Category Archives: Government

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

Popular Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 12, 2016 – As Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., starts packing for the friendship/business-development trip to Israel that every Maryland chief executive takes, he can gloat about his crafty propaganda maneuvers that have him sky-high in popularity polls.

Expect more “good news” announcements. There always are when a governor’s entourage makes an economic prospecting tour. These visits don’t take place unless made-in-advance deals are set for unveiling during the VIP procession.

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and wife, Yumi, at 2014 inauguration

Hogan has become a master of positive image-making. He’s got a cheerful public persona, a hearty laugh and a back-slapping camaraderie.

He also recognizes Marylanders are fed up with politicians who flood the airwaves and newspapers with press releases and public utterances. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s declining popularity stemmed in part from the public’s fatigue with his constant campaigning and propagandizing.

These days, people want elected leaders to leave them alone. Staying out of the news is as much a reason for Hogan’s strong poll numbers as anything else.

Popular Side Issues

He’s latched onto tangential issues that sound good to people at first glance. He cut tolls – always a winner with voters – a bit. He lowered some government fees. He ordered schools not to start classes before Labor Day. He held back millions from Baltimore City and Baltimore County for failing to air-condition all school classrooms immediately.

Every one of those actions brought a resounding huzzah and another rise in Hogan’s numbers. At this stage, he looks like a shoo-in for re-election in 2018.

That’s the positive side of the equation.

But here’s the rub. He’s got an abysmal relationship with Democrats who run the General Assembly. Worse, he seems determined to keep it that way into his next term.

Despite phenomenal poll numbers, Hogan can point to few legacy achievements. That’s due largely to his stubborn refusal to seek compromise with opposition-party lawmakers.

Unfinished Business

Yes, he closed the Baltimore City Jail – but he has yet to demolish the eye-sore because he tried to use funds intended for Baltimore-area universities for the jail tear-down. Nor did he bother to consult with community or city leaders about his secretive decision.

Yes, he helped end the 2015 Baltimore civil unrest by sending in the National Guard and touring a few riot-torn streets. But since then he’s been an absentee leader rarely showing his face.

As for a rejuvenation package to aid the state’s most distressed jurisdiction, Hogan has turned a blind eye. Baltimore’s horrific poverty and crime problems remain the albatross around Maryland’s neck – and Hogan is taking the silent, “benign neglect” approach.

Yes, he signed a bill reforming the criminal justice system for low-risk offenders, but credit belongs to Chief Legislative Officer Christopher Shank for that effort at reaching across the aisle to find common ground with Democrats.

The governor talks about joining hands and singing from the same hymnal, but in truth he’s a hard-nosed, partisan Republican who seems to relish insulting Democrats.

Negotiating isn’t in his vocabulary unless it is 100 percent on his terms. His legislative agenda has been thin on substance and thick on unpassable conservative ideology.

Thin Agenda

No wonder Democrats in the legislature have buried much of his agenda. Last session, the governor even ordered his staff not to work with lawmakers behind the scenes to hammer out differences.

There’s been no education package from Hogan in two years, no environmental package, no health-care package, no natural resources package, no major economic-development package, no energy package, indeed no comprehensive proposal except the criminal justice bill.

He killed Baltimore’s mass-transit expansion but has yet to put in place his so-called replacement – a modestly revamped bus system.

Instead, Hogan has directed his energy toward minutia, like feuding with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz over that county’s dwindling number of schools without air-conditioning.

He also humiliated and bad-mouthed the long-time and much-praised director of the state’s school construction program, prompting his resignation.

He has refused on occasion to let foes of his administration’s plans speak at Board of Public Works meetings. Clearly, he doesn’t like to hear criticism.

He issued his executive order mandating that local school systems begin fall classes after, not before, Labor Day without consulting affected educators who overwhelmingly opposed such a move. They say this imperils students’ ability to prepare for national placement tests and could mean an end to spring and winter school breaks.

Appeal to Voters

It’s been a curious year and three-quarters, indeed.

Hogan has picked his issues carefully, keeping in touch with his conservative base, appealing to voters’ base instincts on marginal matters and blaming Democrats for anything and everything that has gone off-track in Maryland.

So far it is a formula for short-term success. Hogan may become the first Republican to serve two gubernatorial terms in Maryland since Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin did it in the 1950s.

