Category Archives: Baltimore

Baltimore Scapegoat

By Barry Rascovar

July 13, 2015 — It’s a time-worn tactic employed by floundering elected officials: When criticism builds to the point that your career is at risk, find a scapegoat and blame him for all that’s gone wrong.

Anthony Batts, Baltimore’s recently fired police commissioner, became beleaguered Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s scapegoat.

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts

Like author Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, Rawlings-Blake screamed, “Off with [his] head” to deflect the growing crescendo of dissatisfaction with her handling of Baltimore’s unprecedented crime and violence.

Here’s what she conveyed in her sudden dismissal of the police commissioner: None of this is my fault; Batts is to blame.

Getting the Boot

So now Batts is out of a job after three years of trying to get a handle on Charm City’s growing epidemic of  shootings, drug-related crime and gang violence. Surely Batts’ removal will make all those gruesome homicides go away.

Fat chance.

History tells us Rawlings-Blake’s ploy is unlikely to work.

Firing Baltimore’s top cop won’t stop the street gangs and the drug trade from firing away at their targets. Communities aren’t any safer today with Batts gone. The killings continue.

As usual, the mayor hesitated too long before taking decisive action. She hired Batts and was reluctant to give up on him. She failed to recognize early on that her police commissioner’s “West Coast offense” against Charm City’s criminals wasn’t working.

This will become a major issue in the 2016 mayoral race that already is heating up.

The Other Option

Rawlings-Blake picked the wrong man for the job. Batts had no familiarity with East Coast urban crime and law enforcement. His experience was mostly in smaller communities in sunny California, not in an aging, densely populated urban core with severe poverty, joblessness and distrust of the police.

Batts’ intentions were on point but his execution was lacking. He never gained the confidence of the men in blue, or of the community and its leaders.

But Rawlings-Blake liked him, in part because of his sterling education credentials.

In hindsight, she should have gone with the logical choice back in 2012: Acting Commissioner Anthony Barksdale, the young, behind-the-scenes deputy police chief who had devised a community policing strategy that brought the city’s homicide rate to record lows and reversed former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s “zero tolerance” approach that embittered young blacks unfairly targeted and jailed.

Former Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale

Former Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale

But Barksdale was a Coppin State dropout who then joined the police force and worked his way to the top through “street smarts” — unlike the Oberlin-educated mayor, who seems to prefer working with folks with degrees from the “right” colleges.

Barksdale also had another strike against him. He was the protégé of retiring Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld, a much-praised appointee of the prior mayor, Sheila Dixon.

Rawlings-Blake wanted to separate her administration from the disgraced Dixon, who had been convicted of gift-card theft and forced from office. Barksdale became an unintended casualty.

Early Warning 

We should have suspected the wheel was coming off the track for Rawlings-Blake in 2012 when two groups complained that the mayor’s advisory panel to pick a new police chief didn’t include  any civil rights or community leaders. They called it a “closed-door process being made in a vacuum.”

That apt description also applies to many of Rawlings-Blake’s major decisions since then.

It might have been quite different if the mayor had moved heaven and earth to get Bealefeld to stay on as police commissioner. The Baltimore native knew the city and its law enforcement team like the back of his hand. His demeanor and policing tactics were working big-time. He was changing the culture of the police force for the better and crime had declined sharply.

Former Police Chief Fred Bealefeld

Former Police Chief Fred Bealefeld

Barksdale, a born-and-raised Baltimorean like Bealefeld, would have continued those policies. Instead, Rawlings-Blake, as has been her pattern, opted for something new and different — an credentialed outsider who knew nothing about Charm City.

Batts came in, and Barksdale immediately went on medical leave for two years until he could retire at full pay. Also exiting was Col. Jesse Oden, who ran the Criminal Investigations Division. Batts forced out most of Bealefeld’s team and brought in more outsiders, like himself. It was downhill from there.

Dixon will claim in the mayoral campaign that she hired the right guy for the job — Bealefeld — and that Rawlings-Blake had gone outside the department to select a new police commissioner who never understood Baltimore and as a result mishandled April’s standoff with angry mobs in West Baltimore.

Mayor’s Prime Failure

The resulting conflagration, looting and violence staggered Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake’s excessive caution, excessive deliberation, her inability to grasp quickly what needed to be done and her aloofness may well cost her a second term.

At the heart of the problem was the mayor’s failure to recognize the importance of retaining and promoting highly experienced and skilled people from the inside rather than turning to outsiders.

National searches are overrated. Too often the outsider selected is intent on wiping out existing leadership and policies. Different is deemed better. Past successes are denigrated. Home-grown talent is shown the door.

