote. O’Malley is a whopping 56 percent points behind.

Sanders registered a respectable 15 percent, Vice President Joe Biden (who may not even become a candidate) had 9 percent of the Democratic vote, and O’Malley was tied at 1 percent with Webb and former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chaffee.

Clearly, Martin O’Malley has a huge, almost impossible, challenge in front of him.

But we’re talking politics, here, not statistical mathematics. Anything can happen. And sometimes does.

Remember 1976, when a little-known ex-Georgia governor surprised everyone and not only won the Democratic nomination but went on to defeat President Gerald Ford?

Jimmy Carter was such a no-name that when he campaigned in Annapolis in the summer of 1975, I wrote him off after listening to him deliver a mundane speech to a dozen or so retired officers at the Naval Reserve Club.

So much for my crystal-ball abilities.

That Arkansas Governor

And remember when a former Arkansas governor came from behind to defeat the likes of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas to win the Democratic presidential nomination?

Bill Clinton even lost the Maryland primary to Tsongas, 43-36 percent, but ran the table in southern primary states.  He went on to defeat a sitting president, George Herbert Walker Bush.

In politics, miracles can happen.

It takes high-voltage energy, intestinal fortitude, the guts of a burglar, a solid record in government, a strong message and the determination to succeed no matter how bleak the situation.

O’Malley has all those attributes. He proved that when he ran for mayor of Baltimore in 1999 as a distinct underdog — the only white candidate in a minority-majority city. He shocked a lot of people by putting together a flawless campaign and winning fairly easily.

Then in 2006, O’Malley took on an incumbent governor, Republican Bob Ehrlich, and beat him convincingly.

But running a successful presidential campaign is in another, elite category — especially when you’re running against an overwhelming favorite whose husband remains the most popular politician in the nation and who would be the first woman to hold the country’s highest office.

Unknown to Voters

Hillary Clinton’s name recognition is near-100 percent. O’Malley’s is near-zero outside of certain political circles.

But O’Malley has the edge in actually running a large government bureaucracy, first in Baltimore and then in Annapolis. He has dealt with the tough urban issues and fiscal crises; he has crafted liberal legislative agendas and then negotiated his way to victory.

He is from a younger, more energetic generation than Hillary Clinton. He can even strum and sing his way to the presidency, if need be.

On the minus side, O’Malley will have trouble outliving has “zero tolerance” policing tactics he instituted in Baltimore as mayor. While mass arrests for petty crimes did, indeed, bring down the city’s crime rate, it embittered generations of blacks who took out their anger in a wave of civil unrest this April.

Zero tolerance is offensive to most liberal Democrats, and O’Malley may have trouble explaining his past support for that policing policy.

He also could have difficult explaining the dozens of taxes he imposed on Maryland citizens during his eight years as governor. By the time O’Malley left office, his unpopularity stemmed from his reputation as a relentless proponent of tax increases.

Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor last year by running successfully against O’Malley’s heavy-handed tax record. While this may not be a major detriment for O’Malley during the primaries, it could kill his chances of winning in a national general election.

At the moment, O’Malley’s candidacy seems hopeless. But what if Hillary Clinton has health problems (she’s already had one blood clot)? What if the “get Hillary” media and right-wing frenzy persuades her to withdraw?

What If. . .?

Or what if O’Malley’s solidly far-left agenda gains momentum in the early primaries among Democratic voters and he becomes the cover-boy favorite of the media and liberal interest groups?

It’s also likely that O’Malley has a back-up plan: Campaign like crazy throughout Iowa and New Hampshire, but if Clinton still buries him in an avalanche of votes, gracefully withdraw.

Then declare your abiding support for Hillary and fanatically campaign for Clinton around the country as  a surrogate.

Under this backup plan, O’Malley would aim for presidential elections in 2020 or 2024. He’d still be a relatively youthful (for a president) 56 or 60.

At the moment, O’Malley isn’t held in high regard in his home state. It’s not even certain he could win the Maryland primary.

Both U.S. senators and most of the state’s Democratic establishment are gung-ho backers of Hillary Clinton. The Clinton family is beloved in the state’s African American communities — a pivotal component in any Democratic primary.

Yet we’re nearly a year away from that election in Maryland. O’Malley has plenty of time to improve his position — and hope that the front-runner makes some fateful mistakes.

