Category Archives: Government

2018 MD Assembly: All Politics, All the Time

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2018–Just in case there was any doubt the next 90 days in the Annapolis State House will focus like a laser on political opportunism, Gov. Larry Hogan tossed a Molotov cocktail into the air yesterday aimed at embarrassing Democrats.

Using Baltimore City’s weather-related school closings (extreme cold, bursting pipes, failing heating systems) as a foil, Hogan lashed out in a less than polite way at what he called a “horrendous crisis,” calling for the appointment of a state inspector general to police schools throughout Maryland — with subpoena power — looking for corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.

2018 Assembly Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

While you can debate the merits of a powerful state investigator sticking his nose into the operations of every single school system in search of wasteful spending, wrongdoing and poor judgment, keep in mind that Hogan’s theatrics are purely political: His suggestion doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in you-know-where when it is presented to the Democratic legislature. It will be dead on arrival.

And the governor knows it.

It’s a prime illustration of how the Maryland General Assembly session that starts Wednesday will be all about politics, all the time.

There’s no way House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller will allow Hogan a “win” during the 90-day session. It’s all about politics from their perspective, too. Anything these Democrats can do to put roadblocks in Republican Hogan’s re-election path is a victory in their eyes.

2018 General Assembly Session

Senate President Mike Miller

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

All Hogan really has is a bully pulpit to castigate Democrats in the party’s strongholds — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

He’s likely to continue his harsh rhetoric aimed at the struggling city in the months ahead.

It is raw meat for his devoted conservative followers. He might even gain some support from African-Americans by posing as the “savior” of their failing schools — even though he hasn’t lifted a finger to help solve this deeply entrenched problem.

Clash of the Politicians

Republican Hogan and legislative Democrats will clash on multiple fronts this session with political factors serving as the guiding light for both sides.

First up? Hogan’s veto last year of the Democrats’ paid sick-leave bill. The governor’s alternative plan may not even make it to a hearing, since a veto-override by both houses could happen almost immediately.

Call it a warning shot across the governor’s ship of state.

Some of Hogan’s appointments may find it rough sledding through the confirmation process, especially State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby of Worcester County, whom Hogan named to the Circuit Court late last month despite warnings the Legislative Black Caucus would vigorously oppose such an appointment.

Republican Oglesby was accused four years ago of using racially insensitive language and creating a racially hostile work environment. He’s involved in a related federal lawsuit, too.

Advice to Ogelsby: In this politically charged atmosphere, don’t quit your day job.

Tax-Code Politics

Wherever you look in the State House, politics is the word of the day.

For instance, sorting out the impact of massive federal changes in the income-tax code took on a political coloration when Hogan leapt at the chance to get on the good side of taxpayers by announcing he’ll do everything in his power to make sure no one in Maryland pays more state taxes as a result of those changes made by his fellow Republicans in Washington.

He said Democrats should jump on board his no-new-taxes bandwagon without hesitating.

If only it were that simple.

Tax reform, as enacted by Congress, is a highly complex issue, fraught with implications for state and local governments. Rushing to offset the federal tax changes that hurt Maryland filers won’t be easy and shouldn’t be done on a whim.

At the same time, Democrats see an opportunity in Washington’s tax changes to fund some of their top priorities, such as the Children’s Health Initiative Program (CHIP), countering the Trump administration’s steps to curtail Obamacare, providing more aid for public schools and finding more money to fight the crime and opioid epidemics.

Hogan’s view and the Democrats’ view on the Republican tax-cut law are starkly different. They may not find common ground during the next 90 days. Indeed, clarity about the tax-code changes and their impact in Maryland may not be apparent until later in 2018.

A special session in an election year is highly unusual, but it may become necessary.

Gerrymandering Stand-off

Hogan and the Democrats also will squabble over redistricting, with the governor putting in a DOA bill that sets up a non-partisan commission. This is a continuation of his efforts to give Republicans a boost during redistricting and to get on the right side of voters on this matter.

Lawmakers in the majority will try to embarrass the governor by passing gun-control legislation, such as a ban on bump stocks similar to the ones used in the Las Vegas massacre. That would force the governor to veto the bill — and antagonize moderate voters he needs for reelection — or sign the bill — and enflame his conservative backers he also needs to gain a second term.

Each side will try to out-maneuver the other. Substance will take a back seat to gaining political advantage in ways that could influence the outcome in November.

So get ready for lots of name-calling and hyper-partisan rhetoric in the coming months. Agreement on solving Maryland’s most pressing problems will have to wait until 2019.

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Taxing Time for Maryland

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 3, 2017 — Now that a massive trillion-dollar tax cut is a virtual certainty in Washington,  Maryland officials must quickly figure out if the appropriate reaction is panic or relief.

