Category Archives: Government

Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2017— Here we go again. In a few weeks, school superintendents will trek, en masse, to the second floor of the Maryland State House to grovel before the Board of Public Works for additional school construction funds.

It is a demeaning “begathon” that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise, and reward, their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.

This time, the target for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot is Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – a man who has signaled a desire to run for statewide office next year.

Anything Hogan and Franchot can do to undercut Kamenetz’ credibility helps their reelection chances.

That explains the consistent animosity by this tag-team tandem toward Kamenetz’ requests.

Comptroller’s Crusade

Franchot has conducted a consistent crusade to force the county to install portable, temporary air-conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.

Former Baltimore County executives bear the brunt of the blame for leaving too many school kids in overheated classrooms during the early fall and early summer.

Kamenetz, on the other hand, has been making up for lost time with a $1.3 billion program to get students into air-conditioned schools. But his expensive plan is phased in due to fiscal constraints.

Maryland's Demeaning 'Begathon' Continues

School Construction in Montgomery County

Franchot has persisted in pummeling Baltimore County’s leader for not following his insistence that Kamenetz buy window A/C units.

Each has a point: Kids should not swelter on extremely hot days, yet it makes little sense to spend millions for a short-term fix when a long-term fix is in the works.

The ideal solution is for the state to forward-fund the money Baltimore County needs to finish the job ASAP through a combination of costly upgrades and replacement buildings.

Embarrass Kamenetz

However, neither Franchot nor Hogan has lifted a finger to support the county’s efforts. They could have designated a pot of school construction money for jurisdictions needing window-unit air-conditioners. Instead, they remained silent.

Their goal is to publicly embarrass Kamenetz. Thus, the dynamic duo voted last May to punish Baltimore County (and its school kids) by withholding $10 million in state funds for county school construction – thus delaying portions of the work on air-conditioning classrooms.

The two also withheld $5 million in badly needed construction dollars from Baltimore City, which also is in the process of getting all schools air-conditioned.

They demanded that the two jurisdictions air-condition all classrooms in a matter of months – an impossibility for any number of legal and practical reasons.

The two Annapolis politicos apparently think the city and county can simply wave a wand and, voila! they’ll reverse a situation that’s been festering for two decades.

The reality is that it will take a number of years – and billions – to correct this situation.

Political Favoritism

When the “begathon” parade shamelessly takes place on Jan. 25, it is likely Hogan in particular will look kindly upon Baltimore City’s requests, including the withheld $5 million, as a goodwill gesture toward the city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh.

He and Franchot will save their contempt for Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and, indirectly, Kamenetz. There could well be “plants” in the room to demonstrate Hogan and Franchot are supported by county residents in their harsh criticisms.

It’s all part of the set-piece melodrama the “begathon” has become.

In most cases, conservative, Republican-leaning counties will be treated with kid-gloves by the Republican governor while Democratic strongholds get a cold reception.

It’s quite a distasteful scene, one that is as unbecoming for the governor and comptroller as it is for the school chiefs forced to grovel before them.

Re-imagining State Center

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2017–As an early New Year’s gift to Maryland taxpayers, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivered the final blow to an outrageously priced scheme to turn over to private investors the 28-acre State Center complex in Baltimore for redevelopment.

Re-imagining State Center

The $1.5 billion State Center plan rejected by the Board of Public Works.

Hogan’s predecessor as governor, Martin O’Malley, had pushed hard  forthe State Center deal in a way that benefited the developers but left the state with unconscionably high rental payments for the next half-century – beginning at $30 million or more per year and escalating by 15 percent every five years.

O’Malley’s proposal also would have threatened the state’s triple-A bond rating by smashing through Maryland’s debt ceiling.

Additionally, the deal hinged on the state constructing for the developers a high-priced underground garage, costing $28.3 million. The money to pay for the 20-year bonds on the garage would come out of the state’s struggling Transportation Trust Fund at roughly $2 million a year.

As an extra kick-in-the-pants, state workers would have to pay to park in the underground garage even though they now get free parking on surface lots at State Center.

It was a boondoggle of immense proportions disguised as a mixed-used redevelopment of State Center to help revive midtown Baltimore.

Public-Private Partnership

The initial plan, worked out by former Gov. Bob Ehrlich in the early 2000s, made sense as a model for smart transit-oriented development. It was the sort of public-private partnership that would benefit Baltimore, the state and the developers – office space, retail, apartments and community amenities centered around two mass-transit lines.

Then came the Great Recession. What had been feasible plans for State Center’s re-birth crumbled. As lingering effects of the recession dragged on, the State Center proposal took on more of a Mission Impossible cast.

When O’Malley revived the concept with new developers and a new set of financing figures, what had been a good deal became more and more suspect.

The legislature started asking questions and looking at the proposal’s details. Analysts for the General Assembly didn’t like what they discovered.

The state was being asked, essentially, to underwrite this massive $1.5 billion project. There would be only one prime tenant in the developer’s lone Phase One building – the state of Maryland, occupying nearly all of the office space.

