Category Archives: Government

Uber and Out in MD

By Barry Rascovar

August 14, 2014 — Maryland’s Public Service Commission struck a blow for the rule of law this week when it declared the popular app-based, ride-sharing company Uber Technologies isn’t exempt from regulations other companies must follow if they want to transport paying customers.

It is “clear and unambiguous” that Uber is a passenger-carrying, for-profit, public transportation service, according to the PSC.

Uber logo

As such, Uber is not free to make its own rules and ignore Maryland law.

Just because Uber is using innovative Internet technologies to reinvent the taxicab industry doesn’t mean it can arrogantly write its own dictum and thumb its nose at statutes that govern the way other common carriers operate.

Companies like Uber seem to believe that because they are Internet-based, they can run their kingdoms according to their edicts and decrees.

Isn’t the Internet all about unfettered communication and freedom?

Brave, New World

Doesn’t a business based on Internet technologies have the right to do what it pleases, regardless of the consequences or existing statutes?

To follow that logic is to abandon all governance in favor of a libertarian society stripped of legal restraints.

Thankfully, the PSC wasn’t buying Uber’s scary vision of a brave, new fee-for-transport world. If we live in a country ruled by laws, then the laws must be applied across the board.

There’s no doubt Uber offers customers a good deal.

Uber smart phone app

Uber Smart Phone App

But huge dangers lurk as well.

Because Uber doesn’t want to play by the PSC’s rules, it sets its own customer charges. Unlike other cab companies, it applies higher “surge pricing” during busy times. It hasn’t bothered to apply for a common carrier license from the PSC, either.

Uber’s drivers don’t have Maryland passenger-for-hire licenses, which means its drivers haven’t undergone state criminal background checks or driver record checks.

Uber drivers don’t have passenger-for-hire vehicle insurance: If there’s an accident, the driver’s personal auto insurance won’t pay the passenger’s medical bills, or for damages.

No Safety Net?

(Uber claims on its website it has a “commercial insurance policy for rideshare drivers.” But it also claims “all UberBLACK, UberSUV, or uberTAXI rides are provided by commercially licensed and insured partners and drivers. Those transportation providers are covered by commercial insurance policies, in accordance with local and state requirements” — a statement that isn’t true in Maryland.)

Without a government-imposed safety net, passengers take their lives in their hands when they travel with Uber.

“Technology is not a substitute for regulatory oversight,” says Paula Carmody, the Maryland People’s Council, who usually is critical of PSC actions. This time, the official whose job is to look out for consumers applauded the regulatory commissioners. They “got it right.”

Paula Carmody, People's Counsel

Paula Carmody, People’s Counsel

The commissioners also recognized that the Internet riding-sharing revolution is transforming the passenger-for-hire industry. They directed their staff to come up with new regulations within 90 days reflecting evolutionary changes in transport services.

The staff will propose ways to make sure Uber-type companies and drivers have sufficient insurance; that their vehicles are safe and inspected; that drivers are qualified, and that new technologies affecting rates and pick-ups can be applied to all of the state’s taxi-style companies.

Uber, though, continues to act like a spoiled child caught trying to empty the cookie jar.

PSC logo

It railed against the “PSC’s attempt to take choice and competition away from Maryland residents.”

Uber said it will “continue to defend the rights of riders and drivers to have access to the safest, most reliable transportation alternatives on the road.”

“Safest”? Hardly.

The notion that Uber cannot compete if it plays by the state’s rules is buncombe.

What Uber really wants is a built-in advantage over traditional cab and sedan companies. That can only be accomplished by operating outside Maryland law that governs the cab industry.

Level Playing Field

Uber has opened the door for other companies to benefit from technology innovations it has brought to passenger-for-hire car service. That’s what the PSC wants to see in its new regulations.

In other states, Uber is getting its way. It can continue its outlaw-status with minimal state interference.

Not in Maryland, where Uber is being asked to recognize the importance of regulatory laws designed to ensure public safety.

That’s what government is supposed to do — even in an anarchic Internet Age.

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No MD Pension Panic This Year

By Barry Rascovar

August 4, 2014–Good news from the Maryland state retirement agency: investment earnings over the past year ending June 30 rose a strong 14.37 percent.

Maryland retirement agency logo

Don’t get too excited: The agency is still digging out of a deep financial hole caused by the Great Recession, poor decisions by former governors and legislators and poor advice from the agency’s consultant.

The retirement fund’s health, though, is showing solid improvement.

Positive Signs

Since the depths of the Great Recession, the value of its assets have risen over one-third, now topping $45.4 billion — a boost of over $5 billion in the past year alone.

Equally important, reforms to the system have kicked in: Increased employee payments, tighter eligibility rules, contributions from counties for teacher pensions and phasing out the ill-conceived Corridor Funding Methodology that let politicians reduce state payments while ignoring the retirement fund’s deterioration.

Combined, all this has kept the retirement fund on track to return to 80 percent of full funding by 2025 as planned. The corner may have been turned.

Index Fund Debate

Critics, especially conservatives and Republicans, continue to complain about fees paid to money managers — $273.8 million in fiscal year 2013 — rather than dumping all the state’s stock and bond investments into passive, low-fee index funds.

But the state agency recouped its payments to professional financial advisers many times over during the past two years with total gains of nearly 25 percent.

Moreover, fund managers already have shifted more of their assets into index funds: 63 percent of domestic equity investments are in these passive accounts; 47 percent of international equities are held in index funds, too.

Recent strong returns could well persist in upcoming annual reports as the nation’s economy finally starts to gain steam and enters a robust growth phase. It’s a good time to be a pension fund manager.

Two-Way Economic Cycle

But there will be dips and plunges along the way. There always are. Economic cycles flow in two directions — up some years, down in others.