The new leader hires more outsiders to run things differently. It takes them years to figure out the local turf. Morale plunges, confusion reigns and progress — if at all — is slow in coming.

Promoting from within is quicker and usually pays hefty dividends. The best Baltimore police chiefs, from Frank Battaglia to Leonard Hamm to Fred Bealefeld, came up through the ranks.

But new bosses — in politics and in business —  feel a need to show they are in charge by making a dramatic break with the past, even when that move is counter-productive.

High Price

Rawlings-Blake is now paying the price for insisting on new-and-different. Instead  of hiring a “change agent” as police chief, she should have stuck with the Bealefeld-Barksdale policies that were working so well.

Acting Commissioner Kevin Davis is both an insider and an outsider. He’s been a deputy commissioner for six months, which gives him a head start. Yet his prior career — an up-from-the-ranks success story — was spent in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.

Acting Police Commissioner Kevin Davis

Acting Police Commissioner Kevin Davis

Davis has a firmer grasp of Maryland policing than Batts did. He’s had time to assess the existing leadership. He’s seen what went wrong over the past half-year. But can he institute changes that lower the crime rate, boost police morale and improve community relations?

That’s a tall order, especially  in the midst  of a heated mayoral campaign.

His initial innovation — establishing a multi-agency “war room” to go after the “bad guys” causing much of the mayhem — sounds exactly like Fred Bealefeld’s operating mantra.

Given the failures at City Hall and at police headquarters in April, any move by Davis that lowers the violence and hostile rhetoric would be a giant step forward.

If he can get a handle on the crime epidemic, he deserves the job permanently regardless of who wins the April Democratic mayoral primary.

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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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Hogan to Baltimore: ‘Drop Dead’

By Barry Rascovar

June 29, 2015 –Larry Hogan Jr. never has had an affinity for Baltimore. He’s never lived in a big city. He’s a suburban Washington, suburban Annapolis kind of guy.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. standing in front of Purple Line map

Hogan also is a cold, calculating political animal. He has embraced  a staunch right-wing mindset — all government spending is bad, all liberal social programs are wasteful, all outlays that don’t help him politically are a boondoggle.

Thus, it was easy for Governor Hogan to kill more than a decade worth of work, more than a quarter-billion dollars already spent and to forfeit $900 million in federal funds that would have gone toward building a pivotal rail-transit line for Baltimore, the Red Line.

No Help

It is reminiscent of President Gerald Ford’s stern rebuke to New York City’s pleas for urgent help to avert imminent bankruptcy in 1975. As the New York Daily News summed it up so aptly in its banner headline the next day: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.

Ford thought a bailout would be a wasteful boondoggle, too. Why save the nation’s greatest city? That’s not government’s role!

New York Daily New, 1975

New York Daily New, 1975

Hogan takes the same unyielding attitude toward Baltimore, which in his mind really isn’t part of Maryland.

It’s such a nonentity — where poor people live — that when he sent word on Twitter of his $2 billion in road projects and $167 million for the Purple Line project in the Washington suburbs, Hogan’s aides failed to show Baltimore City on their map. It had vanished into the Chesapeake Bay.

Freudian slip? You bet.

When asked that day what was in his transportation package for Baltimore, the Republican governor said there was nothing.

Saw It Off

Hogan would just as soon see Baltimore and its expensive needs disappear, or as Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater famously said in 1963, “Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”

GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater

GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater

It’s no surprise Hogan committed over 90 percent of his transportation package to roads and bridges, becoming the darling of the asphalt and concrete industries. Fund-raising checks will roll in from those interest groups.

Giving the back of the hand to Baltimore is becoming a Hogan habit. Sure, he put on a good face by sending in the National Guard and jovially walking the mean streets of the city briefly (with State Police protection, of course).

But what has the governor done for Baltimore since then to address city residents’ discontent? Precious little.

This is the same governor who deep-sixed needed education aid for city schools in his first budget and then backed out of a compromise to restore some of those funds.

It was just more wasteful, irresponsible spending in Hogan’s eyes.

Body Blow for City

Failing to support the Red Line is a crushing blow for the state’s only large city, a city that in many respects is barely treading water.

The Red Line could have been a giant jobs-generator and income-producer in an urban center with very high unemployment. Instead, he called it a “boondoggle.” (Ironically, Hogan at the same event praised the Purple Line because of it jobs-producing potential.)

it would have been a godsend for the people in West Baltimore who rioted in April over their impoverished conditions, creating access to employment opportunities along the Red Line route, from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview.

it would have sparked retail and commercial development and housing at nearly two dozen Red LIne stations.

it would have rejuvenated Baltimore’s sagging downtown business district.

