Category Archives: Baltimore

Will O’Malley’s Folly Become Hogan’s?

By Barry Rascovar

March 28, 2016—The State Center boondoggle is back on the table.

This controversial deal, involving state buildings on 28 acres in midtown Baltimore, was tailored for developer-allies of former Gov. Martin O’Malley. It ended up on the back burner in December 2014 when the extent of the giveaway persuaded Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp to put a hold on the last approval necessary.

Since then, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has kept the project on the shelf – where it belongs.

Will O'Malley's Folly Become Hogan's?State Center vision

Developers’ $1.5 billion State Center vision in midtown Baltimore

But in the last few weeks, Hogan’s economic development chief, Mike Gill, said the administration was reviewing the $1.5 billion project anew. A decision on what to do at the Baltimore workplace for thousands of state employees could come before January.

There’s no question government workers deserve better quarters. The 60-year-old State Center complex is badly out of date. New accommodations need to be pursued. The worst course of action, though, would be to proceed with O’Malley’s white elephant.

Outsized Rents

Under the deal worked out by the former governor, the state, which now pays no rent at State Center, would be charged sky-high monthly rates for occupying space in a new, privately owned structure. The lease payments of $18.5 million a year would escalate every five years over the next two decades.

Such high rental rates are comparable to Inner Harbor, water-view office space.

The state also would be responsible for maintenance and security expenses, bringing payments to $30 million annually just in the first five years.

Additionally, the state would lease the entire 28-acre State Center property to the developer for a ridiculously low ground rent. A prime parcel near downtown would be virtually gifted to the development team.

The developers also want the state to pay for a costly underground garage in the first new office building. This $28.5 million expense would deplete the Transportation Trust Fund just when demand for road and bridge improvements is in high demand.

In another twist, state workers who receive free surface parking at State Center, would have to pay to use those underground spaces.

Bond Rating in Peril?

The most troubling aspect for Hogan is that the State Center plan could cost Maryland its coveted triple-A bond rating.

Because the developers want to use the state’s locked-in rent payments – nearly $500 million over the next 20 years – to obtain private financing for the massive project, the payments qualify as a capital project.

As such, the State Center development would blow the lid off Maryland’s debt ceiling. It would mean cutting other projects from Hogan’s construction plans and could lead to higher interest rates when Maryland goes to the bond market.

It’s a bad deal for taxpayers, and for Hogan, who inherited this mess from O’Malley (and from Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who announced the heavily subsidized state-private sector project prior to the Great Recession).

Joe Getty, Hogan’s chief legislative officer, was in the state Senate when his budget committee reviewed the State Center project in late 2014. He concluded that the excessive rent charged the state “sets us up to cut [other] projects that have strong commitments in other areas,” such as money for Baltimore City school construction and bond money for a new Prince George’s County hospital.

The Department of Legislative Services noted at the time that the State Center undertaking “will require a significant amount of annual general fund appropriations that could be avoided if the State instead constructed new or renovated space to replace the aging State Center infrastructure.”

Moving Downtown

Another promising avenue for Hogan: Move State Center workers into modern, renovated office space in Baltimore’s Central Business District.

Huge vacancies exist there – upwards of 30 percent and growing – which translates into deeply discounted rents. The state could lock in long-term leases at excellent prices and avoid paying future maintenance costs.

At the same time, DLS suggested the state could sell State Center’s buildings and 28 acres to the highest bidder. This would partly offset the cost of renting new office space downtown and avoid costly repairs at the current buildings.

That seems to make more sense than going forward with a sweetheart arrangement concocted by Hogan’s predecessor.

Here’s another oddity: The Ehrlich administration never bothered to seek competitive bids for the State Center project. After the initial development group dissolved during the Great Recession, O’Malley renegotiated the same deal with a slightly different group of developers.

Now may be the time to see what State Center’s 28 acres bring on the open market and what imaginative uses other developers suggest for the site – using their money, not the state’s.

No Termination Clause

That likely would require a payment to the current developers to terminate their contract with the state.