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

The Laurel Preakness? Get Real

By Barry Rascovar

May 25, 2015 — The Stronach Group, which owns Maryland’s two thoroughbred one-mile tracks, is making noise, once again, about moving the crown jewel of Free State racing, the Preakness Stakes, to Laurel Race Course.

 

Pimlico Race Course

Pimlico Race Course

It’s a non-starter — and the Stronach folks probably know it.

Legally such a move can’t take place without General Assembly approval, which won’t happen.

From a racing standpoint, owner Frank Stronach would have to be brain-dead to transplant the Preakness.

All the fabled history would be lost. Laurel races couldn’t be compared with the 140 years of past Preakness performances at Pimlico. Different track, different racing surface, different times for traversing a mile and three-sixteenths.

Laurel, as built, can’t hold 140,000 fans; Pimlico can and did this month. Nor is it a certainty Laurel could draw even a respectable Preakness crowd.

It’s an isolated, suburban site where families are more interested in their kids’ soccer games than a horse race. No one can walk to the track, or catch a bus, easily. Few folks from the Baltimore region would make the long trek.

Sure, Laurel’s a nice, more up-to-date track, but to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.”

Diminished Triple Crown

A Laurel Preakness would diminish the prestige and currency of racing’s Triple Crown, thus devaluing Stronach’s Maryland holdings.

It also would be perceived as a huge slap at Baltimore just when the city is trying to recover from April’s civil unrest and the black eye it received nationally and internationally. The bitterness from such a move would be harsh and unforgiving.

On paper, consolidating Maryland thoroughbred racing at one track might appear a no-brainer, but it isn’t once you start peeling back the multi-layers of reality.

What the Stronach folks really want — given the fact a one-track racing schedule is illegal and probably a long-term money-loser — is concessions from Baltimore City and the state of Maryland to offset the two tracks’ operating losses, estimated at $5 million to $8 million annually.

There are a number of ways politicians could provide the track owner with financial help.

Subsidy Options

The state legislature, for instance, could revise the division of slots revenues slightly to allocate up to $10 million annually if the Stronach Group holds a spring-summer meet at an upgraded Pimlico.

The state already guarantees each of Maryland’s two standardbred tracks $1.2 million a year for just 40 days of racing. The money comes out of the slots revenue designated for bolstering purses at those harness-racing tracks at Rosecroft and Ocean Downs.

Stronach’s thoroughbred tracks are expected to receive nearly $46 million in slots revenue for purse awards in fiscal 2017 and close to $50 million by 2020. Surely the law could be amended to let the tracks apply for a subsidy from that account to offset operating losses .

Pimlico logo

Both the state and city also could work with the Stronach Group to float inexpensive bonds for some of the improvements at Pimlico.

Baltimore City, which already is giving over $100 million in tax breaks and another $300 million in public subsidies to developers of Harbor Point downtown, could offer a similar but smaller package of infrastructure improvements and long-term tax rebates if the Stronach Group turns Pimlico into a redeveloped, multi-entertainment center.

Stronach’s Contribution

While Frank Stronach has dragged his feet in putting dollars into his Maryland tracks, he has been a good corporate citizen, even footing the bill for an expensive machine tool-and-dye training school south of the Pimlico track that taught inner-city residents the skills needed to secure good-paying, in-demand jobs.

Thanks to millions in slots revenue already designated for future race track improvements, Maryland has signaled its willingness to help revitalize thoroughbred racing.

Now it needs to seal the deal in a way that ensures Pimlico’s future and offers hundreds of new jobs for the depressed community that lies to the historic track’s south and west.

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Hogan’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Rascovar

May 18, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. makes it sound like he’s riding to the rescue of Maryland’s underfunded pension program that has been continually “raided” by evil Democratic legislators in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Gov. Larry Hogan (left) & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

What a bunch of hogwash. It’s pure Hogan hypocrisy.

Hogan’s stance — torpedoing a $68 million education appropriation to the state’s most populous jurisdictions and shifting some of that money into the state pension fund — is based on politics, not policy.

Indeed, Hogan is a late convert to the cause of pension-fund integrity.

Silent Secretary

When legislative analysts went before House and Senate budget panels and proposed a 50 percent reduction in Hogan’s $150 million supplemental appropriation to the pension fund, the governor’s budget secretary not only failed to object but congratulated lawmakers for their assiduous work in responsibly paring Hogan’s budget request.

