Category Archives: Government

Hogan & Pugh: Doing What’s Right

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 21, 2017 – In this seminal period of American history, it is important for elected officials to display moral courage and leadership rather than more fashionable politics of survival – and a craven pandering to people’s baser instincts.

Both Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh took the high road last week, doing what was right even if it proved controversial.

The two leaders acted quickly to remove Civil War-era statues that inflamed public debate, thanks to President Trump’s incendiary comments following a neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally and a later domestic terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Va.

The two Marylanders are getting flak for their prompt, common-sense decisions. They even drew criticism for daring to provide sensible arguments for their actions.

While this dispute superficially involves the removal of statues honoring the Confederacy and slavery, the culture war erupting nationwide is forcing Americans to confront some of this country’s darkest history.

Ever since the end of the North-South confrontation that lasted four bloody years, there’s been a concerted effort to patch things over and get on with “reconciliation.” Southern leaders, meanwhile, have tried to keep the image of the ante-bellum era alive, turning Confederate leaders into hallowed heroes and their traditions into a virtue.

Those divergent initiatives led to Confederate statues arising around the country. Four in Baltimore now have been removed as has one on the State House grounds in Annapolis.

Lee-Jackson on Horseback

The Lee-Jackson equestrian statue in Wyman Park dell near the Baltimore Museum of Art should have come down long ago. It was an embarrassment, an ode to two military men who betrayed their country and sought to tear it asunder.

Their actions do not merit a salute on public city property. Neither Robert E. Lee nor Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson showed up in the vicinity of Baltimore during the Civil War. There’s no reason for this statue to be in a Baltimore park.

Hogan & Pugh

Lee-Jackson Monument at its former site in Baltimore.

Pugh hit a home run when she suggested the equestrian bronze rightly belongs on the Chancellorsville battlefield in Spotsylvania, Va. That is where Lee and Jackson concocted a brilliant strategy that pulled off a surprising victory – one that was marred by Jackson’s friendly-fire wounding and subsequent death.

As for the two statues of Roger B. Taney (1777-1864), the issue is more complex. Taney, the fifth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, stands out as the most prominent Marylander to serve in high federal posts for an extended period of time.

After election to the Maryland House of Delegates, state Senate and then to the office of state attorney general, Taney took on the role of President Andrew Jackson’s attorney general and later secretary of the Treasury. He was the most influential member of Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet” and architect of Jackson’s campaign to abolish the Second Bank of the United States.

This was a pivotal issue in Jackson’s election and re-election. Taney provided a glide path for President Jackson, who was the Bernie Sanders of his time – a populist intent on bringing the voice of the common man into the White House.

Taney on the Supreme Court

Jackson then chose Taney to succeed the giant of Supreme Court chief justices, John Marshall. It was a position Taney held for over 28 years.

A state’s rights constitutionalist, Taney broke new ground in commercial law, the enforcement of legally binding contacts and the decision-making authority of popularly elected state legislatures.

One landmark written opinion, though, left Taney’s reputation in tatters. From the moment the Dred Scott decision was announced in 1857, it was excoriated for its harsh and inhuman characterization of African Americans.

Scott, Taney wrote, had no standing to file a lawsuit because African Americans – both freedmen and slaves – possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Hogan & Pugh

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

From today’s vantage point, there’s no doubt of the terrible wrongness of Taney’s declaration. But in the context of his times, Taney’s viewpoint was supported by many Americans, including six other Supreme Court justices who supported Taney’s majority opinion.

According to an amazingly timely account of the Taney statues in the spring/summer issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine, Taney’s bronze image came about as a result of diametrically opposed drives by state legislators: One group sought reconciliation after the war by honoring Maryland’s most famous national figure. The other group had clear white supremacist goals, using Taney’s Dred Scott opinion as the rationale for their racist views.

Bronzes are Born

William Henry Rinehart, a renowned Maryland sculptor, cast the Taney bronze in his Rome workshop. It cost taxpayers $10,000 (about $250,000 in today’s dollars). The statue’s unveiling in 1872 was a major state event. A duplicate of Taney’s head, neck and shoulders, with alterations, was later commissioned for Baltimore, crafted by the brilliant American Beaux-Arts sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

These are historically accurate and important works. Demagogic demands by gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous and Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott to melt down those artistic creations are despicable attempts at modern-day book-burning. Such demands bring into question these individuals’ temperament as public figures.

Both Hogan and Pugh placed the controversial statues in storage until an appropriate home can be found. Flame-throwers on both the far-right and far-left would love to make these statues a cause celebre to further their opportunistic objectives.

No wonder the bronzes were moved overnight from their sites. Public safety was at risk.

Appropriate Replacements

Now the question becomes: What should replace these discredited public monuments?

Why not commission statues of unifying figures from Maryland’s recent past, such as political giants:

  • William Donald Schaefer (four-time Baltimore mayor and two-time governor),
  • Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin (two times both governor and Baltimore mayor),
  • Barbara Mikulski (feminist ground-breaker and longest-serving female member of the U.S. Senate), and
  • Charles “Mac” Mathias (seminal centrist politician in both the U.S. House and Senate).

Or perhaps we should replace the Baltimore bust of Taney with a bust of the most recent Maryland Supreme Court justice, Baltimore-born Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American jurist on the nation’s highest court.

What about Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi – the Baltimore daughter of a three-term mayor and five-term congressman, Thomas “Old Tommy” D’Alesandro, Jr. – who rose to the highest rung of the U.S. House of Representatives as the nation’s first female Speaker of the House?

