Category Archives: Baltimore County

Morhaim’s Moment of Shame

By Barry Rascovar

March 6, 2017—It had to be one of the most painful and humiliating moments of Dan Morhaim’s life.

Last Friday he sat in the House of Delegates chamber as his colleagues voted 138-0 to reprimand him for not informing them and a state commission he had a conflict of interest on medical marijuana issues.

Morhaim's Moment of Shame

Maryland House of Delegate in State House chambers

All the while he was offering reams of advice and guidance to the very commission setting up rules for awarding those lucrative state licenses.

He broke no laws but he stepped far over the ethics line for elected legislators.

While Morhaim continues to insist “I did nothing wrong,” his colleagues unanimously disagreed.

Panel’s Findings

As the legislature’s joint ethics committee wrote in its report, Morhaim’s “belief that he could keep his role as a legislator, advocating for the implementation of policy and regulations for the use of medical cannabis, separate from his position as a paid consultant for a company seeking to enter the medical cannabis business reflects poor judgment to the detriment of the broader interests of the public. . .”

Further, the panel concluded Morhaim’s less than forthright actions “eroded the confidence and trust of the public and other governmental officials who work with legislators, bringing disrepute and dishonor to the General Assembly.”

The panel not only recommended a public reprimand but asked Morhaim to consider making a public apology. He did so in writing but declined to speak on the House floor.

He had not violated disclosure laws, Morhaim wrote. Nor had it been his “intent” to use his elective office for monetary gain. His sin, he explained, was that “I failed to appreciate the public perception of these issues.”

It was not much of an apology. A day earlier he had issued a three-page defense, blaming the media for “erroneous” reports of his activities. He later called the whole thing a “circus” in which his actions had been badly distorted.

Placing the onus on others for his predicament may salve Morhaim’s ego but it won’t sit well with elected leaders or with the public.

Who’s to Blame?

After reading the 17-page committee report, it is clear only Morhaim is at fault for what went wrong. It cost him his credibility, his subcommittee chairmanship and his leadership post in Annapolis.

Morhaim's Shame

Del. Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County

He agreed to have no future communications with the medical marijuana commission or its staff and to exclude himself from legislative activities regarding cannabis.

That’s a big concession from a politician who fought relentlessly and passionately for over a decade to bring medical cannabis to Maryland.

He also is giving up his financial arrangement with the medical marijuana company, Doctors Orders, a compensation deal the joint ethics committee called “substantial.”

Some legislators and ethics groups denounced the punishment as insufficient. Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., in his haste to throw dirt on Democrats totally mischaracterized Morhaim’s actions, refused to acknowledge he had gotten the facts wrong and then called for Morhaim’s removal from office.

The governor used the Morhaim case to trumpet his call for tougher ethics laws and for placing enforcement under an executive office agency.

While it is obvious language in the ethics statute needs greater clarity, turning adjudication over to the executive branch could be unconstitutional and certainly is impractical.

Public shaming, such as Morhaim’s reprimand, has proved an effective tool for disciplining wayward public officials since biblical times. It’s the General Assembly’s responsibility to police conduct of its members, just as is true for the U.S. Congress.

Ultimately, though, it is up to voters to determine the fate of lawmakers who stray over the line of acceptable conduct.

Re-election Challenge

That is where Morhaim’s toughest battle may lie.

When campaigning begins next year in his northwest Baltimore County district, the physician-delegate will face constant questions and criticism. He could confront significant challengers harping loudly on his reprimand and denouncing his lack of responsible ethical judgment.

It’s an unfortunate turn of events for Morhaim. In his 23 years as a state delegate, he had developed into a standout lawmaker. His medical expertise as an emergency-room physician prove invaluable to his colleagues as they grappled with complex and often technical health-care issues. He has been a leader in much-needed procurement reform efforts in state government, too.

While public shaming is tough for any politician to swallow, Morhaim remains in a position to rehabilitate his badly damaged reputation.

How?

Put his grudges and hurt feelings aside, focus on using his knowledge and experience to help enact solid, progressive legislation and never again be tempted to abandon a strict standard of ethical conduct.

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Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2017— Here we go again. In a few weeks, school superintendents will trek, en masse, to the second floor of the Maryland State House to grovel before the Board of Public Works for additional school construction funds.

It is a demeaning “begathon” that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise, and reward, their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.

This time, the target for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot is Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – a man who has signaled a desire to run for statewide office next year.

Anything Hogan and Franchot can do to undercut Kamenetz’ credibility helps their reelection chances.

That explains the consistent animosity by this tag-team tandem toward Kamenetz’ requests.

Comptroller’s Crusade

Franchot has conducted a consistent crusade to force the county to install portable, temporary air-conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.

Former Baltimore County executives bear the brunt of the blame for leaving too many school kids in overheated classrooms during the early fall and early summer.

Kamenetz, on the other hand, has been making up for lost time with a $1.3 billion program to get students into air-conditioned schools. But his expensive plan is phased in due to fiscal constraints.

Maryland's Demeaning 'Begathon' Continues

School Construction in Montgomery County

Franchot has persisted in pummeling Baltimore County’s leader for not following his insistence that Kamenetz buy window A/C units.

Each has a point: Kids should not swelter on extremely hot days, yet it makes little sense to spend millions for a short-term fix when a long-term fix is in the works.

The ideal solution is for the state to forward-fund the money Baltimore County needs to finish the job ASAP through a combination of costly upgrades and replacement buildings.

Embarrass Kamenetz

However, neither Franchot nor Hogan has lifted a finger to support the county’s efforts. They could have designated a pot of school construction money for jurisdictions needing window-unit air-conditioners. Instead, they remained silent.

Their goal is to publicly embarrass Kamenetz. Thus, the dynamic duo voted last May to punish Baltimore County (and its school kids) by withholding $10 million in state funds for county school construction – thus delaying portions of the work on air-conditioning classrooms.