To prepare for the down years and slower long-term growth, the state’s pension fund managers continue to re-channel investments into safer, less volatile financial instruments. The goal is long-term, stable growth, not flashy, short-term gains (or losses).

Some states get a bigger annual investment return than Maryland by placing riskier bets. But they are using retirement fund money for these gambles, which in some cases have backfired quite badly.

Long-Term Results Count

Still, we shouldn’t place too much importance in these annual profit-or-loss statements from government pension funds.

Everyone with stock portfolios knows the short-term picture can look terribly bleak (for example, last Thursday’s and Friday’s steep plunge in the Dow-Jones Average). But over the long haul — a decade or more — historic patterns are quite positive.

That’s what counts — the long-range results for pension funds. Harsh critiques of a fund’s 12-month performance can be misleading.

False Assumptions

Placing too much emphasis on the unfunded actuarial liability also can lead to false conclusions.

Yes, Maryland’s unfunded IOUs topped $19 billion as of last year. But there’s plenty of money in the retirement plan to write pension checks to 132,000 retirees and beneficiaries for years and decades to come.

Meanwhile, reforms taken over the past three years will continue narrowing the gap between what goes into the fund and what is drawn out to pay pensioners each year.

Eliminating the Deficit

The saving grace is that Maryland only pays out a fraction of the pension fund’s assets each year. Most of the 192,000 active participants in the program won’t start collecting retirement checks for another 20 or 30 years.

There’s plenty of time to gradually eliminate the unfunded liability.

That’s the stated objective of the retirement agency’s trustees.

They’ve made substantial progress in the last few years. If the nation’s economy continues on an upward trend, the agency’s financial picture could brighten faster than expected.

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

Child Immigration and MD — II

Sometimes an opinion article hits a nerve.

In this case, my column on Maryland Republican officials, child immigration from Central America, and what to do locally about these children, sent a number of the GOP faithful into conniptions.Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Dan Bongino, the GOP candidate for Congress in the Montgomery County-Western Maryland district, called the column a “hate-filled, ignorant, one-sided piece. . .. so full of vitriol and emotion. . . . [it] should have never been published. There is already a movement growing, among a large group of grassroots activists, to respond.”

They did – along with many others.

Len Lazarick, who publishes MarylandReporter.com, an essential aggregator of news and commentary on Maryland politics and government, ran my column and later ran responses from Republican Congressman Andy Harris and Republican Del. Pat McDonough, among others.

MarylandReporter.com

Len also ran a lengthy defense of Republican immigration policy and a frontal attack on the Democrats’ immigration policy (and my “slanderous, outrageous” column) signed by Diana Waterman, chair of the state GOP.

Another former elected official sent me this response:

“Barry,

“This has got to be the most outrageously partisan[,] myopic, and uninformed column you have ever spewed out. I might try to respond but it would not be worth my time.

“Disgusted,

“Ellen Sauerbrey”

What follows are some of the other reactions.

From Billy Earl:

“Brilliant piece, spot on. . .”

From Jeff:

“[Y]ou were right when you said this: ‘The best way to stop this unwanted influx is to become involved in helping Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala crack down on criminal activity, to bolster health and education opportunities and to encourage business development.’

“How could anyone disagree with this? It is shameful that Mr. Bongino called for your firing for an opinion piece. I am a life-long Republican and I have never found his presence comfortable. . . .

“I do not support the Governor’s actions or those who have spoken up on this issue because I find that both sides are just reading polls and trying to get attention. I find it classless all the way around.”

From Diane:

“Personally, I think [Rascovar is] full of s**t on this issue, but I am glad you posted it, and hope you keep it online, so people can form their own judgments on the issue and on Rascovar’s opinions. . . .”

“If the column reduces Rascovar’s readership or influence, or lowers public opinion of his value, so be it–he’s entitled to say what he thinks and we are entitled to draw whatever conclusions we wish about him. My personal opinion of him has taken a major hit.”

From Sarah:

“Yeah, I know you and Len took a lot of flak for it, and maybe you did paint with a broad brush, but I appreciated your opinion piece. . . . Someone had to say it.”

From AB:

“I’m a registered Republican and I thank you for this column.  Your courage and insight are appreciated always, at least by [my] family.”

 From Margaret:

“I’m not familiar with you or your column. . . . [P]eople want something for nothing and there are politicians in this country who are spreading the rumor in [C]entral and [S]outh American countries that they can get it here. Unfortunately WE Americans are sick to death of paying for the problems of non-residents. . .  It is not the American way.”

From Pete:

“That piece is really beneath you, filled with ad hominem vitriol. You have to ask yourself why nothing has been done on Immigration reform, and why these children are causing such a ruckus. For years, the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between the two sides of the aisle has been that the Democrats don’t do anything substantive about halting the flood of illegals since they generally partake of Democrat social programs, and so vote Democrat. Since they’re illegal, they get paid under the table, so Republican business interests can pay them as little as they like. So far, so good. Now, kids are coming in, whom the Democrats like, but who won’t be working for Republicans anytime soon. Oops.”

From Jack:

“I appreciate you trying to be a reporter of sorts but I would get your facts straight before posting. People will appreciate your views much better.”

“I didn’t bother reading all of your article because nothing seemed factual . . .

“Keep reporting Barry but at least research. Most of what I read isn’t true.”

From Mark:

“Usually your columns are very insightful. Not today. I suppose everyone deserves a vacation once in a while.

“First and foremost, you conflate legal and illegal immigration. . . .

“Second, since when is appropriate [to] use graffiti to characterize a political party’s position? . . .

“Third, you mischaracterize the historic position of the Republican Party on immigration. . .

“Finally, is there a more eloquent articulation of pro-immigration position than in Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address? . . .”