Even worse, the developers wanted to charge the state unheard of water-view rental rates for a mid-town building in a tenuous neighborhood overlooking other mid-town buildings, a hospital and a public housing project.

Then the underground garage was added to the state’s to-do list by the developers. As the Department of Legislative Services put it, “A significant amount of private investment has been continuously stripped out of the plan.” It was replaced by state taxpayer dollars.

Kopp, Franchot Skeptical

Comptroller Peter Franchot bailed out as a State Center supporter some five years ago, complaining about the exorbitant rents and the fear of losing Maryland’s money-saving triple-A bond rating.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp kept worrying about breaching the state’s borrowing limit by undertaking the capital leasing costs of the State Center project.

Thus, O’Malley no longer had the votes to gain Board of Public Works approval to complete the revised deal with the developers.

When Hogan entered the picture, he tried to work out a fair settlement that would not leave the state holding the bag and the developers reaping all the rewards.

He even turned to mediation with the developers. But the numbers wouldn’t work unless the state contributed heftily to the privately built project.

So Hogan pulled the plug on the State Center arrangement just before Christmas and then sued the developers to leave no doubt the deal has been cancelled.

What Next?

The fate of State Center after the legal finger-pointing ends is an open question.

It would cost in excess of $200 million for the state to replace its office buildings on the site. That’s capital money the state lacks at the moment.

More sensible would be leasing deeply discounted office space for state agencies in nearly empty downtown high-rises while working with the city on a new residential-and-retail plan for the State Center acreage.

Franchot even proposed a pie-in-the-sky idea: a large sports arena for Baltimore at  State Center. Hogan immediately asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to investigate this remote possibility.

It’s unfortunate a prolonged recession cut the economic legs out from under the original State Center development plans.

But it did.

Now it’s time to start all over.

Let’s re-imagine what State Center could become a decade from now: A catalyst for strengthening midtown neighborhoods, creating a new corridor of residences and shops, and givng state workers quality office space for state workers on the current site or at a more affordable location somewhere in Baltimore’s downtown area.

Hogan faced reality and pulled the plug because the deal on the table didn’t work. His next move will be even more important: defining the future uses for this valuable 28-acre property.

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Hogan’s Holiday Hoax

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 19, 2016 – You’ve got to hand it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. What a prankster he is!

He’s pulled off one of the great holiday hoaxes of recent times in Maryland.

He’s got everyone convinced he is willing to kill 66 major highway projects in Maryland in order to get the legislature to repeal a law requiring a transparent advisory evaluation and ranking of big road, bridge and transit proposals.

Hogan's Holiday Hoax

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

He’s worked himself into a lather about what, for political purposes, he niftily calls “the road kill bill” saying it will “wreak havoc on our entire transportation system.”

Anyone who disagrees with Hogan’s the-world-is-ending interpretation “is ignorant of the facts.”

This repeal-law effort, he says with a straight face, is his No. 1 priority in the coming General Assembly session.

That’s pretty strong stuff.

It’s got to be a holiday hoax. After all, virtually nothing Hogan is saying is based on a truthful, fact-based assessment of the situation.

He’s made the whole thing up – hopefully to give us a good laugh this joyful season (ho, ho ho!).

Darth Vader in Annapolis

Under Hogan’s alternative-universe scenario, the law passed by Democrats in the legislature ties his hands and requires him to kill road projects in all but a handful of urban jurisdictions – even though that’s not even close to what the statute says.

The state’s highest-ranking legal officer, the attorney general, says Hogan’s “Rogue One” interpretation of the law is pure science fiction. But for some reason Hogan wants to play Darth Vader in this reality show.

If you read the law, HB 1013, you’ll conclude it’s pretty meek: A toothless attempt to force more transparency in the state’s transportation funding process.

The law has no enforcement provision.

There is no penalty if Hogan ignores the statute.

It merely calls for a quality analysis, and ranking, of proposed transportation projects. After that list is compiled, Hogan & Co. are free to disregard the results – without any negative consequences.

Free Rein for Hogan

To drive home the point that the new law gives Hogan carte blanche to do as he pleases, lawmakers added this concluding sentence: “[N]othing in this Act may be constructed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, Hogan can fund whichever road, bridge and transit projects he wants regardless of the score it receives.

All he’s gotta do is give “a rational basis for the decision. . . in writing.”

Like, “it will make the road safer.” Or “it will reduce traffic congestion.” Or “it will help economic development.”

Sounds easy for Hogan to abide by this law while he continues to dole out transportation dollars any way he wants.

Not according to the governor and his transportation boss, Pete Rahn. Indeed, Rahn has put forth four pages of regulations that ensure a fiery head-on collision in which dozens of road projects will be denied state funds.

As one witness put it at a Nov. 18 hearing on Rahn’s convoluted regulations, Hogan & Co. “are determined to not make this work.”

Transportation Funding Shortfall

Why would they do that?

One reason could be Hogan doesn’t have the funds to pay for all the road projects he’s promised the counties, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

DLS calculates Hogan will have to cut $315 million next year from his previous transportation proposals (and $1.6 billion over six years) to stay within the department’s debt ratio.