The impact on budget-makers in Annapolis and in the counties is enormous. Since Maryland’s tax laws are coupled to rules for the federal income-tax collections, what happens on Capital Hill tax-wise reverberates almost immediately in Maryland.

But will it mean more state and local tax revenue or less? At the moment, there is no easy answer.

State legislators have little time to react, since they go into session for just 90 days starting Jan. 10. At this point, they have no hard data on a) what will be in the final bill that hurts or helps Maryland and its subdivisions, and b) what changes must be made immediately in state tax laws.

We do know many Marylanders could have their lives turned upside down.

People who spend large sums supporting themselves or family members in assisted living or nursing home facilities, or those with giant family medical expenses, no longer get to claim these payments as a tax offset under the House-passed version.

That could lead to hefty rises in tax bills for them, putting themselves and their loved ones in financial difficulty.

No more write-offs for state and local taxes. This adds to every Marylander’s tax burden. How will this affect the state’s tax receipts?Taxing Time for MarylandEvery analysis of the dueling House and Senate tax bills confirms that well-to-do Marylanders will reap huge tax savings, middle-class folks could receive either a small reduction in federal taxes or a larger tax bill from the IRS, and the lower class will see its tax bracket rise.

The rich get vastly richer, the poor get little if any help and the middle class get a relatively middling savings.

The “trickle-down” theory of economics is alive and flourishing in the Grand Old Party.

But how will this play out in government budgets in the Free State?

There will be far more uncertainty among Marylanders who joined the Obamacare program. Health-care insurance bills are likely to rise 10 percent or more each year under the GOP’s tax-cut bill. Potentially 13 million Americans could lose health care coverage.

That could reverberate in Maryland with hospitals bearing the brunt of thousands of newly uninsured citizens flooding emergency rooms with little or no money to pay for medical treatment.

More to Come

Meanwhile, Republicans are making no secret of their real targets: safety-net programs, especially Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio admitted as much last Wednesday, stating the “next step” is going after these big-ticket federal programs.

Why? Because the GOP’s tax-cut bill saddles the nation with gigantic new deficits — $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Another federal law requires Congress to make budget cuts as an offset.

Additionally, economists say the tax-cut bill will spawn rapid increases in inflation, which has been virtually nil in recent years. Rising inflation dampens economic growth, which was the raison d’etre for the GOP tax cuts.

How will all this impact Maryland?

Will companies with major Maryland employment centers reward stockholders when the corporate tax rate is chopped nearly in half or will they reward workers? Will firms hire additional employees or use the tax savings to automate production facilities and cut back on employment?

These are the kinds of questions fiscal analysts in Annapolis and county seats had better get a handle on sooner rather than later.

Placing a Big Bet

The Republican tax cut has not been wildly popular with Americans, according to polls. They seem to grasp that the vast majority of financial benefits flow to those who already live comfortably or to corporations.

Yet the GOP is placing a gigantic bet on the party’s ability to persuade voters that the tax-cut bill is a win-win for everyone. The fate of Republican dominance in Congress could depend on voters’ sentiment toward the tax-cut measure likely to gain final approval by Christmas.

Meanwhile, Gov, Larry Hogan, county executives and legislators have to cope with the impact of these fiscal changes on state and local budgets now being put together.

Hogan already is  planning to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of private-activity bonds before year’s end because the House bill eliminates these kinds of bonds — a move by Washington that could undercut all kinds of private-public partnerships like the Purple Line, affordable housing and student loans.

What other government funding programs are at risk?

When the Board of Revenue Estimates meets later this month, it could still be largely in the dark as to the ramifications of those taxing negotiations in Washington.

By the time the board meets again in March, far more will be known about the tax bill’s impact on states and localities. The board’s revenue revisions that month could prove pivotal in determining what immediate steps are necessary to adjust state tax policy.

Will the General Assembly have time in its 90-day session to make those adjustments? Will the governor fight or accept those changes?

Even in an election year, lawmakers might find themselves facing an extended session or a special session to grapple with the impact of the GOP tax bill on Maryland’s finances.

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Downsizing That Hurts

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 27, 2017 — We live in a Trumpian world of propagandizing and denial of reality, with the accusers distorting the truth and calling it “fake news.”

Unfortunately, some of this manipulation is taking place in the Maryland State House. Far too often, spokesmen for Gov. Larry Hogan engage in blame-pointing rather than fess up to the cold, hard truth.

Case in point: The adamant denial that Maryland state government is suffering from huge personnel vacancies in some of its key agencies.

“Nonsense,” said the governor’s spokesman. There’s no shortage of state workers, he asserted, as he questioned the validity of the Department of Legislative Services report.