Here’s why: O’Malley’s State Center deal lacked a “termination for convenience clause.” This is routinely inserted into every state contract – but curiously not this one. Thus, the state is locked into 20 years’ worth of lease payments – pure gold for the builders – unless the developers are bought out.

For Hogan to endorse the current project makes little logic. It would saddle the state with unnecessary additional debt and exorbitant annual lease payments for two decades, endanger Maryland’s bond rating and squeeze other state construction priorities.

It also would amount to an endorsement of a questionable state subsidy pushed through by his Democratic predecessor.

Proceeding in a new direction might be Hogan’s best option.

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Baltimore: Opportunity Knocks

By Barry Rascovar

March 21, 2016 –Nearly a year after violence, arson and widespread looting tore apart impoverished portions of Baltimore there still is no comprehensive, long-term plan for reviving and improving Baltimore from the governor’s office.

Nor is there an all-inclusive recovery plan from the mayor’s office.

Leadership is lacking.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at least has the excuse that she’s stepping down as Baltimore’s leader in December. A detailed, long-range recovery program will have to be devised and implemented by her successor.

Her silence, though, is deafening.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has no such excuse. He’s had a long time to figure out how the state can step in with both feet and assist Baltimore rebound from a devastating blow.

He also had a golden opportunity to lay out his full range of ideas for a Baltimore renaissance in his State of the State Address in January.

It didn’t happen.

Vacant Housing Initiative

To his credit, Hogan announced a large, multi-year plan to demolish and replace blocks and blocks of vacant housing. Yet when his budget was released, not one penny had been allocated for this effort.

Pressed by the legislative black caucus, Hogan included a portion of the demolition funds in a supplemental budget, but not before he generated a good deal of ill will among legislators.

He also agreed to legislative demands to add $12.7 million to help Baltimore schools compensate for declining enrollment.

It was left, though to Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch to cobble together a multi-pronged package of economic and social initiatives to help Baltimore in its hour of need.

Such a move is not ordinarily the province of the Maryland General Assembly. Large bail-out and economic rebound efforts normally come out of the governor’s office.

But since Republican Hogan failed to formulate a Baltimore recovery agenda (other than the vacant housing plan), state legislators stepped into the void.

Legislative Plan

Their $290 million proposal, spread over five years (thus limiting the fiscal impact on the state) helps not only Baltimore but other parts of the state.

  • It offers Baltimore assurance that Hogan’s housing-demolition and replacement plans will be mandatory in future years, not voluntary.
  • It expands existing scholarship programs for disadvantaged kids throughout Maryland.
  • It adds mentoring and other support for middle-school kids in Baltimore and promises them scholarships if they stay out of trouble and get good grades.
  • It adds money to keep city libraries open longer.
  • It allocates funds for after-school and summer programs for children.
  • It provides grants for community groups to develop blighted city areas.
  • It gives Towson University funds to train Baltimore residents as construction workers.
  • And it provides $16.5 million to improve the city’s important system of public parks.

The Miller-Busch package roared through the House last week. The same thing is likely to occur in the Senate.

Hogan hasn’t said much about this important package of bills. His spokesman supported the good intentions of the legislative initiative but worried about the fiscal impact – even though state funding is limited to five years.

Now is the time for the governor to get off the fence and involve himself in shaping a significant Baltimore recovery effort coming from Annapolis.

The legislative package aims at improving depressed neighborhoods. It focuses on giving youngsters better schooling, more positive activities away from school, involving universities and non-profit groups in reviving communities and making Baltimore a more inviting city for those living there.

Time to Act

This is the moment for both Baltimore and the governor to join hands with the legislature in this ambitious undertaking.

With assistance from the governor’s office, objectionable elements of the bills can be modified, new ideas can be added and city officials can come together with the two branches of government in forming a triad of commitments for making Baltimore better.

Hogan brings to the table a businessman’s eye for how to help Baltimore. Even better, he is a businessman with expertise in private-sector land development. He needs to be involved.