Or maybe we should avoid political figures and honor in bronze the likes of James Rouse, the pioneering urban planner (the new town of Columbia, Harborplace, Cross Keys, Mondawmin and Harundale Mall – the first enclosed shopping center east of the Mississippi).

Why not a bronze statue commemorating philanthropists like Johns Hopkins, Enoch Pratt and George Peabody, whose selfless contributions to the Baltimore region have endured for over a century?

It’s time to move on from 150-year-old Civil War divisions.

Let us find proper, appropriate sites for controversial statuary art from that era.

Then let us honor and commemorate men and women of all races who have made metropolitan Baltimore and Maryland better because of their dedication and hard work for the common good.

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

Pension Investing: Goldilocks vs. Chicken Little

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 14, 2017–Separating fact from fiction, headline-screaming hype from on-the-ground reality isn’t easy in this 24/7/365 media-frenzied world, especially when it comes to reporting on government and politics.

Take, for example, the world of state pension fund performance. Returns on these investments have been pretty meager in recent years and the nation’s governors and legislatures have resisted pumping hundreds of billions of dollars to achieve “full funding” for these pension accounts.

In Maryland, it has become an annual rite of August for critics to lambast state pension trustees when they fall short on their investments. The biggest lament is the state’s huge “unfunded liability,” which stands a bit below $20 billion.MD Pension System: Goldilocks vs. Chicken Little

Wow. That’s a mighty hefty number. Is the pension program for 387,000 state workers, teachers and retirees going broke as doom-and-gloomers insist?

Or are we being fed “fake news” in which the “sky-is-falling” screams are based on a false premise?

It’s more the latter than the former. The $20 billion number is based on a scenario that will never happen. It assumes every eligible state worker and teacher retires tomorrow. In other words, government virtually shuts down and everyone starts collecting retirement benefits.

Future Gap in Payouts

It is true the state’s retirement agency pays out more in benefits each year than it takes in from employee contributions and state and local governments. In good years, that gap is closed by investment income. In bad years, the agency withdraws funds from its $49 billion in assets.

This past fiscal year was a very good one for Maryland’s retirement fund. Investments yielded a 10% return – a $3.6 billion increase in net assets. Over the past 10 years assets have grown by $10 billion.

Still, critics assert Maryland’s pension trustees should be far more aggressive. Instead of middle-of-the-road investing compared to other states, they also insist the trustees could make billions more by shifting investments into static index funds.

That would achieve two things. Management fees would be markedly lower, since index funds require very little work for fund managers once they are set up. Second, index funds perform exceptionally well in flush economic times since they reflect overall stock market booms.

Maryland pension officials have resisted this shift and here’s why. In bad times, index funds are hit much harder than actively managed funds.

State officials have been cautious over the years in an attempt to reduce extreme highs and lows by diversifying their portfolio. Only half the agency’s money is tied up in equity funds. The rest goes into much safer, and thus lower paying, investments such as government bonds, real estate and cash.

Over the past 30 years that approach has returned an 8% return per year.

To Index or Not to Index?

Still, critics are pounding the retirement agency for not fully indexing its accounts to lower management fees.

Those critics are ignoring worrisome storm clouds many economists see on the horizon. T. Rowe Price, for the first time in 17 years, is pulling back on its stock investments and increasing investments in bonds – a sign the company sees a downturn coming our way.

T. Rowe Price actively manages its funds so that if the economy starts to tank, it can shift out of stocks and increase its cash reserves. That shelters shareholders from the worst of bad times.

But if you are fully invested in index funds, there’s no way of avoiding a direct hit when the stock market plunges 20% or more.

Comptroller Peter Franchot has warned trustees against taking too many risks to achieve higher returns by buying stocks when their valuations are sky-high. His caution reflects the consensus of the retirement fund’s trustees.

At the moment, Maryland’s pension program is 70% fully funded and the board has instituted a 25-year-plan to close the remaining gap. But this liability is more an academic concern than something to lose sleep over.

Maryland state pension fund trustees continue to ignore the Chicken Littles screaming that “the sky is falling.” Instead, the trustees are following the tried-and-true Goldilocks formula: “Not too hot, not too cold, j-u-s-t right.”

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Madison, McCain and Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Washington’s embarrassing health care debacle should not come as a surprise. Two hundred thirty years ago, James Madison warned of just such an appalling spectacle in Federalist Paper No. 10. He pinpointed the cause, as did Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Arizona Sen. John McCain in the past week.

Madison wrote of the evils of “factions,” of narrow-minded party zealots more concerned with a political “win” than doing what’s best for people. He cautioned against leaders “ambitiously contending for preeminence and power” more disposed “to vex and oppress . . . than to co-operate.”

Madison, McCain, Hogan

James Madison portrait, by Gilbert Stuart

“A factious spirit has tainted our public administration.”

Madison composed those words during a bitter fight to approve the Constitution in 1787.

John McCain expressed identical sentiments in his dramatic truth-to-power health-care speech on the Senate floor last week.

Republican leaders and President Trump tried to pull a fast one on the GOP Senate majority: A series of recklessly ill-conceived health-care proposals written behind closed doors, not revealed till the last moment and creating a health-care disaster for over 30 million Americans.

The GOP came close to succeeding – until the chamber’s eternal maverick, the nation’s best exemplar of what it means to be a “profile in courage,” gave his colleagues a blunt and on-point lecture they badly needed.