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin (1951-1959)

But McKeldin, a liberal Republican who would be drummed out of the party today, amassed a spectacularly successful record in office thanks in large measure to his ability to work with the Democratic legislature.

Hogan is heading in the opposite direction.

He may rival hapless Republican Gov. Harry Whinna Nice (1935-1939) for his paucity of accomplishments during his time in office. (Nice’s sole, lasting contribution was changing the architectural style of the governor’s mansion from Victorian to Georgian.)

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice (1935-1939)

Where’s the Beef?

Hogan was elected with great promise and anticipation, but he has yet to deliver.

Where is the promised major de-regulation package that would free businesses and individuals of unnecessary and expensive bureaucratic red tape?

Where is the elimination of waste and inefficiency from state agencies? Where is the reorganization of state departments?

Where is the downsizing of the state’s work force?

Where is the smaller but smarter state spending program?

Time is on Hogan’s side, though.

He still could recognize that cooperation yields more than constant confrontation.

He could get serious about bringing sound Republican principles to Maryland government rather than following bellicose conservative proposals that stands no chance of becoming law.

Hogan has the opportunity to demonstrate what sensible Republican governance means. He hasn’t done much in that direction so far, which is a shame because it could be a lasting legacy.

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A Third Bay Crossing?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 6, 2016 – It was ironic that news of Jerry Wolff’s death this past week coincided with the splashy announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. of a $5 million study to examine the site and funding options for a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossing.

Wolff was the last all-powerful head of the State Roads Commission during the late 1960s under Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. He was the mastermind behind legislative approval and construction of the parallel bay bridge span.

That 1973 structure cost $148 million. The original Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which was built after a 15-year battle for a mere $45 million, opened in 1952.

The next bay crossing could cost a staggering $7 billion – and probably double that by the time it opens 10 or 15 years from now.

Or rather, if a third span is ever built.

Mega-bucks Needed

Even with federal assistance, Maryland would be hard pressed to find that staggering amount of money for a project that mainly alleviates monster traffic backups on summer weekends. The rest of the year the existing parallel structures easily handle two-way traffic between the eastern and western shores.

Moreover, a critical part of any funding solution – bridge and tunnel tolls – was cut by Hogan to fulfill a campaign promise to lower taxes.

That means a revenue loss to the Maryland Transportation Authority that could approach $1 billion over the next 15 years – just when a third bay span would need to be financed.

A Third Chesapeake Bay Bridge?

Parallel Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans between Sandy Point and Kent Island, MD

Having foreclosed that pivotal revenue source, how in the world does Hogan intend to pay for this massive undertaking?

Answer: He doesn’t.

Hogan is passing the buck, this time to a study group that conveniently won’t report back to him until 2020. Then Hogan can flip the hot potato of how to pay for such a stunningly expensive construction project to the Democratic legislature and blame them for inaction.

Another ‘Boondoggle’?

Ironically, it was Hogan who killed the Baltimore-area’s major transportation initiative, the $3 billion Red Line project – which had $900 million in federal funding lined up. He claimed it was way too expensive. Hogan sneeringly called the Red Line’s downtown tunnel “a boondoggle.”

Yet now he is promoting a third bay crossing at double or triple that amount at a time when the state is short on transportation funds, in part due to Hogan’s populist toll reductions.

Maryland has other enormously expensive toll-road needs that Hogan doesn’t want to confront – or pay for.

The dangerously steep and narrow two-lane Harry W. Nice Bridge spanning the Potomac River between Charles County and the northern neck of Virginia is 76 years old. It’s not in great shape.

Hogan blocked $50 million allocated by his predecessor for planning and design of a new four-lane span, claiming a new $1 billion crossing would be too expensive.

He favors a far cheaper Band-Aid approach to the existing, aging structure, which is a bottleneck and lacks shoulders. Powerful lawmakers, though, are trying to force him to bite the bullet and replace the Potomac crossing.

Then there’s the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge connecting U.S. 40 between Harford and Cecil counties. It, too, is 76 years old. It cost just $5 million when built. But giving it a foundational overhaul will be extremely expensive. Hogan hasn’t allocated a penny for that undertaking.

