Category Archives: Government

The O’Malley Years: An Assessment

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 12, 2015 — One of the ironies of Martin O’Malley’s eight years as Maryland governor is that a progressive, liberal Democrat spent most of his time cutting budgets and raising taxes just to keep the ship of state afloat.

Gov. Martin J. O'Malley

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley

Another irony is that O’Malley started his tenure in 2007 by acting too slowly to stem a predicted tide of red ink in Annapolis. Now he is ending his second term by again responding too late to a huge, looming budget deficit.

However, when the history of the O’Malley years is assessed by scholars decades from now, what will stand out is the ease with which Maryland navigated the Great Recession — the nation’s worst economic decline since the 1930s.

The credit belongs to Martin O’Malley.

He eventually bit the bullet and did what Democrats hate above all else — he cut back on government services to the middle and lower classes, especially those who need a helping hand.

He found ways, though, to temper these hammer blows — shifting large sums from flush government accounts, borrowing heavily on the bond market, converting cash payments for farmland and Chesapeake Bay preservation into 15-year bonds and raiding the transportation fund.

Turning to Taxes

When that wasn’t enough, O’Malley taxed the wealthy, raised the corporate tax, raised the sales tax, raised the tobacco and alcohol taxes and, belatedly, the gasoline tax.

These weren’t popular moves, but it meant that social services for those without much money or with disabilities still could turn to Annapolis for assistance.

It still remains a mystery why O’Malley, who had weathered a host of fiscal storms as mayor of Baltimore for eight years, hesitated to recognize the brewing recession as he took office.

Legislative analysts already were predicting a future budget hole of $1.5 billion. Yet O’Malley ignored these forecasts.

Instead, in his first budget he hiked school construction handouts to a record $400 million, froze tuition for state college students by pouring extra funds into those institutions, and stripped the state’s Rainy Day fund of $1 billion to paper over Maryland’s financial woes until the economy improved.

Storm Clouds

Yet even as O’Malley’s initial budget was being passed, the state’s sales tax collections were declining along with other revenue sources. Loud alarms should have sounded in the governor’s suite.

Within months, O’Malley was forced to backtrack. He raised a slew of taxes, cut his initial budget requests and reversed his opposition to casino gambling.

The state’s worsening fiscal reality followed O’Malley throughout his two terms.

By the end, he was still unwilling to take proactive steps in mid-2014 to prevent what became an 18-month, $1.2 billion fiscal hole created by an agonizingly slow economic recovery and budget reductions coming from Washington.

Only in the past week did the governor seek $400 million in reductions so he could leave office with his final budget in balance.

Yet his last-minute actions did nothing to close the $800 million budget hole he bequeaths to Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, Jr.

Big Government

O’Malley’s budget hold-downs also were never meant to represent a permanent reduction in state government’s expanding role in Maryland society.

He is a strong believer in the good government can do for people. He wants to deliver more education help, more health care access, more social services for the state’s underclass and more aid to the counties and the middle class.

O’Malley’s faith in Big Government puts him on the far left of the Democratic Party’s spectrum. “Big things done well make even bigger things possible,” he said early in his first term. He still feels that way.

The governor certainly put his ideas into action.

  • He expanded health insurance in Maryland way before Washington acted.
  • He was quick to crack down on handgun and assault weapons sales in Maryland.
  • He fought vigorously to allow gay marriages in Maryland.
  • He raised the minimum wage.
  • He abolished the death penalty.
  • And he made it easier for children of immigrants to attend local colleges and universities.

Green Governor

He also won the hearts of environmentalists — another core group within the Democratic Party.

O’Malley raged against the “greed” of utility executives intent on selling Constellation Energy and demanded stiff concessions, including monetary support for wind and other alternative power sources.

He signed a super-expensive agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

He pushed through legislation providing a lucrative subsidy for off-shore wind farms.

He restricted the use of chicken manure as fertilizer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

He delayed approval of hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits for oil and natural gas drilling in far Western Maryland.

He promoted an aggressive “smart growth” strategy.

Low Points

Not all these steps were popular or successful.

The governor’s “rain tax” to stem excessive stormwater runoff ran into heated local opposition.

His failure to keep an eye on the terribly mismanaged Obamacare rollout remains a major black mark.

But overall, O’Malley leaves Maryland with a record of accomplishments that defines him as a progressive Democrat who largely delivered on his promises, despite governing in extraordinarily difficult economic times.

Political Powerhouse

As a politician, Martin O’Malley cobbled together a strong Democratic coalition throughout the state. He dominated political Maryland.

Yet he largely disappeared from last year’s gubernatorial campaign, refusing to defend his record. That was a huge mistake. Republican Hogan had a field day pummeling O’Malley, who was never there to rebut the charges.

Hogan’s easy victory on Nov. 4 signaled a sharp change in the state Democratic Party’s fortunes. The efficient statewide organization O’Malley had built crumbled.

The party lost much of its previous support in towns and communities beyond Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. Without O’Malley, Maryland Democrats appear leaderless and in disarray.

On the National Stage

Now it is on to what O’Malley hopes will be much bigger things.

He’s actively exploring a run for president. A pipe dream? Tell that to Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — small-state governors who beat the odds.

O’Malley was far from an ideal governor, but he gave Maryland honest, intensely dedicated service. The state is better off than it was when he arrived in 2007 to take the oath of office.

Best of all, Marylanders of this generation will be able to tell their children and grandchildren that thanks to Martin O’Malley:

“We beat the Great Recession and lived to tell about it.”

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Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest

By Barry Rascovar

You might call them Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest. They have earned those titles for outrageously ignorant and beyond-the-pale actions as elected officials. Their names: Kirby Delauter, Richard Slutzky and Jack Young.

Judge for yourself which is Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest.

KIRBY DELAUTER

I am using his name in this blog without Kirby Delauter’s authorization.

Frederick County Councilman Kirby Delauter

Councilman Kirby Delauter, Frederick County MD

Who is this guy? Kirby Delauter was a Frederick County Commissioner for one term and before that served on the Thurmont Police Commission. He runs a Thurmont contracting company and was elected to the new Frederick County Council last year, representing District 5.