Not until it became politically expedient later in the session to slam Democrats for cutting the supplemental appropriation in half did Hogan belatedly turn into a pension-funding hawk.

Since then, he’s continually referred to Democratic lawmakers’ “raid” of pension money.

Another bit of Hogan flummery.

The pension agency got so offended at this misguided gubernatorial propaganda pitch that it issued a press release regarding “the mistaken impression that the pension fund had been ‘raided’ by the General Assembly during the recently-completed session. This is not the case.”

No Dipping Allowed

The agency explained that the dispute centered on how much extra should be spent to help the state more quickly reach full funding to pay for future pension payouts. The state’s required $1.8 billion budget contribution to the retirement account this year remained untouched.

Indeed, it’s illegal for the legislature or the governor to “dip into” the $45.7 billion pension fund. That money can only be used to make pension payouts. No “raids” are permitted. But you’d never know that from listening to the governor’s spiel.

Hogan’s pension purity pursuit was his way of diverting attention from his other action — denying important state dollars to Baltimore City and other high-cost subdivisions to help them avoid layoffs or cuts in school programs.

He said it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to give that money to the schools instead of pouring it into the pension fund.

He’s got his priorities reversed.

The greatest immediate urgency is bolstering education achievement in distressed communities like West Baltimore. That takes money.

Further fortifying the state’s pension program can be done more gradually over the next decade or two.

Harsh Consequences

Especially in light of civil unrest in poor, racially blighted Baltimore neighborhoods, Hogan’s decision to yank $11.6 million away from the city school system seems short-sighted and counter-productive.

The consequences of his action could be quite harsh when the General Assembly meets next January.  This slap in the face to Baltimore schools won’t be forgotten. Nor will legislators from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties forget Hogan’s slight, either. They lost a combined $37 million in school money.

The governor’s next big decision could be the fate of the two mass-transit lines affecting those three major jurisdictions — the east-west Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

His actions on the two lines could prove pivotal in his dealings with Democratic lawmakers. Deep-sixing either project will prompt an uproar. Yet Hogan is intent on appeasing his conservative base by finding ways to sharply reduce mass-transit costs.

He’s playing with political dynamite.

If he sets off a Democratic explosion over the fate of the Red and Purple lines, the resulting fallout could cripple Hogan’s efforts to constructively deal with the General Assembly over the next three years.

Judging from his rejection of supplemental education aid, this governor seems determined to restrict Maryland’s future spending habits at all costs. His goal is to lower taxes. Everything else is secondary.

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

May 11, 2015 — Larry Hogan Jr. is proving to be an unusual governor for Maryland, in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessors, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Both Democrat O’Malley and Republican Ehrlich love publicity and making a PR splash. They craved the spotlight, issued a tidal wave of propaganda pitches and tried to dominate the daily news coverage.

Republican Hogan wants none of the above. He’s such a modest, low-key governor that he brings to mind the gubernatorial years of an equally low-key Maryland chief executive, Harry Hughes.

But there’s a difference. Hughes came to Maryland’s top office steeped in state government and political expertise. Hogan, in contrast, was a novice who had never held an elective post.

During his campaign last year, Hogan followed a disciplined KISS strategy — “keep it simple, stupid.” His themes purposely avoided divisive social issues and stuck to a few key promises — cut the state budget and then cut taxes.

Narrow Legislative Focus

Hogan followed a similar KISS approach in his first legislative session. His one and only focus: developing a slimmed-down budget that came close to wiping out Maryland’s chronic structural deficit.

The rest of his so-called “agenda” consisted of leftovers from the campaign trail — unrealistic Republican proposals that stood no chance in a heavily Democratic General Assembly.

During those 90 days in Annapolis, Hogan held few press conferences, issued few press releases and remained pretty much in the background.

By session’s end, he had won much of the budget battles, setting the stage for a similar push next year to make room for tax cuts.

He gave us a preview of his intentions last week by announcing reduced tolls on Maryland’s roads and bridges.

Bay Bridge toll cut

While this puts a giant crimp in Maryland’s efforts to replace aging bridges and improve interstate roads, the symbolism of Hogan’s toll-cutting action is what counted for the governor.

Even when dealing with the volatile protests and unrest in Baltimore, the new governor kept his participation low-key — and simple.

His actions were few but decisive — calling in the National Guard when requested, moving his office to Baltimore and delivering daily updates in which he basically introduced law-enforcement leaders to brief the media.