The two also withheld $5 million in badly needed construction dollars from Baltimore City, which also is in the process of getting all schools air-conditioned.

They demanded that the two jurisdictions air-condition all classrooms in a matter of months – an impossibility for any number of legal and practical reasons.

The two Annapolis politicos apparently think the city and county can simply wave a wand and, voila! they’ll reverse a situation that’s been festering for two decades.

The reality is that it will take a number of years – and billions – to correct this situation.

Political Favoritism

When the “begathon” parade shamelessly takes place on Jan. 25, it is likely Hogan in particular will look kindly upon Baltimore City’s requests, including the withheld $5 million, as a goodwill gesture toward the city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh.

He and Franchot will save their contempt for Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and, indirectly, Kamenetz. There could well be “plants” in the room to demonstrate Hogan and Franchot are supported by county residents in their harsh criticisms.

It’s all part of the set-piece melodrama the “begathon” has become.

In most cases, conservative, Republican-leaning counties will be treated with kid-gloves by the Republican governor while Democratic strongholds get a cold reception.

It’s quite a distasteful scene, one that is as unbecoming for the governor and comptroller as it is for the school chiefs forced to grovel before them.

The One and Only Helen Bentley

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 8, 2016 – She was crusty to a fault. Outrageously opinionated. Cantankerous. Indefatigable. Unrelenting. Incredibly effective. Helen Delich Bentley was truly sui generis.

That’s a Latin term meaning “without a counterpart or equal; unique.” Bentley, who died Aug. 6 at the age of 92, indeed was one of a kind.

The One and Only Helen Bentley

Helen Delich Bentley

Where would the Port of Baltimore be without her? For a stunning 70 years she fought like a tiger in every way imaginable to promote Maryland’s biggest and most important economic engine.

Her journalistic coverage at the Baltimore Sun of the port created a national and international reputation for Charm City’s maritime business and for Bentley.

In the process, she shattered the glass ceiling for female journalists, entering the masculine world of the docks in the 1940s with such effectiveness she become the only female maritime editor and the best-known shipping reporter in the world.

Along the way she found time to write, produce and narrate an award-winning television series about the Port of Baltimore that ran for a stunning 15 years.

Maritime Boss

Bentley could cuss like a sailor, ream out union bosses for threatening the port’s stability and talk turkey to shipping executives about the urgency of maintaining labor peace. She settled more than one strike and gained widespread applause for ending Baltimore’s sorry reputation as the only port where longshoremen refused to work in the rain.

Then it was on to Washington, where she bulled her way into the chairmanship of the Federal Maritime Commission – the highest female appointee in the Nixon administration. She spouted off about protecting U.S. trade and building more ships in U.S. ports like Baltimore. Meanwhile, Bentley used her salty language often enough that Time magazine colorfully referred to her as “Tugboat Annie.”

Bentley’s political activism nearly got her in serious prosecutorial trouble when she delivered a bag of illicit cash to Republican campaign higher-ups during the Watergate era.

She bounced back, though, and ran for Congress against entrenched Democratic Rep. Clarence D. Long, an ardent foe of expanding Baltimore’s port if it meant dumping dredged spoils at Hart and Miller Islands off the coast of eastern Baltimore County in his district.

As usual with Bentley, her persistence paid off and she beat Long on her third attempt. She used her time in Congress to bash Japan and Asian nations for their trade policies, pushed hard to gain appropriations for the Port of Baltimore and fought to empower women.

Ten years later, Bentley entered the race for governor as the heavy favorite only to lose shockingly in the Republican primary to ideological conservative Ellen Sauerbrey. Bentley, a pragmatic conservative, was pilloried for daring to have worked with Democrats – especially Gov. William Donald Schaefer – to further the Port of Baltimore.

Bentley’s anger and bitterness over this betrayal of all she had done over the decades to uplift the state GOP led to severed relationships that were never restored.

Port Business and Antiques

But again, she bounced back, getting more involved in her husband Bill’s large antique store on York Road and opening a highly successful consulting business where she continued to be an implacable force for the Port of Baltimore. Somehow she juggled conflicting connections to the Maryland Port Administration, shipping companies and local and international labor executives.

Now wonder Gov. Bob Ehrlich named the Port of Baltimore after Bentley. It was an unexpected honor richly deserved.

I first encountered Helen when she was winding up her newspaper career and I was starting mine.

She would rush into The Sun’s city room close to deadline like a Nevada cyclone, a whirlwind of passion returning from the docks with a hot story to pound out on her typewriter and a maritime section to oversee. Never pausing to take off her hat – a cross between a Mexican sombrero and an Easter bonnet that was made to impress – Bentley started screaming at her staff in her usual scatological way, sending some scurrying while others simply returned her epithets.

It was a daily sight to behold, especially for a naive reporter unused to the Bentley phenomenon.

Over the years, I got to know Helen quite well, covering some of her political races and interviewing her frequently after I joined the editorial page. She was always fun to interview and always full of frank, pointed opinions.

Crusty but Lovable

Helen Bentley also had a soft and endearing side. While she could be infuriatingly brutal with her staff, she could be touchingly sweet to them moments later.

After I reluctantly took a buyout from The (Setting) Sun, Helen not only showed up for a farewell party some friends put together, she gave me one of her favorite antiques – a statue of a young British newspaper “hawker.”

She was, indeed, sui generis.

Even in her final weeks, Bentley continued to defy predictions, hanging on relentlessly like she always did. I visited her with one of her closest friends, David Blumberg, within the past month and found her as feisty as ever.

“What do you think the expanded Panama Canal means for business at the Port of Baltimore,” I asked Helen.

“Not a damn thing,” she acerbically replied. Bentley never beat around the bush, even while battling brain cancer.