Creating the environment for a phoenix-like bounce-back by Baltimore is important for Maryland. The city remains the state’s economic center as well as its regional population, cultural and education center. Tackling the city’s worst problems and overcoming them will pay handsome dividends for the governor in the long run – and for Maryland.

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Hogan Wins an Important Victory

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 29, 2016 – Mixing politics and education can be lethal. They are best kept far apart.

That’s why Maryland, for 100 years, has isolated the governor and state lawmakers from the process of choosing the State Superintendent of Schools.

Liberal Democrats in the General Assembly, though, sought to change that.Hogan Wins an Important Victory

They worry that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. might fill the State Board of Education with conservative-leaning members who would name a superintendent with a staunchly right-wing education agenda.

So they floated a bill giving the Senate in Annapolis veto power over the selection of a state schools leader.

That was a very bad idea.

Partisan Rubbish

Hogan’s office called it “complete and utter rubbish” and a malevolent attempt to politicize public education. He stood firm and the bill thankfully died.

Imagine 47 politicians with the ability to manipulate this appointment to serve their own partisan objectives.

Wherever politicians impose their will on educators, bad things can happen in the classroom.

Back in 1914, a study by Abraham Flexner, a noted American educator, concluded Maryland’s public schools were “infested with the vicissitudes of partisan politics.” Two years later, the governor and lawmakers built a dividing wall in which the appointed state board members would, on their own, choose a state school chief for a four-year term.

It’s been that way ever since – and it has worked exceedingly well.

O’Malley vs. Grasmick

When former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley took office in 2008, he tried to fire Nancy Grasmick as state school superintendent for political reasons. He soon learned he didn’t have the power and that even his appointees to the state education board backed Grasmick.

O’Malley was thinking only as a politician, trying to oust a school chief beloved by his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, and by another O’Malley foe, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

He ignored the fact that under Grasmick’s two-decade reign, Maryland consistently ranked at the top of state school systems offering an excellent public education.

Yet politicians’ urge to intervene and impose their ideological will on schooling remains strong.

Look at the situation in Baltimore City, a troubled city with a troubled school system.

Costly School Reforms

The last superintendent, Andres Alonzo, reenergized city schooling and turned much of the system on its head. But after he suddenly left, the city belatedly discovered Alonzo’s grand plans had been costly, leaving the new superintendent $105 million in the hole.

Indeed, the current city school boss, Gregory Thornton, was brought in largely to make difficult down-sizing choices, which pleased no one. He hasn’t won many fans among community and education activists or with the wannabe power brokers in Baltimore politics.

Baltimore School Superintendent Gregory Thornton

Baltimore School Chief Gregory Thornton

They are demanding that Thornton be canned. They insist he’s had 18 months to work a miracle and he still hasn’t done it.

Mayoral candidates are promising a takeover of city schools, placing education decisions firmly in the hands of the next mayor and City Council. That will fix everything, right?

Wrong.

Very wrong.

Appeasing the Multitude

Decisions on education policies are best left to skilled, experienced education managers, overseen by a school board of non-partisan, concerned citizens dedicated to improving the learning environment for children.

Thornton is no neophyte, either, having had considerable success as school chief in Milwaukee in uplifting minority classroom performance and closing a big budget gap.

He may not have Alonzo’s charisma or the ability to appease the multitude of factions vying to control education decisions in Baltimore, but he’s made headway in the face of enormous urban challenges.

His problems could multiply in coming months unless the very same politicians seeking Thornton’s head find a way to persuade the governor to help city schools fend off a new $25 million budget hole caused by declining enrollment.

Hogan has budgeted funds to help three other counties facing that same predicament, but so far he’s shown no willingness to plug in extra money to deal with Baltimore’s far larger enrollment drop.

It was the governor’s adamant opposition to politicizing the state school superintendent’s appointment that forced legislators to abandon their power grab this year. That’s a huge victory for public school children in Maryland.

Following up with added funds to bolster education efforts in Baltimore would be icing on the cake.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. His email address is barascovar@hotmail.com

 

 

 

Manly Words, Manly Deeds?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 8, 2016 – Though lacking flair and imagination, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s second State of the State address proved a solid effort with just the right theme: conciliation and compromise.