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

When cornered by reporters, Hogan refused to blame the mayor for what had occurred and refused to discuss details of events. He sounded a one-note response: “We are here to keep the peace.”

Compared with the frenetic, 24/7 campaign styles O’Malley and Ehrlich brought to the governor’s mansion, Hogan’s modest and even shy approach is a refreshing change.

His eternal optimism, concern and ready smile serve him well with Marylanders.

Next Big Test

That widespread popularity soon could be tested when Hogan decides what to do about two costly but critical mass-transit projects — Baltimore’s Red Line and the suburban Washington Purple Line.

He called them unaffordable during the campaign, but rejecting either project will create deep antagonisms and hostility toward the Republican governor that could dog him in the legislature for the rest of his term.

So far, Hogan has avoided these kinds of flash points, knowing that a Republican governor can ill afford alienating a large chunk of the legislature’s majority party.

How he navigates between his campaign statements and strong public sentiment for the Red and Purple Lines in three of Maryland’s largest and most politically influential jurisdictions will tell us much about Hogan’s ability to navigate his way through perilous political situations.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. Contact him at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Heartbreaking Failure of Leadership

By Barry Rascovar

May 4, 2015 — Baltimore deserves better. The citizens of Charm City, black and white, dutifully worked for decades to overcome obstacles of urban decline, including poverty and joblessness, with the goal of creating a thriving neo-urban, multi-racial environment attractive to residents and employers.

Those intent on achieving that dream have suffered a heartbreaking setback.

Failure of Leadership

Baltimore’s younger generation of African Americans decided anger and violence were more important than taking constructive steps toward empowerment.

They seized on a failure of leadership at multiple levels and drove their inflammatory actions, like a spear, through Charm City’s armor.

Partial Responsibility

The roots of this civil unrest will be analyzed for decades.

One obvious flash point could become a bone of contention in the Democratic presidential campaign. Another could dominate next year’s election for mayor.

History may record that both Martin O’Malley and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, mayors past and present, bear partial responsibility for what went wrong in Baltimore over the last week.

O’Malley, who has set his sights on the U.S. presidency, won election in 1999 to Baltimore’s top position with the courageous support of Rawlings-Blake’s father, Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings, one of the most influential power brokers in the Maryland General Assembly and a staunch defender of black Baltimore.

The O’Malley mayoral campaign of 1999 centered on the need for tougher police enforcement after eight years of a failed community policing policy under Baltimore’s first elected black mayor, Kurt Schmoke.

Indeed, O’Malley made a name for himself on the Baltimore City Council as a persistent critic of the soft, ineffective policing tactics put in place by Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

Discontent with Violence

Baltimore is a heavily African American city. For a white to win the city’s top elected post speaks volumes about the discontent with the violence and rising crime rate in 1999. Pete Rawlings’ endorsement of O’Malley over two major black contenders proved pivotal.

Martin O’Malley came into office promising a tough law-and-order stance that would deter crime. He initiated a zero-tolerance approach based on New York City’s successful “broken windows” theory — go after petty crimes, such as vandalism or a broken window, and it would prevent more serious criminal action. Young blacks simply congregating on street corners ended up in jail on suspicion of drug dealing.

Over 100,000 arrests were made one year (in a city of 650,000). O’Malley also embraced New York City’s statistical analysis, renamed Citistat, to pinpoint crime hotspots.

The two initiatives led to a dramatic drop in law-breaking. At the time, O’Malley was lauded for his tough stance that seemed to have made Baltimore safer. It also eased the way for his reelection as mayor.

Residue of Anger

But zero-tolerance sowed the seeds of discontent and bitterness among young black men. Much of the fury expressed on the city’s streets last week flowed from those mass-arrest sweeps and the targeting by police of young blacks during the O’Malley years.

His tough-on-crime approach as mayor stands in stark contrast to O’Malley’s current attempt to position himself as the ultra-liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, zero-tolerance policing is the antithesis of what Democratic liberals believe in.

His hard line on law enforcement could well dog O’Malley during presidential campaign debates and interviews.

His successor as mayor, Sheila Dixon, quickly discarded O’Malley’s zero tolerance strategy in favor of a more humanizing law-enforcement tool — increased on-the-street patrols and closer affiliation with community groups.

O-Malley and Rawlings-Blake

Mayors past and present in happier times

Rawlings-Blake has continued that less confrontational approach to policing.