Denying the Obvious

Yet there is a glaring problem — according to data from Hogan’s own government agencies, a judge and state prison officials.

Instead of admitting the obvious and explaining what’s being done to find creative solutions,  Hogan’s office sought to denigrate a non-partisan research office with a sterling tradition of “calling it like it is.”

The “fake news” is coming from Hogan’s suite, not Legislative Services.

The argument is over the size of state government in Maryland.

Hogan, a believer in conservative budgeting, has consistently clamped a lid on state spending, including hiring. Part of this effort is grounded in the old Republican saw that government bureaucracies are always “bloated,” overflowing with people filling make-work jobs.

That has led to a drive to hold down new hiring, even in cases where there is a dire need for more personnel.

Contempt of Court

Take the Maryland Department of Health, where top brass nearly went to jail after they repeatedly they failed to hire enough psychiatric nurses and physicians to handle all of the patients being sent to state hospitals for court-ordered mental-health treatment.

This has been a longstanding problem that started well before Hogan. His aides could have pointed that out.

Instead, the governor’s minions circled the wagons and refused to cooperate with the judge — until the state health secretary was held in contempt of court.

Or take the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which continues having a devil of a time finding qualified prison guards with clean records. Over 1,700 vacant positions exist in the department — a whopping vacancy rate of 9 percent.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances but there’s a critical shortage of guards in state prisons. There was no effort by the governor’s office to explain how the administration is working to proactively meet this serious challenge.

Instead, the governor’s spokesman put the onus on the prior Democratic administration.

That line of attack ignores the fact that Hogan has been in office nearly three years — more than enough time to craft an effective plan to remedy this dangerous worker shortage.

Too Many Unfilled Jobs

DLS reported to a legislative committee that in a number of key agencies — corrections, health, human services, juvenile services and the State Police — the vacancy rate is more than twice the norm — over 7 percent.

That should be viewed as unacceptable by leaders of the executive branch. Instead, Hogan seems fixated on budgetary hold-downs — and denying there is a problem.

The English would describe his view as “penny wise and pound foolish.”

It makes sense to trim the size of government if it is done carefully. Problems begin when the needs of individual agencies are ignored for the sake of downsizing and budget cuts..

The Hogan administration may succeed in papering over most staffing shortages until after next year’s elections. But eventually lack of skilled job-holders could diminish state government’s ability to perform basic obligations. There’s a limit to downsizing in the public sector, a point Hogan’s team may have started to reach.

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‘Free’ Tuition Isn’t Free

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 16, 2017 – Talk on the far left about “free” college tuition got a boost last week from an acolyte of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the foremost proponent of this marvelous-sounding idea.

Benjamin Jealous, former head of the NAACP who is running for governor, told a group of college students and progressive activists, to no one’s surprise, that his gubernatorial pitch includes free education for Marylanders at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Naturally, in this Trumpian world of headlines without facts to back them up, Jealous later admitted he had no cost estimate, didn’t know who might be eligible for the program and had no details on how such a proposal would work.

He did say he’d pay for free tuition by reducing the number of people in prison.

Such pie-in-the-sky, emotional rhetoric – which brings cheers from progressives — falls quickly to earth with a thud when closely examined.

Jealous does a disservice to the electorate by speaking before he can support what he says with cold, hard facts.

Demagogic rhetoric may have elected Donald Trump, but growing public skepticism now greets sweeping political pronouncements – and for good reason.

Steep Price

The notion of free college education isn’t new. It has been around at least 120 years. For decades, California footed the tuition bill in its state higher education system – until the price tag became unaffordable. New York now offers a modified “last dollar” scholarship for many of its college-age students.

But don’t get fooled. Free tuition isn’t free. It comes at a steep price.

First, while a free-tuition policy results in a zero-tuition bill for parents, universities get around this financial roadblock by charging whopping fees.

For instance, the best-known public university in Los Angeles, UCLA, hits in-state students with fees of $13,000. For out-of-state-students the fee is $41,000.

Add in other assorted charges such as room, meals, textbooks, travel and living expenses and  “free” takes on a whole new meaning.

Jealous’ plan is an expensive entitlement program. It grows dramatically in cost for the state during recessions as jobs become scarce and more high school graduates opt for college instead.

'Free' Tuition Isn't Free

Benjamin Jealous

The flood of new students drawn to state universities and colleges by a free tuition plan also adds significant extra expenses to public university systems, which can’t hike tuition to accommodate this vast expansion.

Lecture classes become enormous in size. Quality declines. Without extra revenue, student amenities at public universities suffer. Maintenance is postponed.

Threat to Private Colleges

Even worse, a sweeping free tuition plan for public higher education would devastate private colleges in Maryland. Many of them cannot compete for students when there’s such a huge cost differential. Some could close.