He claimed the right to exclude his name from media publications.

After the Frederick News-Post wrote about a juvenile spat involving Delauter over special councilmanic parking spaces, he responded by threatening the reporter: “Use my name again unauthorized and you’ll be paying for an Attorney.”

Huh?

Guess Delauter forgot about the First Amendment, i.e., freedom of the press. He also apparently isn’t aware of court decisions that make it clear Kirby Delauter, as an elected public official, is fair game for the media. You don’t need a permission slip from him to mention his name.

Delauter’s temper tantrum went viral around the world. He’s been mocked and made fun of by his local newspaper and folks all over the country.

No wonder he backed down, claiming he acted before thinking about the ramifications of his nasty missive to the newspaper.

He still owes the reporter an apology. He sought to bully and threaten her.

Nice move.

Now he has painted a bull’s eye on his back. From now on, when he sends an outrageous email or mouths off without thinking at a council meeting, it will be reported by the media.

What an embarrassment.

RICHARD SLUTZKY

Who knew members of the Harford County Council are prime terrorism targets?

Council President Richard Slutzky, Harford County

Council President Richard Slutzky, Harford County

Thanks to the council’s new president, Richard Slutzky, we’re fully aware of these unbeknownst dangers when a citizen walks to the dais to converse with a council member after a meeting.

Holy mackerel, imagine what terrorists have in store for the rest of us if they’re targeting Slutzky & Company!

No wonder Slutzky used his new-found power to ban reporters and citizens from approaching the dais. Apparently he feels that mingling with common folk or the media is too dangerous for an elected lawmaker in Harford County.

What might reporters be hiding in their pens and note pads? What might that citizen be concealing in her pile of papers?

It seems Slutzky dreamed this one up all by himself. It was a good excuse to avoid being pressed or asked uncomfortable questions about his remarks or votes. He apparently dislikes being accosted by angry constituents who disagree with him on local issues.

So he decided to waste taxpayer dollars by hiring a County Council spokesperson to serve as the mouthpiece for the county’s elected local legislators.

Want to get a comment from Slutzky? The spokesperson will respond for him.

Want to know why Slutzky voted a certain way on a bill affecting your neighborhood? The County Council’s spokesperson will come up with some blather so Slutzky doesn’t have to deal directly with upset constituents.

What a great idea! Isolate yourself and the council from the public and the media.

Wait a minute. Didn’t Anthony Brown employ that same tactic when he ran for governor last year?

It proved a disaster. Brown came across as aloof, arrogant and afraid of tripping over his own words if he had to deal with voters or reporters directly. He diverted all questions to a taxpayer-paid propagandist.

Slutzky apparently shares Brown’s distaste for direct contact — though a harsh negative response from Harford residents soon forced him to retract his ban on dais-approaching.

Slutzky’s idea of elevating the status of council members — and creating an unnecessary government post at a time of government austerity — so they don’t have to mess with common folk is not exactly the American Way. It’s not even the frugal Harford County Way.

JACK YOUNG

Here we go again.

First, Baltimore City Council President Jack Young abused his power and stripped a dissenting lawmaker, Councilwoman Rikki Spector, of all committee assignments.

Council President Jack Young, Baltimore City

Council President Jack Young, Baltimore City

It was a crass display of power and a clear sign Young craves total control of the City Council.

After all, Spector was the only one to oppose Young on two controversial bills to ban plastic grocery bags and force 3,000 city police officer to wear body cameras.

Forget the fact Young’s grocery bag ban was an ill-thought and counter-productive idea that accomplishes little. And forget that the council has no authority to dictate policy to the police department.

When Dictator Young speaks, he wants everyone on the council, without exception, to salute and vote as he commands. Winning 15-1 isn’t good enough for him.

Now Young is furious because the city Law Department told him he can’t remove Spector from the city planning commission as well. It seems that is the prerogative of the mayor.

Why did Young strip Spector of all substantive committee work? Because she “has not supported anything I have done for four years.”

Poor Jack Young. He just can’t stand it when someone disagrees with him all the time. He uses his power to mete out extreme punishment. Off with her head!

Young also thinks the answer is to hire his own lawyer to give the council president legal advice he wants to hear.

Yet even a hack lawyer hired to mouth the legal guidance Young desires would have trouble satisfying his narrow-minded boss on the aforementioned issues. Here’s why:

Police powers lie with Baltimore’s mayor, not the council.

Appointment powers to the planning commission lie with the mayor, too.

Read the law, Jack Young, it’s not beyond your capabilities.

Betcha don’t remember what Lord Acton said about folks like yourself: “”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

***

There you have it: Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest.

How would you match this trio of elected officials with those three titles?

Hogan’s Unappetizing Choices

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 5, 2015 — The New Year belongs to the victors, like Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr. But reality will set in quickly once hard, unappetizing choices pit campaign pledges against on-the-ground reality.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

Here are some examples:

RED LINE/PURPLE LINE

During the campaign, Hogan criticized both mass transit lines as too expensive for Maryland’s financial situation.

He said the money would be better spent on roads, not rapid rail.

At the same time, Hogan pounded away at the need for aggressive job and business creation. He pledged to energize the state’s lackluster economic development effort.

Killing the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs would, indeed, save lots of money for Maryland — $1.035 billion on the Red Line and $637 million on the Purple Line.

But not a penny of the savings will help Hogan close the $1 billion general fund budget deficit staring him in the face. Transportation funds are segregated in a separate account.

Even worse, the savings probably wouldn’t pay for much in the way of local highways work, either. That’s because the state would only be paying one-sixth (or possibly less) of the cost each year during the lengthy construction stage.

Compounding matters, revenue estimates for transportation taxes are proving overly optimistic, leaving a $441 million hole in the state’s six-year transportation plan.

Killing the Red and Purple lines would close that gap, but what’s left wouldn’t have much of an impact on local road-building when spread over six years, plus inflation.

The demise of Maryland’s two major transit projects, meanwhile, would be devastating for transportation contractors and the thousands of workers who wouldn’t be employed building the two rail lines.

That hurts Maryland’s jobless rate and the state’s economic growth.