It seems that the six-year forecast for gas-tax receipts is falling far short of Hogan’s estimates and that the governor is overspending on transportation operations.

Something’s got to give. So naturally the politician in Hogan wants to shift blame to those evil Democrats in the legislature.

Suddenly a law that is unenforceable and totally advisory gets transformed by Hogan into Maryland’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Political Posture

Hogan is likely to continue beating this bogus “road kill” issue to death as the 2018 election approaches.

He won’t get much help, though, from Democrats in the legislature.

It was clear at the Nov. 18 hearing that lawmakers want to work out a compromise in which the law is tweaked in ways that make it even more explicit Hogan remains fully in charge of deciding which transportation projects get funded and which do not.

Democrats aren’t going to cave in to Hogan’s illogical repeal demand. That is rightly seen as a politically inspired subterfuge.

Indeed, Hogan’s holiday hoax could backfire.

If, as expected, lawmakers amend the law so most everyone – except the governor – is happy with the outcome, Hogan no longer will be able to blame Democrats for killing road projects.

The governor remains the only person who can put forth funds for state transportation projects.

If he fails to deliver on his earlier road-improvement promises, he’ll have to man up to the fact that it was his decision.

That’s not the posture he wants as his reelection campaign draws near, which seems to be the most likely explanation for the governor’s bizarre “road kill” holiday hoax.

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What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 12, 2016 – Reality is beginning to set in: The political world has been dramatically altered by Donald Trump’s surprise victory on Nov. 8.

Some politicians are adjusting while others are wailing like it’s the end of democracy, organizing pointless protests a full five weeks before Trump even takes office.

In Maryland both kinds of politicos – the realists and the hopeless idealists – have been on display recently.

What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

Mayor Catherine Pugh and Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. at her inauguration in Baltimore’s War Memorial .

Count Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and new Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh among the pragmatists. They want to deal with reality on the ground.

The governor continues to steer an independent course largely free of ideological rigidity and party obeisance. His words and actions in Baltimore over the past week indicate that Hogan now understands the importance of carving out alliances with like-minded pragmatists such as the new mayor.

His gracious words of support at Pugh’s inauguration were followed by a celebratory event in West Baltimore marking a big step forward in attacking the city’s vast vacant-housing problem. Republican Hogan knows he has a quiet supporter in Democrat Pugh and it will be up to him to show her he’s determined to do what he can to uplift Baltimore’s economic development.

Putting Results Ahead of Ideology

For her part, Pugh made it clear she’ll be a non-ideological mayor who is interested first and foremost in results. Going to war with the Republican governor isn’t on her agenda – a marked change from the last City Hall occupant. She’s a lifelong networker who now intends to ask for favors and assistance from those in her wide-ranging list of business, political and foundation contacts.

Rather than snub the president-elect at Saturday’s Army-Navy game in Baltimore, she warmly met him and handed Trump a letter detailing how the “make America great” president-in-waiting can jump-start the city’s lagging economy with some big-ticket infrastructure projects.

She also has expressed the hope that she and Hogan can team up to win over the next president for development programs in Baltimore that create jobs and reduce government dependence.

Pugh isn’t being helped, though, by other Baltimore officials. The new City Council, as its first act, voted unanimously to condemn Trump and his intemperate Tweets and verbal assaults.

That counter-productive move achieved nothing positive and created a hostile atmosphere for Trump two days before he visited Baltimore.

Council Incompetence

It was a sign that the new City Council will pander to liberal political emotions and do little to help Pugh bridge differences with Republicans soon to be running the country.

What the new Baltimore Council members need to keep in mind is that war whoops and fiery denunciations bring nothing in the way of results. The city’s legislature already has a well-earned reputation for incompetence and irrelevancy. Sadly, it may get worse.

When faced with a staggering crime and drug crisis, intensely imbedded poverty and lack of economic opportunity, what action does the Council take on Day One? It alienates the president-elect. Now that’s really going to help address the city’s most pressing needs.

The new members of the City Council should step back and reconsider such rash behavior. They should take a cue from outgoing U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who made a strong call for civility and understanding among politicians of differing stripes in her farewell speech on the floor of the Senate in Washington.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Mikulski was a down-the-line liberal Democrat yet she never stopped trying to find common ground with Republicans and conservatives. Getting things accomplished was paramount in her mind.

That’s the lesson the eight freshman Baltimore City Council members need to learn. They’re off to a terrible start – and that soon may be compounded by votes to approve a $15 an hour minimum wage that could prove so onerous businesses will quickly flee across the city-county line.

Politics, veteran practitioners tell us, is the art of the possible. Hogan, Mikulski and Pugh understand the truism of that expression. Getting bogged down in emotional ideology and name-calling is a sure sign of a weak political hand – and a formula for continuing failure to produce constructive results and progress.

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

 

Trump & Hogan Agree: Corporate Welfare Works

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 5, 2016 – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. may not have supported or voted for President-elect Donald Trump but they agree on one thing: Corporate welfare works.