We live in an era where voters almost never approve of raising their own taxes. And their elected leaders are fearful of infuriating the electorate. Thus, a free tuition program means sharp budget cuts in other state programs – a shifting of priorities.

For example, in the 2017 General Assembly session HB 931 called for full tuition waivers for students attending community colleges in the state. The cost: a minimum $60 million a year. A legislative analyst concluded “significant additional costs are likely.”

The bill’s sponsors sought to pay for free tuition at community colleges by taking this money out of slot-machine taxes designated for Maryland’s K-12 public schools.

The bill’s sponsors wanted to strip funds from struggling public schools.

Imagine the price if all of higher education had been covered by this free-tuition bill, which mercifully died in committee.

Moreover, the real winners of no-cost public college tuition aren’t children living in poverty. They already receive sufficient federal, state and college education aid to make higher education possible.

The free-tuition winners are middle- and upper-income families (depending on how the program is structured).

Additionally, free tuition takes away a powerful incentive for students, and their parents, to make sure they get a degree. Putting skin in the game – a personal financial commitment – is a great way to ensure students focus on good grades and a diploma.

As for Jealous’ plan to pay for free tuition by emptying state prisons of inmates, it’s nonsense.

First, it is hypothetical savings that may never materialize.

Second, the Justice Reinvestment Act, which went into effect Oct. 1, already is designed to do the same thing – get thousands of lower-level offenders out of jails and into rehabilitation programs.

The law earmarks expected savings for post-incarceration programs. The idea is to help ex-cons avoid a return to prison.

Does Jealous intend to strip that money away from rehabilitation programs to pay for free college tuition?

Besides, the savings envisioned in the Justice Reinvestment Act is only $10 million a year – a drop in the free-tuition ocean.

There are far better ways to ensure that Maryland students can afford a higher education which prepares them for 21st century jobs:

  • More state support for community colleges that is contingent on lowering tuition.
  • More state aid to supplement federal Pell grants.
  • Far more government support for vocational and technical programs.
  • More scholarship aid directed toward economically struggling students.
  • State aid to encourage high school/community college collaborations.
  • State tax credits for businesses that offer career-education work-study programs.

Free tuition is a misnomer. In this world, nearly everything comes at a price.

Voters should beware of candidates offering “solutions” that, upon examination, are too good to be true.

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Hogan, King of the Road(s)

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 25, 2017–Gov. Larry Hogan never met a highway project he didn’t like. He’s a 1950s type of politician – solve all the state’s transportation gridlock and congestion by paving the countryside with lanes of new concrete.

He’s got a $9 billion plan that is a lollapalooza: Let construction giants build and pay for toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and the busy I-270 corridor from the beltway to Frederick – 70 miles of exclusive Lexus lanes – and let those companies reap the toll rewards so they can recoup a staggering $7.6 billion investment (the actual cost is likely to be substantially higher).

Then Hogan says he’ll take the state’s part of the profits and turn the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, now owned by the U.S. Park Service, into curb-to-curb concrete with nary a tree or woodlands in between.

Hogan: King of the Road(s)

He could re-name it the B-W Speedway.

It’s an all-highway solution straight out of the mid-20th century.

While conversation over this stunning proposal has barely started – Hogan consulted very few people it seems – there are a slew of points that deserve consideration before his back-to-the-future initiative gets too far off the ground:

The environmental damage, especially along the B-W Parkway, could be substantial.

How can the Park Service, even under a run-amuck Trump administration, turn the parkway’s 30 miles of mature woodlands over to a state eager to destroy those trees and vast stretches of scenic greenery? Is such a move even legally permissible?

Eight lanes of concrete – four new toll lanes (plus wide shoulders) and four toll-free lanes – would convert the parkway into a high-speed, tension-filled raceway.

For homeowners and neighborhoods abutting or close to the three roadways, Hogan’s plan is a calamity.

When a two-lane expansion of the B-W Parkway was proposed in 2011, Greenbelt leaders loudly objected, fearing the intrusion of the busy highway directly into the town. Imagine what a four-lane toll expansion will do to Greenbelt and other communities along the route.

The situation is far worse along high-density sections of I-270 and the Capital Beltway. Gigantic lawsuits and protests await Hogan when he tries to seize all that private property from businesses and homeowners – and then turn the land over to a consortium that would profit from those government land-grabs.

At the end of this project, Hogan may have done little to relieve highway congestion.

Every expansion of I-495 and I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway) has meant more cars on those roads and a quick return to the same level of congestion and added pollution. Los Angles has experienced the same thing with the famed I-405, where a $1.4 billion expansion didn’t help ease congestion at all.