World’s Worst Deliberative Body?

McCain complained that Senate deliberations had become “more partisan, more tribal than any time I remember.”

The results? Well, there haven’t been any, he said. “We’ve been spinning our wheels . . . because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.” And, he added, “We’re getting nothing done.”

Yes, America’s health-care system is a mess, McCain noted. It’s no secret it needs fixing.

But a bunch of hard-core Republicans tried to ram through an unworkable series of proposals, intentionally bypassing the democratic system of holding public hearings to get viewpoints from all sides, letting legislators of all stripes offer amendments and allowing time for lawmakers to parse and debate details of the bill.

What we witnessed was the worst of one-party rule, a society lurching toward autocracy – until a handful of Republicans had the gumption to do what was best for their constituents rather than what was best for their political party’s ambitions.

Madison, McCain, Hogan

Arizona Sen. John McCain

McCain told colleagues they should be realistic:

“Incremental progress, compromises each side criticize but also accept, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems” may be “the most we can expect from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse and quarrelsome and free as ours.”

Step By Step Approach

Sometimes, he said, “we must give a little to get a little,” and sometimes “our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’ ”

But that’s part of the American system, he continued. Grinding the other political party into oblivion isn’t inspiring or worthwhile.

“There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences while not letting them stand in the way of agreements that don’t require either side to abandon their core principles; agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people.”

Even before McCain spoke these words, Maryland’s governor was joining other governors – Republicans and Democrats – to demand an end to the circus in Washington that threatened tens of millions of their states’ citizens.

Three times Republican Hogan has raised objections to the mad rush among GOP leaders in Congress and the White House to push through healthcare bills that would cripple the private insurance market and crush the hopes of many citizens for healthcare coverage.

Havoc in the States

When the GOP leadership’s unveiled its “repeal and replace” bill, Hogan’s office said congressional leaders should “go back to the drawing board” and produce a plain that didn’t take healthcare away from people.

Later, Hogan and 10 other governors condemned the GOP leadership’s healthcare plans that would have wreaked havoc in the states. Instead, the governors sensibly called for “both parties to come together and do what we can all agree on: Fix our unstable insurance markets.

Then before the Senate’s absurd “vote-a-rama” marathon last week, Hogan and eight other governors from both parties strongly opposed the “skinny repeal” plan that would have knocked the legs out from under Obamacare.

“Congress should be working to make health insurance more affordable while stabilizing the health insurance market,” the governors stated. What the GOP congressional leadership proposed, they said, would “accelerate health plans leaving the individual market, increase premiums and result in fewer Americans having access to coverage.”

What’s needed, they repeated, is a cooperative spirit of compromise in which Republicans in Congress sit down with Democrats and the nation’s governors, figure out how to fix what’s broken in the healthcare system and agree on a solution.

Is anyone listening?

They were listening to James Madison in 1787 when he pleaded with his countrymen to avoid turning the country into a nation of “factions” that would destroy what had been dearly won.

Now we’ll find out if John McCain’s pleas and those of governors like Larry Hogan are heard and heeded by a deeply fractious, hyper-partisan Congress.

Much hangs in the balance.  ###

Hogan vs. the Legislature: A Constitutional Clash

By Barry Rascovar

On the surface, it seems much ado about nothing – an esoteric argument most folks can safely ignore. But the dispute over whether two state Cabinet appointees can legally remain in office without Senate confirmation raises an important constitutional question that cries out for judicial resolution.

Gov. Larry Hogan precipitated this divide with some unorthodox moves that appear aimed at stripping power from the General Assembly and enlarging his ability to ignore actions of the state legislature when it comes to appointments subject to Senate confirmation.

Following hearings earlier this year, two of Hogan’s Cabinet nominees raised alarms for lawmakers. That is precisely the way the “advise and consent” section of the state Constitution is supposed to work. It’s one of the defensive mechanisms James Madison and Alexander Hamilton inserted into the federal Constitution – and embraced by most states – to place a brake on the chief executive’s power.

It provides a chance for legislators to interview Cabinet nominees, question them on the issues and pass judgment on their readiness to serve in important, decision-making state jobs.

If the appointees are found lacking, the Senate can vote down the appointments. That’s how American government works. Each branch plays a role that is independent yet interdependent. Both the chief executive and the legislative branch must give the OK.

But what happens when the governor doesn’t want to share power, when the chief executive thumbs his nose at the legislative branch?

That’s the situation Hogan and lawmakers are facing.

Schrader and Peters

Hogan’s choice for health secretary, Dennis Schrader, has good management credentials, a government background and good political contacts but no professional medical or academic health care credentials.

Constitutional Crisis

Interim Health Chief Dennis Schrader

Lawmakers on the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, after hearing from Schrader, became alarmed and delayed a vote on his confirmation. Then Hogan, surprisingly, withdrew Schrader’s nomination – even though he had assurance from the Senate president that the full Senate would eventually assent to Schrader’s appointment.

Senators had even more concerns about Hogan’s Cabinet appointment as Planning Secretary, Wendi Peters. She lacks any professional planning credentials. She worked as a paralegal and served as a Republican on the Mount Airy Town Council before losing a race for House of Delegates in 2014.

Legislators heard horror stories about Peters terrorizing Planning Department workers, firing them for little cause and creating an oppressive work environment.