Throwing money and tax breaks at Northrop Grumman, Marriott International and United Technologies did the trick this past week – along with a good deal of loud, Trumpian threats in the case of UT’s subsidiary, Carrier Corp., in Indiana.

Trump, Hogan Agree

President-elect Trump celebrating deal to keep Carrier manufacturing plant open in Indiana.

To prevent Carrier from moving 1,400 jobs to Mexico, Trump used heavy-handed insinuation of future punishment to deliver a largely symbolic message that he’ll stop at nothing to save American manufacturing jobs.

Hogan’s task was somewhat different and involved persuasion rather than threats – backed by wads of cash.

A $57.5 million five-year package of “loans” and tax credits eventually persuaded Northrop Grumman to keep its 10,280 employees in Maryland – including the 6,800 who work at the massive former Westinghouse electronics complex near BWI Airport in Linthicum.

Meanwhile, a state-county incentive package of some $60 million was needed to keep Marriott’s headquarters in Montgomery County instead of shifting to Northern Virginia.

The bonus here is that Marriott intends to erect a $600 million complex in downtown Bethesda for its 3,500 HQ employees. That number should expand due to Marriott’s recent $13 billion acquisition of Starwood International.

Democratic Roadblock

The two Maryland deals have been in limbo for months due to high-risk brinkmanship by legislative leaders. The idea was to squeeze money out of Republican Hogan for other purposes dear to the hearts of Democrats in exchange for approval of the Northrop Grumman package.Trump, Hogan Agree

That gambit, which was poorly conceived from the get-go, fell apart when the state’s tax collections underperformed, leaving a gaping hole in Hogan’s budget.

Hogan had always balked at legislators’ extortion effort to hold the Northrop Grumman package hostage until local school funds and other goodies were released.

Lawmakers didn’t seemed to care that reneging on the business deal would have sent a terrible message about Maryland’s business climate to corporations thinking about relocating operations.

But the weak revenue figures this fall put an end to this embarrassing folly. There was no money to make the lawmakers’ strong-arm deal work.

Miller-Hogan Find Middle Ground

Hogan, though, still needed to gain the support of legislative leaders not only on the Northrop Grumman economic-development package but also the Marriott headquarters proposal.Trump,Hogan Agree

He and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller finally came up with a workable compromise involving $20 million in school pension funds for localities in next year’s budget.

Now it is up to Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch to complete their end of the bargain by winning approval for the two business-assistance packages from a legislative panel they control.

There’s plenty of irony here.

Had a Democrat been in the governor’s office, there’s no question Busch and Miller would have rushed to support these economic-development packages, just as they did under former Gov. Martin O’Malley.

But with a Republican in the governor’s mansion, Busch and Miller suddenly found problems with these deals.

Demands to Stay In-State

Liberal Democrats, in particular, blanch at the thought of giving away millions in business-retention packages, labeling it “corporate welfare.”

It’s become customary for large companies to demand payments from local and state governments if those governments want to prevent these businesses from moving elsewhere. Democrats fear that more companies will use the same tactic to pry millions from the state, money Democrats want spent on social programs.

Rigidly ideological Republican conservatives also rail against giveaways to corporations, complaining about government interference with the free-market system. (Over the weekend, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin called the Carrier deal “crony capitalism.”)

The thinking goes that if Carrier wants to move its furnace plant to Mexico or to another state to cut costs, the company should have the freedom to do so. That’s how the free market works, fiscal conservatives say.

Yet Trump intervened to make political hay and win cheers from Carrier workers in Indiana.

At the same time, he did nothing to stop United Technologies from closing another Indiana plant, costing 700 workers their jobs.

Nor did he lift a finger to halt Rexnord from shuttering a factory just a mile away from the Carrier building. The job loss there is 300. Rexnord is moving its manufacturing business to Mexico.

A third company, CTS, is also shutting down an electronics manufacturing facility in Indiana, creating unemployment for 200 more workers.

On top of that Carrier is continuing with plans to downsize its Indiana plant, laying off 600 union workers at the furnace factory. Also, despite Trump’s plea Carrier is moving its fan coil-making business to Monterrey, Mexico.

So while Trump can crow about the one plant he pressured to remain open, saving by his count 1,000 U.S. jobs (the actual jobs preserved: 730), he hasn’t done a thing about the other 1,800 manufacturing jobs being lost in Indiana.

Choosing Winners

The downside of corporate bailouts (Carrier is getting $7 million in tax breaks from Indiana to remain there) is that these small triumphs fail to address the larger problem:  U.S. manufacturing plants increasingly find they are unable to compete against low-cost overseas competitions.

Here’s a hint why moving production abroad is happening: The average salary for a unionized Carrier plant worker in Indiana is $30.90 an hour.

Choosing winners and losers, as Trump did in Indiana, solves little and provides job solace for just a fraction of the manufacturing workforce at risk of losing their source of income. A more comprehensive approach is needed.

Since the beginning of 2015, 1,600 American companies have shifted production overseas. In November alone, the U.S. lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs.

Clearly, Trump has a gargantuan task ahead of him in which a partial victory at Carrier’s Indiana plant doesn’t put a dent in the problem.