Soon afterward, to my surprise, a letter appeared in The Sun from Helen voicing full support for Republican nominee Donald Trump. She never stopped pushing the ball forward, even while in hospice care.

The Port of Baltimore never had a better friend. Helen Bentley accomplished so much in so many ways.

People living in Baltimore and Maryland are the recipients of her largesse. Her lighthouse may have been de-commissioned, but her deeds stand as a permanent reminder of what she gave us.

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The Air-Conditioning Fight

The following column was published September 30, 2015 by the Carroll County Times in the newspaper’s Community Times weekly edition.

By Barry Rascovar

Thank goodness for the cool breezes of fall.

That’s what thousands of students and their parents are saying these days in Owings Mills, Pikesville and Reisterstown, where some county public schools still lack air-conditioning.

It’s not a new situation. I wrote about it this summer. The problem goes back several decades.

Yet no one in county government sees an urgency in coming up with a solution ASAP.

Now Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has been criticized by Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Hogan called the lack of school air-conditioning “absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable.” Franchot, who complained years ago about this situation, said, “It’s a question of leadership, management and priorities.”

They’re right. Yet neither state official is providing any help to resolve this vexing problem in Baltimore County, where four dozen schools don’t provide air-conditioning in classrooms.

That’s not a concern these days with crisp, cool weather heralding a welcome change in the seasons.

But come mid-May through June and late-August through mid-September next year, schools without A/C will broil, leaving students struggling to learn.

Kamenetz, unlike his predecessors, has embarked on a $1.3 billion school improvement program that eventually will bring air-conditioning to nearly every education building, including four schools in our area – Bedford, Campfield and Church Lane Elementary Schools and Franklin Middle School.

But Kamenetz is unwilling to break the bank to pay for an immediate fix. His plan could take a decade to achieve.

That’s where Hogan can play a major role.

He’s got the power to recommend set-aside funds in Maryland’s public school construction program for air-conditioning.

That would be a huge boon for Baltimore County as well as Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioned classrooms.

Impoverished Baltimore City cannot afford to place window air-conditioners in all of those schools and Baltimore County would be strapped to take that approach on its own, too.

Hogan, though, can place funds in his next budget in January to ensure that every school in Maryland has either central air-conditioning or window A/C units.

Unfortunately, this debate has produced a hash political tone, with Hogan threatening to withhold all school construction funds from Baltimore County unless immediate steps are taken.

That’s unwise posturing. It ignores the reality that Hogan, not Kamenetz, is in the best position to put up funds to see that every Maryland classroom is air-conditioned.

Hogan also can help schools that are showing their age if he puts up extra money to address physical defects in Maryland’s oldest public education structures. Owings Mills Elementary School, for instance, was built nearly 90 years ago and ranks near the bottom among the county’s schools as far as physical condition.

Maryland made a wise decision 40 years ago when the late Gov. Marvin Mandel relieved the counties of an enormous financial burden by having the state contribute most of the funds for public school construction.

Only Hawaii matches Maryland’s largess. It is a step that makes sure Maryland children are educated in decent facilities with modern conveniences.

But the job is not done. Older schools with deteriorating roofs, bad plumbing and no air-conditioning should be a state priority.

Hogan and Franchot want Kamenetz and county school superintendent Dallas Dance to appear at the Oct. 7 Board of Public Works meeting to explain why so many county schools lack air-conditioning.

Is this a publicity stunt? Let’s hope not.

Hogan, Franchot and Kamenetz should focus on coming up with answers that will get air-conditioning in all county classrooms by next spring.

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Hogan vs. Kamenetz?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 21, 2015 – In a bizarre twist, we might witness a preview of the 2018 gubernatorial campaign at the next Board of Public Works meeting.

Then again, a threatened confrontation between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz may never occur.

 

Hogan vs. Kamenetz?

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz

Even more bizarre is the issue that could bring these potential foes into a debate arena: air-conditioning.

Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, his tag-team partner in beating up on unsuspecting officials at BPW meetings, blame Kamenetz for allowing thousands of Baltimore County children to swelter through hot, humid early- and late-summer days because their schools lack A/C.

Four dozen Baltimore County schools still have no air-conditioning, which is shameful.

But Kamenetz is not to blame, nor is current county school superintendent Dallas Dance.

Hogan and Franchot are pointing accusing fingers at the wrong individuals.

$1.3 Billion in Upgrades

If the two men did some basic research they would find that Kamenetz and Dance are trying hard to rectify this sorry situation, which has been festering for decades.

They have embarked on a $1.3 billion school renovation program that will bring A/C and other upgrades to 99 percent of county schools within a decade.

Accelerating the county executive’s remediation plan – and how to do it — ought to be the focus of this debate.

More likely, though. is a battle of angry words with Hogan and Franchot having a field day criticizing Baltimore County’s mistreatment of school kids.

On the surface, Hogan and Franchot are right. No child in today’s public schools should have to sit all day in classrooms that top 90 or 100 degrees.

But what are Hogan and Franchot doing to eliminate this intolerable situation other than voice displeasure?

Neither official has lifted a finger to bring A/C to more schools in Baltimore County.

And what about Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioning? Why aren’t Hogan and Franchot livid about that even more appalling situation?

The reason is politics.

2018 Political Foes?

Hogan sees a chance to embarrass a likely opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Franchot sees an opportunity to tarnish a potential rival for the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor.

Odd bedfellows, indeed.

The two men not only denounced Kamenetz for Baltimore County’s un-air-conditioned schools, they requested that he and Dance appear before the Board of Public Works in early October.

But there’s nothing on the board’s agenda that requires Kamenetz and Dance to show up in Annapolis on Oct. 7. Neither the governor nor the comptroller can force such attendance.

Still, it makes for good theater when politicians call-out a potential foe.