The notion that Maryland taxpayers won’t be on the hook for a lot of the expense of these mega-projects isn’t realistic.

Hogan’s no-cost-to-taxpayers assertion may sound good to voters, but there’s virtually no way he can make it happen. These are ultra-expensive projects. For starters, seizing private properties through eminent domain can’t be privatized and will be extraordinarily expensive in the high-priced Washington suburbs.

Hogan also says the state’s share of profits from the I-495 and I-270 toll lanes will pay for the four toll lanes on the B-W Parkway. That doesn’t compute given the woeful record of the state’s last two toll projects – the Intercounty Connector and the I-95 Express Toll Lanes from Baltimore to White Marsh. Neither has come near the revenue numbers anticipated prior to construction.

Maryland’s toll authority already is in a heap of long-term financial trouble that would be compounded by these mega-projects.

The Department of Legislative Services says that between now and 2022, Maryland’s tolling facilities will take in $267 million less than projected but operating expenses will be $588 million higher than anticipated. This will force $1.7 billion worth of cuts to future projects and reduce the toll authority’s ability to float bonds by $3.7 billion.

Adding Hogan’s toll-road projects, even with a public-private contract, will scare the heck out of bond-rating agencies, which know full-well the state isn’t getting a free ride on construction projects of this size.

Transportation trends are not on Hogan’s side.

In good times, more cars and trucks use highways and toll roads. But in bad times, the reverse is true. Experts almost universally note the nation is ripe for an economic downturn. That means a big drop in gas tax and toll receipts for Maryland’s transportation agencies.

Rising fuel-mileage standards are hurting Maryland’s gas-tax receipts, too. So is the growth of electric vehicles on the road.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Transportation Authority’s debt service is soaring – a nearly six-fold increase between 2007 and today with no decline in sight over the next 25 years.

The authority “will need to make long-term changes in order to remain financially stable,” DLS reported early this year. Hogan’s mega-projects ignore that suggestion and add to the state’s highway obligations.

Say goodbye to any future mass transit projects.

Hogan’s plan gives zero attention to a balanced transit solution in Central Maryland, instead putting all the state’s transportation eggs in a highway basket. That’s not the direction Virginia or other Eastern states with similar congestion woes are heading.

Such a vast expansion of I-295, I-495 and I-270 will create massive new gridlock at exit and access points.

How in the world could Russell Street in Baltimore handle an additional two lanes of rush-hour traffic? Ditto as the BW Parkway flows into New York Avenue in D.C. It would be a nightmare. Arterial roads and cut-through streets in adjacent neighborhoods along these three interstate highways would be clogged. The law of unintended consequences could kick in.

Passing environmental tests posed by federal and state laws and regulations could delay construction for many years, especially on the B-W Parkway.

Rest assured, legal challenges to every aspect of Hogan’s plan will be posed by environmental groups, well-to-do neighborhood associations along these routes and local governments.

Indeed, Hogan may be out of office by the time the first ground-breaking ceremony takes place – which may be part of his strategy.

What happened to helping Joe Six-Pack and the “forgotten Americans” who can’t afford E-ZPass transponders or Lexus lanes?

There’s nothing in Hogan’s transportation vision that helps people at the lower end of the economy. No expansion of commuter buses, no shuttles connecting workers to spread-out job sites, no future mass transit such as a desperately needed east-west line through Baltimore.

Hogan’s highway proposal creates a windfall for the well-to-do and transportation businesses.

The plan is a winner for candidate Hogan.

Expect hefty campaign contributions from the construction and highway industries, from trucking concerns and from companies along these routes that figure to benefit from additional high-speed, interstate concrete lanes.

For voters, Hogan’s plan sounds great and makes an ideal campaign pitch. The devil is in the details, though, which Hogan won’t mention to voters.

How Democrats react to Hogan’s mega-plan will be fascinating to watch. Commuters want highway relief. But will they like what comes with the relief Hogan is offering?

Putting specifics before voters won’t be easy because the topic is complex. Voters like simple solutions and Hogan is very good at giving simple answers to exceedingly complicated problems.

How will the two other members of the Board of Public Works vote on Hogan’s plan?

They hold the key. Without BPW approval, Hogan’s super-highway plans are dead.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp will have to dissect the extensive financial ramifications of Hogan’s proposal, the environmental impact, the legal liability such a huge seizure of private property might entail and the impact this would have on the lives of thousands of residents and businesses along those interstate routes.

About the only thing that seems assured is this: Hogan’s sweepingly ambitious highway-building plan is a long way from getting built.

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Hogan’s Strong-Arm Schools Tactic

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 18, 2017 – In one of the oddest situations Annapolis has seen in recent times, Gov. Larry Hogan is trying to sabotage his own education commission.