That led the Senate committee to reject her nomination. But before the full Senate could finalize that move, Hogan withdrew Peters’ nomination, too.

Once legislators adjourned in April, though, Hogan re-appointed both to their jobs on an interim basis, sticking a thumb in the eyes of lawmakers.

Legislative counter-move

Assembly leaders anticipated Hogan’s move. They’ve seen how he insists on having it his way. So they inserted language in the state budget that bars Peters and Schrader from being paid after July 1 because they lack confirmation by the Senate committee.

Constitutional Crisis in MD

Interim Planning Secretary Wendi Peters

The state attorney general issued a legal opinion noting that Hogan has every right to reappoint the two Cabinet officials but the General Assembly has the right to cut off their pay checks because the two failed to gain Senate confirmation.

(Hogan’s office made the astounding statement that the elected attorney general’s opinion doesn’t count for a hill of bean but Hogan’s own, unelected staff counsel’s determination should be the last word.)

Then Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has continually shown an eagerness to side with Republican Hogan, did so again, announcing he would pay Peters and Schrader.

But the key signature on those paychecks isn’t Franchot’s but state Treasurer Nancy Kopp’s.

She read Attorney General Brian Frosh’s legal opinion. Frosh’s office is, after all, the constitutional authority for all state government agencies. As a spokeswoman for Kopp put it, “Her attorney is the attorney general” – not Hogan’s staff lawyer.

Kopp’s conclusion: She has no choice but to follow the guidance laid down by the attorney general and abide by the language added to the state budget. Thus, Schrader and Peters will not be paid until this disagreement is resolved.

Shaky Power-sharing

Since his election as governor, Hogan has inveighed against sharing power with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. This is another example of his unwillingness to accept the limitations  laid down in the state constitution that make the two branches co-equal parts of Maryland state government.

Other governors, when faced with rejection of an executive department nominee would have moved on, recognizing that’s the right of the state senate. There are plenty of other positions Peters and Schrader could fill in Hogan’s expansive jobs orbit.

More important, there are plenty of better suited individuals who could ably fill those Cabinet slots, individuals that agree with the governor’s conservative views but are acceptable to Democratic leaders in the General Assembly.

That’s how governance is supposed to work in Maryland – and how it has worked in the past. Unfortunately, Hogan is looking for a fight rather than consensus.

This war of words could persist into the future if Hogan wants to it drag out, reappointing Peters and Schrader, then withdrawing their nominations before the full Senate votes to reject them, then re-appointing the two once next year’s session ends.

It would make a mockery of the “advise and consent” section of the Maryland Constitution. It would send a signal Hogan isn’t willing to share power.

That’s one of the reasons Hogan must take the matter to the Maryland Court of Appeals. When two co-equal branches of Maryland government disagree this strongly on the constitutional powers of the other branch, the third branch, the judiciary, is there to interpret the law and render a definitive answer.

Failure to seek a judicial decision on this constitutional issue would be playing politics instead of seeking a final judgment as to which side is right.

It’s time for Hogan to tell his minions to stop with the name-calling and angry allegations of unethical behavior and instead order his legal counsel to take the matter to court. It would be good for both feuding branches of state government. ##

 

Is Maryland like Georgia and Wisconsin?

By Barry Rascovar

June 26, 2017—Taken together, developments in Georgia (special election) and Wisconsin (redistricting lawsuit) have been read by some Maryland Republicans as positive indicators that things finally are moving in their direction in a state overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats.

Retaining a Republican House seat in Georgia indicates to this state’s GOP that there’s been no mudslide erosion of support within the party from President Trump’s erratic behavior.

Getting the Supreme Court to jump into the Wisconsin redistricting lawsuit means Maryland Republicans might get their state’s gerrymandered, Democratic-leaning congressional districts thrown out, too.

Yes, hope springs eternal, but a closer look at these two developments paints a far less rosy picture for Maryland’s minority party, outnumbered 2-1 by Free State Democrats.

Expected Victory for GOP

The Georgia special election should have not been close. This is a solidly Republican district in the growing Atlanta suburbs that hasn’t had a Democratic congressman in almost 40 years.

In 2014, Republican incumbent Tom Price won by nearly 24%. Yet this year the GOP’s winning margin plunged to 4%.

That shrinkage mirrors similar special elections in Montana and Kansas where the Republican candidates won but not by landslide margins of prior years.

The Trump factor is largely to blame. His controversial early months in office have roiled much of the electorate, even in safe GOP districts. The public’s distaste for Trump hasn’t reached the tipping point yet, which is good news for Republicans.

In Maryland, that’s especially true for Gov. Larry Hogan as he begins to chart his re-election course. The last thing Hogan needs is the Trump albatross around his neck.

This explains Hogan’s unexpected decision to criticize the Senate Republican health-care bill. Polls show nearly two-thirds of Americans dislike Republican health-reform proposals and Hogan doesn’t want to be standing by Trump on the wrong side of this issue.

It’s hard to imagine that a newly elected president could become so unpopular so quickly. Trump in just five months has seen his popularity ratings drop into in the mid-30s. Some recent polls have him in the high 20s.

At this rate, imagine what the voting public will think of the incumbent president when they go to the polls in November 2018.

So while the results of the Georgia special election on the surface look good for Republicans, the narrowness of the victory should scare GOP incumbents in marginally Republican districts, such as the Miami and Philadelphia suburbs.

It underlines Hogan’s delicate balancing act in Maryland: retain absolute loyalty from rank and file Republicans while appealing to independents and moderate Democrats.