At the same time, Hogan is having more success keeping large corporations content with their Maryland digs. All it takes is persistent negotiations, expressions of good will and a basketful of state and county tax breaks, job-training grants and forgivable loans.

It’s worked most of the time for both Democratic and Republican governors in Maryland.

Hogan’s job is far easier because he’s only competing against other U.S. states, not Third World, low-wage countries.

Trump has a much more difficult field to plough.

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Advice to Hogan: ‘Take a Deep Breath’

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 28, 2016–Leave it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to make a positive, pro-active announcement and then gum up the works with snide, partisan remarks and a political snub that won’t be forgotten.

Here’s the good news: Hogan reversed course on what to do about the narrow, aging and dangerous Harry W. Nice Memorial Potomac River Bridge in Southern Maryland. He unveiled a $765 million plan to erect a new, wider and safer bridge nearby in just six years.

Advice to Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Charles County

Hip, hip, hooray!

Here’s the bad news: Republican Hogan refuses to work with Democrats on this important construction project. He froze out Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton of Charles County from the announcement ceremony in a political snub that could come back to haunt him.

He also continued to foolishly rant about a transportation planning law enacted by Democrats over Hogan’s veto that the governor inaccurately describes as potentially destructive to road and bridge projects.

To top it off, Hogan railed against a bill Middleton pushed through the General Assembly last session calling for the Maryland Transportation Authority to set aside $75 million a year over the next ten years to pay for the replacement bridge.

Pay-Go Proposal

Middleton’s pay-as-you-go approach met with fierce opposition from Hogan and his transportation minions. The bill, SB 907, passed anyway. Then Hogan vetoed the bill, though Middleton and his offended colleagues could override that veto a few months from now – unless Hogan comes to the bargaining table.

Clearly, Hogan doesn’t like to cooperate with those nasty Democrats. He certainly doesn’t like sharing credit at good-news announcements.

Is it any wonder Hogan has been unable to move his priority bills through the Democratic-dominated legislature?

He continues to float the bogus notion he is eager to compromise with Democrats. What he really wants is total agreement on his proposals. That’s Hogan’s version of compromise.

Middleton’s replacement-bridge bill was aimed at getting Hogan to negotiate with lawmakers over how to erect a safer Potomac River crossing in Southern Maryland. The highly-respected senator has been trying for 15 years to replace the 76-year-old, two-lane bridge.

Advice to Hogan

Sen. Mac Middleton of Charles County

Less-Costly Option

Hogan’s transportation team, though, opposed that plan and backed a less-costly, $150 million patch-up of the decking of the Nice Bridge – easily the state’s most terrifying water crossing. Middleton says the administration argued that not enough people use the Nice Bridge to justify the $1 billion price tag of a replacement structure.

Suddenly, though, Hogan has done a Trump-like flip-flop and essentially conceded that Middleton has been right all along: a new, safer crossing is needed.

Yet the administration continues to twist the truth.

The governor’s spokesperson made the ludicrous statement Middleton wasn’t invited to the announcement ceremony because he had nothing to do with making the project a reality.

What may have changed the governor’s mind was news that a slowly recovering economy has led to far more car and truck traffic on Maryland’s toll roads and bridges, resulting in a $62 million surplus over the past year. The surplus will be used to help pay for the replacement bridge.

If this trend persists the state could save a ton of money on the new bridge, reducing the size of bond offerings. That, in turn, would free up millions for other state transportation priorities.

Friend or Foe?

The situation might brighten even more if Hogan sat down with Middleton to find a middle ground on the two financing approaches. They are not that far apart.

For a governor who has seen his relationship with the legislature deteriorate, it might make sense.

Middleton, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is a powerful figure. He could be an important ally for the governor if Hogan wanted to build a partnership. Or he could be a thorn in the governor’s side. The choice is Hogan’s.

Last week’s bridge announcement won plaudits, as it should. A replacement is overdue. The governor found a way to slice 25 percent off earlier cost projections by relocating the planned structure 100 feet to the north over a deeper river channel.

Politically, Hogan’s new bridge plan will help him ramp up support in Southern Maryland as his reelection campaign ramps up late next year.

But the governor still needs to improve his batting average in the General Assembly before he goes before Maryland voters.

Perhaps he should take a cue from what he said following Donald Trump’s election on Nov. 8 when he advised Marylanders, “Everyone ought to take a deep breath” and give the new administration a chance.

Could this be the time for Hogan “to take a deep breath” and give bipartisanship a chance? It might lead to a compromise on paying for a new Potomac River crossing and open a channel for cooperation in the State House.

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Business Comes First, Education Second

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 17, 2016 – He’s at it again! Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. issued another executive order that makes it even clearer he intends to usurp the powers of the Maryland State Board of Education and every local school system in the state.

So far, no one is challenging Hogan’s decree setting the start of the school year statewide after Labor Day and the last school day no later than June 15.  Nor is any school system threatening to defy his order, which screams “overreach.”

There is no valid education reason for Hogan’s action.