Some now contend the mayor’s permissiveness on that first night of clashes encouraged young blacks to engage in looting, arson and attacks on policemen and firefighters knowing there would be no crackdown.

In hindsight, the mayor’s critics may have a point. But on-the-spot decisions are easily faulted after the fact.

No Rapid Response

Rawlings-Blake will be dogged over the next year and a half by those who point to her failure to go after the miscreants immediately — before the violence got out of hand.

Her mystifying refusal to request help from Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. in the critical hours leading up to the outbreak of lawlessness now looks like a tragic mistake. Her standoffishness from the governor since then defies explanation.

Prior to last week’s upheaval, Rawlings-Blake looked like an easy winner in next year’s mayoral election.

That’s no longer the case — especially with the hero-worshipping status accorded Baltimore’s new state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, who rushed to charge six police officers with a kitchen sink of wrondoing.

Winning convictions may prove infinitely harder, though, which could color the public’s perception of Mosby in the months ahead.

Former Mayor Dixon looms as a potential contender, too.

Clearly, Rawlings-Blake has some serious repair work to do politically, once things return to normal in Baltimore, if she hopes to remain in the mayor’s office for another term.

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

Taming MD’s Structural Deficit

By Barry Rascovar

April 27, 2015 —  Can Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. tame Maryland’s long-standing structural budget deficit? Judging from his first stab at it, he’s more than halfway there.

But high hurdles lie ahead if he is to reach the point where the state’s ongoing revenues far exceed annual spending.

Taming MD's Structural Deficit

Hogan may grumble to appease conservative groups about the remaining $206 million structural imbalance in the budget that’s been approved for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Yet that is a sharp reduction from the deficit anticipated back in November of a $525 million shortfall under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Not Too Shabby

The General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services (DLS) says Hogan is 68 percent of the way toward wiping out the structural imbalance — and if he continues to hold firm in denying state workers a 2 percent pay raise starting July 1, he will reach 82 percent of his goal.

Not too shabby for a Republican governor facing an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

Those deficit numbers will grow somewhat if Hogan decides to give Democratic lawmakers some of the $202 million they asked him to restore to various education, health and wage programs.

Still, Hogan begins preparation for his second budget in remarkably good shape.

It’s no secret that the Big Three growth items in Maryland’s budget are: 1) soaring debt service payments; 2) continually rising education aid, and 3) ever-rising health-care costs.

Too Many Bonds

Debt service alone will jump by $167 million next year. Payments on general-obligation bonds has tripled in the last three years. Hogan needs to take a hard look at ways to reduce or slow Maryland’s issuance of those bonds, including the always popular school construction allocations, which in July’s budget hits a record $380 million.

Complicating matters for the governor is Maryland’s too-slow economic recovery from the Great Recession. DLS estimates state revenues in fiscal year 2017 will grow a modest 4 percent. Yet it will take a 5.7 percent growth rate to balance spending with revenue.

More economic development is the key. That’s a long-term proposition, though.

Hogan’s aggressive “Maryland is open for business” theme won’t result in major tax gains for the state any time soon. So the governor will have to continue cutting back on state agency spending while finding areas where deeper cuts can be made without creating a harsh backlash in the legislature.

Ratcheting down the structural imbalance is Hogan’s best course. The problem is that he’s also determined to deliver on his main campaign promise — lower taxes.

Thus, balancing the state’s books isn’t enough. He’s got to go further so he can justify a tax cut that does not create a new structural deficit.

More Daunting Problems

That’s where Hogan’s problems multiply. Aid to local governments is a likely target, until you start to pull the plug on specific spending programs, like money for schools, police, fire-fighting, the poor, libraries and parks.

MD's Structural Deficit

Indeed, almost every area of state government spending affects huge numbers of Maryland citizens. Hogan must take care not to antagonize too many of them. If he does, it could jeopardize his re-election

Looking down the road, Hogan faces even more daunting budget difficulties, Indeed, DLS puts the state’s combined deficit for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 at $1.165 billion .

As bad as this sounds, it is a huge improvement over what O’Malley left behind: a combined estimated deficit for those two years of nearly $2 billion. Hogan reduced that future imbalance by 41 percent in his first budget.

Fundamental spending changes won’t be possible with Maryland’s Democratic legislature acting as a brake on Hogan’s budget-cutting tendencies. That’s why the slow-but-steady approach makes so much sense.

It won’t please Hogan’s absolutist supporters, but gradualism could prove the most practical and politically astute path to follow.