So far, Hogan has done a magnificent job avoiding GOP erosion while not losing his broader appeal.

Still, if 2018 becomes a “message election” in which voters across the country let Trump know they don’t like his bizarre performance, Hogan could struggle to win a second term. Separating his own political persona from Trump’s is key.

Gerrymandering Meanders into Court

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, a redistricting case involving gerrymandered state Assembly districts has made it to the Supreme Court. Republicans in Maryland have their own gerrymandering case in federal court.

Would a victory over gerrymandering in the Wisconsin case mean a huge GOP win in the Maryland case?

That may not be the logical conclusion.

Maryland’s redistricting maps, while grotesque in geographic design, don’t come close to carrying out one-party gerrymandering the way the GOP did in Wisconsin.Is Maryland Like Georgia and Wisconsin?

That state is marginally Republican. Barack Obama captured the Dairy State in 2012 by 7%, but Republican Gov. Scott Walker won reelection in 2014 by 6%. Last year, Republicans won the presidential vote in Wisconsin by less than 1%.

The 2011 state legislative redistricting map Republicans enacted packed Democratic voters into a small number of districts in the state’s two urban areas – Milwaukee and Madison. That allowed the GOP to create Republican majorities in nearly two-thirds of the state’s Assembly districts –a “baked in majority” of 20 seats. In recent elections, Republicans have gained 15% more seats in the legislature—despite the almost-even split in statewide races.

A district court and an appeals court agreed this sort of gerrymandering goes too far. Now the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the fall.

Maryland’s redistricting lawsuit is quite different. Plaintiffs face an uphill battle in spite of the Wisconsin court rulings. That’s because the voter registration numbers don’t appear to support the GOP’s contention that political gerrymandering severely discriminates against Republican voters.

The GOP complains about the 6th Congressional District, which used to be represented by Republican Roscoe Bartlett until Democrats re-drew the boundaries by attaching Democratic parts of Montgomery County to Republican Western Maryland.

Suddenly a district that elected Bartlett with 59% of the vote in 2010, swung Democratic, electing John Delaney in 2012 with 59% of the vote.

Yet that large Democratic advantage didn’t hold up two years later, when Delaney won by just 1.5% of the 6th District vote.

Last year, facing a weaker Republican nominee, Delaney won with 56%.

The voter registration in that district (based on the 2010 Census) is fascinating: 43% are Democrats, 31% are Republicans and the rest, 26%, unaffiliated, Green Party or Libertarian.

It’s a competitive district. If Delaney decides at the end of July to run for governor, the race for his congressional seat could be wide open.

That’s hardly a winning court argument against gerrymandering.

The 6th District also is fairly compact, even with the addition of the Montgomery County precincts (instead of moving directly east the district turns due south).

Moreover, there’s precedent for turning Western Maryland and Montgomery County into a single congressional district: For decades, this was the case with Republicans J. Glenn Beall Jr. and Charles “Mac” Mathias from Western Maryland representing the combined areas – without a peep about unfair gerrymandering.

Republicans also complain about the 3rd Congressional District’s weird shape (like “a winged pterodactyl” according to an appeals court judge). The GOP says this illustrates Democratic efforts to dilute GOP strength, since only 25% of registered district voters are Republicans and 55% are Democrats.

The litigants have a point on the complete lack of compactness. Their argument falls apart, though, over the dilution of GOP strength. It turns out the 3rd District’s party split (55-25%) almost precisely mirrors Maryland’s party split (55-26%).

Republicans may be at a disadvantage in all but one Maryland congressional district. However, that’s due to the GOP’s 2-1 voter registration deficit statewide.

Still, it would be in the public’s best interest for the Supreme Court to get involved, once again, and clearly delineate general rules for redistricting after the 2020 Census.

There always will be political manipulation – by either party. But if the high court rules that all districts must be compact, contiguous and respectful of neighborhoods and natural boundaries, it would go a long way toward straightening out the extreme gerrymandering that plagues far too many states.

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Maryland’s Mixed Economic Messages

By Barry Rascovar

May 22, 2017 – Talk about sending mixed messages, the latest jobs report for Maryland can be read as good news or the precursor of bad economic news.

Maryland added 3,500 jobs in April. That’s good, right?

Well, yes, but remember in March Maryland lost 7,900 jobs.

Want another mixed message?

Maryland’s unemployment rate rose slightly to 4.3%. That’s a disturbing sign, small though it may be.

It indicates more people who had dropped out of even trying to find a job are once again seeking work. A larger pool of job-seekers could keep the unemployment rate in Maryland on an upward path.

Yet it’s a good sign that Maryland’s jobless rate remains a notch below the national unemployment rate of 4.4%.

Conflicting Federal Signals

If you want to see an even bigger mixed economic message for the Free State, look at what’s about to happen in dysfunctional Washington.

President Trump will be releasing his first budget this week for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Early indicators point to a fiscal blueprint that slashes domestic programs especially for the poor and the environment but is exceedingly generous to the military.

How do you rate that package, good or bad?

Here’s one more: Trump trumpeted his “great day” in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, where a series of tentative agreements were announced.

Maryland's Mixed Economic Signals

President Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia

The White House claimed these still-evolving deals could be worth $110 billion, much of it in military equipment, plus a still-murky $40 billion joint infrastructure investment fund.

Good for the U.S. economy, right?