It would have eased some of the traffic gridlock and auto pollution.

Most of all, it would have given Baltimore a connected, viable rail-transit system, providing the missing link not just for city residents but for suburban families living to the east and west.

Sticking to Pledge

The Red Line is dead, killed by a stubborn Larry Hogan. He has fulfilled his campaign promise to conservative, non-urban followers.

There won’t be any major rail transit expansion in Baltimore for two decades or more, thanks to Hogan. That $900 million set aside for the Red Line is lost forever. The highway boys are cheering

The $288 million already spent by the statehas now been turned by Hogan into government waste. His staff, in typical Republican fashion, blamed Democrat Martin O’Malley for that spending on the Red Line, though the onus rightly should have been placed on Republican Bob Ehrlich, who gave the go-ahead.

What Hogan won’t admit is that this money had been well spent — until Hogan turned that sophisticated planning and detailed engineering blueprints to ashes. The wasteful governor is Larry Hogan.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz astutely asked Hogan in a statement what he proposes as his Plan B, his back-up plan, for Baltimore.

There is no alternative. Hogan to City: ‘Drop Dead.’

Now Hogan’s aides are scrambling to come up with some pitiful city road work that can be paraded as a Potemkin Village of a transportation substitute for Baltimore.

Political Calculation

The governor’s decision was a cold, calculated political move: fortify rural and suburban support with $2 billion in road and bridge work and hunt for additional votes for the next election in the Washington suburbs, thanks to his tentative support of the Purple Line.

But don’t be surprised if the Purple Line never gets built.

Hogan remains hostile toward rapid transit. He wants to do the job on the cheap, squeezing Prince George’s and Montgomery counties for hefty extra contributions and then getting a private-sector consortium of builders to chip in another $400 million or more.

This most likely means a slimmed-down rail line that won’t work well or no line at all. There’s also the chance the private-sector developer will be forced to charge exorbitant ticket fares for decades to recoup the investment demanded by Hogan.

Birds of a Feather

It’s no accident Hogan picked a transportation secretary known as a highway man, with zero experience in rapid rail transit. He was brought in to kill at least one of the expensive mass-transit projects, and he  may eventually succeed in killing both.

No wonder Hogan and Secretary Pete Rahn talked about the Red Line as “fatally flawed” and a “boondoggle” because — horrors of horrors — it included costly tunnels through the heart of downtown Baltimore.

Exactly how do you build an efficient subway line — or an “underground” as the British call it — without spending a lot of money to take the Red LIne below grade through the heart of a crowded urban center?

Anything built on the surface would compound downtown gridlock and make a joke of Red Line time savings. Sure, tunneling is very expensive but not if you take into consideration that it will be serving Baltimoreans a century from now.

By Hogan’s and Rahn’s thinking, all of the Washington Metro’s downtown subterranean rail network is a gigantic boondoggle. So is New York City’s subway. And London’s, too.

It’s a phony argument that stalwart conservatives like Hogan trot out.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Hogan get elected, used the same sort of illogic in 2009 to blow up a badly needed $12 billion rail tunnel between his state and New York City that would have doubled New Jersey commuter capacity.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie, like Hogan, set aside the long-term good he might do so he could boast to voters about chopping off the head of a wasteful project.

Solid Democratic

What’s wasteful in this case is failing to give Baltimore a decent mass-transit system that holds the potential to stimulate economic development, job growth and improve residents’ quality of life.

Hogan has no interest, though, in anything dealing with Baltimore. He feels like a stranger there. It’s overwhelmingly Democratic turf. Why bother?

“With these projects, we’re going to touch the lives of citizens across the state,” Hogan said in his announcement. He needed to add the words, “except in Baltimore.”

Now Rahn & Co. are hastily trying to jerry-rig an alternative transportation scheme for Baltimore.

More buses on narrow, overcrowded city streets?

Paving over the existing light-rail line and converting it into a busway?

Or just shoveling more transportation dollars to the city to re-pave its potholed network of deteriorating asphalt?

Without speedy rail transit nothing will prove effective in the long run. Yet Hogan says won’t pay for it in Baltimore (though he will in suburban Washington).

Burying Baltimore

Larry Hogan has put a deep nail in Baltimore’s coffin. He’s not looking to ameliorate the damage, either.

Maryland’s governor is a jovial, common-man sort of figure, but we’re learning that he holds a rigidly conservative view of the world.

In Hogan’s world, Baltimore needs to fend for itself because this governor — to use lyrics from the musical  “West Side Story” — would rather “let it sink back in the ocean.”