 Jeff’s response:

“I suggest you pull this article immediately. It is so full of lies and misinformation and fabrications, that you better hope that you don’t get sued by the GOP.

“Pull it immediately until you have factual information.  And you know I can call you out on it being a blogger myself.  It’s horse**** ”

Finally, from Jerry:

“Wow!  What do you really think about the child immigrants? And our neo-Know Nothings in the Republican Party?  Well said!!”

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One of the goals of column-writing is to stimulate discourse and discussion.

The column I wrote focused almost exclusively on how certain state Republican officials have reacted to the recent wave of child immigration. I avoided getting into the broader immigration issue that has tied national Republicans and Democrats in knots.

The central point of the column was this:

As Americans, we have an obligation to humanely care and shelter these children until their cases are resolved. Maryland Republican officials mentioned in the column opposed the “helping hand” approach proposed by local religious and government leaders.

I found that misguided, and that’s what it wrote.

Little, if any, of the responses from Maryland Republicans have offered sensible suggestions on how to humanely care for these children locally while they await their fate.

That’s unfortunate.

Maybe the next round of missives will return to that pivotal question and give us some thoughtful answers.

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Immigration Quandary

By Barry Rascovar

July 28, 2014 — Are Republicans poor spellers?

They might be, judging from the graffiti (“NO ILLEAGLES HERE”) spray painted on a former Carroll County military building. It briefly was under consideration as housing for immigrant children fleeing violence in Central America.

Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Or is it just that Republicans are narrow-minded bigots?

It seems they don’t want people entering this country unless immigrants are Anglo-Saxon Christians who believe the “G” in GOP stands for God.

Republican History

Hostility toward immigrants is in the Grand Old Party’s DNA.

The Republican Party started as a coalition of anti-slavery groups and the Know-Nothing Party (formally known in states as the American Party or the Native American Party).

The Know-Nothings’ near-hysterical hostility toward Irish-Catholics and Germans later turned into anti-Chinese venom.

Keeping “them” out of the U.S. of A. has morphed into today’s sweeping condemnation of 57,000 children from non-English-speaking, heavily Catholic nations in Central America who have crossed the border.

‘Combat Zone’

Frederick County’s arch-enemy of immigrants, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, recently toured part of the Texas-Mexico border, declared it a “combat zone” and called for full militarization.

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County

Fortress America, here we come!

“We’re being invaded by drug cartels, drug smugglers, human traffickers,” the sheriff railed.

Huh?

Unaccompanied children are crossing the border, not gun-toting thugs and narco terrorists.

And in Baltimore County. . .

You’d never know that by listening to Del. Wade Kach or Councilman Todd Huff of Baltimore County.

The two Republicans have joined the anti-immigrant mob.

They’re upset Catholic Charities wants to house 50 children from Central America at its secluded St. Vincent’s Villa that tends to children with severe emotional and behavioral problems — and which originally opened 174 years ago as an orphanage for immigrant children.

Meanwhile, Republican Baltimore County Del. Pat McDonough, who never misses a shot at outrageous publicity, is calling for the erection of tent cities along the border and immediate deportation of “them.”

Congressional Intervention

Then there’s the irrepressible Republican naysayer, Congressman Andy Harris.

He was quick to announce his bombastic opposition to Central American kids living temporarily at a former Army Reserve building in Westminster – a locale that is not in his district.

Harris, an anesthesiologist, cited among other reasons “the potential health risks to the community” — as though these kids were carrying the Bubonic Plague.

He wants the 57,000 children deported to their home country “and get back in line.”

Discrimination is alive and well in the Republican Party’s Maryland branch.

Christian Response

Catholic Charities’ proposal, thankfully, does not follow Republican Party dicta.

Instead, it follows Christian teachings that most Republicans ostensibly say they follow.

This is, as Pope Francis pointed out, a “humanitarian emergency” involving unaccompanied children in a foreign land. We must first protect and care for these children, the pope said.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Catholic Charities is extending the good work it does by undertaking this new mission at St. Vincent’s Villa in Timonium.

It’s not a permanent solution but rather a helping hand for 50 kids while their situations are sorted out. What’s wrong with that?

Governor’s Response

How does Maryland suffer from a local charity assisting some of the needy, regardless of their place of origin?

Gov. Martin O’Malley understands.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

He first complained to the White House about placing kids at a Westminster facility lacking security or running water – not to mention the seething animus in Carroll County toward outsiders (especially Spanish-speaking “illeagals” who might pollute Carroll’s idyllic surroundings).

He was right to tell the White House it was a ridiculous idea.

There are far better ways to assist these kids — such as finding compatible settings near Washington, where there are large Hispanic communities (and proximity to Central American embassies) or in Baltimore City, with its own Spanish-speaking enclave and ample support services.

NIMBY Republicans

The Republican line is that this crisis is “a federal problem” created by the hated Obama administration, which should handle this matter itself.

Republican NIMBYism is alive and well: Let someone else care for these desperate kids, all 57,000 of them.

Just make sure the federal refugee camps are “not in my back yard.”

What’s confronting the United States is a major human dilemma. It won’t be solved solely by the White House. It will take a combined effort by sympathetic states, non-profit groups and the federal government.

Republicans, though, don’t want any part of extending charity to these kids.

The best way to stop this unwanted influx is to help Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala curb criminal activity, bolster health and education opportunities and encourage business development that translates into jobs.

Republicans will have none of that.

They don’t want immigrants coming to this country and they don’t want to help other countries stem the tide, either.

Their only answer is stationing armed troops on our southern border.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori calls this problem “a test of the moral character of our nation. This is not a time for political posturing. . .”

Sadly, Republicans aren’t listening.