So killing the two projects outright may not be the smartest step.

Baltimore badly needs the Red Line to connect its inadequate transit system and get low-income city workers to job sites. The Purple Line is crucial for near-the-beltway, lower-income neighborhoods and for lessening the crunch in rush hours on the Capital Beltway.

Then there are the political ramifications.

Kill the two transit lines and the new governor immediately makes enemies of the three largest delegations in the Maryland General Assembly — Baltimore, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County.

Together, the three have enough votes to make life miserable for Hogan.

There’s got to be a middle-ground way, which would involve a construction delay while engineers search for cost-effective options to lower the price tag for the two rail routes.

When the Woodrow Wilson Bridge crossing the Potomac River near National Harbor was reconstructed, the cost soared out of sight. Only after an innovative project engineer, Tom Mohler (now a partner with RK&K Engineers in Baltimore) devised a cheaper approach — chopping the massive project into smaller chunks — did the price tag diminish enough for Maryland, Virginia and the District to proceed with construction.

That’s what may have to take place on the two expensive mass transit routes, too.

SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION

Hogan faces a huge budget deficit, which may require a deep cut in school construction funding, from the $300 million level favored by the O’Malley administration to the $200 million level.

The problem is that many of the counties where Hogan was wildly popular are the very counties lobbying the state for more new-school dollars to handle a surge in students.

Hogan might end up disappointing the very voters who put him in office.

Clearly the state’s budget hole, plus the state’s over-reliance on floating bonds, call for reductions in spending.

School construction sticks out like a sore thumb.

Hogan might attempt to do more with less — by putting the state’s money into renovations of existing schools instead of costly new construction. He may be able to stretch fewer dollars further.

But it won’t make all his supporters happy, especially those with kids attending overcrowded public schools.

FILM TAX CREDIT

Maryland’s generosity toward the film industry led two TV production companies in recent years to work in the state on “Veep” and “House of Cards.”

Since 2012, this has cost Maryland taxpayers $62.5 million in tax credits to the production companies.

Yet it has put hundreds of skilled laborers to work behind the scenes: designing sets, arranging the lighting, working on the sound and engineering crews, preparing the costumes and working as extras. Hundreds more have been hired locally to play roles in the TV series.

If the tax credit is killed, one of the biggest losers would be Harford County, which, ironically, gave Hogan an overwhelming victory in November.

The Department of Legislative Services claims the film tax credit has generated little in the way of a return on the state’s investment, but the DLS may have been looking at the wrong indicators.

As an economic development tool, the tax credit is nurturing a local film industry. It is responsible for the evolution of a solid core of high-quality, skilled craftsmen and artists — just the right ingredients for luring more film crews to Maryland.

Kill the film tax credit and you likely kill any chance of Maryland retaining “Veep” and “House of Cards.” Hogan would be chopping off any possibility of Maryland gaining a reputation in Hollywood as a welcoming place for film production.

For a governor promising to grow jobs and the state economy, Hogan would be sending the wrong signal by taking an ax to the film tax credit.

Such unappetizing choices put him in a bind.

Hogan must find a way to balance the state’s books while not forsaking his pledge to jump-start Maryland’s quest for jobs and business — while at the same time not alienating his supporters or powerful groups in the legislature that could potentially subvert his agenda.

It won’t be easy.

# # #

Barry Rascovar writes a blog, www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com

Marylander of the Year

Gov. Martin J. O'Malley Martin Joseph O’Malley

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 31, 2014 — Sometimes the most important man in the room isn’t there. That was the case with 2014’s Marylander of the Year, Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The state’s 61st chief executive dominated events throughout 2014, even when he often wasn’t present.

He was the centerpiece of the summer-fall gubernatorial campaign — though his name didn’t appear on the ballot and he was rarely spotted on the campaign trail.

He forcefully took control of Maryland’s fatally flawed health insurance internet exchange, assigned his best technology aides to take over — and didn’t say much after that.

As he has done in past years, O’Malley won nearly all his fights with the 2014 General Assembly — a much-needed higher minimum wage, marijuana decriminalization, domestic violence laws, expanded pre-kindergarten, education investments and public safety overhauls. Yet he did much of his work quietly this time.

He ended the year with a splash, too, grabbing headlines by commuting the death sentences of the last four inmates in Maryland on death row.

O’Malley also dominated what proved one of the state’s biggest stories — the ever-expanding billion-dollar budget deficit — by hesitating and then taking a meek step to tamp down expenses. He absented himself from stronger executive action that could have proactively reduced the troubling deficit for his successor.

Since the election of Republican Larry Hogan Jr. as the next governor, O’Malley has pretty much disappeared from view — except for his frequent forays to early primary states in his quest for the presidential nomination in 2016.

Most puzzling was the governor’s political vanishing act during the summer and fall.

This came as Hogan started pounding away at O’Malley’s tax-raising, big-spending record — the prime theme of the successful Hogan campaign.

By removing himself from the political fray, O’Malley thought he was doing Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown a favor. How wrong he was. Brown never seized control of the campaign.

Brown turned out to be a terrible defender of the eight-year O’Malley-Brown administration. The lieutenant governor essentially ran away from his own administration’s record.

Instead of trumpeting the good the Democratic team had achieved, Brown chose to ignore it. That left Hogan with the perfect opening to drum into voters’ minds the “evils” of the O’Malley-Brown years — dozens of new taxes, rampant overspending, open hostility to job-creating businesses and meager economic growth.

Without effective push-back from Brown, and with O’Malley missing in action, Hogan’s message resonated in the empty room.

By failing to take the field to defend his eight years in office, O’Malley damaged his reputation with voters.

Ironically, the governor is one of Maryland’s best-ever campaigners. When he rolls up his sleeves and plunges into crowds, when he pours out his story and tells what he’s been able to accomplish, Martin O’Malley is a powerful persuader.

Yet this time he failed to heed the clarion call to battle. He allowed Hogan to speak at length about the negatives of the O’Malley years without anyone raising a vocal, convincing counter-argument.

The governor also wasn’t present to energize the Democratic Party’s base. No wonder turnout was abysmal in key Democratic strongholds. Brown turned people off instead of turning them on.