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Procurement Disgrace

By Barry Rascovar

March 20, 2015 — Maryland’s system of contracting for services through competitive bids is in shambles. It has been that way for years — and is getting worse.

It’s an embarrassment to taxpayers. Yet a long list of procurement debacles hasn’t been enough to spur sweeping reforms.

That seems likely to change, thanks in part to a royal screw-up on a food-service contract that all three members of the Board of Public Works strongly denounced last week.

Procurement Disgrace

Maryland Board of Public Works

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. described the badly botched prison-food procurement as “one of the most disgraceful displays of mismanagement” he’s seen in his long business career.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a persistent but lonely critic of these contracting disasters, called it “the most troubling procurement” in his eight years on the board.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp, ever the diplomat who chooses her words with care, said she was “sorely troubled.”

Nightmarish Tales

Nearly every month, the board hears nightmarish tales of state contracting efforts gone awry, of contractors who submit low-ball bids only to seek costly add-ons later, of inept procurement  officials who misapply contracting rules, tilt the playing field, make a mess of the bid-and-award process or fail to use common sense.

Hogan and Franchot earlier this year repeatedly skewered University System of Maryland officials for ineptly explaining cost overruns and excessive spending on university capital projects.

Now the prison-food contract horror story has led board members to the brink of action.

It’s a tale of stupidity by corrections officials under former Gov. Martin O’Malley.

It’s a tale of a contractor using the threat of cutting off food deliveries to Baltimore inmates to secure a whopping 54 percent boost in state payments.

It’s also a tale of misleading statements that are coming back to haunt the winning bidder.

Franchot called the misadventures of this contract award “highly irregular.” He urged the governor to ask Attorney General Brian Frosh to investigate and determine whether this was the result of “staggering incompetence — or something else.”

Franchot also should have asked the governor to appoint a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts to study recent procurement disasters and recommend ways to fix a dysfunctional system.

Meals Per Day

In short, here’s what happened on the prison-food contract.

State corrections officials made the inexcusable mistake of erring on how many meals are served to Baltimore prison inmates each day. This should have been basic math, backed up by recent meals-per-day figures.

Yet corrections officials requested contractors submit bids for serving 23,000 daily prison meals. The actual number should have been closer to 15,000.

That’s a huge difference because the contractor is paid on a price-per-meal basis.

The incumbent contractor, based on its seven years of experience at the Baltimore prisons, estimated it would cost $89 million over three years to fulfill the food contract. The other bidder came up with a stunningly low figure of $37 million.

That’s a whopping difference — a gap in bids so gigantic it should have set off alarm bells. Something was very wrong with the state’s request for proposals (RFP).

Board Approval

Instead of catching the mistake early, state prison officials went ahead and awarded the contract to the low bidder, which hadn’t even taken the basic step of inspecting the prison kitchen facilities before bidding.

Such naiveté never surfaced when the board, under O’Malley, approved this contract in early January. Instead, the company called itself award-winning and pledged to do a great job.

Almost immediately that promise collapsed.

The prison kitchen facilities needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades that the contractor hadn’t figured on. Health inspectors listed 11 pages of required remediation.

The vendor was serving nearly 8,000 fewer meals per day and losing $70,000 a week.

On Feb. 24, the company informed the state it would stop serving inmates on Feb. 28 — just four days later — unless its compensation was boosted immediately by 53 percent.

Faced with the prospect of inmates going without food, new corrections secretary Stephen Moyer had little choice but to give the vendor what it wanted — an emergency, six-month, $6.6 million contract that dramatically jacked up payments to the vendor.

Moyer wisely cancelled the original contract award, which is supposed to be re-bid in about six months. Good luck on that one — especially since the department that bungled the first RFP-and-award process is still running the show.

Franchot called the winning vendor’s explanations “deplorable.” “You essentially deceived us,” he told the company’s owners last week.

But whose fault was it? The state is so culpable that legal action against the winning bidder may not be possible.

Thorough Vetting

In reality, it is a systemic problem.

From top to bottom, Maryland’s procurement laws and procedures need a thorough vetting by experts. The process is too easily manipulated by contractors and by state officials.

Hogan has grown increasingly irritated by the flawed and costly contracting mistakes that have come before the Board of Public Works since he took office in late January,

Enough already.

Actions to revamp and improve the system will speak far louder than angry words of disgust.

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