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Politics Ahead of Budgets

By Barry Rascovar

July 7, 2014 — The $77 million in budget cuts approved last week by the Maryland Board of Public Works mark the first recognition there’s a price to be paid for placing election-year politics ahead of fiscal realities. It won’t be the last spending pullback, either. Budget balancing Maryland has a serious, ongoing imbalance between its high spending habits and its lower than expected revenue receipts. Everyone knew this was coming.

Winter’s Frigid Blow

Much of it is a result of the severe cold weather over the past winter, which devastated sectors of the economy, drove up heating and electric costs and put a severe crimp in job creation.

Yet early this year Gov. Martin O’Malley, with the support of Democratic legislators, introduced a budget for the current fiscal year that was wildly out of sync with prevailing economic conditions.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

The larger problem, which O’Malley chose not to confront head-on, is that Maryland’s spending isn’t affordable without more rounds of tax increases — or sizable reductions in agency budgets.

The $77 million in cuts approved last week amounts to a small down payment on what is likely to come later.

Maryland’s economy remains stalled, as Comptroller Peter Franchot underlined at last week’s Board of Public Works meeting in the Annapolis State House.

Comptroller Peter Franchot

Comptroller Peter Franchot

Wage growth is near-zero. Sales tax growth is about one-fifth of what it should be in a recovery. Withholding taxes are about two-fifths of the norm for a recovery.

Making matters worse was O’Malley’s failure to use the Great Recession to assess government services and identify cost efficiencies on a grand scale.

Instead, O’Malley simply slowed state government’s rate of growth during hard times. He papered over the need to downsize, shift or reinvent the way non-essential services are delivered.

Troubling Imbalance

At the end of the 2014 General Assembly session in early April, legislative analysts predicted Maryland’s spending would exceed incoming revenue by $236 million for the fiscal year that started July 1.

Ominously, those analysts noted O’Malley’s budget anticipated a whopping 5.2 percent economic growth in this fiscal year and general fund revenue growth of 4.6 percent.

While recent national economic reports for June indicate a stronger recovery in the months ahead, it is doubtful Maryland can reach its rosy revenue projections for this fiscal year.

Expect more spending reductions this winter.

The key question is whether O’Malley confronts that issue or passes the buck to his likely successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

Even before Maryland’s revenue projections turned south, legislative analysts had warned Maryland faces a growing cash shortage that could reach $404 million in the next fiscal year.

It would take an imposing 7.1 percent surge in state tax revenue to wipe out that structural imbalance — or a major retrenchment in state spending, which is highly unlikely.

Growing Cash Shortage?

Given the discouraging outlook that prompted last week’s budget cuts, next fiscal year’s  projected cash shortage of $404 million could grow by leaps and bounds.

O’Malley, though, will continue to “spin” this story in a politically positive way.

Other states — New York New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — he notes, are in far worse shape (though we don’t have a handle on how bad the situation really is in Maryland — and won’t till September at the earliest).

O’Malley’s Concerns

The governor wants to put a shine on his Maryland legacy as he moves toward a presidential campaign.

He also wants to keep Maryland’s budget woes on the back burner until Brown is safely elected governor in November.

Republican Larry Hogan Jr. will try to convince voters “the sky is falling.” But the worst news from last winter’s deep freeze is over and the national economy is showing encouraging signs of finally springing back to life.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Larry Hogan Jr.

That is good news for Brown in the short term.

But come December and January, Governor-elect Brown could be faced with an ugly reality — a far deeper state deficit, painful and immediate spending cuts and a budget for the following fiscal year that can’t deliver on his expensive campaign promises.

Read more from Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com

Surprises in MD Primary

By Barry Rascovar

June 26, 2014 — Statewide favorites won in Maryland’s June 24 Democratic and Republican primaries. Most incumbents in lower-level primaries won, too. Yet there were more than a few surprises after the votes were counted:

1. New Baltimore state’s attorney

Incumbent Baltimore city state’s attorney, Greg Bernstein, had all the money and endorsements. He had a solid four-year record in office, too.

Yet he got blown away by an inexperienced, 34-year-old lawyer for an insurance company, Marilyn Mosby.

Marilyn Mosby

Marilyn Mosby

She capitalized on the popularity of her husband, Councilman Nick Mosby, and his ongoing campaign apparatus.

She was aided by former State’s Attorney Pat Jessamy and her followers, who are still angry at her defeat at the hands of Bernstein four years ago.

But more than anything, Mosby capitalized on Baltimore’s continuing crime wave.

For every Page One murder story, Mosby made sure to sound off, blaming it on the current state’s attorney for not being tough enough on criminals.

Baltimoreans are fed up with constant spates of brutal criminal activity. They can’t vote out the police commissioner; the mayor isn’t up for reelection this year. Mosby urged them to take out their anger on the state’s attorney.

But Mosby’s strategy could make her a sitting duck for a similar round of negative campaign assertions — “it’s the state’s attorney’s fault” — in four years.

This key criminal justice office could become a revolving door unless crime starts to moderate in Baltimore. That’s something the state’s attorney can’t control.

2. Great day for M.D.s and R.N.s.  

Only one physician serves in the General Assembly, “Dr. Dan” Morhaim, an emergency room specialist from Baltimore County. There used to be two before state Sen. Andy Harris, a Hopkins anesthesiologist from Baltimore County, was elected to Congress.

Decades ago, a pair of docs, Torrey Brown of Baltimore and Aris Allen of Anne Arundel County, saved the life of Worcester County Del. Russell Hickman after he suffered a heart attack during a House debate.

After November, Maryland’s legislature will be in even better medical hands.

Three more docs are safely through the House of Delegates primary and seem sure shots in November.

Terri Hill and Clarence Lam won open seats in the Baltimore County-Howard County split district.

Lam is a preventive medicine physician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He once staffed Morhaim’s legislative office in Annapolis.

