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.

Minimalist Legislative Session

By Barry Rascovar

April 15, 2014 — Not much was expected from the 2015 Maryland General Assembly session — and we weren’t disappointed.

Minimalist Legislative Session

Think I’m kidding? Then try this one on for size:

(Fill in the Blank)

“The Maryland legislature’s greatest achievements this past session were _______________________,  ___________________________ and  ______________________________.

I couldn’t complete that sentence.

There was no big-league legislation to crow about when the final gavel sounded sine die Monday night.

If you, too, have trouble coming up with truly significant steps forward by the General Assembly this session, you’re not alone.

It got so bad that when the Baltimore Sun spent 24 column inches on legislative achievements, every section detailed the General Assembly’s failures — not successes — on education, transportation, environment, criminal justice and health. Few accomplishments were even mentioned.

Turnover Hurt

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

High turnover after Assembly districts were re-drawn before last year’s elections meant a large number of freshmen lawmakers spent the 90-day State House gathering learning the ins and outs of lawmaking, how to file their expense accounts, where the bathrooms are located and what it takes in practical terms to get bills enacted.

No wonder this was a minimalist session.

New Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. didn’t help matters. The Republican came into office with zero experience as an elected official, just a handful of campaign promises and no legislative agenda.

The wish list he submitted proved thin and lacking in substance or realism. Few of his bills passed; those that did were given Democratic-friendly face-lifts.

Minimalist Legislative Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan failed to provide the Maryland legislature with strong guidance or leadership — other than his effort to chop  the size of the state budget. He was a no-show on legislative matters for much of the session.

Uber, Divorces & Midwives

When the most newsworthy votes deal with Uber’s taxi service, granting quicker divorces, allowing midwife home-births, higher speed limits and letting ex-felons vote, it signals that Maryland lawmakers knew they weren’t ready to tackle heavy-duty issues.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Who says every General Assembly session must contain blockbuster legislation? Sometimes it’s nice to know state lawmakers are content to tinker around the edges of state law.

That means taking small steps to clarify existing statutes, modernizing antiquated sections of the Maryland code and giving interest groups incremental adjustments instead of sweeping change.

Who Sets the Agenda?

Legislatures are not designed to provide strong leadership on dominant social issues. Too many people are involved — 181 in Maryland’s case. It’s up to the governor to set the agenda each year. He’s the state’s top elected leader after all.

But Hogan wasn’t prepared to lead so soon after his surprising election last November. Next year, though, should be different.

His challenge will be to assess what practical moves can be made to help grow jobs in Maryland, improve education and transportation, protect the environment and public safety while helping the state’s large underclass.

Then he’s got to find ways to reach out to Democrats in the legislature for support.

Failure to do so could make next year’s session an even bigger disappointment.

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Hogan: Strike One

By Barry Rascovar

April 14, 2015 — In his stubbornly conservative and highly politicized approach to governing Annapolis over the past week, Republican Larry Hogan Jr. took a step that may seal his fate as a one-term governor.

Hogan: Strike One

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Let’s see: In just a few days Hogan managed to alienate and infuriate state workers, public school teachers and education advocates, disability workers, supporters of medical assistance for poor pregnant women and doctors who treat Medicaid patients.

He also left a trail of non-accomplishments.

Hogan’s refusal to follow-through on a final budget accord and instead turn the issue into a political football left Democratic legislators resentful and itching to show they can play hardball, too.

For someone who entered the governor’s mansion as Mr. Nice Guy cooing bipartisanship, Hogan ended his inaugural legislative session as Mr. Tough Guy defiantly declaring great success for what was clearly a disappointing 90-day performance.

Seeds for a Pushback

His flimsy legislative agenda got shredded. He turned victory on the state budget into an easily avoidable defeat.

He sowed the seeds for a strong Democratic pushback that could make Hogan’s legislative life miserable over the next three years.

The Republican governor’s inexperience showed.

He let hard-line ideologues on his staff get their way. Democrats reacted by tying his hands in future years on making budget cuts to education. They blocked him at nearly every turn.

Teacher layoffs that are sure to follow from Hogan’s budget-cutting actions will haunt him. He has awakened a key element of the Democratic Party’s base. Teachers and public school parents in core Democratic jurisdictions will neither forgive nor forget.

Pay Cut Coming

He also made enemies of 80,000 state workers by cutting their paychecks 2 percent, starting in July.

He still has a chance to spend the money set aside by the legislature for those two groups but that would require political accommodations Hogan doesn’t seem willing to make.

The irony is that Hogan had a golden opportunity to negotiate a budget giving him much of what he wanted without enraging large voting groups.