Playing Politics

Instead, the governor wants to win political points with beachside merchants and summer vacationers headed “downy ocean” by holding out the promise of easy travel across the Chesapeake but leaving the tough funding decisions to someone else.
Already critics are calling Hogan’s plan a new boondoggle.

Even if the state turned to a public-private partnership – which would hand all the revenue and control of the span (and possibly the parallel crossings, too) to a for-profit company – paying the state’s share for a third bay bridge would crowd out virtually every major toll and bridge improvement for years to come.

There’s also the complicated matter of expanding roads leading to the third span on both sides of the bridge. It can’t be done inexpensively or without an environmental cost. Local opposition could be intense.

Hogan, of course, might try to get the job done with a patch-up by adding a single lane to the original bay bridge. But even that falls into the mega-billion-dollar range.

Why a Third Span?

All this begs the question as to whether a third span is essential.

Given the reality of climate change and rising sea levels, by the time a third crossing opens for vehicles much of Ocean City’s beach could be under water. The rush to O.C. might slow dramatically in a quarter-century.

Sen. John Astle, whose Annapolis district includes the western bay bridge approaches, calls this an “impossible problem.” Maryland can’t afford the incredibly high price of a third bay bridge and Hogan has shown zero inclination to raise revenue to pay for it.

Thus, the Hogan study group is likely to produce another report that will gather dust on a shelf. That was true of a study under Gov. Bob Ehrlich and a report under Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Hogan just wants to curry favor with beach-going voters and Ocean City businesses without having to take the unpopular step of raising tolls and other taxes to build a third crossing of the nation’s largest estuary.
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Hogan’s Trump Tendencies

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 29, 2016 – The yin and the yang of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan keep bubbling to the surface.

On the one hand, he’s made it clear he finds Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump offensive. The Republican governor says he doesn’t like Trump, disagrees with his behavior and many of his statements and won’t vote for him.

On the other hand, Hogan continues to dip into Trump’s bag of tricks to win emotional points with voters. Indeed, Hogan was way ahead of Trump in one aspect of propaganda campaigning – the use of a fictitious story as a key election tool.

Hogan'sTrump Tendencies

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Trump has become a master of making it up as he goes along. He’s even better at taking a negative development and embroidering it with a fairy tale of malevolence and evil that rivals the Brothers Grimm.

Hogan does the same thing. The most recent example is the absurd furor he’s prompted over his mis-named “road kill bill.” It’s similar to his virtuoso propaganda winner from the 2014 campaign: Hogan’s mis-named “rain tax” – a savvy fabrication that helped win him the governorship.

Evil Bill?

This time, Hogan has latched onto a toothless bill passed by Democrats in the legislature to bring openness to the process of selecting major transportation projects.

Hogan thinks the bill is evil incarnate. It will wipe out every road project in Maryland, he told reporters and county leaders this month. That’s why he calls it “the road kill bill.”

That’s an intentional distortion of the facts for political purposes.

Hogan wants to use this unimportant bill – which he vetoed but then saw overridden by lawmakers – as a hammer against Democrats. He thinks it will help him win another term in 2018. You might call it the second coming of the “rain tax.”

As a candidate in 2014, Hogan harangued Democrats for passage of a bill that allowed 10 counties to impose a local levy on impermeable surfaces such as roofs and asphalt or concrete driveways because these surfaces generate stormwater runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. The tax revenue would be used to reduce waterway pollution.

But Hogan twisted that bill into something that sounded ludicrous. His TV ads sounded the alarm: Democrats had reached the point where “they’re even taxing the rain!”

Brilliant as a campaign tactic. But untrue.

Better Road Planning

Hogan’s latest invention concerns the Democrat-passed “Maryland Open Transportation Decision Act” aimed at bringing a statistical ranking system to road and bridge projects that the public can understand.

Its preamble sets out the purpose: to create “a public process for transportation planning. . . that provides Maryland citizens with a clear and transparent explanation as to how their transportation taxes and revenues are allocated to fund major capital transportation projects.”

The key phrase: “a clear and transparent explanation.” Not a mandate. Not an order that forces the governor to fund projects he opposes. Just a new planning tool shared with the public.

It could be a useful planning mechanism, just as it is in Virginia and North Carolina, where conservative Republican legislatures passed similar measures. Why? Because it’s a sensible way to get the “biggest bang” for the state’s buck – a very Republican notion.