But these are merely “understandings” between the two governments. Nothing is written in stone.

First, these purchases may take a long time, if ever, to materialize. Tough and lengthy negotiations lie ahead.

Moreover, the Saudi government is demanding that a vast amount of the spending take place outside the U.S. – in the Arabian kingdom.

Lockheed Martin is trying to lock down $28 billion worth of military contracts with the Saudis, including air-missile defense systems and aircraft.

How much of this work will end up in Maryland remains unclear.

Signed contracts could be a long way off.

And the Saudi government is insisting much of this work be done in their own country. It’s part of the push by the deputy crown prince to move the Saudi economy away from its current over-dependence on petroleum production.

There’s also a sense of urgency in the kingdom to bring down the high unemployment rate among young adults who are well-educated but can’t find work.

So there may be less in Trump’s Saudi agreements for the U.S. economy than at first blush.

Budget Blues

Maryland’s bigger problem lies in the soon-to-be-unveiled Trump budget proposal.

The Environmental Protection Agency budget alone is scary: Eliminating the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, doing away with lead-abatement funding, cutting air and water quality cleanup grants by nearly half and tossing out lots and lots of environmental regulations.

There’s even $12 million set aside for buyouts and early retirement offers – part of the EPA’s determination to shrink the agency and restrict its role in state and local environmental efforts.

The good news is that Congress can disregard Trump’s draconian domestic spending agenda, though it is likely to give the military a huge budget boost. How the American public perceives this dramatic spending shift may remain uncertain until the 2018 elections.

Maryland and Virginia could be the biggest losers.

Trump can accomplish a massive government downsizing without congressional consent. While Capitol Hill may give Trump more money than he requests for domestic programs, the president need not spend that money.

This could mean more Marylanders thrown out of work. For state government, it could lead to a drop-off in tax revenue, a budget crisis in the State House and rising demands from localities for the state to step in and fund programs losing federal support.

Yes, the glass these days can be viewed as half-empty or half-full.

Yet it is hard to see how this is good news for those in Annapolis who must deal with the economic fallout stemming from Republican downsizing efforts in Washington.

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Hogan’s Worst Nightmare: Trumpcare

By Barry Rascovar

May 8, 2017 – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s worst nightmare is starting to come true. Trumpcare has passed the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Senate finds a way to give President Trump what he wants, it could spell a heap of trouble for Hogan in 2018’s general election.

The Republican Party’s mania with obliterating Barack Obama’s massive health insurance law has led the majority party in Washington to ignore common sense.

“Repeal and replace” is a GOP obsession – though an estimated 24 million people could lose their insurance, tens of millions more could be out of luck due to pre-existing conditions and medical programs for the poor could be cut 25%.

It also would damage the nation’s economy. That’s especially true in Maryland, where healthcare is one of the state’s biggest employers.Hogan's Worst NightmareIt is almost certain to be the No. 1 issue in the 2018 mid-term elections, even if the Senate approves a diluted Trumpcare bill.

What a devastating state of affairs for Republican Hogan. Until the House vote last week, he appeared in excellent shape to win a second term.

Now he has to figure out how to tiptoe around this explosive issue that already is proving highly unpopular.

Unfavorable Poll Numbers

A Washington Post-ABC poll last month found 61% of Americans opposed Trumpcare. A Quinnipiac poll the month before found Trumpcare support stood at just 17%.

Most Americans, it appears, would rather stick with the existing – though seriously flawed – Obamacare medical insurance program and fix parts that aren’t working well (“keep and improve” as opposed to the GOP’s “repeal and replace”).

Wait until the Congressional Budget Office issues its cost and impact analysis of the House-passed version of Trumpcare. It could expose the bill’s soft underbelly. Public resistance could grow louder.

For Hogan, House passage of Trumpcare might be the beginning of bad news.

He could be trapped in a nearly untenable position: A Republican who might have to disavow his own party leaders in Washington to survive.

Hogan won election in 2014 by promising “no new taxes.” Does that mean he will let Trumpcare’s 25% cut in federal Medicaid funds lay waste to Maryland’s health programs for the poor and near-poor? Where would he find hundreds of millions in state dollars to cover those unfunded programs?

How does he run for reelection with Trumpcare hanging over his head?

Justifying Republican Plan

How does Hogan justify to voters his party’s plan to let insurance companies charge outrageously high premiums – or deny coverage entirely – for people with “pre-existing conditions”? This could be anyone with acne, anxiety, depression, diabetes, obesity, cancer, pulmonary problems, asthma or even allergies.

How does he tell older working Marylanders that under his party’s plan their insurance premiums could jump an unaffordable 500%?

How does he explain a cut of $600 billion in taxes that supported Obamacare – a massive windfall for wealthy Americans, insurance companies and medical device companies?

How does he justify $880 billion in healthcare cuts to Medical Assistance for the poor?

Hogan & Company should be praying that the Senate junks the House bill and takes a few years to figure out what to do next.

Otherwise, the GOP across the country – including here in Maryland – could take a shellacking for its all-out effort to appease its conservative base.

Gift to Democrats

There’s no doubt Democratic candidates for Maryland governor will tie Hogan to Trumpcare.

Every candidate will be running ads with tales of how middle-class and working-class Marylanders would be hurt, how lives hang in the balance.

It is a gift from heaven for Democrats.

One Republican pollster called the GOP’s insistent quest to wipe out Obamacare “political malpractice.”