# # #

Hopeless in Baltimore?

By Barry Rascovar

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

Book burning

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-education Educators?

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

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

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

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

Back to the Basics

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

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

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

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

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Hogan: Hero or Goat?

By Barry Rascovar

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

Baltimore's Planned Red Line Route

Baltimore’s planned Red Line route

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

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

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

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

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

Rookie Mistake in Japan

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

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

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

Purple Line

The planned Purple Line in suburban Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

A True Rail Network

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

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

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

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

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

Red Line logo

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

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

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

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

Forfeiting a Billion Dollars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Laurel Preakness? Get Real

By Barry Rascovar

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

 

Pimlico Race Course

Pimlico Race Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diminished Triple Crown

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

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

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

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

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

Subsidy Options

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

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

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

Pimlico logo

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

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

Stronach’s Contribution

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

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

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

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Hogan’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Rascovar

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

Gov. Larry Hogan & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

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

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

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

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

Silent Secretary

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

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

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

Another bit of Hogan flummery.

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

No Dipping Allowed

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

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

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

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

He’s got his priorities reversed.

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

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

Harsh Consequences

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

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

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

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

He’s playing with political dynamite.

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

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

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

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

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

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

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

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

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

Narrow Legislative Focus

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

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

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

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

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

Bay Bridge toll cut

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

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

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

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

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

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

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

Next Big Test

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

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

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

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

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

Heartbreaking Failure of Leadership

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

Failure of Leadership

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

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

Partial Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discontent with Violence

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

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

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

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

Residue of Anger

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

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

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

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

O-Malley and Rawlings-Blake

Mayors past and present in happier times

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

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

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

No Rapid Response

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

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

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

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

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

Former Mayor Dixon looms as a potential contender, too.

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

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

Baltimore’s Self-Inflicted Wound

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 19, 2015 — Baltimore City stands to lose tens of millions of education dollars in Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s budget and much, much more in future years.

But Hogan is not at fault. City leaders, past and present, are to blame.

Baltimore’s self-inflicted wound was preventable and obvious. Yet elected officials chose to ignore it.

Now city schools will pay the price.

Tax-Avoidance Schemes

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and past Mayors Kurt Schmoke, Martin O’Malley and Sheila Dixon got carried away with a tax-avoidance scheme that has enticed investors into the city.

These favored investors are allowed to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) and are given Tax Increment Financing  (TIF) deals that divert their property tax payments into public improvements for their developments.

The net result: New construction downtown but no tax windfall for city government.

Indeed, big projects like Harbor East and Harbor Point pay virtually no taxes to the city. The same would be true for the State Center development and the massive, now-bankrupt Westport project.

Yes, some of those PILOTs and TIFs led to development activity in Baltimore that never might have happened without these quite large and long-lasting incentives.

Damaging Tax Breaks

But someone forgot to get out an adding machine and calculate what these non-taxpaying projects would do to undercut Baltimore’s state school aid.

A big chunk of what the city receives in school funds from the state is determined by a formula based on its property valuation. The poorer a jurisdiction’s wealth base, the larger the state’s contribution.

Harbor Point and Harbor East helped Baltimore’s property wealth rise substantially. The formula assumes that this translates into markedly higher property tax revenue.

That’s not so if you’re handing out TIFs and PILOTs like sugar-coated cookies.

Baltimore’s property tax collections aren’t benefiting from these heavily subsidized projects. Now the state’s school-funding formula dictates the city will get $13 million less than last year due to all those new downtown developments.

Less School Aid

Down the road, Baltimore’s  state school aid will shrink even more as additional projects receive lucrative tax-exemption deals from the city. Most of these tax-avoidance schemes run for decades, which compounds the damage.

There’s no doubt city leaders had to offer enticements to jump-start downtown and near-downtown development, especially after the Great Recession. But they got carried away.

Any new and glitzy proposal outside the Central Business District seems to have won a major tax-relief prize.

Now the same officials who handed out those tax-avoidance awards to developers are scrambling to avert a big cutback in school aid.

They probably will get some money restored, thanks to Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh’s position as chair of the House budget panel.

New Critique Needed

They might even succeed in amending the formula language to take into account Baltimore’s unique situation.

What isn’t likely to happen is a frank reevaluation of Baltimore’s overly generous use of TIFs and PILOTs. It’s a good idea taken to dangerous extremes.

Think what Baltimore could do with $13 million-plus in its budget every year. That tax money isn’t helping city schools — it is helping developers who may not even need generous subsidies in today’s markedly improved development climate.

It’s time for city officials to analyze what went wrong — and fix it. Defending the indefensible no longer works.

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