Indeed, Democratic negotiators thought it was a done deal — until Hogan made intentionally unacceptable demands at the last moment.

The new governor showed his naiveté and lack of insight into Maryland’s complex legislative process. His hard-nosed, conservative roots were showing.

His biggest mistake: Failing to accept the divided nature of governance in Maryland. Election as governor does not entitle Republican Hogan to rule the land in an imperial, “I’m the boss” manner.

Democrats firmly control the General Assembly. They are co-rulers. They make the laws, set policy and sit in judgment on the governor’s budget.

Hogan can’t demand obeisance to his legislative wishes. He can’t insist Democrats support a decidedly Republican agenda. Yet that’s what he tried to do in the final week before Monday’s sine die adjournment.

Budget Progress

Picking up the pieces won’t be easy for the governor.

He did, though, take a major step toward truly balancing the state’s budget. Simply by trimming government spending in the next few years, identifying areas where money can be saved without significantly impacting services and keeping expenditures lower than Maryland’s growth rate, Hogan can tame the state’s structural deficit demon.

But don’t expect savings large enough to support major tax cuts. Even if that were to happen, Democrats in Annapolis would write laws that re-direct this surplus in ways more appealing to their constituents in Maryland’s big, Democratic subdivisions.

Hogan gets the next nine months to operate without legislative interference. He’ll have time to assess his next moves and prepare more carefully for the 2016 General Assembly session.

Will he seek to re-build bridges to Democratic lawmakers on issues of mutual concern?

Or will he continue to take the path of political opportunism that makes governing impossibly difficult in the Maryland State House?

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Hogan’s Choice

By Barry Rascovar

April 13, 2015 — Has Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. overplayed his hand? We’ll find out today as the Maryland General Assembly tries to wrap up its 2015 session.

Hogan's Choice on budget compromises

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan has two choices: Continue to play hardball with the Democratic legislature and risk losing all of his legislative priorities, or negotiate a settlement that gives everyone partial victory.

The first choice is really the nuclear option.

Hogan already has dug in his heels a couple of times in budget negotiations by demanding full passage of his partisan agenda that Democrats find unacceptable. Meanwhile, he says he won’t give Democrats what they want on education, Medicare and salary adjustments.

Another Ehrlich?

This “my way or the highway” approach is what punctured former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s balloon and led to four years of bitterness and open warfare between the political parties in Annapolis.

Does Republican Hogan, who was part of the Ehrlich administration, wish to go down that dead-end road again?

He shouldn’t misread the election results. This state remains heavily Democratic, as reflected by the make-up of the General Assembly. For a Republican governor, power-sharing is the only rational road to travel — if you want to make headway on your goals and win reelection.

Today, Hogan must decide if he wants to fight or smoke a peace pipe. It shouldn’t be a difficult call.

Shrinking Budgets

Even if he gives Democrats what they want in the budget, Hogan still has achieved his immediate objective — sharply lowering Maryland’s structural deficit and sending a clear signal that more slimmed-down budgets are coming.

Hogan is in control. But he could lose that advantage if he touches the third rail of Democratic politics in Maryland — aid to education.

A sharp cutback in state education funding for large Democratic subdivisions would be met by howls of protests by parents. It might well lead to teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and bitter anger in those subdivisions.

Why risk hostility that could sabotage cooperation with the Democratic legislature over the next three years and foreclose chances of Hogan gaining Assembly approval of his promised tax cuts?

Negotiating Tactics

So far, the governor has played the budget negotiating game well. He’s kept Democratic leaders off-balance. He’s already moved Democrats in his direction.

Indeed, he made them look foolish on their efforts to strip money from state worker and teacher pension accounts. He’s also won concessions on a handful of bills he wants passed.

If he cuts a deal at this stage and declares victory, Hogan will emerge from the session with incremental successes and few hard feelings on the Democratic side.

That’s not a bad outcome given the fact that most legislative triumphs take more than one session to achieve — and that legislative victories for a Republican governor in Maryland are always difficult.

Of course, compromise won’t please hard-edged  conservative Republicans who will accept nothing less than Democratic capitulation. Hogan would be wise to ignore them and focus on the bigger picture.

He’s got four years to construct a positive list of accomplishments. He’s made a sound start over the past 90 days. He’d be foolish to blow it at this late stage.

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

Hogan Wins Round 1

By Barry Rascovar

April 6, 2015 — Even before the final votes are taken the verdict is in: The winner of Maryland’s 2015 budget fight, by a wide margin, is Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Actually, Hogan was playing with a stacked-deck.

Maryland governors almost always win these budget fights because they’re the only ones who can add money to programs and priorities; the legislature has the power to subtract, period.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

But remember where Hogan started: He was handed a wildly out of balance budget by outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who had neglected to take strong steps to stem the growing deluge of red ink on the state’s books.