Until recently the notion of Democrats regaining control of the House by picking up 24-plus seats next year appeared wishful thinking. Thanks to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s determination to pass a draconian Trumpcare bill, that’s no longer the case.

Little wonder Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi – the former Nancy D’Alesandro from Baltimore’s Little Italy – was practically giddy.

Every Republican will be vulnerable, unless he or she disowns the GOP’s No. 1 issue and risks losing support from Trump’s supporters. “This vote will be tattooed to them,” Pelosi vowed.

That includes Republican Hogan, who has made an extensive effort to distance himself from Donald Trump and his controversial comments and proposals.

That may not be enough to give him immunity from this highly contagious political disease.

When virtually every healthcare group – from the American Medical Association to the American Hospital Association to AARP – as well as virtually every insurance group vehemently opposes the Republicans’ “repeal and replace” crusade, smart politicians should pay attention.

Failure by the GOP to “listen and learn” could prove fatal come November 2018 – both in Maryland and nationwide.

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Larry Hogan Sr. – Courage When It Counted

By Barry Rascovar

It happened long ago. Congressman Larry Hogan, Sr. stood alone and defied his party, voting not once but three times to impeach Republican President Richard Nixon. It was the most principled stand taken by a Maryland politician in our lifetimes.

He did what was right, not what was politically correct.

Hogan died last week at 88, eclipsed in the public eye by his namesake, the current Maryland governor – an office the father was denied due to his impeachment stance.

Larry Hogan, Sr.

Congressman Larry Hogan, Sr. and his son.

Yet it was the father, consigned to the pages of history, who offered a lesson in what it means to take the perilous moral and legal high road rather than the easy partisan and career-advancing low road.

It’s a lesson we must remember given the sorry state of affairs in this country. The rules of fair play, truthfulness and integrity are being tossed aside in the manic quest for political power.

The good of the country is being replaced by the quest for personal gain and prestige.

Those Watergate Years

We can’t afford to forget the Watergate era that so stained our country. For those who were around, it was a terrifying time.

The president had been caught approving and even leading a massive conspiracy to conduct a break-in and robbery; blackmail and bribe witnesses, and cover up the hideous truth.

When his own attorney general refused to knuckle under to Nixon’s demands to crush the Watergate investigation, the president fired this nation’s highest-ranking law-enforcement officer. His deputy also refused to defy his constitutional duty and was sacked, too.

It became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. What a scary time. Many feared the end of American democracy.

Sadly, there are echoes in what’s happening today in and around the White House.

Facts are regularly tossed aside in favor of expedient fairy tales that glorify the president and his cheerleaders. The Big Lie is replacing the uncomfortable truth.

Above the Law?

For Larry Hogan Sr., the uncomfortable truth was that his party’s and his country’s leader had lied and hidden what had happened, had violated his constitutional oath and had engaged in illegal acts.

No one is above the law, Hogan announced, not even the most powerful official in the land.

Such independence and gutsy courage were rare in the early 1970s among Republicans. Hogan stood by himself when he announced on the eve of that crucial House Judiciary Committee session in 1974 he would vote to impeach Nixon. No other committee Republican joined him in defying the president.

He knew at the time his impeachment vote might doom his chances of running successfully for governor that November. Sadly, Hogan’s intuition proved accurate.

In September’s Republican primary, Maryland GOP voters turned their backs on the congressman who had sought to remove Republican Nixon. Instead, they nominated a hapless, socially prominent party loyalist, Louise Gore.

It was payback time for Republican ideologues and hardliners, even if it meant obliterating any chance of beating Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel. Indeed, Louise Gore was crushed in a laugher of a November general election.

Resurrection in Prince George’s

Yet the ex-congressman refused to be driven from the political stage. He resurrected his career two years later in a heavily Democratic jurisdiction and won election as Prince George’s County Executive.

He did so by capitalizing on voter anger over the high cost of supporting the county’s population boom and suburbanization, which translated into the need for ever-higher property taxes to pay for expanded public services. Hogan won by a 3-2 margin, despite his Republican label.

As county executive Hogan proved a tough man with a dollar, cutting spending even on schools and libraries, eliminating 3,000 government jobs, holding the line on pay raises and lowering the property tax rate 20%.

No wonder his son ran for governor in 2014 on the same promises as his dad – lower taxes and fiscal belt-tightening.

To an extent, the son has followed through on those promises. Like his father, he is in strong position to win reelection in a heavily Democratic state.

But that election is still 18 months away. Hogan Jr.’s biggest test may lie ahead, thanks to an eerily similar situation to the one faced by his father during those Watergate years.

Then vs. Now

By 1974, the Watergate scandal had made Nixon a highly unpopular and controversial president, much like Donald Trump.

Today, Maryland’s governor has tried to separate his own work from the incendiary comments and actions of Trump and Tea Party congressmen. He didn’t support Trump in the presidential campaign and cast a write-in vote for his father in November.

Still, Hogan has refused to make a public break with Trump for fear of alienating diehard Republicans he needs to get reelected.

Yet the more radical the Trump administration becomes in the months ahead, the more difficult it could be for Hogan to remain a dispassionate governor.

At some point Republican Hogan may have to forcefully oppose a Republican president, just as his father did in 1974.

This time the issue might be curtailment of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, elimination of health care coverage for low-paid workers and their families, the loss of tens of thousands of federal jobs in Maryland or violence tied to tough immigration enforcement efforts.