Business Comes First, Education Second

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The two orders are designed to bring cheers from Ocean City businesses and parents happy to take their kids to the beach in late August instead of getting them ready for an early return to classes.

Yet even Hogan’s own appointees to the state board are complaining the governor wants to neuter the board and that his order is not grounded in any education rationale.

Larry Hogan is, indeed, the “Maryland is Open for Business” governor. Perhaps his next slogan will be: “In Maryland, Business Comes First, Education Second.”

Perplexed School Leaders

Local school boards are in a quandary. Following Hogan’s directive means a loss of control over the school year. It could be just the first step in more gubernatorial dictates on which holidays to honor, what to teach in classes and what to forbid in local schools.

For instance, Hogan has repeatedly lashed out at teacher unions and accused them of calling the shots on education policy. Will he use future executive orders to crack down on them and strip from the school calendar the “professional training days” now built into the school schedule as days off for kids?

Will he dictate what he will allow the supposedly independent state school board to do on its own and what he intends to unilaterally mandate from his second-floor state House office?

Hogan has never been regarded as an education expert. His pronouncements on the subject have been few and far beyond –usually encapsulated in a brief one- or two-sentence quip.

He hasn’t even claimed his school-year decree is designed to improve the learning environment. For him, the executive order is all about boosting summer business sales and winning popularity for extending the summer season. Those are his priorities.

Hogan’s Power

The problem for local school systems is that Hogan can be vindictive if challenged. He might withhold millions in school construction funds for petty reasons. After all, he’s already done it to Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

He could hold back other education dollars from systems that refuse to knuckle under and instead honor their commitment to crafting a school calendar that furthers students’ ability to learn.

There are other flaws in the decrees. What if there’s a harsh winter that forces many more lost school days than anticipated? Or other emergency closures? Even stripping spring break to the bone might not be enough to avoid post-June 15 schooling. What happens then?

Hogan hasn’t said and he’s taken the power away from the state school board.

If a school system ignores Hogan because it feels the executive orders are unlawful intrusions on local education autonomy, what happens?

Does Hogan direct more executive orders at the wayward school system? Does he call out the National Guard to enforce his orders? Does he pull a Trump-like tantrum and say to the local school board members he appoints, “You’re fired”?

Education Losses

Meanwhile, the governor’s school-calendar mandate will hurt students’ ability to prepare for standardized tests whose dates cannot be changed. Kids lose ground in their learning when the long summer break is extended. Poor kids lose out on decent meals they don’t get at home. Research has clearly established those facts. But Hogan doesn’t seem to care.

It is unfortunate Attorney General Brian Frosh took a dive when asked to examine the legality of Hogan’s attempt to extend his power. Frosh’s agency issued an opinion that failed to give clear guidance, even though it concluded:  “. . . it is likely that a reviewing court, if presented with the issue, would conclude” Hogan exceeded his authority.

What Hogan has done is unprecedented. It could set a dangerous precedent.

Even if the orders are not challenged in court, there’s a strong chance the General Assembly will pass legislation sharply restricting and defining the limits of the governor’s power to issue executive orders, especially on matters pertaining to education. Lawmakers also are likely to pass such a law early in next year’s session so they can override an almost certain Hogan veto before adjournment.

Hogan’s handlers relish the chance to blame Democratic legislators for denying families a longer August vacation with their kids.

But it won’t be lawmakers reestablishing a longer school year that starts prior to Labor Day. Instead, they will simply return decision-making power to local school boards and the state education board – where it belongs.

Hogan may be looking for a way to win political points in this ludicrous dispute, but in the end all he’s doing is hurting Maryland school children’s ability to learn.

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Maryland Budget Myths

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 3, 2016 – Maryland is dealing with another revenue shortfall and a budget that must be trimmed to make the state’s books balance.

Yet to hear Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. tell it there’s no revenue problem –only “a spending problem” caused by Democrats in the General Assembly.

Let’s get the facts straight on this one: If there’s a problem with spending the buck stops on Hogan’s gubernatorial desk.Maryland Budget Myths

He’s the one who puts together the state’s annual budget. He’s the only one who can increase spending.

The legislature, by law, cannot raise the governor’s budget request. All lawmakers in Annapolis can do is cut the budget.

Who’s Responsible?

Hogan, like Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, wants to create his own version of the truth.

He refuses to admit he is responsible for submitting a budget earlier this year that is out of balance by some $783 million over a two-year cycle due to a faulty estimate of future revenues.

Democrats share partial responsibility for not cutting more deeply into Hogan’s budget last April. They, too, misjudged the state’s plodding economic rebound from the Great Recession.

It’s no surprise that liberal Democrats are reluctant to reduce spending on social programs.

The irony is that Maryland’s conservative Republican governor failed to clamp down harder on spending in the face of slow-growth revenue numbers.

Hogan’s attempt to turn around and blame Democratic lawmakers for his own budget mistakes doesn’t hold water. He draws up the state’s massive spending plan, not the legislature.

Myth No. 2

The other budget myth Hogan has been spreading is that he can solve the state’s financial woes if only Democratic legislators eliminate spending mandates that lock up over 70 percent of the state’s budget.