If the confrontation takes place, it may not be a propaganda victory for Hogan and Franchot. Indeed, they could end up with egg on their faces.

Problem-Solver

Kamenetz complained about the lack of air-conditioning when he ran for county executive five years ago. Since taking office, he has reduced the percentage of no-air-conditioned schools from 52 percent to 20 percent with enough money appropriated to lower that figure to 15 percent.

By 2021, he wants A/C in nearly every one of the county’s 173 school buildings, or at least have the money in hand to begin the work.

Clearly, Kamenetz and Dance are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

If Hogan and Franchot want to blame someone, they should chastise former Baltimore County school chiefs and former county executives Jim Smith and Dutch Ruppersberger. They are the ones who dropped the ball and failed to make air-conditioned schools the county’s highest priority.

Indeed, the real culprits are bureaucrats in the county’s school system who made some astounding blunders beginning 15 or 16 years ago.

Back then, school officials hired an out of state company to analyze the physical defects of county schools. The estimated repair costs, including air conditioning: $130 million.

But county officials delayed acting on those expensive recommendations. Each year, work was put off. Nearly a decade later, the county asked the state for funds to begin the long-overdue school renovations.

Yet no one updated the original report to account for soaring construction costs.

Lack of Funds

Thus, when engineering firms were hired to start the school repairs, the county found itself woefully short of funds.

Then the county goofed again, asking the engineers to fix only the highest priority items at each school. Plumbing defects, leafy roofs and dangerous electrical wiring took precedence, not air-conditioning.

The engineering firms complained that this made no sense. Why not use available funds to totally renovate the schools in the worst shape and ask the state for more money to renovate the other county schools over the next few years?

Those complaints were ignored.

A renovation at Ridgely Middle School under Smith’s admiistration somehow managed to overlook the need for air-conditioning and windows that opened for ventillation. Franchot heard about that debacle and showed up at the school to lend support to the angry parents.

Not until Kamenetz arrived as county executive in 2010 did air-conditioning become a priority.

Solutions, Not Complaints

At this stage, what needs to happen is for Kamenetz and Hogan to agree on a speed-up of the county’s air-conditioning timetable. How that will be financed is the key question.

Both of them must put more school construction money on the table, even if the money goes toward window air-conditioners in some schools until a more permanent fix is completed. (Anne Arundel County air-conditioned 20 of its elementary schools with window units, getting a huge discount by making a bulk purchase of commercial air-conditioners.)

Hogan, though, has been Scrooge-like in spending state dollars. Kamenetz, too, has shied away from spending that could mean a tax increase.

The time has come to fashion a solution rather than using school children as political pawns.

The campaign for governor can wait. There’s no reason to begin the blood-letting at this early stage.

But there is every reason to try to come up with a solution that will bring air-conditioning to every classroom, not only in Baltimore County but in all Maryland schools.

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Plan B for Baltimore

By Barry Rascovar

July 6, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. never devised a backup plan before killing Baltimore’s pivotal, $2.9 billion Red Line rapid-transit route last month. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seems equally bereft of new transit ideas.

Red Line route killed by Hogan

Red Line route killed by Hogan

So let’s see if we can help with some less expensive, but sensible, proposals to improve mobility and job access in Maryland’s largest urban region.

Since Hogan is expected to stubbornly resist pleas from transit and regional officials to revive a slimmed-down version of the Red Line, it is time to move on to Plan B.

Clearly, Hogan had not done his homework — another rookie mistake from a first-time elected official. A more seasoned politician would have delayed the Red Line announcement until it could be paired with an alternative proposal for moving mass transit forward in metro Baltimore.

Rawlings-Blake hasn’t been much better. She seems bereft of what to do next — a failure of the mayor, her staff and her transportation and planning teams to recognize that viable options were needed as a stand-by once a conservative Republican became governor.

Bare-bones Transit

Baltimore’s transit system might be called a bare-bones, 20th century model. Buses traverse the main thoroughfares radiating like spokes from downtown. Cross-town buses add to the mix of slow-moving public transit on heavily congested city streets.

Baltimore’s Metro (14.5 million riders per year) works exceedingly well — it is fast and clean — but only serves people who can reach its one line, from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The region’s north-south light-rail line (8.6 million riders per year) is slow-moving through downtown, never connects directly with the Metro and isn’t heavily used.

There’s also a popular, city-subsidized Downtown Circulator with four routes that offer free service and actually connect people to where they need to go within the city. It’s becoming a drain on a money-poor city, though.

Charm City Circulator bus

Charm City Circulator bus

Suburban transit is a joke. Unless you own a car or live near a corridor road with buses, you’re out of luck in the Baltimore ‘burbs.

That’s a pretty weak transit operation. Killing the Red Line erases an opportunity to integrate and coordinate Baltimore’s public transportation network with a strong east-west line.

Yet there are steps the city and state can take to ameliorate this sad situation. Among the possibilities:

Resurrect the western part of the Red Line, from Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn to the Lexington Market downtown, as a busway.

Separated buses-only lanes built for fast transport could achieve much of what the Red Line was designed to do in West Baltimore and western Baltimore County. Both the light-rail and the Metro have stations near Lexington Market. If a busway proves successful, more spurs could be added, such as a Catonsville tie-in and a Columbia tie-in.

Extend the existing Metro line from Hopkins to Northeast Baltimore and then White Marsh in Baltimore County.

This Green Line, proposed in 2002, would add greatly to Metro ridership, especially if the state offers ample parking for suburban drivers who are anxious to avoid the hassle, delays and high cost associated with taking their cars downtown for the day.

Expand the city’s Charm City Circulator routes to more neighborhoods; embrace the same approach in the suburbs. 

This would require ongoing state subsidies and cooperation from surrounding counties but it would give people — especially the young and the elderly — convenient travel options they don’t have now.