Even worse, projections called for far wider deficits in future years. O’Malley wasn’t up to the task of pulling back hard on the spending reins because he was preparing to leave office and run for president as a darling of the Democratic liberal left.

So O’Malley passed the baton and dropped the budget mess he had created in Republican Hogan’s lap.

Judicious Budget-Cutting

Thanks to the work of career budget analysts and former state Sen. Bobby Neall, Hogan whipped up a budget-balancing plan in about six weeks. It was a tough but judiciously pared-down financial blueprint that went nearly all the way toward eliminating Maryland’s chronic and widening structural gap between revenues and spending.

Hogan also called for long-term steps to ratchet down future spending growth in costly education and health programs.

Democratic legislators didn’t bite on that last Hogan proposal. Yet there is nothing they can do to stop the governor from shrinking budget increases for state and local aid programs in each year of his administration.

The result is a half-loaf victory for Hogan, which is impressive for a Republican in a heavily Democratic state. If he persists over the next three years, he’ll almost certainly pick up the other half of the loaf — and more.Government Spending

Hogan came into office promising to squeeze excesses from the state budget so he can lower taxes.

He’s started down the first path with considerable success. The tax-cut pledge will be infinitely harder to fulfill, as Democrats have shown in this legislative session.

In office, Hogan has proved to be a realist. He recognized that without a truly balanced budget that slowed spending, there is no hope of gaining meaningful tax reductions.

He’ll have to keep shaving Maryland’s expenditures — and especially the state’s overly ambitious and costly capital spending program. Ever-rising health and education costs remain enormous challenges, too.

Power-Sharing

Still, the direction of future Hogan budgets is now transparent to both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

To the relief of Democratic legislators, the new governor isn’t a scorched-earth program cutter. He understands the importance of the social safety net, of education advancements and offering improved health care options.

He also understands the dynamics of Annapolis.

Hogan knows he must share power with the heavily Democratic legislature. He must find common ground and avoid the mistake of the last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, who proved too partisan and confrontational.

So far, Hogan is succeeding.

Fiscal Turnaround

He’s won this year’s budget battle, regardless of the final negotiations over legislative demands for restoration of funds for public schools and health care.

The new governor has turned around Maryland’s bleak fiscal forecasts in a matter of months, not years.

Once legislative adjournment comes on April 13, Hogan will have the rest of  the year to implement spending hold-down ideas, analyze where downsizing makes sense, educate lawmakers on sensible ways to shrink the cost of state government and start eliminating excessive and harmful business regulations.

Not bad for a guy given almost no chance of winning the governorship a year ago — or of working constructively and peacefully with legislative leaders of the opposite party.

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Madaleno Crosses the Line

By Barry Rascovar

April 2, 2015–If only it had been an April’s Fool joke — but it wasn’t. Instead, a highly regarded Maryland state senator, who happens to be gay, got carried away with his anger over a discriminatory Indiana law and dragged the governor’s wife unwillingly into the conversation.

Sen. Richard Madaleno went too far. He crossed the line. His letter to the governor was hurtful to an innocent bystander.

State Sen. Richard Madaleno

State Sen. Richard Madaleno

Madaleno lost his credibility, and his argument, as soon as he dragooned Gov. Larry Hogan’s wife, Yumi, into his pitch for the governor to ban travel by state officials to Indiana.

Yumi Hogan, Madaleno wrote, could be subjected in Indiana to “public humiliation” under the new law and refused service by a business because she is a divorcee.

Spouses as Fair Game

It’s ludicrous statement. Worse than that, it unfairly makes a spouse fair game in rough-and-tumble political controversies.

How would Madaleno like it if the governor made a disparaging remark about the senator’s gay partner during a heated political debate?

It is unacceptable. Period.

Senate President Mike Miller did the right thing by telling senators “we don’t mention other people’s spouses in any type of correspondence — their spouses or children.”

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Madaleno knows better.

He harmed his cause and his effectiveness in the State House. While his intentions were pure, his recklessness proved counter-productive.

Hogan rejected the senator’s letter as a “stunt.” He didn’t even bother reading beyond the offensive statement about his wife, who was needlessly reminded of a painful chapter in her life.

Rich Madaleno is respected for his fiscal expertise. He plays a major role in the legislature’s all-important budget deliberations.

Hurting Constituents

Now, though, he’s persona non grata on the second floor of the State House. The governor isn’t going to accommodate his requests or give his statements much credence. He’s damaged his ability to help Montgomery County constituents.