That’s right. A state school board made up almost exclusively of Hogan appointees is scheduled today to submit to federal officials a plan for turning around under-performing schools.

The panel agreed to this improvement plan after 19 months of intense study that included five “listening tours,” 205 meetings, testimony from education experts and extensive staff research.

Yet the governor is intent on blowing up his school board’s plan before it arrives in Washington.

Hogan wrote a scathing letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos denouncing the school-improvement program approved by his own education panel. He says it preserves “the status quo in failing schools.”

Hogan's Strong-Arm Schools Tactic

MD Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meet with children at a Bethesda elementary school.

A reading of the state’s submittal doesn’t appear to support Hogan’s objection, which is rooted almost completely in politics, not education.

Hogan wants to turn under-performing schools over to private contractors to be run as charter, non-unionized schools. He’d like to strip counties and Baltimore City of authority over those schools and lump them into “recovery districts” controlled by the state. He’d love to shut down failing schools and give students vouchers to attend private schools.

Multiple-Choice Education

His notions are rigidly conservative and radical. He would sweep away much of the underpinnings of Maryland’s public school system, including local control. Hogan wants to replace weak-performing schools with a privatized, multiple-choice system for educating children.

That idea hasn’t gotten off the ground in the Maryland General Assembly. The Democratic-controlled legislature repeatedly has rejected Republican Hogan’s attempts to privatize parts of the state’s public education system.

To make sure Hogan can’t embed his conservative education ideas by way of state school board decisions, the legislature passed a measure earlier this year limiting reforms the state panel can include in a plan it must submit to Washington to deal with failing schools.

Essentially, Democratic lawmakers instructed the state board that reform efforts must deal directly with student deficiencies and teacher deficiencies at existing schools. The board’s remediation plan must be implemented within the current education structure. No radical steps like charter schools, privatized management, vouchers or recovery districts allowed.

Lawmakers also rankled Hogan by limiting how much weight can be given to controversial standardized tests in determining if a school is failing.

Hogan vetoed the legislature’s bill, which Democrats then easily voted to override.

Much of the language approved by the legislature is what the powerful state teachers union wanted to protect its members from being fired in a mass privatization movement.

Dealing with Failed Schools

Yet the legislature’s restrictions hardly amounts to “preserving the status quo.” It did restrain what Hogan’s school board can propose as far as school takeovers and other sweeping moves to turn to private-sector solutions.

Yet the final product gives a detailed description of how schools will be judged and how the state will support comprehensive improvements in the weakest public schools.

It’s a far more challenging and thoughtful plan than an “off-with-their heads” approach that would re-create faltering public schools along privatized lines.

Hogan could well gain backing for his subversion from DeVos in Washington. After all, the pair made a joint guest appearance at an elementary school in Montgomery County earlier this year. Their education ideas seem to mesh.

She, too, is an ardent believer in privatization of schooling, though that approach has a mixed record.

Despite reservations from some of its members, the state education board’s submission to Washington is a solid, commendable effort to directly confront failings in schools across Maryland. The stress is on comprehensive efforts to improve teaching skills and student performance.

That may not be radical enough for Hogan, who is using all his tools to try to gum up the works. The danger is that he succeeds, with $250 million in federal school aid hanging in the balance.

But don’t count on Democrats in the legislature letting the Republican governor have his way on education privatization, even if DeVos sides with him. They are unlikely to yield.

This could well turn into an election issue next year with Hogan appealing to his conservative political base, accusing Democrats of pandering to the teachers’ union and resisting wholesale reforms.

On the other side, Democrats are sure to exploit Hogan’s unyielding advocacy of school privatization as part of his effort to diminish state support of public education.

DeVos’ decision on Maryland’s school-improvement proposal could play a prominent role in the state’s upcoming elections, especially the race for governor. It could have ramifications far beyond the classroom.

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

By Barry Rascovar

Gov. Larry Hogan can’t make up his mind.

Last year he was a gung-ho advocate of “soft-on-criminals” reforms aimed at cutting Maryland’s prison population by 1,000 and putting more resources into helping low-level offenders avoid a life of crime.

This time, though, Hogan is sporting his “tough on criminals” campaign button, calling for “truth-in-sentencing” as part of a crime-fighting package he’ll introduce in the next legislative session.

So, is Hogan soft or tough on crime?

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

As the 2018 election campaign draws closer, Mr. Tough Guy wins the day.

It’s good publicity to be seen as eager to crack down hard on thugs and violent offenders making Baltimore City one of America’s crime capitals.

So what if Hogan’s truth-in-sentencing idea negates all the savings of his Justice Reinvestment Act that commences in October?

So what if his plan creates extreme hazardous conditions for correctional guards and for inmates in Maryland’s prisons?