Clarence Lam

Clarence Lam

Hill is a board-certified plastic surgeon with a private practice in Columbia. She ran in the Democratic primary with endorsements from all three retiring district delegates — liberal Liz Bobo, conservative Steve DeBoy and conservative  Jimmy Malone — a rare feat in this era of hyper-ideological extremes.

Terri Hill

Terri Hill

Hasan “Jay” Jalisi ran a strong race in the Randallstown-Owings Mills-Reisterstown district of western Baltimore County. The Democrat is virtually assured of election in the fall.

Jalisi is a non-practicing head-and-neck surgeon who now runs a property management company, among other ventures.

Hasan "Jay" Jalisi

Hasan “Jay” Jalisi

Meanwhile on the Senate side of the State House, two nurses are in good shape to join that chamber. Both are jumping over from the House after long careers there.

Addie Eckardt of Cambridge is a retired psychiatric-mental health clinical nurse. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam has been a quality assurance and head nurse and owns two health care companies providing home care and adult daycare services.

Given the complexity of health care delivery, having more members with “inside” information and direct experience with the realities of medicine’s challenges should prove a huge benefit to lawmakers.

3, Growing “rainbow” in Annapolis

In January, it looks like the House will welcome its first Korean-born delegate (Mark Chang of Glen Burnie ) and its first native Pakistani-Muslim delegate (Jalisi).

Mark Chang

Mark Chang

The Senate will swear in its first Jamaican-born legislator (Nathan-Pulliam) and its first Chinese-American (Susan Lee, now a delegate from Montgomery County).

In Anne Arundel County’s District 33, the November outcome could lead to the Maryland legislature’s first Lebanese-born delegate (Republican Sid Saab of Crownsville) as well as its first Greek-born delegate (Democrat Kostas Alexakis of Arnold).

The times, they are a-changin’.

4. Council/commission shake-ups

Baltimore County will see three of its seven councilmanic seats in new hands.

Incumbent Todd Huff, ethically challenged and dogged by zoning decisions, lost decisively to 40-year Annapolis veteran Del. Wade Kach, who is a heavy favorite in November.

Wade Kach

Wade Kach

Another ethically challenged councilman, Ken Oliver, lost to firefighter Julian Jones, who nearly beat Oliver four years ago.

In Dundalk, business development expert Joe DiCara won a crowded primary. He is the likely winner in November, succeeding the retiring John Olszewski Sr.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Carroll County three of  its five commissioners will be new to the job.

Among the more interesting results was the loss of the divisive Robin Bartlett Frazier. She was beaten handily by retired firefighter Steve Wantz, who told voters he had “no personal agendas” and criticized Frazier’s “lack of common sense.”

Carroll also lost its 20-year state’s attorney, Jerry Barnes, who was snowed under by Brian DeLeonardo. Sometimes you can stay in office too long to satisfy voters.

5. Rout in A.G.’s race

Despite misleading early polls based on name recognition, it was clear in recent weeks momentum was on Brian Frosh’s side in the race for attorney general. He’s now a shoo-in in November.

Brian Frosh

Brian Frosh

In the end, state Senator Frosh walloped Del. Jon Cardin, despite the popularity of Jon’s Uncle Ben, the U.S. Senator.

How bad was it?

Cardin lost by nearly 20 percentage points statewide.

He lost his district and the rest of Baltimore County by nearly 21 points. Frosh pounded Cardin in the state senator’s home subdivision, populous Montgomery County, 70-20 percent.

In Baltimore, Frosh’s name was on the local state senators’ tickets. This helped him gain 49 percent of the vote, though he was largely unknown to city voters.

Cardin, despite his familiar, local name, got just 32 percent in Baltimore. African-American Del. Aisha Braveboy of Prince George’s County, who had counted on winning a big vote in this heavily majority-black jurisdiction, won a scant 18 percent.

Frosh was the most experienced and accomplished candidate running statewide in this year’s primaries. Voters recognized that in the end.

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MD Higher Ed: Kurt’s In, Brit’s Out

By Barry Rascovar

May 19, 2014 — In 24 hours last week, Maryland higher education underwent a rapid shakeup.

First came the long-expected but deeply regretted retirement announcement of William E. “Brit” Kirwan as top dog at the University System of Maryland.

University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan

USM Chancellor Brit Kirwan

Then came the surprise announcement former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is returning to his birth city as president of the University of Baltimore.

Kurt’s in; Brit’s out.

50-Year Academic Career

There’s no way to put a happy face on Kirwan’s retirement.

He’s been Mr. Higher Education in Maryland. Except for five years running a little ol’ rustbelt university called Ohio State, Kirwan dedicated his 50-year academic career to UM.

This former math professor staged a triumphal return from Ohio State as the popular choice to turn the UM system into a first-rate collegiate conglomerate. He largely succeeded, leaving USM with an international reputation.

The Chronicle of Higher Education rightly called the congenial Kirwan “a longtime national figure in public higher education.”

From Mayor to Dean

Schmoke, meanwhile, didn’t leave Baltimore in 1999 on an upbeat note.

His three terms as mayor of a troubled, aging urban city received middling marks. Progress largely stalled.

His place in the city’s history fades compared to his do-it-now predecessor (William Donald Schaefer) and his charismatic successor (Martin O’Malley).

The quiet, thoughtful Schmoke was better suited to academia.

New University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke

New UB President Kurt Schmoke

He found his niche as dean of the law school at Howard University (2003-2012), where he restored the school’s diminished reputation. During a time of flux at Howard, he then provided stability in the dual roles of general counsel and interim provost.

Now he’s been handed academia’s brass ring — a college presidency.

Bogomolny’s Contribution

Schmoke is fortunate he’s following the transformative Robert Bogomolny, who showed that a good manager with vision can put a struggling university on an upward trajectory. New, standout mid-town buildings. A full four-year undergraduate curriculum. A higher profile among Baltimore schools.