The senator is right to protest loudly Indiana’s deeply disturbing and un-American law that sanctions discrimination (especially since more conservative states are following suit).

But in his haste and emotional distress, Madaleno made a mess of his message.

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Fracking Follies in Annapolis

By Barry Rascovar

March 30, 2015 — Shakespeare, as usual, had it right. “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” That describes the squabbling in Annapolis over hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”

It is Maryland’s phantom issue.

Environmentalists and do-gooder legislators are panicked that fracking will mean earthquakes, tainted drinking water, dirty air, despoliation of pristine farmland and other biblical plagues. They want to bar this drilling procedure forever in Maryland.

fracking-2

Hydraulic Fracturing

 

Never mind that wide-spread fracking has been going on since 1950. In those 65 years, more than one million wells have been fracked, in which a combination of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure deep into shale formations. This fractures the rock and sends deposits of oil and/or natural gas gushing to the surface.

Low Oil Prices = No Fracking

There’s only a tiny part of Maryland where hydraulic fracturing into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation is viable — in far Western Maryland, i.e., portions of Garrett County and a bit of Allegany County. The number of farmers who might benefit from oil and gas royalties is very small.

Moreover, no oil or gas driller is interested in Maryland any longer. The steep plunge in oil and gas prices makes fracking in the state far too costly now or any time in the foreseeable future.

So the arguments in Annapolis are largely speculative.

Environmentalists continue to spout off about the doom and gloom that will descend on Maryland if fracking is allowed — part of a larger argument by environmental zealots who seek to ban coal and even gas-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, the export of liquified natural gas, as well as wind farms in state parks (they won that fight) and wind farms on the lower Eastern Shore.

O’Malley Study

The O’Malley administration, never a friend of business-development if it bumped up against the fears of the environmental community, forbid fracking for three years while it conducted a lengthy, in-depth, scientific study.

The results pleased no one: The research showed fracking could be done safely in Maryland, but only under very strict state supervision — the strictest rules in the nation.

Even that hasn’t made environmentalists happy. Nothing short of a permanent ban will satisfy them.

A bill imposing another three-year moratorium — totally meaningless in today’s low-cost energy world — has made it out of the House of Delegates. Prospects in the Senate are less certain. The bill calls for a 36-month study that would largely duplicate the O’Malley administration’s extensive research.

Meanwhile, a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, offers an even more extreme step that kills any possibility of fracking coming to Maryland.

It creates extraordinary legal liability standards, calling fracking “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” and requires a $10 million insurance policy that must be in place for six years after drilling ends.

Few Side Effects

Funny thing: Over the past 65 years, fracking has been conducted without much in the way of negative side effects.

The industry has used fracking over 1 million times and the number of “ultrahazardous” outcomes has been tiny.

“Abnormally dangerous”? It would be hard to make that assertion stand up statistically.

It would be as if the Maryland legislature declared airplane travel “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” due to a few highly publicized crashes — even though the odds of being killed this way are 1 in 30 million.

The fracking follies in Annapolis are a case of populist rhetoric run amuck. It’s a do-gooder attempt to outlaw something that is no longer on the radar screen in Maryland — and won’t be for years or decades to come.

Waste of Energy

Making it impossible for oil and natural gas companies to drill in Maryland — even under exceptionally close state supervision — is the sort of anti-business hostility Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. may not be able to tolerate.

A veto could await either the House bill or the Senate bill.

Still, all of this is academic — an exercise in wasted energy.

As long as oil and gas prices remain depressed, fracking has zero future in Maryland. The legislature has better things to do in its remaining days before its April 13 adjournment.

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Phony ‘Rain Tax’ War

By Barry Rascovar

March 24, 2015 — Opponents, especially Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., deceptively call it the “rain tax.” But the name and the issue are about as phony as a three-dollar bill.

Hogan used his mischaracterization of the stormwater remediation fee to great effect in winning the governorship. “Why they’re even taxing the rain!” he exclaimed in a highly effective TV ad.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor Larry Hogan Jr.

It’s actually a broad user fee based on how much stormwater pollution flows from roofs and parking surfaces — runoff that can cause great harm if it ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.

Hogan turned this into a political anti-tax, anti-government crusade. For him, this unconscionable levy showed the overreach of the O’Malley administration, which taxed anything that moved to fund an ever-growing list of do-gooder social programs.

Hidden Facts

His propaganda pitch worked; now Hogan is governor.

He pledged to eliminate the “rain tax.” but It isn’t working out that way.

Here’s a fact Hogan never told voters: Even if he could eliminate the “rain tax,” that step wouldn’t lower state or county spending by a penny.

Indeed, wiping out the “rain tax” would have zero impact on Hogan’s state budget. Repeat: zero impact.