So what if it ties the hands of judges and virtually eliminates the need for a parole board and a probation division?

And so what if Hogan’s idea will do virtually nothing to stem Baltimore’s historic criminal rampage?

Atmospherics Count

It’s all about the atmospherics, the sense that the governor is mad as hell and won’t take it anymore, that he’s fed up with molly-coddling prisoners, that he’s doing something.

Hogan tried to set up city judges as the bad guys. He demanded they attend a criminal justice meeting on Aug. 29 where he’d sternly tell them to hand out lengthy sentences.

After the state’s chief judge informed him no member of the judiciary would attend because it would impinge greatly on judicial independence and the constitution’s separation of powers, Hogan played the role of offended party.

He used their absence to pound on judges as one reason Baltimore’s crime situation is “out of control.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh piled on, too, expressing disappointment in the judges’ absence. “We have repeat offenders continuing to walk the streets,” she said because judges are handing out too many suspended sentences.

If only it were that simple.

Even State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby couldn’t resist taking a shot, indicating that long, long prison terms for violent, repeat offenders would make Baltimore safer. (So would a better record of successful prosecutions by the state’s attorney’s office – a point Mosby artfully ignored.)

View from the Judiciary

Mary Ellen Barbera, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, later tried to talk common sense in a commentary article but was drowned out by the emotional political rhetoric.

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals

She noted those suspended sentences primarily relate to cases in which the defendant has been convicted of multiple crimes.

This results in an extended prison term on the most serious crimes and a conditional suspension of extra time in prison on lesser offenses.

That means inmates leaving prison still remain under state watch through the parole system for years to come. They’re also required to meet other terms set by judges, such as mandatory drug testing, employment, weekly check-ins, etc.

Hogan is getting pushback from some within his administration on the merits of turning Maryland toward the rigid, “life-without-parole” model.

It’s a huge drain on the prison system’s budget and the prison staff. It increases the chance of recidivism once these inmates are released. And it does very little to stem the rising tide of violence.

Hogan got it right the first time with the Justice Reinvestment Act.

Crime in lower-income communities is a multi-faceted, complex problem. Dealing with it by locking up felonious offenders for lengthy periods won’t change the underlying causes of disrespect for the law.

But it does play well with voters, and 2018 is, indeed, an election year for Maryland’s governor and the city’s state’s attorney.

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Standstill at State Center

 

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 4, 2017 – Here we go again. Every so often, the prospective developer of the long-stalled State Center re-do in Baltimore stirs the waters and agitates community groups to denounce Gov. Larry Hogan for not giving the A-OK to its $1.5 billion project.

And why not? On paper it is sparkling, exciting effort to energize and uplift a depressed portion of mid-town Baltimore with high-rise apartments, modern office space for state workers and retail space – perhaps even a much-needed grocery – in the historic Fifth Regiment Armory.

The redevelopment would replace an aging array of state buildings that needs to go.

That’s the developer’s public “spin.”

Left unsaid is the gigantic taxpayer giveaway to the State Center developer if the project is re-started.

Standstill at State Center

Proposed State Center Redevelopment

Last month, Hogan toured State Center along with Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. They agreed on the need for an alternative plan.

To Hogan that means something other than what the developer has in mind. And for good reason.

Different Economic Times

The deal hatched originally by Gov. Bob Ehrlich and then substantially revised by Gov. Martin O’Malley gave the developer an immense government subsidy, both from the state and city.

That economic scheme might have worked in 2004 under Ehrlich, when the economy was roaring and there were sufficient resources to support such a heavily subsidized undertaking.

But the Great Recession rendered the original plan unworkable. The initial developer withdrew and a new team started lobbying O’Malley for a new deal, which turned out to be even better for the builder.

O’Malley, though, never got the massive project approved by the three-member Board of Public Works. The deal, as structured, violates the state’s debt ceiling and threatens the state’s much-treasured triple-A bond rating.

Details of the agreement reveal other bad news for the state, such as an exorbitant lease arrangement in which the state would be obligated to pay sky-high rent – equivalent to harbor-view office space — for at least the next 20 years and perhaps as long as 50 years.

Baltimore, meanwhile, obligated itself to waive property taxes on the property for decades, erasing any financial advantage for a city sorely in need of more – not fewer – revenue sources.

Both Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp consistently objected to the State Center contract. Last December, Hogan joined them in opposing the redevelopment. All of them voiced deep concern for what the deal would do to Maryland’s legal debt obligations.

All three had a fiduciary responsibility that could not be ignored. As Hogan put it during his recent State Center tour, the deal is no longer viable. He called it “a crazy proposal that didn’t make any economic sense” for the state.

What Next? 