That leaves unanswered the key question: Will these promising words be followed by matching deeds?

Manly Words, Manly Deeds?

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivers annual State of the State address in MD State House.

The governor called his speech “A Middle Temperament,” taking a page from Robert J. Brugger’s definitive state history – “Maryland A Middle Temperament 1634—1980” and from Captain John Smith’s written description of the Chesapeake’s munificent bounties in the early 1600s.

Hogan heaped ample praise on himself in the speech, taking credit for everything that went right over the past 12 months in Maryland – even if he had nothing to do with it.

For instance, he raved about Maryland’s job growth and his big budget surplus – both the result of national macro-economic factors in which any governor plays virtually no role.

Education Puffery

He boasted about his record spending on education – though that’s the result of mandated increases in Maryland’s education aid formula. Hogan didn’t lift a finger to make that happen.

He even claimed credit for being the first governor to fully fund a program giving extra education aid to higher-cost counties. This, despite the fact he cut that aid in half last year and only fully funded the program in his new budget because infuriated lawmakers made it a legal requirement.

Hogan also sounded alarm bells about Maryland’s ballooning borrowing costs. Yet the governor did little in his budget to sharply rein in borrowing over the next fiscal year.

Actions, not words, will tell us if Hogan is serious about working with Democratic lawmakers on that and other serious problems the governor discussed in his annual address.

Legislative leaders have plenty of reasons to doubt whether Hogan will follow through on his pledge to “seek middle ground where we can all stand together.”

Partisan Moves

In his early dealings with lawmakers, the Republican governor struck a partisan tone. He refused to meet them halfway. He has continued to shut them out of policy development and rarely keeps them informed about his plans before he makes a splashy PR announcement. He’s been the opposite of inclusive.

He also has lacked consistency.

Last fall, out of the blue, he announced extra education aid for three Republican counties to help them deal with falling student enrollment. Yet Democratic Baltimore City, facing a far larger and more costly enrollment plunge, got nothing.

Then last week, Hogan finally caved to demands from legislative leaders to ante up money promised by the O’Malley administration to support Prince George’s Hospital Center until a new regional medical complex is built.

Hogan did so only after the House speaker and Senate president announced they’d push through a bill forcing Hogan to put up these funds in future years.

Yet Hogan praised his action, asserting such an arrangement was long overdue – as though the O’Malley administration had dropped the ball. It was a transparent re-writing of history.

Missing Demolition Funds

In December, Hogan suddenly announced plans to pour $700 million over a number of years into Baltimore City’s housing demolition program. Yet when Hogan’s budget arrived, the first installment of demolition money wasn’t there, nor an explanation of where all that $700 million would come from.

Hogan blamed Baltimore City for this gap in his budget. He claimed the city had failed to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that had been in negotiation for months.

But wait a minute: There’s no signed MOU for the Prince George’s hospital, either. Yet that didn’t stop Hogan from putting supplemental funds into his budget last week.

Where’s the consistency?

“There is so much we can find agreement on,” Hogan said in his speech. Indeed there is. But it will take more give than take from the governor – a reversal of his style from his first legislative session.

t also will take less partisan one-upmanship, less headline-grabbing announcements that blindside legislative leaders.

The opportunity is there, though, for Hogan to put together a winning legislative record this year. That will mean not only saying the right things about “finding the middle ground” but making the right moves to make compromise possible.

That may not prove popular with his hard-core conservative base, but if Hogan is serious about avoiding a rough road for his priorities and avoiding hyper-partisan gridlock in Annapolis, he’s the one who must take the initiative by backing up his conciliatory words with conciliatory deeds.

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2015’s ‘Dumb & Dumber Award’

By Barry Rascovar

Before we get too far into the New Year, let’s dispense with the Maryland political maneuver deemed as the low point of 2015: Civil rights advocacy groups waited till the very end of the year to file the worst and most counter-productive legal complaint that’s been filed in a long, long time.

The groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, are essentially suing Gov. Larry Hogan administratively for daring to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line rapid rail route through Baltimore. Their reasoning: Hogan made a racially discriminatory decision that harms African Americans in Baltimore City.Red Line logoNot only is the complaint historically inaccurate, it is pointless and damaging to their cause. For this publicity-seeking waste of time and energy, the groups’ complaint richly deserves 2015’s “Dumb and Dumber Award.”

Leap of Logic

Republican Hogan has been heavily criticized for cancelling the Red Line project, but racial bigotry isn’t one of the charges that sticks.

Not only is it a stretch to make that wild accusation, there’s no evidence to back up the charge.

Did Hogan sit in his office plotting the death knell of the Red Line so he could keep African Americans “in their place”? Did he divert most of the Red Line money to rural and suburban highway projects as a discriminatory move against blacks?

The accusation is preposterous on its face.

Protesters even claim the Red Line was a vital piece of the state’s plan to remedy racial disparities, and that rejecting the Red Line was part of an historic pattern of racially imbedded transportation decisions by state governors.

Pure hogwash.

Red Line History

Never once in all the years I have reported and commented on the Red Line project have I heard such a distorted argument.

Never once did the Democratic O’Malley administration or the Republican Ehrlich administration make the argument that they wanted to proceed with the Red Line because of its civil rights implications.

Never once did the Hogan administration even hint at a racial motive for stopping the Red Line in its tracks.

The civil rights groups are far, far off-base.

Yes, cancelling the Red Line, and the $900 million in federal funds, ranks as the most boneheaded decision of the century (so far) in Maryland.

Yes, it will harm African Americans in Baltimore – but also whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

But Hogan’s move was largely a political decision. Racial discrimination didn’t enter into the discussion.

Not Worth the Cost

He did it because he’s a rigidly conservative Republican who hates big government spending projects that primarily benefit Democratic strongholds. He didn’t feel this controversial construction undertaking was worth the huge outlay of state funds.

He wrongly called the Red Line a “boondoggle” because in his mind any oversized project that won’t help his voter base in rural and suburban Maryland isn’t a priority.

He called the Red Line “unaffordable” even though it clearly could have been downsized and revamped to make it more cost-efficient and make it fit into the state’s long-term transportation budget.

Nixing the Red Line was decided by Hogan long before he took office.

He promised during the 2014 campaign to kill the Red Line. Race had nothing to do with it; conservative ideology had everything to do with his decision.

The civil rights groups also make the argument Maryland has a long history of racially discriminatory transportation and housing decisions.

Excuse me, but how did housing get into this argument over building the Red Line?

Not in My Neighborhood

There’s no doubt housing discrimination was at play in the Baltimore region over the past 100 years. My former colleague at The Baltimore Sun, Antero Pietila, brilliantly presents the case against the federal, state and city governments for their racially biased housing policies in his book, “Not in My Neighborhood.”

But the issue here is transportation, not housing.

Where did the civil rights groups get the idea that building Baltimore’s Central Light-Rail Line and the region’s Metro Line were purposely designed to discriminate against blacks?

That’s buncombe. It rewrites history to fit the groups’ distorted, conspiratorial world view.

Marvin Mandel built the Red Line not to serve white Marylanders but because there was a right-of-way available from the old Western Maryland Railroad that ran through Northwest Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Today, Baltimore’s first mass-transit rail line well serves areas that are both black and white, as well as Hispanic.  Even the line’s county stations serve a very large and growing African American community.

Key Right-of-Way

William Donald Schaefer built the Central Light-Rail Line because there was an abandoned right-of-way available — the former Northern Central Railroad route. It was a cost-and-efficiency engineering decision. The goal, then as now, was to make public transportation to jobs, stores and entertainment easier for EVERYONE – especially those living in Baltimore City.

Neither Mandel nor Schaefer posed as George Wallace seeking to deny blacks better public transportation. Quite the opposite. Race was never a factor in their decisions to build those routes, plain and simple. It did not enter into discussions.