It would affect some county taxpayers who now are assessed a stormwater remediation fee on their annual property tax bill. They could see their county taxes lowered minimally.

Another Catch

Here’s another catch: In each of the 10 jurisdictions affected by the “rain tax,” eliminating the levy could force county officials to make cuts in other programs like schools and public works.

It would be a lose-lose scenario.

That’s because these counties and Baltimore City are under a federal mandate to reduce polluted stormwater pouring into the bay. With or without the “rain tax,” they are required to continue paying for costly stream restoration and other cleanup efforts.

For example, Baltimore County spends $22 million a year on its remediation work. That money comes from the “rain tax.”

Eliminate the levy and the county still must come up with $22 million for those environmental-protection projects. That’s about the cost of a new elementary school.

In other words, it’s a zero-sum game.

If Hogan were to get his way, county governments would be squeezed to find money for those mandated environmental activities. Other programs financed by the counties would take the hit, be it schools, government-worker pay raises, road repairs or social programs.

Symbolic Reduction

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz already has made a symbolic reduction in his county’s stormwater remediation fee, lowering the levy by one-third. He found roughly $8 million of savings in his budget that now will be used for these anti-pollution projects.

Stream restoration

Stream restoration project in Baltimore County

The county’s stormwater remediation work continues unimpeded. In future years, though, it could become increasingly difficult to find that extra money without cutting back in other areas.

 

Miller’s Plan

On the state level, symbolism is the name of the game, too.

Senate President Mike Miller, the most astute political mind in Annapolis, came up with the ideal Democratic response to Republican Hogan’s “no rain tax” demand.

Miller won unanimous Senate approval for his bill that makes the county remediation fee optional.

If Frederick County, Harford County or Carroll County wants to get rid of the fee totally, they are free to do so. But they still have to ante up millions to finance a long list of remediation projects.

That burden remains.

Indeed, Miller’s bill requires those counties to specify their remediation efforts and identify how they will be funded. Failure to do so could lead to a loss of state dollars.

Smarter county officials, who understand the value of spreading the tax burden for these anti-pollution efforts, could continue their fees under Miller’s bill. They won’t have to limit other county programs to make room for mandated remediation projects.

Curious Debate

Whether Miller’s “rain tax” option makes it through the House of Delegates is in doubt. Some Democrats there want to keep the current fee in place, despite the political advantage it gives Hogan and his conservative allies.

It’s one of the more curious debates to grip Annapolis in years.

No state taxes are involved.

No county saves a penny if Hogan gets his way.

The stormwater anti-pollution programs must continue — unless a county wants to get sued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Miller’s compromise bill offers a sensible way out for everyone. That’s why Hogan has thrown his support behind it.

Regardless of the outcome, this phony “rain tax” war will continue. Hogan will milk it for all it is worth — even if the facts aren’t on his side.

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Betraying State Workers

By Barry Rascovar

March 23, 2015 — Once again, the House of Delegate took the easy way out of its budget bind — and in the process stuck it to future state workers, teachers and taxpayers.

The Senate is on a glide path that follows that same flawed approach.

Instead of facing up to its fiduciary pension obligations, Annapolis delegates opted to play games, placing at risk the safety of state retirement programs.

Budget balancing

In the process, the delegates are leaving the next generation of taxpayers a monster-sized unpaid pension bill totaling in the billions.

If Maryland loses its prestigious triple-A bond rating, you’ll know who to blame.

Thanks to the intellectually dishonest proposal by the Department of Legislative Services, the delegates found a way to save $75 million this year to pay for K-12 education and a salary increase for state employees — if the governor goes along with those suggestions.

How It Started

Back in 2011, the state agreed to supplement its annual pension contribution by $300 million a year. This was the quid pro quo for forcing state employees and teachers to contribute more out of their own paychecks to the pension program.

But lawmakers reneged on the bargain, eventually cutting their supplemental payments to $150 million a year — or to zero when times got tough.

Now the House wants to reduce the state’s supplemental payment to just $75 million each year — a far cry from the original $300 million commitment. Meanwhile, state employees and teachers get no relief in their enlarged pension payments.

A major part of the rationale for this irresponsible move by lawmakers is the fast-rising value of the retirement agency’s stock portfolio. Last June 30, the state pension program topped $45.4 billion — a rise of $5.2 billion in just one year.

Its investment return for the fiscal year was a strong 14.4 percent. Fund managers have exceeded their target of 7.7% growth in four of the past five years.

Roller Coaster Ride

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

It certainly entranced the legislature’s budget analysts, who cited the stock market rise as a key factor in recommending that the state slash its supplement payments by 75 percent.