It will be years, or even decades, before historians place Martin O’Malley’s record into proper context. The negative image of O’Malley’s years in office,  planted in Marylanders’ minds by Hogan, will remain with them for a long time.

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar)

This is the case with O’Malley’s years in the State House. His good deeds aren’t what’s being talked about.

It need not have been this way. There was ample time for the governor to mount an effective counter-argument, but he fixed his attention firmly on what comes next after he leaves Government House on Jan. 21.

For his continuing role as the most dominant presence in the Free State’s political drama — even when he wasn’t on the stage — Martin Joseph O’Malley has justified his selection as 2014’s Marylander of the Year.

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MD’s Best in 2014

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 29, 2014 — There’s no sense wrapping up the year without a traditional round of “bests” for 2014.

In this case, let’s look at some of the “worsts” as well, in politics and beyond.

2014-calendar

Best Catastrophic Recovery

Isabel FitzGerald and Carolyn Quattrocki

Remember when Maryland’s online health insurance exchange was a national joke in late 2013?

The state’s $261 million computer system crashed in its first hours of operation and never fully recovered.

Lots of finger-pointing ensued and the executive director was pressured to resign. The prime contractor was fired. It was a government nightmare.

Gov. Martin O’Malley jumped in to help jerry-rig a temporary fix that involved dispatching his IT gurus, Isabel FitzGerald and Carolyn Quattrocki, to try to straighten things out.

It was a terrible mess, with inexcusably long waits for anxious Marylanders seeking health insurance.

Still, by the time enrollment closed last April, 263,000 people had received health insurance via the exchange – either through private insurance or Medicaid.

Enrollment for next year, which began in mid-October, topped 136,000 by mid-December. That number will grow considerably prior to the mid-February cut-off.

It wasn’t pretty – and it certainly wasn’t cheap – yet in the end the exchange achieved its purpose. A large chunk of Maryland’s uninsured or under-insured individuals have insurance policies, giving them peace of mind when it comes to health care.

FitzGerald and Quattrocki were handed a lemon of a computer system. They turned it into lemonade.

Best Bit of Chutzpah

Blaine Young

It took real gumption, and a public-be-damned attitude, for Frederick County Commissioner President Blaine Young to connive with fellow Republicans to appoint him to the county’s planning board as his term on the commission was coming to a close.

Frederick County finally is a home-rule county, with a county executive and council. Young tried to become Frederick’s first county executive but he angered so many with his land-use decisions that he lost to Democrat Jan Gardner.

That’s when Young decided to strong-arm his way onto the planning panel, where he could continue to promote his pro-growth, pro-business policies, be a thorn in Gardner’s side and remain politically newsworthy.

Too bad this outrageous bit of chutzpah was illegal, as Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler wrote. Young was “ineligible for the position, and his appointment was ineffective from the outset.” Young also can’t hold two public offices simultaneously.

But Young’s chutzpah persisted.

He showed up at a later commission meeting and confessed to an 18-month affair with the county’s budget officer, who had recently been shifted to a lesser post by Democrat Gardner at a lesser salary. Young wanted a full-fledged investigation of his paramour’s $40,000 cut in pay.

As for confessing his ethically and morally dubious affair and causing his lover intense public embarrassment, Young never flinched. A wrong had been committed, he said.

No wonder voters showed him the door.

Best Vegas Bet

The Baltimore Orioles

Orioles Logo

Who woulda thunk it?

Oddsmakers pegged Baltimore’s baseball Orioles to finish last or next-to-last in the American League’s tough eastern division.

One prognostication group gave the team a 4 percent chance of winning the AL East. Another set the O’s odds at 16 percent.

How wrong they were.

The O’s won the AL East by a country mile, finishing a strong 12 games ahead of the rest of the pack. The team’s chemistry was a joy to behold.

Free-agent acquisition Nelson Cruz crushed more home runs than any other AL player. The bullpen proved miraculous, and the starting pitchers remained solid throughout the 162-game season.

Manager Buck Showalter was named Manager of the Year and General Manager Dan Duquette received honors as the AL’s top executive. Owner Peter Angelos has every right to take pride in his team’s accomplishment.

Now if only we could go back in time and place a bet in Vegas on the O’s winning the AL East this year!

Best Investment

Jim Davis

Once it was the world’s largest steel mill with 25,000 workers, but the sprawling Bethlehem Steel plant that dominated southeastern Baltimore County for a century was shuttered, its parts sold for scrap – until Jim Davis stepped in.

The co-founder of the highly successful Aerotek national staffing firm in Hanover (along with his cousin, Steve Bisciotti), Davis and his partners at Redwood Capital formed Sparrows Point Terminal, LLC, to buy the steel mill’s 3,100 acres for $110 million. He then negotiated a $48 million cleanup with the EPA.

What he got in return was the largest industrial-zoned parcel on the East Coast, with its own railroad line, proximity to I-95 and loads of deep-water access to the Port of Baltimore.

The strategic site – at the mid-point of the East Coast – is being developed as a hub for port-related, energy, advanced manufacturing and distribution uses.

Already, Federal Express is considering a giant warehouse on 45 acres in Sparrows Point. The Port of Baltimore, meanwhile, is eager to annex the former coal pier and surrounding land in anticipation of a shipping boom, thanks to the widening of the Panama Canal. The land is ideal for roll-on, roll-off cargo.

Davis could be sitting on a gold mine, producing at least 2,000 jobs for the region within five years, by one estimate.

Best at Blowing a Sure Thing

Anthony Brown

Think about this: In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, with a huge advantage in campaign funds, with a giant party infrastructure to get out the vote, and with all the benefits of holding statewide office for eight years, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown got the stuffing beaten out of him by Republican Larry Hogan Jr.

Everything went wrong for Brown in the governor’s race.

He proved his own worst enemy. He hired terrible campaign advisors. He ignored on-the-ground reports of trouble from veteran Democratic politicians. He gave the little-known Hogan millions worth of free advertising in a shameful attempt to smear the Republican.