But Hogan is thinking politics, not government efficiency.

He says the bill will wreak havoc on every county road project. He keeps repeating this flight of fancy. Mentioning “the road kill bill” revs up Republican crowds.

Scaring the Counties

Compounding the situation is an effort by Hogan’s minions to twist reality even further. Deputy DOT Secretary Jim Ports tried terrorizing the counties by claiming none of their projects would be funded next year because of this Democratic-passed law.

Pure buncombe.

To begin with, DOT hasn’t even created the detailed scoring and ranking metrics needed to come to such a conclusion. Most important, these rankings don’t count when the governor names the transportation projects he wishes to finance. He still can do as he pleases.

This is strictly a planning tool, not a funding requirement. The law states quite clearly that the governor can ignore the rankings and toss the list in the trash as long as he “provides in writing a rational basis for the decision.”

Moreover, Ports’ ridiculous assertion that every county’s priority list of road projects would be wiped out by this law is refuted by this wording in the statute: “nothing in this Act may be construed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, counties still get to name their top projects and Hogan gets to fund them if he wishes.

Following The Donald

Calling it “the road kill bill” is a Trumpian tactic. How ironic for Hogan, who has positioned himself as the anti-Trump in Maryland’s Republican Party. Now he’s following The Donald’s lead by ignoring the facts and generating a story-line that fits his political purposes.

Unfortunately, we’ll be hearing a lot more about Hogan’s made-up “road kill bill.” He will continue demanding that lawmakers get rid of the statute – which won’t happen.

Meanwhile, Ports has made himself a prime target of angry Democrats, who are nearly certain to revise the law to make even clearer that it creates merely an advisory ranking system for road projects.

But has Hogan set an unintended trap for himself?

He and Democrats could get into a game of transportation “chicken” in which lawmakers dare the governor to wipe out all county road projects, as Hogan says is required – but isn’t – under the new advisory law.

What does Hogan do then – especially since this would be happening in the run-up to Hogan’s reelection bid?

Only by harming counties can Hogan prove his assertion is correct. That’s a huge risk for an incumbent who at the moment looks like a shoo-in for a second term.

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Baltimore’s Failed Leadership

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 22, 2016–There’s nothing quite as emblematic of Baltimore City’s failed leadership as the out-of-town (yet again) mayor firing her long-serving and super-loyal city solicitor for lacking a crystal ball.

Once again, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake threw someone under the bus rather than take ultimate responsibility for an embarrassment to her administration. She didn’t even have the courage to handle the firing herself.

Rawlings-Blake has not been happy when the now-former city solicitor, George Nilson, gave her unwelcome legal judgment over the years. But that’s no excuse for canning him simply to save face – and then refuse to meet with him.

Failed Leadership in Baltimore

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

That‘s no way to treat your top legal adviser during your entire tenure as mayor.

Can you spell d-y-s-f-u-n-c-t-i-o-n?

The more we learn about the inner workings of the Rawlings-Blake administration, the more grateful we are that she is retiring in less than four months.

Remember this was the mayor who out of arrogance and stubbornness refused for hours to take urgent phone calls from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to discuss calling out the National Guard to quell the 2015 Baltimore riots.

This was the mayor who after the unrest had died down fired her police commissioner because she needed a convenient scapegoat.

This was the mayor who forced out the previous police commissioner who had been widely praised for trying to reform the department by emphasizing community policing.

This was the mayor who bears partial responsibility for the damning Department of Justice report on the sad state of the city’s law-enforcement agency and the community’s deep mistrust of the men and women in blue.

Feuds and Failures

What a mess Rawlings-Blake is leaving in her wake.

Her inability to work constructively with the City Council has empowered that inept group of lawmakers to strike out in directions that could cripple Baltimore’s economic and fiscal future.

Her pointless and counter-productive feud with Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt cost Baltimore millions in wasteful spending on an antiquated telephone system that should have been efficiently replaced years ago.

Her on-going alienation from the Republican governor helps explain his unwillingness to be supportive of a deeply distressed and ailing Baltimore City.

It’s become a shameful record that started out so promising.

One Bad Hire

Rawling-Blake’s latest self-inflicted wound is the firing of City Solicitor Nilson, whose lengthy record of civic and public service to the state and city deserved more than an insulting, back-of-the-hand dismissal by a mayoral assistant.