But a funny thing is happening on Wall Street.

In the first 75 days of 2015, stocks ran out of gas. The long rally stalled. Prices are about where they were on Jan. 1.

If Wall Street’s prices fail to rise, or even fall, for the rest of this year, Maryland’s pension managers won’t come anywhere near their 7.7 percent growth target.

The retirement agency’s unfunded liabilities could jump substantially — and the heat will be on state legislators and the governor next year to make up the difference.

Inevitable Downturn 

That’s why the legislature’s quest for immediate gratification is so misguided. This is not the time to monkey around with reduced pension contributions.

When the bulls rule Wall Street, Maryland politicians start thinking they can cut back on the state’s pension appropriations. But that ignores the inevitability of the economic roller coaster. Prosperity only lasts so long.

If lawmakers don’t prepare for the lean years they will put Maryland’s pension program — already nearly $20 billion in the hole — in an even worse bind.

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A Republican MD Senator?

By Barry Rascovar

March 16, 2015 — Did Republican Larry Hogan Jr.’s surprisingly large victory for governor last year blaze the path for a GOP upset in next year’s open seat for the U.S. Senate?

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Probably not. Then again, politics is a mercurial business. Given the right circumstances, a longshot scenario might come true.

No Hogan Clones

Here’s the problem: The presumptive GOP candidates aren’t following the winning Hogan formula.

They are very much right of center and outspoken in their conservatism. In liberal Maryland, that’s a distinct turn-off for general election voters.

To understand the state GOP’s dilemma, look at the reasons Hogan won:

  • He stuck to a narrow, economic-driven campaign pitch — high taxes, overreaching government and politics as usual — with virtually no details.
  • He ignored bitterly divisive social issues, much to the discomfort of hard-nosed conservatives, and charted a moderate course.
  • He came across as Maryland’s “Happy Warrior” with a winning smile and demeanor.
  • His opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, ran a dysfunctional campaign and turned off voters with his arrogance and aura of entitlement. His voters stayed home.

It’s no secret that for a Republican to win statewide in Maryland, the Democrats really have to mess up. Did they ever in 2014.

It is entirely plausible Maryland Democrats once more will eat their own and wind up with a far-left candidate who turns off a large chunk of the state’s moderately liberal electorate.

Right-Wing Believers

That would set the stage for a strong Republican Senate challenge, backed by tens of millions of national GOP donor dollars.

But none of the names being floated are likely to resonate with dissatisfied Democratic voters and independents. They are angry, right-wing true believers who denigrate the kind of middle-road, non-ideological, problem-solving Maryland voters tend to favor.

Consider the individuals being mentioned as possible Senate candidates:

Bob Ehrlich. The former governor would win the primary in a cakewalk, but since he left office he’s moved more and more rightward into knee-jerk, pessimistic anti-Obamaism. His four years as governor disappointed Democrats and Republicans, he lost reelection and his attempt to recapture the office in 2010 proved an embarrassing flop, losing by nearly 15 percentage points. Portraying Ehrlich this time as a moderate Republican would be a stretch.

Andy Harris. The First District congressman is as far right ideologically as you can get and still be elected in Maryland. He can come across as arrogant and stridently sure of himself on just about any issue. A former state senator, Harris’ vocal and energetic conservatism might generate a backlash that results in a heavy Democratic turnout on Election Day. He’s far from an ideal statewide candidate in Maryland. Besides, he’s got a lifetime seat in his House district that he’d have to give up.

Dan Bongino. The almost-congressman nearly upset Democratic Rep. John Delaney in a gerrymandered district that includes Western Maryland and portions of Montgomery County. He lost by less than 3,000 votes. Bongino also ran against U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin in 2012 and got clobbered, winning just a quarter of the votes. He’s charismatic and a former Secret Service agent. But he’s all conservative all the time. He’d have little drawing power outside rural and exurban areas.

Michael Steele. The former lieutenant governor and GOP national chairman doesn’t have much to crow about other than espousing traditional conservative Republican themes. He lost badly when he ran for the Senate in 2006, losing to Cardin by 10 percentage points. He has no base beyond traditional GOP precincts and no credibility in Democratic strongholds.

Kendel Ehrlich. The other half of the Ehrlich team, she considered running for judge in Anne Arundel County and is not bashful about expressing her hard-edged conservative views. She’s never held elective office and has few credentials to promote. She’s much farther to the right in her political thinking than her husband.

That’s hardly an exciting list of GOP contenders. Too many retreads or not-ready-for-prime-time players. None of them fits the winning Hogan mold.