Yet everyone agrees something should be done with the aging properties. How to pull it off given the one-sided nature of the current proposal is likely to leave State Center at a standstill for a long time.

The two sides are fighting in court, but the odds are long that the developer team can pull off a miracle. That would require the court to upend the state constitution that instructs the Board of Public Works to “guard the public interest” and give its assent to any state government public project, big or small.

Nevertheless, Hogan and Pugh can work on other arrangements for state workers while State Center is tied up in li tigation.

Leasing space for state workers in renovated, older high-rises in the Central Business District would be a far cheaper option.

Or the state might negotiate a favorable deal with another developer refurbishing the giant former Social Security Administration annex near Lexington Market. This, too, would be a cost-effective way to improve government working conditions at a reasonable price, while giving an economic boost to a struggling section of West Baltimore.

Either of those options could be pursued while the tug-of-war in court proceeds.

What’s needed at State Center is a clean slate. The current developer group won’t go away without compensation for the preliminary work they’ve done. That could be the price the state must pay to move forward.

Earlier legal challenges to the developer’s plan raised serious questions about the financial viability of the overall proposal. A series of reports by the Department of Legislative Services also shot huge holes in the developer’s project.

It’s often forgotten during community protests against Hogan that he wasn’t alone in opposing the State Center contract. It was a 3-0 vote to deep-six the project.

These well-meaning community protesters are being used as pawns in this fight. If something good is going to happen at State Center, it most likely requires a different set of developers, a different concept and a far larger commitment of private-sector dollars and fewer public-sector dollars.

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Hogan’s Trumpian Tendencies

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 28, 2017–There’s a little bit of Donald Trump in Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

Demands of obedience from the co-equal branches of government. His pandering to the far-right of the Republican Party. His refusal to compromise and blame others when things go wrong. His recent descent into the political gutter by giving credence to “fake news.”

The state’s governor continues to perform a delicate balancing act – distancing himself ever so carefully from the Republican president’s offensive behavior and then pandering to Maryland’s hard-core conservative Trump supporters.

One day he opposes the white supremacist actions in Charlottesville, Va., and quickly removes a symbol of racism from the State House grounds.

But he follows up with actions that appeal to law-and-order hard-liners and then makes political points with right-wingers by furthering their “fake news” story about a phantom movement to sack the state flag.

Hogan's Trumpian Tendencies

MD Gov. Larry Hogan

How Trumpian of Hogan.

The president regularly flays Congress and his own party’s leaders for not marching in lock-step behind him. He denounces judges who disagree with him, sometimes in harsh, ugly terms. He feeds the worst instincts of his followers. And he revels in perpetrating outright lies and convincing his followers that straight news reporting is fraudulent.

Hogan’s Commandment

In Maryland, the state’s Republican governor demands that judges in Baltimore City follow his tough-on-criminals commandment: Thou shalt not hand out suspended sentences to gun-law violators.

He set up a meeting with city judicial leaders to lecture them and pressure them to crack down on repeat law-breakers.

The state’s top judge, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, termed Hogan’s request “inappropriate” and cited the judiciary’s code of conduct which states a judge “shall not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism.” City judges, she wrote, will not attend.

That didn’t stop Hogan from making political points with his base of angry supporters. He called Barbera’s action “misguided” – since it blew up plans to stage a highly publicized event in which the star of the show would be Larry Hogan.

Now Hogan, like Trump, has an easy target to blame, in this case for the lack of progress in stemming Baltimore’s murderous crime rate. The notion that judicial independence would have been severely compromised didn’t faze him at all.

It’s similar to the way he denounces Democratic Senate and House leaders when his legislative agenda goes up in flames – even though Hogan is as much to blame as House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller.

Perpetuating “Fake News”

But this governor, like Trump, is never wrong and is never at fault when his best-laid plans are sidetracked – sometimes by his own stupidity (such as not allowing administration officials to testify on bills or refusing to honor information requests from Democratic legislators).

Now Hogan has decided to capitalize on “fake news,” another Trump specialty. He happily jumped on board a totally fictionalized assertion by a right-wing website that “radicals” in the state legislature were about to change the state flag due to localized Confederate ties during the Civil War.

The flag, Hogan told his most fervent cheerleaders, “will never be changed as long as I’m governor.”

There’s only one problem: The flag isn’t “under attack” as Hogan’s far-right acolytes maintain. The whole thing was made up by a conservative media outlet to whip its followers into a frenzy and sign a petition to save a state flag that doesn’t need saving.

Thanks, governor, for displaying such strong leadership to further this “fake news” cycle. It’s just what we need in Maryland – another emotionally charged non-issue that deflects from the far more difficult job of governing in perilous times.

##

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.