There’s no question Baltimore lacks quality public transportation. There’s no question the city and the state should have done a better job anticipating the need for a comprehensive, coherent and connected mass-transit system that gets low-income adults to job sites.

It’s been a huge failure by state and local officials.

You can blame it on politics, both in Annapolis and in Washington. But you cannot blame Baltimore’s sorry transportation situation on racial discrimination.

Civil rights groups are wasting time and money on this canard. There are important civil rights issues confronting Baltimore at this time, but not the Red Line’s demise.

Fait accompli

The civil rights groups’ complaint to Washington bureaucrats contains another huge leap of illogic: It’s too late to undo what’s been done.

Hogan killed the Red Line. It’s a fait accompli. The federal government is redistributing that $900 million to other cities that weren’t stupid enough to turn their backs on such a huge federal gift.

You can’t revise history to satisfy your wishes. The Red Line money from Washington is gone. A civil rights complaint, even if upheld, won’t make that money reappear.

Besides, who’s to say the Red Line would have solved Baltimore’s discrimination woes? Since when did these civil rights groups become experts in the most advantageous public transportation modes for Baltimore residents of color?

How do they view Hogan’s decision to spend $135 million on improving Baltimore’s sub-par bus system? That’s a whopping amount of money for such an undertaking that will primarily benefit the city’s lower-income workers and residents.

Is that part of the discrimination conspiracy, too?

What a distraction.

These civil rights groups should be ashamed. Demonizing Larry Hogan for unfounded civil rights affronts is a terrible mistake that politicizes the legitimate work of those groups. It polarizes the situation and needlessly antagonizes the one person who holds the purse strings for future transportation projects.

The complaint hurts, rather that helps, Baltimore City in its appeals to Annapolis at a time when the city needs all the help it can get.

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The ‘Trump Effect’ in Baltimore

 By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 16, 2015 – Let’s call it the “Trump Effect” or the “Trump-Carson Effect.” Either way, it’s come to Baltimore.

The 'Trump Effect' in Baltimore

Donald Trump in action

In the campaign for mayor of Charm City – a dubious honor these days – there’s a veritable stampede of unqualified “outsiders” running to become the most powerful elected insider.

They’re betting on the same public discontent that has rocketed an unqualified, mouthy billionaire developer, Donald Trump, and an unqualified retired pediatric neurosurgeon, Ben Carson, to the lead in early Republican presidential polls.

Here’s how Baltimore wannabes have gotten into the mayor’s race:

You leak to the media that you’re thinking of running for mayor, thus garnering flattering press coverage. Then you leak word that you’re going to hold an announcement event, gaining more uncritical attention. Finally, you hold a rah-rah, “yes, I’m running” media event where you promise that you have the key to ending all of Baltimore’s most troubling ills. More positive media spin.

Something is missing from this scenario, which has been followed by an ex-phone company engineer, a government lawyer and a venture capitalist in their mayoral campaign unveilings.

All of them are certain that their lack of strong political credentials makes them ideal for the city’s most powerful political job.

What’s lacking is realism.

No Details

Not one of them – Nick Mosby, Elizabeth Embry or David Warnock – comes close to describing what their administration would do to miraculously transform Baltimore from an impoverished, crime-infested and crumbling urban center.

Mosby, 36, at least has one term under his belt as a city councilman – time enough to barely get his feet wet in city government. He says he’ll fight for “a better Baltimore,” fight “against poverty, against illiteracy” and bring “world-class education” to town. He’s promising safer streets, less homelessness and an open government.

The big, unanswered question: How?

If it were easy, those things would have happened long ago.

Elizabeth Embry, 36, has white liberal support because of her well-known dad, Abell Foundation President Bob Embry. His daughter lacks elective experience. She does, though, promise to “hustle” and “work hard” as mayor.

Golly. That sounds like a pledge from kids running for class president. Can we have free ice cream on Fridays, too?

Elizabeth Embry proudly asserts she’s “not a politician” – echoes of Trump and Carson. (That attribute sure is going to help when she confronts real-life politicians.)