Brown thought the election was in the bag. He didn’t campaign some nights so he could be home with his kids. He avoided contact with the media. He rushed out of meetings to make sure he didn’t have to answer audience questions.

He gave voters little exciting or innovative to think about. He refused to aggressively defend his administration’s record. He never explained why so many taxes had to be raised. He stuck to his prepared remarks and his bland campaign speech.

He looked and sounded robotic. His strategy was wrong and his tactics proved disastrous.

It was the worst gubernatorial campaign of the century.

Perhaps there’s something to the Curse of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office after all.

Best Gambler

David Cordish

MD Live logo

Competition be damned!

The ultra-competitive David Cordish fought like a tiger to delay or prevent new gambling facilities from opening in the Central Maryland corridor.

Yet his Maryland Live! Casino now has a rival in Baltimore with another arising near the Potomac River.

It didn’t faze Cordish.

Maryland Live! continued its aggressive expansion and marketing, raking in more gambling dollars than any other casino in the Mid-Atlantic region — $605 million through November, of which the casino kept $304.5 million.

The opening of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore was expected to chop a third off Cordish’s receipts. Instead, Maryland Live!, with 4,200 slot machines and 198 table games, took in more this November, $53.8 million, than in the comparable month a year earlier.

Now Cordish is embarking on a $200 million expansion that includes a 300-room hotel and spa next to Maryland Live! to help ward off competition from the $1 billion MGM National Harbor that could open in mid-2016. He’s also building a $425 million casino in South Philadelphia.

The key? Huge amounts of free parking, Cordish says, for both suburban and urban patrons.

Best of Baltimore

War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration

Sure, it was two years late (sort of), but Baltimoreans knew how and when to commemorate the epic defense of Fort McHenry that helped turn the tide against the British in the War of 1812.

Baltimore was saved 200 years ago by the strategic blockade of the inner harbor, the savvy defensive lines thrown up in Patterson Park and the sure shots of Privates Daniel Wells and Henry McComas in targeting the British commander, Gen. Robert Ross, at North Point.

Charm City celebrated those events for months.

The long-forgotten history of that 1812-1814 military engagement was resurrected repeatedly at events around town. Francis Scott Key’s poem, now the National Anthem, was given more attention than ever before. The Battle of Baltimore, and other clashes of the war, were recounted in books and at historic re-creations.

A giant fireworks display highlighted Fort McHenry’s portion of the celebration, as did an impressive display of Tall Ships in the Inner Harbor.

It was an event to remember.

Best Losing Candidate 

Dan Bongino

He came within a whisker of knocking off the Democratic incumbent in a district re-drawn to favor the incumbent. Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent with a knack for publicity and relentless campaigning, almost succeeded in mining the discontent of Maryland voters to win a seat in Congress.

Bongino benefited from an outpouring of Republican and independent support in the Western Maryland portions of the Sixth Congressional District for GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan Jr. Both of them zeroed in on Maryland’s high taxes, high government spending and anti-business attitude. Bongino benefitted from anti-Obama sentiment.

Thanks to an exceptionally low turnout in the populous Montgomery County part of the district — where Democrats dominate — Bongino almost pulled an upset over first-termer Rep. John Delaney, losing by a little more than a percentage point.

Will Bongino try again in two years? Will the atmosphere then be just as conducive? Turn in to find out in 2016.

Most Pointless Power Play

Jack Young

Leave it to the Baltimore City Council — and especially President Jack Young — to top the list for ridiculousness.

Young maneuvered through two controversial bills and won council approval by near-unanimous margins. The only “nay” votes were cast by veteran Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector.

That was too much for Young.

Spector not only had voted against his wishes but posed pointed and astute questions at Young: Why wasn’t there a separate hearing on the last-minute amendment to ban all plastic grocery bags from the city? Why not listen to the mayor’s objections?

Young, proving Spector’s point that he’s a bully, stripped her of all committee assignments.

It gets dumb and dumber in Baltimore’s legislative branch.

No wonder the City Council and its hapless presiding officer are the town’s laughingstock.

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Abolish MD’s Lt. Gov. (Part II)

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 22, 2014 – At a crowded holiday party at Camden Yards last week, Boyd Rutherford approached me and introduced himself this way:

“Hi, I’m the guy you want to fire.”

Indeed I do.

Rutherford gets sworn in next month as Maryland’s lieutenant governor, a toothless-tiger of a job.

Boyd Rutherford

Boyd Rutherford

He’ll have no constitutional powers. He’ll have to follow in lockstep the wishes and policies of the governor and praise the governor’s every move. He’ll be totally dependent on the governor for real work assignments.

If he irritates or alienates the governor circle, Rutherford better take up knitting – he’ll have lots of idle time.

Abolishing the office of lieutenant governor would save a minimum of $1 million annually. It would take a constitutional amendment (approval by the legislature and voters). But it would be worth the time and trouble to eliminate a useless, expensive appendage of state government.

Sensible Downsizing

In reality, Rutherford isn’t going to be canned. He’s safely in the office for the next four years. And he’s starting off on the right foot.

He intends to downsize. No more press secretary littering the internet with releases promoting the lieutenant governor as though what he does or says matters. Indeed, Rutherford foresees a tiny staff – some policy wonks and a few secretaries or administrative assistants.

That’s a “back to the future” move.

The most successful – and influential – lieutenant governor of the modern era in Maryland was Blair Lee III. That’s because Gov. Marvin Mandel delegated all the budget preparation, higher education and welfare decisions to Lee, who hired two of the ablest lawyers around to man his office – Tom Downs of Anne Arundel County and Shep Abell of Montgomery County.

Blair Lee III

Blair Lee III

For other administrative help, Lee shared staff with the governor. That’s what Rutherford intends to do, too.

Such an arrangement brought Lee closer to the governor’s inner circle and made him part of the team rather than a Lone Ranger operating with a separate cadre of staff boosters and cheerleaders.

Given Rutherford’s experience as a cabinet secretary, he’s likely to function more like the chief executive office contact for designated departments and agencies. It’s the best way to employ the state’s new governor-in-waiting.

Option No. 2

But if we’re not going to rid Maryland of the lieutenant governor’s office, there is an option worth pursuing: abolish the office of secretary of state.