What set off the mayor was the discovery by the Southern Poverty Law Center that a contract lawyer for the city for the last six months had past ties to a neo-Nazi group. Nilson quickly terminated the lawyer but that wasn’t good enough for the mayor. She needed to lay the blame on someone else.

Nilson was the obvious candidate since he hired Glen Allen, a retired lawyer with a long record of solid legal work for one of the nation’s largest law firms. How was Nilson (or the law firm for that matter) to know of Allen’s dalliances with neo-Nazism or his personal political beliefs?

By asking Allen at his application interview about his political leanings? By checking with the Southern Poverty Law Center on every hire? Until that group discovered Allen’s neo-Nazi connections it was a well-kept secret that had not interfered with Allen’s impeccable legal career.

Trumpism in Baltimore?

Rawlings-Blake apparently wanted Nilson to take the Donald Trump approach to identifying and rejecting undesirable applicants.

Does this mean all future city hires under this mayor will be asked:

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of a hate group, terrorist organization or some obnoxious political affiliate?

“Do you believe Sharia law supersedes the U.S. Constitution?

“Do you look favorably upon National Socialism?”

This is what it would have taken to spot Allen’s dark secret. Such questioning at a job interview for a government position not only would be inappropriate, it likely would prompt a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rawlings-Blake was way off-base in using this one instance of misplaced trust as an excuse to fire Nilson.

He’s carried a ton of water for the mayor during her time in office, just as he did for former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Yet he was canned without even a thank-you.

In his earlier careers as deputy state attorney general and as an assistant attorney general, Nilson proved a rock of stability in providing sound legal judgment for generations of state leaders in both the legislature and executive branch.

He continued that service in the private sector, often chairing reform commissions to make the city and the state better.

But Rawlings-Blake didn’t even have the decency to tell Nilson herself that he was being fired or to explain why she felt compelled to let him go. She never asked to hear his side of the story. After all the years they spent together, Rawlings-Blake didn’t have the courage to hold an exit interview.

She was disrespectful and cruel toward an official who had done so much to give her sound and supportive legal guidance.

What a terrible ending for both of them.

Nilson, though, can return to the private legal sector where he’ll easily triple or quadruple his city pay grade.

Rawlings-Blake, on the other hand, is damaged goods. Her latest display of heartless avoidance of responsibility won’t help her legacy or efforts to resurrect her career in some national capacity.

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A Journalist’s Best Friend

By Barry Rascovar

July 11, 2016—Every Maryland journalist who has filed a freedom of information request or challenged efforts by officials to keep public deliberations secret owes a debt of gratitude to Jim Keat, who passed away July 6 after a prolonged bout with cancer.

Keat passionately detested public secrecy. He led the fight to enlarge and put teeth in Maryland’s Open Meetings Act and its Freedom of Information Act.

Investigative journalists and State House reporters would have been thwarted in their demands for government documents and entrée to state and local government meetings were it not for Keat’s fierce determination to remove the shadows from official public actions.

I knew Jim longer than anyone in my newspaper career. When I held down a summer internship at the Baltimore Sunday Sun after graduating from college, Jim gave me a shot at a job he could offer me once I completed my master’s degree at Columbia University.

The job entailed editing news-analysis copy for a brand-new Sunday opinion section Keat was starting from scratch, called Perspective. I botched the editing test quite badly but you’d never know it from the way Keat diplomatically suggested I stick to learning the reporting trade.

I’m eternally grateful for that rejection, since it saved me from a life on the copy desk far from what I really wanted to do: report on political and governmental news of the day.

Unsung Newsroom Hero

Keat later served 16 years in a key but unheralded role as assistant managing editor for The Sun’s news sections. Every newspaper has someone like Jim Keat, whose name is not widely known to the public but who keeps the complex internal workings of a newsroom in sync and on time.

No news-gathering problem was too big or too small for Keat to handle. He had superb news judgment and vast knowledge of foreign and national affairs as well as what was “hot” on the local scene.

He served as a buffer for journalists when things got heated in editorial meetings. Keat’s boss, Paul Banker, was a reclusive man of few words who rarely dealt with the local staff. It was left to Jim to serve as an intermediary and mentor to us lowly city-desk reporters.