Were that to happen, Hogan would have unrestrained power to cut deeply into education and health care programs as well as environmental and social service programs.

It would mean a loss of historic checks and balances between the legislature and executive in favor of an all-powerful governor. No wonder Democratic lawmakers refuse to budge.

Yet Hogan persists in blaming the state’s budget shortfalls on the spending mandates. It’s as though the governor had nothing to do with submitting a budget that failed to exercise sufficient caution.

Plea for Caution

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has repeatedly urged a conservative approach to budgeting in light of an exceptionally slow recovery. Maryland is gaining jobs but not high-paying jobs.

Hogan may proclaim “Maryland is open for business” but he seems not to have noticed a shift in the job market is occurring which requires a conservative governor to take a more cautious approach at budget time.

In putting together next year’s budget, the governor now must reduce earlier spending targets by about 2 percent due to the predicted revenue shortfall. That is eminently do-able.

Judicious reductions and reallocations of program funds could close much of the budget gap.

Hogan has on his staff one of the most creative budget minds in Annapolis – former state Sen. Bobby Neall – tasked to find thoughtful ways to reduce spending while improving efficiency. His suggestions will come in handy over the next three months.

Two Options

Yet deeper cuts will not come about if Hogan continues to blast the legislature for refusing to give him near-dictatorial powers over the state budget.

Fortunately, a middle road exists for the governor to work with lawmakers to make changes in spending mandates that could eliminate Maryland’s long-term structural deficit.

But that calls for Hogan to work cooperatively with the legislative branch – a reversal of form. He knows that criticizing free-spending Democrats wins him votes, even if it makes it nearly impossible to gain General Assembly support for his programs.

Is he willing to alter his approach?

Good governance requires compromise and negotiation between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, especially on passage of the state budget. So far, Hogan has fallen short in that area.

He gets another crack at changing his tune early next year.

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Let Courts Decide Who Sets MD School Calendar

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 26, 2016 – Does Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. have the power to issue an executive order mandating when the school year begins and ends? It’s not the most pressing question facing Maryland – but the answer could have a dramatic impact on the state’s future governance.

Indeed, there’s an urgent need for someone on either side of this issue to take the matter to court. A constitutional question of enormous consequence is at stake.

Hogan’s claim to executive powers over local school systems appears shaky. They are not part of the executive branch.Similarly, the State Board of Education isn’t beholden to Hogan’s mandates. By law, the governor names board members but it then is up to this independent panel to pick a superintendent and enact statewide school policies without interference.

So how can Hogan claim authority to lay out parameters for the annual school calendar?

Setting a Precedent?

In a state where there’s a yawning gap between the Republican governor and Democratic legislature, Hogan’s action could set a dangerous precedent. In the future, Hogan might decide to rule by executive fiat rather than tangle with a legislature determined to block his moves.

Repeatedly, Hogan has expressed disdain for the legislature and frustration with lawmakers’ refusal to give him 100 percent of what he wants. He has mocked and derided Democratic legislators. In the dispute over when to begin the school year he accused Democrats of being in the pocket of the state teachers union.

In the past, lawmakers have defeated attempts to accommodate Ocean City businesses by commencing school after Labor Day. Opposition has come not just from the teachers union but from statewide groups representing local education boards, PTAs and local school superintendents.

Their argument is based on doing what is best from an education standpoint.

Hogan’s argument is based on doing what is in the best interests of Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake businesses that see a decline in revenue when families can’t extend their vacations through the Labor Day weekend because of early school openings.

Practical Considerations

Hogan is being a practical, tactical politician seeking to win cheers from parents and his political base. Returning Maryland to an earlier time when all school systems waited till after Labor Day to begin classes is in line with Republican ideology that insists we can, indeed, roll back the clock.

Educators want to be practical, too, but not in a political sense. If you want to keep the current time off for holidays, religious observances and professional training days, then the school year must start before Labor Day or extend nearly till July.

The other concern is that a later school-year start compresses the time students have to prepare for nationwide testing. Educators worry about lower test scores and harming students’ ability to qualify for gifted and talented courses or getting into colleges.

But there’s a much bigger issue at stake.

Can the governor promulgate additional executive orders telling local schools and the state education panel what to do or what they are forbidden from doing?

Can he, for example, prevent a local school system from closing for Muslim holidays? If local school boards truncate spring break to comply with his order, can Hogan then tell them not to eliminate Good Friday and Easter Monday as holidays?

Could he or a future conservative governor require the end to sex education in local schools? Could he overrule school board decisions on the treatment of transgender children?

Could he issue an executive order allowing students to attend local schools without having been vaccinated? Could he decree that the conservative constitutional doctrine of “original intent” be taught in all high school civics classes?

Dividing Line of Power

At the same time, Hogan might decide to issue an executive order requiring Baltimore City and Baltimore County to air-condition all of its schools immediately, regardless of the cost to local governments. He might also use executive orders to fire local superintendents or board members who don’t follow his commands.