Still, the fate of the GOP primary winner may lie more in the hands of Democratic primary voters. Should Dems select another dud like Anthony Brown last year (or Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002), anything would be possible for Maryland Republicans.

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Rating MD’s Senate Contenders

March 9, 2015 — The stampede began almost immediately — just as retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski predicted.

The savvy senior U.S. senator knew her announcement last week would shake up political Maryland and give ambitious younger officials an opportunity to consider entering the race to succeed her next year.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Many are mulling the possibilities, but in the end most will choose to remain in their present jobs.

After all, running for Mikulski’s seat is no sure thing. These contenders have to weigh the risks, which are considerable.

Do you give up a prestigious, hard-won seat and gamble your entire career that you can win a difficult, crowded Senate contest?

Can you put together a statewide operation in a little over a year after only running far smaller district campaigns?

Can you raise $5 million or more in the next 12 months when others are likely to hit up the same donors with similar requests?

Can you run a campaign with statewide appeal? That’s no easy feat. Washington-area officials and Baltimore-area officials are looking at this race but none has appeal outside his or her parochial boundaries.

Given those imposing caveats, let’s look at the early list of wannabes.

Most Likely to Run

Chris Van Hollen, Jr. — He’s popular in heavy-voting Montgomery County. He’s been tabbed as a rising star in both the Maryland General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives. His ambitions always included ascending to the U.S. Senate.

Unlike the others, he’s had phenomenal success raising tens of millions of dollars for Democratic congressional candidates across the country. He will tap those same sources for a Senate race. He starts with $1.7 million already in his campaign account.

Giving up his seat was’t be easy because he’s a member of leadership and a potential future speaker of the House. But he’s crossed the Senate Rubicon.

Van Hollen, 56, is likeable, an excellent speaker and telegenic. He’s a typical Montgomery County liberal, which puts him in the mainstream of today’s left-leaning state Democratic Party. He’s also gained enormous expertise on federal budget issues.

He could be the class of the field.

Donna Edwards — The most liberal of Maryland’s congressional Democrats, she owes her political career to her strong ties to organized labor, which could go the extra mile for her.

She has decided to risk her prominent role in Congress as an outspoken voice for labor, civil rights and women’s issues.

Edward, 56, is not beloved by her colleagues and she is not wildly popular among constituents, who have found her lacking on constituent service. She would rather speak out loudly on national issues she cares about.

If she is the lone African-American in the race and the lone woman, Edwards might squeak through in a crowded Democratic primary. But her far-left liberalism would make it difficult for her to win in a general election if Republicans nominate a moderate Senate candidate.

John Delaney —  He used his self-made multi-millions to finance a successful run for the House in 2012, thanks to a gerrymandered district that favored a Montgomery County Democrat. Yet he barely won reelection last year.

Still, he’s got burning ambition and he considered running for governor last year. Given his shaky performance in last year’s congressional race, Delaney, 51, may figure it is time to move up or out.

He’d have no trouble financing a Senate race but he is unknown in much of the state. His campaign also is likely to be run by the same individual who put together such a dreadful political operation last year for former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Delaney has carved out a moderate, pro-business posture in Congress focusing on his sensible infrastructure-funding bill that has drawn support from both sides of the aisle. That’s not a good campaign sound-bite, though. He may well run (since he’s not a career politician) but he won’t be the favorite in a Democratic primary where a heavy turnout among liberal voters is expected.

John Sarbanes — The son of a popular retired U.S. senator who has been in Congress three terms, he’s a chip off the block — quiet, publicity-shy, intelligent, diligent and super-cautious.

At age 52 he’s got to determine if he wants a long career in the House of Representatives or is he willing to roll the dice and possibly sacrifice his political future. His father, Paul, did but this time the odds are much steeper.

John Sarbanes could tap into the affluent Greek-American community for campaign funds. Still, does he want to spend all year begging donors to contribute and flying around the country to line up financial support?

His father’s name is well known in the Baltimore region but not so much elsewhere.  John Sarbanes is a solid liberal vote in Congress and he’s a down-the-line Democrat but his bland personality and cautious disposition aren’t ideal in a crowded race.

Less Likely to Run

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — Baltimore’s mayor has a big decision to make. Does she abandon her so-far successful effort to resurrect Baltimore’s fortune or does she set her eyes on a career in Washington?

Rawlings-Blake, who is only 44, has been an elected Baltimore official for 20 year. She would roll up a big vote in Baltimore and in parts of the metro region but she’s an unknown in the D.C. suburbs and rural Maryland.

She’d also start with zero funds in the bank — none of the dollars she has raised for her reelection bid next year can be used in a federal campaign. That’s a huge detriment.

Running a complex and troubled city like Baltimore while simultaneously mounting a statewide Senate campaign could be a bridge too far.