Continuing that momentum should be easy for Schmoke, given his wide name recognition among city elites, his genial demeanor and his understanding of what makes Baltimore tick.

The new UB president may have more difficulty adapting to the sharp elbows and intense in-fighting among leaders at the 11-campus, 154,000-student University System of Maryland.

Schmoke fared well at Howard, a private college with 10,000 students. UB has only 6,500 students and is part of a huge public university closely scrutinized by Annapolis politicians and overseen by a chancellor.

Kirwan’s Achievements

That’s where Kirwan could have provided strong support and guidance.

He kept simmering intra-campus disputes under control and steered feuding parties toward collegial middle ground. He balanced competing interests at those institutions while demanding improved academic performance.University System of Maryland

Kirwan embarked on an efficiency and innovation campaign, under pressure from the Republican Ehrlich administration, leading to over $400 million in savings. This made tuition hold-downs possible under the Democratic O’Malley administration without harming classroom quality.

The USM Chancellor championed broader use of less expensive internet courses, integrating computers into traditional lecture courses, eliminating non-essential offerings and revamping math, science and engineering programs.

Kirwan knew how to communicate with powerful regents, governors, legislators, competing college presidents, students and the public.

Who Comes Next? 

Finding a replacement with that same demeanor and collaborative mindset won’t be easy, but at least two USM presidents ought to receive strong consideration — Dr. Jay Perman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Freeman Hrabowski at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Without Kirwan around, Schmoke will have to learn through experience that being a second-tier college president in a massive university system like USM isn’t all upbeat.

Exiting Chancellor Kirwan and UB President Robert Bogomolny

Exiting this summer: Chancellor Brit Kirwan (L) and UB President Robert Bogomolny (R)

The system’s largest and most important campuses, UMB and the flagship College Park institution, get most of the money and attention — deservedly so.

Meanwhile, a surging Towson University, with three times more students and massive campus improvements, is upstaging UB and attracting many of the best prospective UB undergraduates.

At the same time, a federal lawsuit by historically black institutions over program duplication could put a crimp in UB’s plans to offer popular areas of study.

Whither Higher Education?

Public higher education in Maryland is littered with question marks at the moment.

It’s becoming too expensive. Yet demand grows for more and better career-path studies. Fund-raising is difficult because of the system’s heavy state subsidy.

Competition among area institutions, both public and private (UMBC, Towson, UB, UMB, Coppin, Morgan State, Loyola, Notre Dame, Hopkins, Goucher, Stevenson), is intense.

Schmoke will have his hands full at the University of Baltimore.

So will Brit Kirwan’s successor as chancellor of the state’s university system.

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Insulting Post Endorsement

By Barry Rascovar

May 13, 2014 — Forty-five days before Maryland’s primary election (May 11), the Washington Post endorsed in the all-important Democratic race for governor.

Washington Post logo

Nothing wrong in selecting Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. He’s the clear front-runner.

But for a major newspaper to make its endorsement selection six weeks in advance of an election is stunning — and highly risky.

The final weeks of any campaign can be unpredictable.

Anything Could Happen

What if news surfaces that deeply embarrasses Brown? What if it turns out Brown was more involved in Maryland’s dysfunctional health exchange than he admits? What if a scandal erupts in the O’Malley-Brown administration? What if Brown performs poorly in the June 2 debate?

That early endorsement could look ludicrous.

Does the Post consider the rest of this campaign irrelevant? Apparently.

The newspaper’s editorialists seem to regard Maryland with an arrogance and disdain that insult its Free State readers.

Virginia Endorsement

When the Post endorsed for Virginia governor last year, it did so 23 days before the election, not 45.

That Virginia endorsement, running 1,008 words, gave a detailed analysis of the two candidates. The Post’s superficial endorsement for Maryland governor ran just 467 words.

Rather than place its Maryland endorsement prominently at the top of the page, as the Post routinely does for elections in Virginia and the District of Columbia, this one was positioned as the last of three editorials — almost an afterthought.

The editors didn’t even bother spelling out the word “Maryland” in the headline, though they had oodles of extra space.

District Endorsement

When the Post endorsed for D.C. mayor earlier this year, its editorialists produced a carefully reasoned, 1,082-word analysis. Clearly, the writers took great care crafting it — which clearly wasn’t the case with the Maryland governor’s endorsement.

I helped produce editorial pages for the Baltimore Sun for 20-plus years as deputy editorial page editor under the legendary Joe Sterne. I understand the pressures that come with newspaper endorsements.

But the Post’s effort last Sunday was inexcusable in its timing. Anything can happen over the next six weeks.

Weak Arguments

Sadly, the editors based their endorsement on a scant one-hour televised debate that contained more fluff than meat.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

The editorial’s vapid reasoning was a marvel of shaky logic. It brought guffaws from two dozen readers who wrote critical email responses — all of them mocking the Post’s sloppy arguments.

Anthony Brown indeed may be “the best of three Democratic candidates,” but the Post made some laughably weak assertions:

  • He’s “a mainstay of the Democratic establishment and a paragon of the status quo.”

That’s a two-edged sword, as the Post went on to illustrate in mentioning Brown’s role in the miserably managed health exchange rollout. Does this mean the Post is endorsing the status quo in Maryland?

  • He is part of an administration that has a number of “substantive accomplishments.”

A point well taken.

  • Brown “strikes us as a conscientious public servant with broad experience.”

True, but what has he actually accomplished in all those years? That’s the crucial element the Post needed to address.

  • Brown may not have “offered a soaring vision” but “he has also not overpromised.”

Is that the Post’s way of supporting an “O’Malley Lite” administration for Maryland?