Nearly all the functions of this post can be handled by Rutherford. Why duplicate operations when we can sensibly combine functions and make government smaller yet more efficient?

The Maryland Secretary of State is a vestige of the state’s formative years when states played a role in foreign policy.

That’s no longer the case.

While the Maryland secretary of state hosts visiting foreign dignitaries and helps run Maryland’s international sister cities program, there’s no heavy lifting involved.

Why not let the lieutenant governor take on those roles?

Limited Role

The secretary of state’s office contains 25 people and runs on a budget of $2.4 million.

The office “monitors and enforces the standards of law in a variety of areas, including charitable solicitations, notaries, condominiums, certifications and publication of State regulations. The office vigorously promotes Maryland’s active role in international relations.”

Among its chores are handling executive orders; extraditions; pardons and commutations; keeping a list of people conducting business with the state; process service; commissions for special police and railroad police, and handling matters related to the Great Seal of Maryland. Honest.

The office also deals with a few election matters that could as easily be handled by a nonpartisan panel or the state elections board: certifying presidential primary candidates for the Maryland ballot, accepting referendum petitions, and drawing up referendum ballot language.

The job of this office isn’t scintillating or fraught with high significance. Why not turn the whole shabang over to the lieutenant governor?

Rare Opportunity

This, too would require voter approval, since the office is embedded in the State Constitution: “A Secretary of State shall be appointed by the Governor, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.”

Maryland’s budget crisis gives Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr. a rare opportunity to rationalize state government and in the process make it more effective.

A good early move would be to start the process of merging the secretary of state’s duties with the lieutenant governor’s, both formally and informally.

It would send the right message without igniting a partisan battle.

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Caret Comes Home

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 18, 2014 — Hooray for Jim Shea and the rest of the University of Maryland Board of Regents for making a common-sense choice in choosing Bob Caret as the new chancellor of Maryland’s state university system.

U. Mass President Bob Caret

New USM Chancellor Bob Caret

In an Oct. 2 column, I listed Caret as one of the best candidates with in-state higher education experience. He’s got the right personality to keep 12 competing academic institutions on the same page.

After all, he’s “been there, done that” — as president of Towson University. He’s seen what works and doesn’t work in drawing all of USM’s presidents into collaboration. (He also spent nine years running the 28,000-student San Jose State University campus to rave reviews.)

Strong Local Roots

Caret understands what it takes to coordinate a sprawling university system with multiple power centers and geographic locations. He’s done that with a great degree of success as president of the 70,000-student, five-campus University of Massachusetts since 2011.

Though he’s a New Englander, Caret’s academic career (29 years on the Towson faculty) give him strong Maryland roots. He’ll start as chancellor knowing the key players in Annapolis and in state higher education.

The regents wisely picked someone whose path parallels the career track of the outgoing chancellor of the 153,000-student University System of Maryland, the legendary Brit Kirwan (45 years on the College Park faculty).

University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan

USM Chancellor Brit Kirwan

Both men spent decades in the teaching trenches (Kirwan’s PhD. is in mathematics, Caret’s is in organic chemistry), then moved up the administrative ladder to become chief academic officer, Kirwan at College Park, Caret at Towson.

Each man gained on-the-ground experience running a university campus within a larger system — Kirwan at College Park for 10 years, Caret for 18 years split between San Jose State and Towson.

The two men also had served in major CEO roles running large, state university systems, Kirwan at Ohio State, Caret at U.Mass.

And both returned to their true higher education home, Maryland.

Mid-Year Transition

In some ways it will be an awkward transition, though that Kirwan and Caret have known each other and worked cooperatively for over three decades.

Caret’s appointment is effective next July 1. That means Kirwan, not Caret, must handle the budget retrenchment now taking place within USM’s $1.1 billion fiscal blueprint.

“Downsizing” and “right-sizing” are the operative words under Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr. and that will mean painful shrinkage on state university campuses.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

Caret must live with budget decisions made months before he arrives. He won’t be able to put his full imprint on fiscal plans until the budget for 2016 is drawn up.

That will be the key budget year for both Caret and Hogan. By then, both will be in their new jobs long enough to formulate a broader, long-range vision that will be incorporated into the state’s budget (and the university system’s budget) a year from now.

Caret is well aware of the dramatic message Maryland voters sent government leaders: Spending is spinning out of control, as are taxes; yet government isn’t doing enough to encourage job-creation.

The Maine native struck the right notes in his initial comments, saying he’ll focus on two academic priorities — making quality college education affordable and building “a research-based economic engine.”

He’s already singing Hogan’s song!

USM logo

While many USM institutions are thriving and rising in prestige, Caret faces a tough task improving the performance of the bottom-rung schools — Coppin and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

UMES’ collaboration with nearby Salisbury University is beginning to pay academic dividends, but Coppin’s sorry status remains deeply troubling. There’s a sharp disconnect between the abysmal performance of Coppin compared with the rest of the USM campuses.

Uninformed Comments

That disconnect was acutely illustrated in comments by a Coppin professor in responding to Caret’s appointment.

Virletta Bryant, who chairs USM’s faculty council, displayed stunning ignorance in stating that the USM faculty didn’t know enough about Caret to offer an opinion.

Heck, he’s only been a faculty member in the system for three decades!

Then Bryant went on to display an appalling lack of knowledge of how USM actually conducts its business by criticizing the secretiveness of the regent’s search for Kirwan’s successor.

Hasn’t she read the law that mandates the chancellor search, and vote, must be kept secret?

If that’s the best a Coppin professor heading the system’s faculty council has to offer, no wonder Coppin students are getting such a poor education.

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MD’s Easy Budget Fix

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 15, 2014 — Maryland governments are awash in budget deficits.

Yet it need not be quite so bad.

In Annapolis, state officials are looking at a $900 million shortfall over the next 18 months — and that number will likely grow when updated revenue estimates come out today.

Budget balancing

In Howard County, the current-year gap is estimated at $14 million.

In Baltimore City, the mayor is looking at an expected $15 million shortage for this fiscal year.