Compounding her decision is that there is no highly competent successor waiting in the wings to succeed her as mayor. Apres moi, le deluge?

Dutch Ruppersberger — If he were 10 years younger, the Baltimore County congressmen would be in the “likely” category. But at age 69, with a succession of surgeries over the years, taking on a grueling statewide campaign while maintaining his normal congressional schedule might not be his cup of tea.

Ruppersberger’s huge popularity in Baltimore County and his district’s reach into key parts of the Baltimore metro area would give him a solid vote base. How he would fare in the Washington suburbs — where he’s not a familiar face — is a tougher question.

Raising such a huge amount of campaign dollars isn’t something Ruppersberger would relish, either.

He’d also have to give up his House seat, where he is one of the leading experts on cyber security. Chances are he opts to remain where he is.

Elijah Cummings — The Baltimore congressman has never ventured beyond district races but he is a fiery speaker and determined fighter for Democratic Party ideals. If he were the only African-American considering the Senate race, he’d be tempted.

Putting together a statewide operation and raising such sums of money could be distasteful and difficult. Cummings, 64, is unfamiliar with much of the heavy-voting Washington suburbs but he’d do exceptionally well in Baltimore.

He’s a national spokesman on liberal and civil rights issues in the House and often in the national spotlight. Why give that up?

Tom Perez — The Obama administration’s labor secretary and former high-ranking Justice Department official wanted to run for attorney general but couldn’t because he hadn’t practiced law in Maryland.

He is ambitious and well-liked in his home base, Montgomery County, but in a large field his support could be too narrow. He also might have trouble raising enough dollars.

Will he give up two more years in a national Cabinet position for a longshot bid? It’s possible but unlikely.

Kweisi Mfume — The former congressman and former head of the NAACP tried once before to win a Senate race, narrowly losing the primary to current incumbent Ben Cardin nine years ago.

Mfume, 66, might jump at a second chance to start a Senate career were he a bit younger. He’s eloquent and has a riveting life story to tell. But fund-raising was a problem in his last Senate attempt and he’s not been part of Maryland’s political dialogue since then.

Already Out

Martin O’Malley — The former governor and Baltimore mayor would have been a favorite but instead opted to run for president (really!). He loves the executive role and knows he would chafe in the Senate with its snail’s pace and bitter partisan gridlock.

If he plays his cards right, O’Malley, 52, could gain a high executive post in a Democratic administration and build his credentials for a future run for the country’s top post.

Steny Hoyer — At age 75, it makes sense for the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives to stay put. He ran once on a statewide ticket, in 1978 as lieutenant governor, and lost. He knows how tough it would be.

Besides, Hoyer is far too valuable to Maryland in the House. With Mikulski’s departure from the Senate, he’ll be the only “go-to” guy in Congress in prime position to secure funds and advantages for the Free State.

You’ve Got to Be Kidding

Heather Mizeur — Yes, the former delegate ran an impressive and respectable race for governor last year as an ultra-liberal but now she’s supposedly farming on the Eastern Shore.

Her appeal is to the gay/environmental/feminist community. That proved not nearly enough for her last year (roughly 20 percent of the primary vote). Does she want to spend 12 more months trekking through Maryland on a crusade going nowhere?

Ben Jealous – Another former leader of the NAACP, he is considering jumping into the race. It would be primarily ego-driven. Jealous has no political roots in Maryland and the most tenuous of ties to the Free State. He’s not well known in any part of the state.

Even if he is the only African-American in the race, Jealous is unlikely to prove a big draw among his own constituents. In other communities, he’d barely register on Election Day.

Doug Gansler — Yes, he still wants to run statewide again — though he was embarrassed in last year’s race for governor, getting embroiled in pointless controversies.

The two-term former attorney general is just starting a career with a Washington law firm. Jumping back into fund-raising mode and 24/7 campaigning so soon may not be his best option.

Ken Ulman — The former Howard County Executive gave up his gubernatorial dreams last year in part because of the fund-raising challenge.

Running for the Senate would pose a far more daunting financing obstacle. Besides, he’s just beginning his new job trying to juice up College Park’s economic development efforts.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — Whaaa?? She says she’s considering a run. It sounds preposterous given her pathetic run for governor in 2002 and the lack of political sympathy for her poor performance. Still, politics is in the Kennedy family’s DNA.

Townsend, 63, may want to redeem herself, but she has been absent from Maryland politics for over a dozen years. It would be a Quixotic effort that almost certainly would end in a humiliating second defeat.

That takes care of the likely Democrats considering the Senate primary. As for the Republican wannabes, that is grist for another column.

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