  • Brown has “the right approach” to help Maryland “compete with Virginia for jobs,” which would “foster a business climate more conducive to employment growth.” He “strikes us as the best candidate and the one most likely to improve what Democratic leaders concede is the state’s anemic track record in attracting and retaining jobs and employers.”

Those last editorial points are the most baffling. According to the Post endorsement, “the focus of Mr. Brown’s campaign” is a more positive business climate.

You could have fooled me.

Brown and Economic Growth

Brown’s statements, campaign ads and campaign documents don’t emphasize economic development but rather improving life for Maryland families, especially in education.

Is the Post’s candidate improving Maryland’s business climate by calling a plan to lower the state’s heavy corporate tax rate “a $1.4 billion corporate giveaway”?

Maryland’s corporate tax is 37 percent higher than Virginia’s. That’s a huge economic disincentive. No wonder Virginia cleans Maryland’s clock.

Brown’s jobs plan involves increased support for a smattering of business development programs. It will cost an average of $28 million annually for four years. That’s a skimpy investment. It won’t make Maryland more appealing than Virginia.

Paying for New Programs

The Post editorial blasts Attorney General Doug Gansler for lacking “a convincing plan” to pay for his corporate tax cut.  Yet Brown’s payment method for his jobs plan is equally lacking.

Brown wants to offset his jobs program costs through tax receipts from construction of the Purple and Red light rail lines. Those are phantom numbers.

Purple Line

First, little new tax money will be generated by light-rail construction in the early years of Brown’s administration. Delays are inevitable. The heavy work is at least two or three years away.

Second, revenue forecasts based on economic “multiplier” calculations rarely prove accurate.

Third, Brown’s revenue source dries up when construction stops. At that point, he’s left with a big revenue hole.

Fourth, essential federal aid may not come through. The Surfacing Transportation Act expires Oct. 1. Republicans and Democrats are light years apart on what to do. Gridlock could mean major cuts in transit aid.

Red Line logo

That could doom or delay Maryland’s projects, thus erasing Brown’s revenue for his jobs program.

None of this is mentioned in the Post endorsement. Don’t let facts get in the way of a hastily crafted editorial.

There are plenty of solid reasons for a newspaper to support Anthony Brown. Unfortunately, you won’t find many of them in the Post editorial.

The Post’s Predicament

Now the newspaper’s editorialists have to hope Brown doesn’t screw up before June 24.

Instead of critiquing campaign developments with a critical, impartial eye, the newspaper’s editorials must defend Brown if scandal erupts, or refute charges against him. The Post becomes Brown’s defender and advocate.

It’s a wound one of the nation’s best newspapers inflicted on itself by endorsing prematurely.

Holding off until later in the campaign would have given Post editorialists better insight into Brown.

It would have made for a stronger, more thoughtful endorsement.

The newspaper could have produced for readers a more complete picture of the governor’s race.

That opportunity now has been forfeited.

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Reviewing the First Governor’s Debate

By Barry Rascovar for MarylandReporter.com

May 12, 2014 — Now the important part of Maryland’s gubernatorial election campaign begins. The kickoff took place last week with the first televised debate among the three Democratic contenders.

Gubernatorial Debate May 7

The Scene at College Park

Though far from inspiring, that debate finally focused voter attention on the election. Equally important, it riveted the attention of reporters, who are now intently following comments and policy statements of the three candidates.

There’s roughly six weeks until voters must decide in the June 24 primary. And given the massive majority held by Democrats in Maryland, the results of the primary could be the ball game.

Notes From Debate No. 1

Here are some observations on the first debate, held at the University of Maryland, College Park:

  • Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown tried mightily, but no one drew blood.

Gansler delivered some strong blows on Brown’s flubbed role in Maryland’s disgraceful health exchange rollout, but the issue was largely forgotten after the first ten minutes.

Gansler-May 7 debate

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Brown tried to hammer Gansler for not stopping a teen beach party, but the attorney general muted that attack by reminding the audience how difficult it is to make the right decisions when it comes to raising kids.

Del. Heather Mizeur decided to step aside while the two other candidates went after one another.

  • No one delivered a compelling message.

What we heard was standard campaign rhetoric the candidates have voiced hundreds of times before. New ideas never entered the debate. The candidates rushed through their one-minute responses so rapidly there was no time to expound on specifics.

  • Brown “won” by not losing.

As the clear front-runner, the lieutenant governor had the most to lose but he didn’t make a major blunder and stuck to his prepared responses and attacks on Gansler.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown-May 7 debate

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

He didn’t give many Democratic voters a reason to vote for him, but he also didn’t give them much to dislike, either.

  • Mizeur “won” by refusing to attack her opponents.

She tried to show she was the issues candidate but in the process revealed an extraordinarily narrow agenda — women’s rights and wage disparity.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

  • Gansler “won” by presenting himself as the one candidate willing to criticize the O’Malley-Brown administration.

He objected to the administration raising taxes 40 times and worsening Maryland’s anti-business reputation. He suggested voters might want to try a different approach.

  • Kudos to NBC’s David Gregory for running the debate with a firm hand.

No one was allowed to abuse the time limits. When attacks were made, Gregory gave the other candidate a chance to respond. He followed up  on hot-button issues with additional questions. Most questions from the panelists were on the mark — except for the dumb Redskins question that wasted valuable time better devoted to pivotal issues confronting the next governor.

  • All the candidates got away with stretching — or misplacing — the truth in their remarks.

Gansler misled viewers about the reasons he was sanctioned when Montgomery County state’s attorney by the Maryland Court of Appeals for ripping into defendants in criminal cases at press conferences. We haven’t heard the end of this.

Brown inaccurately claimed credit for fixing the health exchange, saying he “changed leadership” (no, the exchange leader quit) and all is now hunky dory. Hardly. He also claimed leadership of the base-realignment effort in Maryland. That’s overstating the case.