She says that thanks to her years as a government prosecutor she will “end the killings on our streets,” “dismantle pockets of poverty,” improve transportation and “rationalize taxes” – whatever that means.

Once again, we’re missing an answer to that vital question: How?

Warnock’s Entry

The same thing applies to Warnock’s entry into the race. The 57-year-old venture capitalist and philanthropist says he’ll attract new business and jobs to Baltimore and revive parts of the now-dead Red Line rapid-rail plan.

Pardon the skepticism, but here we go again: How?

Running government is pretty simple when you’re taking uninformed potshots and promising to deliver idealized results without bothering with the specifics.

It’s one thing to pick stocks, run a mutual fund and invest in companies. You’re not dealing with the nitty-gritty of keeping a poor, on-edge, tax-poor city on an even keel.

Once you have to run a $2 billion government with billions of unmet problems staring you in the face, it gets complicated in a hurry – even as people pound on your door demanding immediate results.

None of these candidates, although well-meaning, has a clue about what it takes to sit in the mayor’s chair. Not one has the experiential credentials to handle the next big crisis.

No Qualifications Necessary

But thanks to Trump and Carson, many voters today believe political qualifications aren’t necessary, that they are a detriment. Just make impossible claims of what you will do and, voila, voters line up to cheer.

Baltimore does have a trio of mayor candidates with solid political backgrounds. Yet they could find themselves overshadowed by the political newcomers who have captured the media’s fickle attention.

Sheila Dixon was a first-rate mayor till she appropriated for herself gift cards meant for the poor. She’s been mayor, City Council president and a council member – 22 years in elective office.

Carl Stokes has been in the City Council 22 years, chairs the budget committee, ran for mayor before and knows what should be fixed within city government.

Kathy Pugh has served in both the state legislature and the City Council – 10 years in Annapolis (currently majority leader) and five years on the City Council. She, too, understands what’s not working at City Hall.

Street Politicians

None of the three is a glamour candidate. These are nose-to-the-ground street politicians with decades of experience in helping citizens resolve problems with government.

Yet they could become the Jeb Bush and John Kasich of the mayor’s race – exceptionally well-qualified politicians lacking the social media buzz and new-face-on-the-scene novelty of a Trump or a Carson.

Baltimore is at a crossroads. It is a deeply troubled community with deeply ingrained societal problems. Turning control of City Hall over to a relative neophyte with barely an inkling of how to do the job would be a tragic mistake.

But it could happen. Baltimore would be worse off if it does.

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Hogan’s Hopes for Bus Transit

By Barry Rascovar

October 26, 2015 – Let’s take Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., at his word: He sincerely wants to make Baltimore’s inadequate bus transportation system better.

He’s come up with a plan to achieve that goal, too.

Hogan's Hopes for Bus Transit

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., and a mock-up of a CityLink bus he wants to bring to Baltimore.

The odds, though, are stacked against him.

He’s given himself an unrealistically short time frame (June, 2017) to totally revamp Baltimore’s complex bus network.

He’s underestimated the cost ($135 million) of pulling off such a massive turnaround.

He’s got no support from key elected local executives.

Is It Possible?

Much of what he calls for in his plan may not be feasible or sensible. It also might make traffic gridlock worse rather than better.

He ignores the past sensitivity of Baltimore’s bus riders to major route changes. Resistance to his plan could be strenuous among those who are inconvenienced or will lose access to existing jobs via bus routes being eliminated.

If, indeed, Hogan intends to shrink Baltimore’s bus system to a dozen color-coded routes, his approach could well be “transformative” in shrinking the state’s operating costs. It might make the system less accessible for Baltimoreans, too.

We may not get a good handle on the viability and pros and cons of Hogan’s bus initiative until the state Department of Legislative Services gives the plan a thorough analysis early next year.

Going Negative

As is his pattern, Hogan in his announcement excoriated Baltimore’s current transit system in sweeping, negative language. He once again pilloried the rail transit Red Line he killed earlier this year with hot rhetoric that bears little relationship to the facts.