When I joined the newspaper’s Washington Bureau, Keat became our go-to guy for reporters with complaints about how their stories were handled and for those lobbying to pursue tips that might lead to a Page One “scoop.” He saved my hide on numerous occasions.

Then when Jim was winding up his nearly 40 years with the Baltimore Sun, he joined me and his old pal Joe Sterne in the editorial department, where he coordinated daily production activities of the opinion pages. He edited letters to the editor and pounded out well-crafted editorials with an élan and rapidity that spoke to his skills as a consummate journalist.

Advocate for Openness

But it was Jim’s sterling work on behalf of government openness, both at the newspaper and in retirement, that set him apart.

Keat once admitted that he was “frustrated by the inability of the people, not just newspapers, to find out what the government is doing.”

He became a leader of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association’s freedom of information lobbying in the Annapolis State House and before county and city councils.

He led two MDDC public records audits of Maryland agencies that demonstrated the closed-door nature of bureaucratic fiefdoms. Keat also plunged into public battles over cameras in the courtroom, court records access and the necessity of regular government audits to test if agency records indeed are accessible to the press and public.

Keat became a constant spectator and testifier at hearings that unmasked weaknesses in Maryland’s Open Meetings Act. Throughout his long career he remained a passionate and demanding voice for freedom of the press and government openness.

Give Thanks

So the next time you read an expose or article on government wrongdoing made possible by documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests, take a moment to thank Jim Keat.

And when you read stories about officials unsuccessfully trying to slam the doors to public meetings, again thank James S. Keat.

He was a Maryland journalist’s best friend. Jim’s relentless work advocating for open access to the people’s government made a lasting contribution to this state.

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Sifting Truth from Hogan’s Fiction

By Barry Rascovar

July 5, 2016 – He’s at it again. Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. keeps promoting a phony story line to justify attacking Democratic lawmakers and scaring local officials into believing vital road projects are in grave jeopardy.

If that’s the case, why hasn’t the governor named those highway construction projects that are on the “kill list” because of those evil Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly?

He can’t do so because there’s no such animal. Hogan’s bluster is just that: hot air lacking factual back-up.

Last week, Hogan went before conventioneers at the Maryland Municipal League and tried to scare them out of their pants.Sifting Truth from Hogan's FictionHe told them “we cannot and will not let” the General Assembly’s Democratic majority hinder road and bridge repairs.

He did not give one example of such a dastardly deed.

Rally ’Round the Governor

Then he amped up the volume, declaring Municipal League members must rally ’round Hogan to safeguard their local highway aid.

“We’re going to keep fighting to make sure these priority road projects in every jurisdiction continue to move forward,” he said.

“But we need our municipal and our county officials, each and every one of you, to stand with us so our roads and highways don’t go back down a path of neglect and under investment.”

So what is this despicable act perpetrated on local governments and its citizens by the Democratic legislature, according to Republican Hogan?

It centers on a  bill passed in 2015 by lawmakers that forces the state to rank all highway, bridge and transit projects costing more than $5 million that increase capacity. Structural deficiencies and urgent repairs are not included in this ranking.

Hogan vetoed the bill but Democrats easily overrode that veto this year. The law went into effect July 1.

These transportation projects will be rated according to nine objective metrics, such as how much each undertaking improves transportation safety, the economic benefits each project brings to the counties and state and each project’s impact (negative or positive) on the environment.

Hogan’s own transportation department will pick the measurement criteria and do the analysis, not some liberal do-gooder group.

Toothless Law

Once the annual ranking is produced, that’s the end of the story.

Hogan need not follow this priority list. He can ignore it completely.

All he must do, under the law, is explain why he’s disregarding this objective listing of Maryland’s most important road, bridge and transit projects.

It’s a feel-good law lacking any teeth. There’s no enforcement provision. Hogan’s ability to pick and choose transportation winners and losers remains fully in place.

Had this law been in effect in 2015, Hogan still could have killed the Baltimore Red Line subway project and shifted those funds to rural highways where his most ardent supporters live. Nothing would have changed.

All the new law does is provide some welcome transparency. Finally, citizens will get a glimpse into a previously closed-door government process that historically has led to corruption and blatant political favoritism.

Finally, there will be a values-based rating of road, bridge and transit projects and a ranking of which ones score highest.