Develop transportation programs for getting city job-seekers to suburban employment centers.

Free Jitney service from bus stops and transit stations to buildings in suburban business parks would help immensely.

Right now, long commutes and one- or two-mile walks from bus and transit stops prevent employable city workers from filling two-thirds of the job openings in the suburbs. That’s a situation Hogan and his economic development team should jump into immediately and devise affordable solutions.

Expand bus service in metro Baltimore; enlarge the MTA’s fleet of buses by purchasing smaller vehicles; reduce the number of bus stops.

Baltimore needs more right-sized transports that can navigate narrow city streets. It also has way too many bus stops, placed there by powerful Democratic officials. Hogan, as a Republican governor, can put an end to this silliness. Fewer close-together stops means faster trips for passengers.

Expand MARC commuter rail service; add frequent rush-hour/mid-day service to Aberdeen Proving Ground; turn MARC’s West Baltimore station into a bus/rail/circulator hub; open a new rail station/bus/circulator hub at Hopkins Bayview; turn the MARC Martin State Airport stop into a rail/bus/circulator hub.

MARC commuter rail train

Commuter rail train (MARC)

MARC can serve as a transit magnet for the metro Baltimore region. The potential is there.

APG and nearby business parks in Harford County need a practical transit option for civilian employees that is fast, convenient and dependable.

MARC’s West Baltimore station was planned as a key transit hub of the Red Line. It’s still a great idea if Hogan wants to show disgruntled residents of that impoverished area he cares.

Hopkins Bayview and Martin State Airport are natural transit hubs, if the state builds large parking lots and adds circulator routes. This would be a godsend for eastern Baltimore County and East Baltimore residents in search of transit alternatives.

Now that Hogan has wiped away a couple of decades of Red Line planning and $288 million already spent on that transit line, it’s incumbent upon the governor to move on to a more cost-effective plan involving a variety of transit options.

He could start with some of the suggestions listed above.

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Election Eve Conclusions in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 3, 2014 – On the eve of Maryland’s unexpectedly close gubernatorial election, some tentative conclusions can be drawn:

Pluses for Brown

Anthony Brown did quite well in attracting Democrats to the polls during early voting.

Nearly one-third of all ballots cast came from three heavily Democratic jurisdictions – Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County. Each showed a substantial jump in turnout from the June primary.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown-May 7 debate

Anthony Brown

Overall, 102,000 more Democrats voted than Republicans. Brown should start with a big lead on Election Day.

Another good sign for Brown: The state’s heaviest voting polling place last week was in Randallstown, the heart of Baltimore County’s growing black community.

More good news for the Democrat: Brown’s running mate, Ken Ulman, did exceedingly well in drawing Democrats to the polls early in Howard County with a 13 percent turnout (the statewide average was 8.3 percent).

Hogan’s Shore Support

Republican Larry Hogan can take comfort in the hefty early voting on the Eastern Shore. That Congressional District cast more votes last week than anywhere else.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Yet Brown must be pleased by the turnout in three of his key Congressional Districts that contain most of the state’s African American population – the 4th (Prince George’s County and Anne Arundel County), the 5th (Prince George’s and Southern Maryland) and the 7th (black and liberal areas of Metro Baltimore).

The jurisdiction with the largest early turnout, Baltimore County, is likely to favor Hogan, but not by the kind of lopsided Brown margins expected in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.

Brown got mixed signals in traditionally liberal Montgomery County, which had a weak early turnout. Yet this year’s early Montgomery numbers were 30 percent better than four years ago.

Early voting, still a new trend in Maryland, appears to favor Democrats.

Republicans remain leery of additional ballot days. They see it as a Democratic scheme to use the superior organizing  skill of  labor unions to convey more minority, poor and working voters to the polls during those seven extra voting days.

Celebrity Buzz

Bringing Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama to Prince George’s County seems to have generated enough buzz to generate a 9.5 percent turnout among the county’s Democratic voters.

Hogan’s celebrity politician, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, brought the GOP candidate money and media coverage with his multiple appearances. Christie, though, isn’t a big enough draw to help Hogan’s early vote numbers.

First Lady Michelle Obama’s appearance today in Baltimore could prove important for Brown — if Democrats use it to excite more African Americans about going to the polls tomorrow. Brown has been focusing like a laser on Prince George’s voting, but Baltimore remains a under-appreciated linchpin.

Meanwhile, everyone will be waiting for Tuesday’s weather forecast.

Right now, it looks like it will be a perfect fall day — sunny and warm. That’s great news for Brown, not so for Hogan. The lower the Democratic turnout, the better for the Republican given Democrats’ 2-1 registration advantage in Maryland.

Curious Endorsements

Questions posed by The Baltimore Sun about Brown’s “strikingly dishonest” campaign and his “unrepentant mendacity” (i.e., he’s a serial liar) continue to reverberate. Anyone reading the editorial must wonder how in the world the newspaper ended up endorsing such an ethically flawed candidate.

Even more curious was Del. Heather Mizeur’s op-ed column in the newspaper in which she politely excoriated Brown for snubbing her attempts to get him to run a positive campaign in which she would actively engage her supporters on his behalf.

Yet Mizeur, like The Sun, held her nose and told her backers to vote for Brown, not Hogan.

Mizeur might consider this campaign “an epic disaster,” but she’s willing to ignore Brown’s lying and deception because he is more likely to advance her progressive agenda.

Bottom Line

Turnout tomorrow still holds the key.

Brown needs large numbers in his Democratic strongholds, especially among African Americans. He’s still a slight favorite due to his built-in voter registration advantage.

Hogan is counting on a heavier than usual GOP turnout, support from independents and — most important of all — a growing number of moderate Democrats turned off by Brown’s ferocious negativity and his sterile, bubble-wrapped campaign.