Once again, he portrayed his Republican administration riding to the rescue of a mismanaged Democratic city with “transformative” changes.

This time, though, Hogan has got to deliver a vastly improved bus system. Executing his plan may not be as easy as he made it appear in his announcement.

Exactly how will Hogan pull off this transformation without cooperation from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake over the next 13 months? The two are barely civil and don’t see eye to eye on Baltimore’s people-mover needs.

Exactly which north-south and east-west roads does Hogan intend to use for his dedicated, separated bus-only lanes? There are no good options, especially downtown.

Such a move would squeeze existing traffic into fewer lanes, making rush hours more of a daily nightmare. Besides, Hogan needs the city to bless such an undertaking, which doesn’t seem likely given the uproar and traffic mess that could result.

Changing Signals

Exactly how is Hogan going to implement computerized bus signalization to turn red lights green on his 12 new, color-coded bus routes?

Every light change commanded by a bus driver will exacerbate traffic tie-ups on the cross street. What happens when buses going north-south and east-west hit the same downtown intersection at the same time in rush hour?

There’s a serious question whether Hogan’s signal-change idea will even do much to cut travel times. It sounds good on paper but in practice it doesn’t work well. The state and city have been trying to do this along the light-rail route on Howard Street for several decades with minimal success.

Hogan will get little opposition and some cheers for other parts of his plan, such as moving bus routes closer to suburban job centers; extending light-rail hours on Sunday; putting more focus on “last mile” problems for urban dwellers trying to reach their jobs in the suburbs; creating multi-modal transit hubs, and giving some financial support to Baltimore’s popular, free Charm City Circulator.

It’s now up to Hogan to make his bus plan reality.

Given the last Republican governor’s muddled attempt to markedly improve Baltimore bus service, there’s considerable room for skepticism that Hogan can pull it off.

Here’s hoping he succeeds. The city needs something to go right for a change.

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Flawed Poll

By Barry Rascovar

October 19, 2015 – True or false: Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore would easily defeat the two most prominent contenders for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski next year.

A Flawed Poll

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore

If you believe the Washington Post poll published last Friday, the answer is “true.”

But don’t believe everything you see in polls, especially polling snapshots that contain serious and disturbingly invalid tabulations.

The Post poll showed Cummings with 33 percent of the vote against Rep. Chris Van Hollen (20 percent) and Rep. Donna Edwards (20 percent), the two declared main contenders for Mikulski’s seat in next April’s Democratic primary.

The results were in line with a private poll commissioned by Cummings last spring.

But if you delve deeper into the poll’s methodology, there is reason to question its reliability.

Only 550 people were surveyed on the Senate question, a small number. Most established polling organizations insist on a sample of 1,000 to 2,000 respondents to get accurate snapshots of voter sentiment.

Poor Decision

Far worse was the decision by the Post and its partner, the University of Maryland, to ask the Senate question to both registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Note to the Post and UM: Registered independents cannot vote in Maryland primaries. So why in the world would you include them in a survey of voter sentiment on the Democratic Senate race?

The Post’s Senate poll results are tainted.

It may be that even when independents are removed from the tabulations, the numbers stay roughly the same – though the sample then might be too small to accurately gauge true Democratic sentiment.

Independent voters represented one-third of the people surveyed by the Post and UM for this extensive poll. That means the number of Democrats who were asked the Senate question might be quite small, perhaps only 350 or so individuals.

There’s also the problem of polling too early in the election cycle.

Governor Brown?

Well-known names always score best when balloting is far, far away.

In prior elections, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Anthony Brown looked like runaway victors in early polls. Both failed miserably on Election Day.

Cummings says he intends to make his decision on a Senate race this fall. He’s consumed right now by his role as chief defender of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against smears from House Republicans over the death of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, three years ago.

He’s also a national spokesman on African-American issues and a prime defender of the Obama administration against determined Republican attacks in the House of Representatives.

It could be a difficult choice for Cummings, whose reelection to his congressional seat is a slam-dunk. The Post’s fatally flawed Senate poll won’t be of much use in making that decision.

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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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