In Prince George’s County, the budget gap is $59 million.

In Montgomery County, local budgeteers say the county might find itself with a $250 million shortfall.

All those projections are likely to rise in the months ahead.

Reverberations from Washington

When bad economic news hits the U.S., state and local governments feel the reverberations as tax collections contract.

When the federal government cuts spending under Republican mandates, Virginia and Maryland feel the impact most as residents can’t find jobs in Washington; consultants and contractors lay off employees due to reduced workloads.

When the real estate market continues to lag, governments get less than expected from the property tax.

But there’s another insidious factor at work: a badly skewed budget calendar that leads to highly inaccurate revenue estimates.

Right now, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan is basing his slimmed-down budget plans on projected tax collections for the next 18 months — through June of 2016.

Think about that for a moment.

Wild Guesses

Economic models cannot give Hogan more than a wild guess on what energy prices will be in the spring of 2016. The same holds for food prices and construction costs a year and a half from now.

Will housing sales be up, down or in the doldrums in early 2016? How about employment and jobless claims a year-plus from today?

A tarot card reader might prove more useful than an economist in determining how much revenue will come the state’s way far into the future.

Mathematical models developed by economists cannot account for the vagaries of political decision-making, either.

With Republicans taking full control of Congress, will that lead to a massive reduction in aid to the states? If so, by how much? And what will next October’s federal aid package look like?

Government Spending

No wonder state and local officials often find themselves behind the eight-ball. They are basing their budget decisions on best guesses of the government’s tax collections far down the road.

It’s an absurd situation.

There’s a better way: Change Maryland’s fiscal budget year so it runs from January to December. Then, base the state’s budget on the prior year’s revenue numbers.

That’s a far more cautious approach.

It comes with a huge benefit — 100 percent accuracy in the state’s revenue numbers in the next budget.

Certainty in Budgeting

Instead of beating their heads against an economic brick wall trying to fathom what tax receipts will be like two springs from now, state leaders could build a budget with a large degree of certainty, knowing that the money will be there.

Next year’s budget thus would be based on the exact amount of lottery and casino revenue generated in 2014. We’d know the amount to the penny. The same would be true for income tax and sales tax receipts.

We’d also know with precision the scope of federal appropriations to the state and localities for most of 2015. That’s because Washington operates on an October-to-September fiscal calendar. We’d have an exact picture of federal largesse for three-quarters of the next year.

All this would take much of the guess-work out of Maryland’s budget process.

Reforming the state’s budget laws would give localities earlier certainty, too. There would be less chance of giant shortfalls.

Yes, we’d still experience spending gaps, such as for police overtime or emergency repairs or catastrophic occurrences, but a calendar-year budget would eliminate much of the angst that now consumes officials at this time of the year.

The downside: State leaders would have to craft more conservative budgets. In boom years this could result in very large surpluses. But it also would lead to far smaller deficits when the next recession hits.

Adjustments to the state’s calendar-year budget could be made in June or July, with a supplemental request from the governor to the legislature, which could hold a brief special session to examine the new spending requests.

The advantages of putting together a budget containing concrete revenue numbers are immense. Such a proposal is well worth considering — especially by a newly elected governor facing a giant budget crisis.

A Rational Approach

Maryland’s spending and taxing habits need close examination. But so does the budget process itself.

Why not make budgeting in Annapolis more rational?

Next year’s spending numbers should be based on tax collections from the prior calendar year — not ballpark guesses of how future events might impact state revenue more than a dozen months from now.

Compared with tax reform and downsizing government programs, changes to Maryland’s budget procedures would be fairly easy and straight-forward. It’s not a partisan issue, either.

Hogan ought to follow the advice of a former governor, William Donald Schaefer, and “do it now.”

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State Center Questions

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 11, 2014 — Next week, lame-duck Gov. Martin O’Malley may decide to bring the matter of the $1.5 billion State Center project before a divided Board of Public Works.

It would be a controversial move.

State Center with new building

State Center with new building

Readers responded to my previous column on this topic with some interesting thoughts. Their conclusion: There are far better ways to redevelop this space and provide decent offices for state workers in Baltimore.

University Center?

Steve, who is a Baltimore-area developer, writes:

In my opinion the universities and hospitals are the glue that holds this City together once you get away from the Inner Harbor. 

“How about they move the government uses down to the [Central Business District] as [Peter]Angelos suggests and then make the State Center parcel available to the [University of Baltimore] and/or [the Maryland Institute, College of Art] so that they can expand their campuses, while incorporating into the project some retail and other amenities that would benefit neighboring communities? 

“[A win] for the CBD, win for the universities, win for the neighboring communities.  Maybe that makes too much sense for it to happen.”

Hurting ‘Older Downtown’

Hugh, a long-time financial industry executive, writes:

“It was an ill-conceived idea from the start. There is so much B [office] space in the Central Business District available suitable for state workers at much better rates/rents.

“Additionally, [the State Center project] would take current state workers [out of] ‘older downtown.’ [This] would hurt vacancy rates even more.”

Ideal Arena Site

Owen, a longtime development pro, believes the State Center site is ideal for a new city arena.

The current plan, he writes, suffers from its “wayward scope, negative financial profile and appealing alternatives.”

Relocating the arena there makes sense, he believes:

“While the previously contemplated office project appears permanently stalled, the site adjacent to the O’Conor office building is large enough to accommodate a new arena and would certainly bring new life to the neighborhood.”

The area has lots of public transit and the Lyric and Meyerhoff performance centers. Owen adds an arena at that site would create “a more dense critical mass of entertainment related uses.” This, he feels, would lead to “more amenities for those patrons and create a rising tide for all to benefit.” 

‘No Longer Affordable’

A few days ago, Comptroller Peter Franchot chimed in as well. Not surprisingly, he’s against the amended plan, just as he opposed older versions of the State Center proposal.

Franchot says, “This is really a very questionable project. . . . When you look at the deal right now, unlike a few years ago, it’s no longer affordable. The commercial real estate market really hasn’t fully rebounded in Baltimore. We’re going to be paying a lot in rent.”

Then there’s the question of endangering Maryland’s triple-A bond rating.