Clearly, Hogan’s simplistic economic message (less taxes, less expansive government) has hit a chord with many voters. A win would mark a stunning, surprising turnaround for the state’s underdog GOP.

The election could align Maryland with the Republican trend elsewhere in the nation.

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Sparrows Point Gold?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 8, 2014 — Today, it’s a forlorn hulk, a remnant of what once was the world’s largest steel-making plant, stretching four miles end-to-end on the Sparrows Point peninsula.

Abandoned Sparrows Point steel plant

Labor Day used to be special for the 30,000 people who worked at the Bethlehem Steel complex at its peak. They churned out cables for the George Washington Bridge, girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and steel for machinery and equipment that helped win World War II.

Then after 124 years of operation, it was over. The blast furnaces closed for good in June 2012, the property sold for a pittance to a liquidator.

Now there is reason for optimism “The Point” once again might be turned into economic gold.

Baltimore County and the Port of Baltimore have come up with pragmatic plans to redevelop this vast acreage — 5.3 square miles — into a major jobs generator.

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Even better, an investment group with deep pockets and strong local connections is negotiating to buy most of the Bethlehem Steel land in southeastern Baltimore County.

Jim Davis heads Redwood Capital Investment, which wants to become the new property owner. Davis’ name isn’t as familiar to readers as his cousin, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.

The two co-founded a job-staffing service in the 1980s, Aerotek, which morphed into the country’s largest privately held international staffing company — a $10 billion giant called Allegis Group with 12,000 employees and 120,000 contract workers. Its headquarters are in Hanover, not far from Arundel Mills.

Davis went on to purchase Erickson Retirement senior living communities and a host of other real estate and financial investments through Redwood. Now he is seeking most of the Sparrows Point acreage.

The Point’s Potential

If Davis follows the path laid out by a county task force and the Port of Baltimore, The Point some day will be humming with maritime crews, manufacturing and assembly workers, energy operators and distribution and freight employees.

It could be the most promising economic development story for Maryland in decades.

Nowhere in the Northeast is there such an enormous chunk of land already zoned for industrial use.

While 600 acres is heavily contaminated after a century of steel-making, some 2,400 acres won’t need much work to be placed on the market.

A good part of it overlooks the Chesapeake Bay — six linear miles of deep-water frontage perfectly suited for the port’s expansion needs.

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

If Baltimore is to take full advantage of a widened Panama Canal in 2016, it needs additional berths for the giant “post-Panamax” container ships (more than three football fields long) that require 50-foot channels and extra-long cranes.

Sparrows Point already has a 45-foot iron ore pier that could handle roll-on, roll-off cargo like automobiles and farm equipment; a second pier ideal for barges and smaller vessels; a short-line railroad that links to both CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, and lots and lots of cargo storage space.

Dredge Deposit Site

There’s also Coke Point, where port officials want to deposit tons of dredged harbor muck over the next decade or two. Once filled in, this “de-watered” land can be prepared for use as a state-of-the-art, deepwater super-cargo berth similar to Seagirt Marine Terminal, built on dredged material from construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

That’s just the start of the good news.

The task force, appointed by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, thinks some of the the peninsula is well suited for an energy park containing a natural gas plant, solar and wind farms, a biomass energy plant and a landfill gas plant.

This makes enormous sense. Central Maryland pays heavily to import electric power from out of state. It lacks sufficient transmission lines, too.

Neat Fit for Clean Energy

But The Point already has heavy-duty transmission lines that fed electricity to Beth Steel’s blast furnaces. Clean-energy production would be a nice fit, especially since the facilities wouldn’t be close to residential neighborhoods.

Other uses pinpointed by the task force include innovative manufacturing and value-added assembly for rail cars, ships, marine vehicles, specialty machinery and electric equipment; distribution and logistics parks, and “freight villages” offering warehouse space and service and equipment support.

Additionally, the task force noted a 400-acre quarry on the property soon will be ending its useful life. This opens the way for another “extraordinary vacant land-mass opportunity.”

Part of Beth Steel property

Part of Beth Steel property

It’s almost too good to be true.

And it may be. Davis has to finalize his group’s land purchase. Then he must negotiate terms with the state for the waterfront property. His company will be juggling many development balls simultaneously.

Of course, there’s the overhanging environmental concerns that first must be resolved.

Eventually, though, The Point might make a surprisingly strong comeback.

You couldn’t ask for a better located 5.3 square miles of land — much of it fronting deep water, practically on top of I-95 and the Baltimore Beltway, already connected to major railroads, a short drive from BWI Marshall Airport and at the mid-point of the East Coast’s massive megalopolis.

The State’s Role

It will take major investments from the state to give the Port of Baltimore these long-lasting advantages over other Atlantic ports of call. It’s not clear if the state’s next administration will be up to the task or if politics will intrude as the Transportation Department tries to find the money for this expensive project in its already stretched budget.

Given the recent debacle in finding a freight transfer site for CSX near the port, the MPA’s Sparrows Point expansion takes on heightened significance.

Environmental cleanups will cost someone a small fortune, though. It’s a key sticking point that must be resolved.

The county will play a role in smoothing the way for interested companies who see the vast potential of Sparrows Point. Baltimore City will have to make accommodations, too, especially in finding space to build a full interstate interchange at Broening Highway.

It’s too great an opportunity to let slip away, though.

For over 100 years, from 1889 until 2012, Sparrows Point was a beacon of jobs and success for the Greater Baltimore region. It can happen again — if there’s the will to make it happen.

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Immigration Quandary

By Barry Rascovar

July 28, 2014 — Are Republicans poor spellers?

They might be, judging from the graffiti (“NO ILLEAGLES HERE”) spray painted on a former Carroll County military building. It briefly was under consideration as housing for immigrant children fleeing violence in Central America.

Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Or is it just that Republicans are narrow-minded bigots?

It seems they don’t want people entering this country unless immigrants are Anglo-Saxon Christians who believe the “G” in GOP stands for God.

Republican History

Hostility toward immigrants is in the Grand Old Party’s DNA.

The Republican Party started as a coalition of anti-slavery groups and the Know-Nothing Party (formally known in states as the American Party or the Native American Party).

The Know-Nothings’ near-hysterical hostility toward Irish-Catholics and Germans later turned into anti-Chinese venom.

Keeping “them” out of the U.S. of A. has morphed into today’s sweeping condemnation of 57,000 children from non-English-speaking, heavily Catholic nations in Central America who have crossed the border.

‘Combat Zone’

Frederick County’s arch-enemy of immigrants, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, recently toured part of the Texas-Mexico border, declared it a “combat zone” and called for full militarization.

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County

Fortress America, here we come!

“We’re being invaded by drug cartels, drug smugglers, human traffickers,” the sheriff railed.

Huh?

Unaccompanied children are crossing the border, not gun-toting thugs and narco terrorists.

And in Baltimore County. . .

You’d never know that by listening to Del. Wade Kach or Councilman Todd Huff of Baltimore County.

The two Republicans have joined the anti-immigrant mob.

They’re upset Catholic Charities wants to house 50 children from Central America at its secluded St. Vincent’s Villa that tends to children with severe emotional and behavioral problems — and which originally opened 174 years ago as an orphanage for immigrant children.

Meanwhile, Republican Baltimore County Del. Pat McDonough, who never misses a shot at outrageous publicity, is calling for the erection of tent cities along the border and immediate deportation of “them.”

Congressional Intervention

Then there’s the irrepressible Republican naysayer, Congressman Andy Harris.

He was quick to announce his bombastic opposition to Central American kids living temporarily at a former Army Reserve building in Westminster – a locale that is not in his district.

Harris, an anesthesiologist, cited among other reasons “the potential health risks to the community” — as though these kids were carrying the Bubonic Plague.

He wants the 57,000 children deported to their home country “and get back in line.”

Discrimination is alive and well in the Republican Party’s Maryland branch.

Christian Response

Catholic Charities’ proposal, thankfully, does not follow Republican Party dicta.

Instead, it follows Christian teachings that most Republicans ostensibly say they follow.

This is, as Pope Francis pointed out, a “humanitarian emergency” involving unaccompanied children in a foreign land. We must first protect and care for these children, the pope said.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Catholic Charities is extending the good work it does by undertaking this new mission at St. Vincent’s Villa in Timonium.

It’s not a permanent solution but rather a helping hand for 50 kids while their situations are sorted out. What’s wrong with that?

Governor’s Response

How does Maryland suffer from a local charity assisting some of the needy, regardless of their place of origin?

Gov. Martin O’Malley understands.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

He first complained to the White House about placing kids at a Westminster facility lacking security or running water – not to mention the seething animus in Carroll County toward outsiders (especially Spanish-speaking “illeagals” who might pollute Carroll’s idyllic surroundings).

He was right to tell the White House it was a ridiculous idea.

There are far better ways to assist these kids — such as finding compatible settings near Washington, where there are large Hispanic communities (and proximity to Central American embassies) or in Baltimore City, with its own Spanish-speaking enclave and ample support services.

NIMBY Republicans

The Republican line is that this crisis is “a federal problem” created by the hated Obama administration, which should handle this matter itself.

Republican NIMBYism is alive and well: Let someone else care for these desperate kids, all 57,000 of them.

Just make sure the federal refugee camps are “not in my back yard.”

What’s confronting the United States is a major human dilemma. It won’t be solved solely by the White House. It will take a combined effort by sympathetic states, non-profit groups and the federal government.

Republicans, though, don’t want any part of extending charity to these kids.

The best way to stop this unwanted influx is to help Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala curb criminal activity, bolster health and education opportunities and encourage business development that translates into jobs.

Republicans will have none of that.

They don’t want immigrants coming to this country and they don’t want to help other countries stem the tide, either.

Their only answer is stationing armed troops on our southern border.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori calls this problem “a test of the moral character of our nation. This is not a time for political posturing. . .”

Sadly, Republicans aren’t listening.

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Racing: Green MD Industry

 

By Barry Rascovar

June 2, 2014 — Not far from my home, down a steep patch of Greenspring Avenue on the way to Glyndon, lies a glorious environmental sight — and a stark contrast between the past and present for Maryland’s horse industry.

Descending into the Worthington Valley, a broad, green panorama of horse farms reveals itself.  This is prime Maryland horse country.

As the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes approaches, with the best chance in decades to witness racing’s elusive Triple Crown for three-year-old thoroughbreds, it’s appropriate to review the state of Maryland racing.

Sagamore’s Renaissance

The vast 530-acre thoroughbred spread known as Sagamore Farm, restored to its earlier glory by UnderArmour founder Kevin Plank, dominates Worthington Valley, highlighted by Sagamore’s white painted fences and corporate training center mansion atop a distant ridge.

Sagamore Farm, training track

Sagamore Farm, training track

Far to the right lies Hunt Valley and the blueblood horse farms that have hosted the grueling, four-mile Maryland Hunt Cup timber race for 92 of its 118 years.

In the foreground, though, lies beautiful but empty barns on 100 acres of land. Their sad fate underlines the fragility of Maryland’s horse industry, just as Sagamore Farm and the Maryland Hunt Cup illustrate the strength of the industry’s future.

The empty barns used to have a sign on its gates that read “Maryland Stallion Station.” Prominent horse breeders joined together in 2003 to make the Worthington Valley once again famous for its thoroughbred champions.