Mizeur gave dubious reasons for legalizing marijuana. Her rationale: It is “less harmful to the body than alcohol or tobacco.” (And that makes it a wise public health policy?) Then she switched direction and said legalizing pot would generate enough revenue to pay for all her new programs. (Ugh.)

  • All three blew it on their opening and closing statements.

Gansler: He’ll give “voice to the voiceless” and stand up to unnamed “special interests.”

Brown — He’ll “build a better Maryland” and continue the direction of the current administration.

Mizeur — She’ll “bring results for Maryland families.” She promises “policy, not platitudes.”

Those clichéd statements explain why a majority of voters remain undecided. They may look for the “none of the above” button on primary day.

  • Finally, there’s one thing the candidates agree wholeheartedly about: the winning political color this campaign season is Columbia Blue.

During the debate, Mizeur, Brown and Gansler all displayed that unique shade of blue-gray named after my New York alma mater’s collegiate color.

Governor's Debate

A sea of Columbia Blue

At glance I thought the “in” color for Maryland pols in 2014 was Carolina Blue, named for that university in Chapel Hill, N.C. But a closer examination of photos from the debate revealed the color selection was a darker shade than sky blue.

By the way, Columbia Blue also is the school color of Johns Hopkins University.

And it is, oddly enough, the team color of baseball’s Kansas City Royals (why not Royal Blue?) and in a sad twist of fate, it’s the team color of racist Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

Wonder what Brown, Mizeur and Gansler will be wearing at the next debate on June 2?

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Defending Joe Vallario

By Barry Rascovar

May 6, 2014 — THERE’S NO DENYING Del. Joseph F. Vallario, Jr. of Prince George’s County is a stingy gatekeeper when it comes to loosening Maryland’s civil and criminal laws.

But is the gruff chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis really the scourge of the legislature, the anti-Christ intent on malevolently doing in all liberal causes?

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

A recent op-ed in The Baltimore Sun by Sidney Rocke, an attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, accuses the conservative Vallario of being a one-man, “dictatorial” wrecking crew — especially on bills Rocke favors.

It’s true Vallario is inordinately protective of criminal defense attorneys. He’s one himself and he takes a hard line on bills that might narrow their legal practices — and their income — or make it more difficult for defense attorneys to win their cases. “Let ’em go Joe” is what Rocke says staffers call Vallario.

But to blame the defeat of liberalizing legislation solely on Vallario is a misreading of the inner workings of the Maryland General Assembly.

Serving Legislative Leaders

Vallario has performed a useful role for legislative leaders over the past 21 years.

He disposes of bills that are too sweeping, too revolutionary, too inflammatory, too impractical, too poorly thought out, too poorly drafted or ahead of their time.

Yet he does so with a majority vote from others on his Judiciary Committee. The panel is intentionally configured to act as the General Assembly’s execution squad.

Every legislature needs such a panel, where the presiding officer sends well-meaning but unrealistic crime and punishment bills for burial.

Intervention Yields Results

Sometimes important bills get the same treatment. Then the House speaker or the governor steps in to urge Vallario and other committee members to yield on bills such as marijuana decriminalization or handgun control. The pressure usually works.

It’s an old story in Annapolis, something Rocke neglected to include in his angry op-ed. Killer committees have been around a long time.

Remember Joe Owens, the highly conservative Judiciary Committee chairman from liberal Montgomery County?

Abominable ‘No’ Man

He dominated that committee for 14 years, earning the sobriquets “Killer Joe” and “the Abominable ‘No’ Man.”

Owens helped defeat or delay all sorts of liberal reforms on gun control, drunk driving, child support and victim rights. One year, 61 percent of the bills sent to his committee bit the dust.

Joe Owens was a colorful and controversial figure: direct, open and honest.

“Let’s face it,” he once said, “the majority of bills we get should not be passed. . . [T]his is not a little contest. . . When we pass a bill, four million people have to live by it.”

Crusty But Lovable

Over in the Senate, irascible Walter M. Baker of Cecil County served the same role for 17 years chairing the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Crusty, curmudgeonly and a determined conservative thinker, Baker had a drawer filled with idealistic reform bills he side-tracked. “The only good bill is a dead bill,” he used to quip to the entertainment of his colleagues.

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Still, Baker conducted fair and deliberate hearings. He yielded when pressed to do so by the Senate president or governor while always defending his belief in limited government.

Political Counterweights

Often over the past 50 years conservatives chairing Maryland’s judicial panels have served as counterweights.

Vallario’s proclivity for killing bills balanced the liberal attitude of Sen. Brian Frosh’s Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Owens’ “killer committee” balanced the liberal mindset of Sen. Joe Curran, who chaired Judicial Proceedings for 16 years.

Earlier in Curran’s tenure running Judicial Proceedings he was paired against another conservative legal thinker chairing the House Judiciary Committee, Thomas Hunter Lowe of Talbot County — who later kept a firm hand on that panel as Speaker of the House.

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

To blame the demise of reform legislation on Joe Vallario is to miss the bigger picture.

Legislating in the State House is a delicate balancing act.

Senators and delegates come together in Annapolis with 188 points of view. They represent different parts of the state whose citizens hold diverse perspectives on the same issue.

Agreement Isn’t Easy

No wonder so many bills fail to win majority approval. Passing legislation is an art. Getting a green light from the Judiciary Committee takes lots of patience, negotiation, coalition-building and tactical smarts. It won’t happen just because a bill is well-intentioned.

Vallario faces a difficult challenge running for reelection this year in a new, unfamiliar northern Prince George’s County district. He may not return. Frosh definitely won’t be back: He’s running for attorney general.

We could end up with two new chairmen of these important committees. One of them might become the next stingy gatekeeper.

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