Separating Hogan from Trump may become more and more difficult in voters’ eyes by late 2018. It is one of the few ways he could lose.

Refusing to place party loyalty over what’s best for the country cost Larry Hogan, Sr. the governorship in 1974. He never regretted doing the right thing.

His son may end up facing a somewhat similar predicament.

Will he stay true to his inner moral compass or stubbornly stick to the Trump-Tea Party line? Far more than Hogan’s reelection may be at stake. ##

Sen. Kasemeyer Responds

This missive arrived the other day from Sen. Ed Kasemeyer of Howard County, chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee — a defense of his entire committee and his own role in the budget process.

Kasemeyer’s low-key approach to legislating — first in the Maryland House of Delegates and now in the Maryland Senate — rarely grabs the headlines. It is a refreshing reminder of how lawmakers can work effectively but quietly, with fewer partisan and parochial conflicts.

He chairs one of the hardest-working committees, given the unenviable task of cutting budget allocations rather than adding to them.

Sen. Kasemeyer Responds

Howard County Sen. Ed Kasemeyer

Here is Kasemeyer’s email:

“I was reading one of your articles in [MarylandReporter.com] dated 4/16/17 regarding the Maryland budget and the out-year predictions.

“I realize that most of the people who follow the legislature are constantly praising Sen. [Rich] Madaleno — and I totally agree that he is incredibly competent and intelligent.

“However, your comment about [Gov. Larry] Hogan, [Del.] Maggie McIntosh, and Sen. Madaleno working together to put the budget together is an insult to my committee and me.

“I met with Del. McIntosh from early in the session to deal with Baltimore City’s issues so that she knew we (the Senate) would be totally supportive. I think if you asked any of my members they would tell you I am firmly in control.

“As a progressive leader I am supportive of my members and try to put them in situations where they will shine (including Rich). Sometimes I wonder if you all know what is really going on.”

Ed Kasemeyer

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Maryland’s Balanced Budget – For Now

By Barry Rascovar

April 17, 2017 – Another Maryland General Assembly session has come and gone with Gov. Larry Hogan proclaiming victory and legislative leaders breathing a positive sigh of relief.

There were no big wins for Hogan but no shocking defeats, either. His ideologically driven, conservative agenda may sell well with die-hard Hogan backers but it was a non-starter with Democratic lawmakers.

His most solid step forward?

A compromise bill giving manufacturers tax breaks, especially if they provide workers with new job skills (that’s the part Democrats insisted on). It’s not a huge benefit for those companies but it is another incentive that could help persuade manufacturers to move to the Free State.

His biggest defeat?

A set of restrictions imposed on the Hogan-selected state school board, which had its hands tied by Democratic lawmakers to prevent state intrusions into local school board autonomy on figuring out how to turn around failing schools.

Constitutional Mandate

Still, the most important issue of every General Assembly session revolves around dollars and cents.

Passing a balanced budget is the only constitutional requirement both the governor and legislature must achieve every year.Maryland's Balanced Budget--For Now

This time, they cobbled together a fiscal blueprint that avoids deep spending cuts while expanding state aid and services in targeted areas.

The outcome is a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 that grows only 1.2%, to $43.6 billion.

The general fund budget essentially remains level. The state workforce holds at 80,000 (no pay raises or longevity increases).

That is a tribute to Hogan’s ability to hold down spending without taking a Trumpian axe to state government and local aid.

That’s the good news.

Dark Days Ahead?

The bad news: Those ominous storm clouds coming from the nation’s capital – potentially massive federal job losses, large cuts in healthcare, medical research and local aid.

This could give Hogan an Excedrin-sized headache he doesn’t need as he approaches an election year.

There’s an additional problem, too.

The respected Department of Legislative Services (DLS) predicts that over the next five years, Maryland’s revenue will grow 3.5% annually – versus a 5.4% rise in state spending.

That yawning gap was partially closed in the just-passed budget, eliminating 88 percent of the state’s structural budget gap.

The trouble is that this budget magic was achieved by stripping out money from the state’s Rainy Day reserve fund and moving other money around –$202 million worth of “fund transfers.” Another $185 million was saved through budget cuts by the legislature.

Thus, Hogan, Del. Maggie McIntosh and Sen. Rich Madaleno, among others, worked together in the budget process and balanced the state’s books with $91 million to spare.

Tepid Economy

Yet DLS predicts the budget gap will reach $716 million next year, $1 billion in two years and a staggering $1.5 billion by FY 2022.

Why?

“. . .a combination of tepid revenue growth, fueled by a lackluster economy, and growth in mandated spending and entitlements.”

DLS concludes “the Administration will need to take action to address a shortfall in excess of $700 million in Fiscal Year 2019.”

It adds, “The magnitude of the projected shortfalls suggests that discussion will need to focus not only on what services are provided by the State but also the fundamental revenue structure currently in place.”

That’s a polite way of announcing tax INCREASES could be back on the table, whether Hogan likes it or not.

This is especially true if the dire forecasts of historic Trump budget cuts become reality.

Closing a $700 million fiscal gap next year in Annapolis exclusively through spending reductions would be extraordinary – and painful. If Trump multiplies that deficit through massive federal budget cuts and layoffs of Maryland residents, the state could face a financial crisis.

For now, though, the state’s revenue and spending plan for the next fiscal year is in good shape.

But things could change in a hurry between now and year’s end as Trump and the Republican Congress get serious about slashing federal programs, positions and aid to local counties and states.

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