Maryland Stallion Station

Maryland Stallion Station

What the owners didn’t count on was Maryland’s resistance to doing what neighboring states had done to resuscitate their horse industries: legalize slot machines and dedicate a small portion of the proceeds to rebuilding race  tracks and dramatically boosting purses — the lifeblood of the industry.

Horse owners quickly recognized there was money to be made in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania as purses soared at tracks in those states. They took their horses and left Maryland.

Meanwhile, politicians in Annapolis ignored the obvious trend and resisted legalizing slots.

Declining Racing Industry 

As a result, Maryland’s horse industry spiraled deeper and deeper into decline.

At its worst point, the state lost 80 percent of its stallions, mares and foals because of the poor business climate here.

Finally, the industry’s distress became so obvious Gov. Martin O’Malley asked his Labor Secretary, Tom Perez (now U.S. Secretary of Labor) to study the state of racing in 2007.

Tom Perez

Tom Perez

His impartial and persuasive report laid out the facts.

Citing a University of Maryland study, he wrote, “The horse racing and breeding industry in Maryland accounts for over 9,000 jobs, and has an economic impact of more than $600 million.”

“A decade ago Maryland led its neighbors in handles and purses — the amount bet on races and the prize money awarded to winners — and the number of horses being bred. These statistics are the lifeblood of the racing industry. But the introduction of slot machines in Delaware and West Virginia has resuscitated and revitalized the previously moribund horse racing and breeding industries in those states. As a result, Maryland’s horse racing and horse breeding industries have been placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage.”

Perez continued, “The economic impact of slots on the horse racing industries in surrounding states is undeniable. Slots have generated thousands of jobs in these areas, and are subsidizing other priorities, such as education and transportation. In fact, Marylanders playing slots in Delaware and West Virginia are subsidizing education and other priorities in these states to the tune of approximately $150 million per year.”

Out of State Competition

The fate of Maryland Stallion Station confirmed Perez’s findings. It couldn’t compete against breeding farms in neighboring states offering generous racing subsidies.

Who would want to breed valuable race horses in Maryland when the purses, coupled with large bonuses for locally bred thoroughbreds, were growing huge in nearby states, thanks to slots revenue?

Maryland Stallion Station barn, 2005

Maryland Stallion Station barn, 2005

The owners of Maryland Stallion Station made a valiant effort, but they couldn’t overcome the state’s lack of favorable business conditions.

They relocated their stud animals in 2008 and went out of business.

Revived By Slots

Eventually, with the booming success of Maryland Live! Casino at Arundel Mills, the state’s racing slowly started to rebound, just as Perez suggested.

Sagamore’s fortunes are proof that this formula — tying a percentage of slots revenue to the racing industry — works. Both Sagamore’s breeding and training businesses are on an upward track.

The optimism of horse owners, trainers and breeders on Preakness Day illustrated the turnaround that is taking place.

Most encouraging has been the breeding uptick at Sagamore Farm in Baltimore County, Bonita Farm and Country Life Farm in Harford County, the Rooney family’s Shamrock Farms in Carroll County and the impressive Northview Stallion Station in Cecil County.

Northview Stallion Station

Northview Stallion Station

But danger still lurks in Annapolis.

Politicians already are talking about reneging on their agreement with the racing industry and stripping away some of the slots money reviving the industry. They want the money for other, more politically appealing programs.

What these politicians ignore is the giant environmental benefits flowing from a strong racing industry. They should review Tom Perez’s findings:

Green Racing

“Horse farms occupy over 685,000 acres of land, roughly 10 percent of Maryland’s open space. Horse racing and horse breeding go hand in hand. Preserving a viable horse racing industry helps maintain horse farms and protect open space. . . .

“The importance of reviving horse racing and breeding in Maryland extends beyond merely supporting the industry. Every breeder that can’t sustain his or her business because of a declining industry means one more farm that might succumb to development pressures. Growth in Maryland will continue, and without a vibrant horse breeding sector those open spaces could become prime real estate for developers.”

Perez noted that Maryland’s agricultural land is disappearing. Between 1970 and 2005, the state lost one million acres of farms to development — one-third of the state’s farmland.

“Retaining Maryland’s agricultural land is critical to the environment, and particularly the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” he wrote.

Sprawl Buffer

“The key to keeping farmers on their land is ensuring their operations remain economically viable. . . . As Maryland’s population grows and development pressures force farmers out, protecting the state’s horse industry becomes more and more critical to sustaining the legacy of rural Maryland and maintaining a healthy environment.”

Perez concluded that the racing industry “is an important economic engine for Maryland, and provides an important buffer against sprawl development.”

The governor’s office reports that Maryland’s horse industry today is valued at $5.6 billion. The horses are worth $714 million. The farms employ 28,000 people.

It also notes this surprising fact: Maryland contains twice as many horses per square mile as Virginia, Texas, California or Kentucky.

This state’s racing traditions run deep as symbolized by the large crowds drawn annually to the Preakness and the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Maryland Hunt Cup timber race

Maryland Hunt Cup timber race

After Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino opens late this summer, more slots dollars will flow into thoroughbred and standardbred racing purses. When the MGM Grand Casino opens in about two years at National Harbor, still more revenue will come racing’s way.

What lies ahead could turn into a grand revival for horse racing in Maryland.

Necessary Upgrades

Of course, that will depend on the ability of track owners to use slots revenue for major modernization upgrades that appeal to 21st century sports lovers.

The industry also must find a way to underwrite year-round racing. (There will be no Maryland racing at all this summer.)

Maryland’s political leaders have a responsibility to foster the growth of horse farms and high-quality racing in places like the Worthington Valley.

It’s great for the environmentl, strengthens an important agricultural business and is a sport worth saving.

Worthington Valley

Bucolic Worthington Valley

A prosperous racing industry is a decided plus for citizens of the Free State, one that politicians need to encourage, not discourage, in Annapolis.

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