State legislators are concerned State Center subsidies might put Maryland over its capital bond cap. Even if that’s not the case, the costly lease agreement will put a crimp in the state’s operating expenses for decades to come.

DLS Analysis

It’s also worth noting some of the points made in the Department of Legislative Services analysis of the revised State Center proposal.

State Center plan

State Center Plan

First, the plan now is based on the state taking an additional 115,000 square feet of office space — for a total of 515,000 square feet. That means yanking more state agencies out of the downtown business district, which already is hurting badly from high vacancy rates.

Second, these sky-high leases — $35.85 a square foot, plus a 15 percent inflation factor every five years — “would not be subject to appropriations in the State budget.” It is the only such project that is exempt from legislative oversight and review.

Third, the now-shrunken underground garage still would cost the state $28.3 million, leading to an annual debt service of $2.5 million for the state and an annual loss to the transportation trust fund of $2 million per year.

Fourth, the 500 spaces reserved for state employees will cost each of those workers $600 a year, versus the free parking on surface lots employees now use. (There are 3,500 workers in the State Center complex, meaning the new replacement building will not come close to accommodating all those who drive to work.)

Fifth, moving expenses alone will cost the state $2.4 million. Then the state will mothball the existing buildings. That adds another $5.8 million per year in expenses.

Sixth, DLS questions whether a private charter school is best situated in a state-leased office building. That’s the latest plan from the developers.

DLS also wonders if it is realistic for developers to anticipate a supermarket will open in the Firth Regiment Armory building, with its high walls and enormous heating and air-conditioning bills.

“It is unclear if any of these changes make sense,” DLS concludes.

The agency’s analysis lists four options:

  • Do nothing, which will require costly annual patch-ups to the 50-year-old structures.
  • Renovate or replace the current state buildings, at a cost of $215 million. (Given the state’s over-extended capital bond program, this is a non-starter.)
  • Sell the State Center buildings now in use and rent space elsewhere. Downtown office rents are cheap and there’s oodles of quality space available.
  • Buy out the developer and re-bid the project — but this time limit the RFP to one new privately owned office building for state workers.

DLS raises significant and substantive issues that cry out for careful scrutiny.

Changing Times

Since the State Center plan was first unveiled to great fanfare in 2005, times have certainly changed.

What is now under examination may not be economically feasible.

There may be far better uses for the site.

There are far less expensive ways to find better office space for state employees.

Perhaps most telling, the state no longer has the financial strength to give such a generous subsidy to a private developer for a project that is, at best, marginally viable.

There are plenty of reasons to take a “go-slow” approach on the State Center proposal. 

We could learn next week if O’Malley agrees.

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State Center Boondoggle

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 8, 2014 — As Gov. Martin O’Malley winds down his second and final term as Maryland chief executive, he owes it to his successor — and to his legacy — not to push for approval of a new plan for developing State Center in mid-town Baltimore.

It’s a boondoggle in both its current form and in its amended form.

State Center vision

State Center vision

With the state facing dire budget deficits for years to come, it makes no sense for O’Malley to saddle the next governor with an inflated lease that will cost an extra $18.5 million per year — rising by another 15 percent every five years — to house agencies already working in lease-free buildings at State Center.

The only winners in this proposal are the developers, who just happen to include a number of friends and allies of the governor.

One-Sided Deal

Going forward with this shell game of a $1.5 billion plan would seriously tarnish O’Malley’s reputation. It would be unfair to pawn such a one-sided deal off on Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and Maryland taxpayers.

The governor should do the wise thing and put the amended State Center plan on hold  until Hogan is inaugurated.

Bringing this matter before the Board of Public Works could set off needless fireworks and disputes over an ambitious development that the Department of Legislative Services has repeatedly called into question.

From the beginning, the State Center plan that O’Malley has backed made little sense.

It was an idea that emerged during boom times and depends on the largesse of the city and state governments.

Ambitious Plan

The developers want the state and Baltimore City to underwrite much of the cost for constructing a new building on state land near the existing, aging state office complex.

Then state agencies will move from the state-owned buildings to the new, privately owned office structure — with the developers charging exorbitant rent equivalent to harbor-view rates.

The developers then will gut the 15-story State Office Building and turn it into market-rate apartments. More office buildings and residential units will follow on land leased from the state — with all the profits benefiting the developers.

None of this was realistic, even during good economic times.

The site is not in an appealing location, since it abuts a crime-ridden housing project and an under-achieving hospital. The site is about a mile from the central downtown business district, overlooking a forlorn section of Howard Street.

Appealing Alternatives

It would be far cheaper for the state to move agencies into inexpensive, modern office space downtown — either permanently or temporarily while the State Office Building and Herbert R. O’Conor Building are renovated. Or the state might move the agencies into the million-square-foot former Social Security annex near Lexington Market through a private-public partnership arrangement.

State Center complex

State Office Building (right) and O’Conor Building (left)

The most expensive way to give state workers better office space would be to proceed with the private development of State Center.

Even the developers’ parking arrangement for the office building seems unrealistic.

The state would be stuck with the tab for the expensive underground garage, but there wouldn’t be enough spaces to handle all the workers’ cars — and there would be few parking spaces for people conducting business at state agencies or shopping at the building’s ground-level retail stores.

The initial plan, devised before the Great Recession and championed by Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, was overly optimistic at the time. It envisioned State Center as a great transit hub (Metro, light rail and buses) that would be a natural magnet for new city residents and offices.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

Angelos Vindicated

Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos sued the state over the plan, claiming it would be far less costly and far better for Baltimore City if state agencies moved into  vacant space in the central downtown business district.

Angelos won his argument in circuit court but lost on appeal. Time, though, has proved Angelos right.

O’Malley shouldn’t leave office under a cloud.

Citizens owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the way he muscled Maryland through the Great Recession without massive layoffs or harmful cuts to the state’s social safety net.

It would be best if O’Malley left the State Center plan in limbo rather than foist this ill-timed proposal on Hogan.

Given the depressing economic outlook for Maryland’s state government, there’s no way the State Center project should move forward.

It’s a white elephant waiting to happen.

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