What happens if a local school board defies Hogan this time and sets its 2017 calendar with a pre-Labor Day opening? How does Hogan make that board comply? Does he deny the jurisdiction state funds? Does he sue the board?

And where does Maryland’s law-making body come into play? Isn’t that the group given the constitutional power to enact statutes governing local education?

Where, precisely, is the dividing line between executive authority and legislative authority?

Definitive answers are sorely needed. Not off-the-cuff “I’m right” comments from the governor or “we feel strongly both ways” conclusions from the attorney general’s office. Only the Maryland Court of Appeals is in position to deliver a clarifying ruling.

It doesn’t help matters for the General Assembly to reverse Hogan’s school-schedule mandate in January and then pass a law setting out new ground rules for executive orders. This would only produce more bad blood and finger-pointing for political gain.

A court determination, on the other hand, would settle this dispute and resolve a murky area of constitutional law.

All it takes is someone to pursue legal action. So far, no one has had the courage to do so.

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Medical Marijuana Meets MD’s Spoils System

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 19, 2016 – Maybe Donald Trump is right: The system is rigged. For proof, look at how interest groups are feverishly trying to “rig” Maryland’s choice of authorized medical marijuana growers and processors.

The Black Legislative Caucus wants to “rig” the selection procedure so that people of color get their share (and more) of the lucrative payoff from legalized pot-growing, despite their lack of high rankings in the objective selection process.The Spoils System Returns to Maryland

Others recently got the system “rigged” in a way that denies licenses to a few top-ranked growers who were chosen on merit. Instead, lesser-rated groups in politically sensitive geographic areas were awarded this rich financial prize.

Picking the best, most qualified growers gave way to political “rigging” of the system.

So much for the commission’s carefully planned “double-blind” selection procedure designed to remove political favoritism and eliminate any hint of subjective bias.

Guarding Against Tainted Results

This well-established, scientific method works beautifully in drug-testing and picking the most skilled musicians for the Baltimore Symphony. So why not use this proven way to guard against tainted results in the state’s effort to find the best and most capable cannabis growers and processors?

Silly idea. An honest evaluation of the applicants proved too much for state politicians and lobbyists. Their favored applicants failed to make the cut.

Suddenly, criticism rained down on the medical marijuana commission. The cry went out: Bring back Maryland’s spoils system.

“This is a good modern-day civil rights fight,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Well. . . that’s a stretch.

It’s an effort to ensure that already financially well-off minorities get a slice of the action – regardless of their capabilities for handling the growing, processing and distribution of medical marijuana.

After all, this is expected to be a national multi-billion-dollar business.

To heck with selecting the most qualified cannabis growers. What Maryland needs is some good old favoritism!

Merit Selection Process

The commission tried its best to keep politics out of its decision-making. It came up with a way of choosing winning applicants that was devoid of political pressure and influence-peddling – a double-blind ranking system conducted by an outside group.

Applicants’ names, and their investors’ names, were removed from proposals so the rankings would be based entirely on merit.

It turned out, though, that none of the applications submitted by minority-controlled companies ranked high enough to gain a cultivation license. That’s when impartiality and merit-selection went out the window.

Attorney General Brian Frosh, in an incredibly two-faced action, contradicted his own assistant attorney general and other higher-ups in his agency, who had concluded the commission could not legally tilt the playing field.

Frosh rallied to the side of the Black Caucus. Gov. Larry Hogan expressed concern, too. Word came down from on high: Work something out.

Oh, well, so much for a color-blind government that allows only the best-qualified cannabis cultivators and processors to ply their trade in Maryland.

Gift-Wrapped Permits

The commission quickly buckled under the pressure.

In August, the panel stripped two winning companies of their licenses not because they had done something wrong but because one commissioner argued there wasn’t enough “geographic diversity” among authorized growers.

Lower-scoring applicants with more politically acceptable locations were gift-wrapped these valuable permits.

Not surprisingly, the disqualified applicants are threatening to sue. More litigation is inevitable.

If the Black Caucus succeeds in pulling the licenses of other applicants for the sake of diversity – or gets the entire process re-started – we’ll have enough legal action to set back the cause of medicinal marijuana for a long time.

Yet while minority groups fight for a bigger slice of the cannabis windfall, sick and terminally ill patients in excruciating pain are denied the relief cannabis might provide.

No one seems agitated about that. Mammon rules the day.

It’s a royal mess.

Politicians Get Involved

Years ago, attempts in Maryland to “rig” the system sent a vice president into shameful exile and a governor and several county executives to prison. The quest for money can be a corrupting influence.

So it is with legalizing medical marijuana – at least in Maryland.

Choosing the people who will grow marijuana plants and turn them into safe medicinal products is serious business. It seemed to make sense to pick them based purely on expertise and merit.

But not to the b’hoys in Annapolis.

So now politicians have their hands in the action. The result could be lengthy delays and a more expansive and pliable process that allows Maryland’s spoils system to work its magic.

Is an impartial, unbiased selection system about to be manipulated for the benefit of lesser-qualified applicants who have friends in high places?

You don’t need to be Donald Trump to answer that question.

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