It Could Get Uncomfortable

Does this endanger local officials’ favored road projects? Not at all. Hogan can still distribute road and bridge goodies as he chooses.

But the rankings may raise uncomfortable questions if county leaders are pushing for a project that scores extremely low.

Yet listening to Hogan’s rants one gets the impression a cataclysmic event is upon us.

He has called it a “terrible, terrible piece of legislation” that threatens “every bridge and every road” project in Maryland!

He has made the blanket statement – lacking concrete, follow-up proof: “We would have to kill pretty much all the road projects in 22 of the 24 jurisdictions. Every bridge and every road.”

Where’s the Proof?

What’s missing are the names of those endangered projects. Until Hogan produces such a list of the road and transit projects he’s been forced to kill because of the new law, his words amount to political bombast.

One of the governor’s likely opponents in 2018, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz put the new law that Hogan keeps screaming about in perspective: “I think it’s fair for the General Assembly to ask how do you establish priority.”

Indeed it is. It’s time to remove some of the mystery surrounding the selection of road, bridge and transit projects and start telling the pubic why some road widenings go to the top of the list and others go to the bottom.

We’re not talking small potatoes here. Maryland’s six-year transportation program amounts to nearly $16 billion.

Shining a bit of sunshine on the selection process is long overdue.

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

 

Crunch Time for P.G. Hospital

By Barry Rascovar

June 13, 2016 – Here we go again: Another liberal-conservative showdown over a new hospital for Prince George’s County. Only this time, the confrontation isn’t between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and the Democratic legislature.

Instead, the tug-of-war is between a conservative political scientist from a Republican think-tank and Democrats in the county who control its hospital system.

Crunch Time P.G. Hospital

Proposed Prince George’s Regional Medical Center

The think-tank guru, Robert Moffit, was placed on the Maryland Health Care Commission by Hogan. It’s his second time around, having been on the panel before under Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

Due to a quirk in the way the commission conducts its business, Moffit has life-or-death powers over the proposed $655 million Prince George’s Regional Medical Center. He’s been assigned to evaluate this project and if he’s unwilling to sign off, the panel won’t issue the essential certificate of need (CON) for construction.

Wring Price Concessions

At the moment, Moffit is playing hardball.

He wants to wring $112 million from the project’s cost by cutting the number of acute care beds and dramatically shrinking room size. Moffit’s modifications call for fewer inpatient beds, fewer operating rooms, fewer emergency room bays and no specialty wing run by the Mt. Washington Pediatric Center.

It would be a stripped-down model designed to break even with far fewer customers coming through the doors.

That’s in keeping with both conservative Republican manta (do more with less) and a trend in health care that stresses outpatient treatment over hospital admissions.

Moffit, who works at the Heritage Foundation, doesn’t want a white elephant – a hospital that is half-empty and unable to pay its bills or avoid red ink.

That’s been the sorry state of county hospitals for decades under Dimensions Healthcare System, which has shortchanged county residents through long-standing management incompetence, political cronyism and an inability to offer quality medical care.

Deal in Annapolis

A running battle in Annapolis finally led to an agreement in which the state and county governments would chip in for a brand-new regional medical center in Largo, replacing the run-down, 75-year-old hospital at Cheverly and consolidating county in-patient beds at one site.

What sealed the deal was agreement by county politicians to relinquish control to the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), which has a record of turning woebegone hospitals into winners for patients and the bottom line.

But Moffit doesn’t seem impressed with what UMMS brings to the table. He’s so focused on the financials that he may be missing key, unspoken elements.

First, Prince George’s County is a health care desert. It is bereft of a comprehensive medical center. No wonder sick residents go elsewhere for in-patient hospital care – to Southern Maryland, to Anne Arundel County, to Montgomery County and to the District of Columbia.

A gleaming, ultra-modern regional medical mecca at Largo, with all the bells and whistles patients and doctors demand, could reverse the out-migration of patients in a hurry.

Indeed, the combination of a cutting-edge, high-tech hospital run by a nationally ranked teaching hospital could result in a stampede of primary care physicians seeking office space nearby. The dearth of primary care docs has been a major shortcoming in the county – a situation UMMS already is working hard to fix.

Different Fruits

Moffit also wrongly compares costs for the P.G. regional medical center to the new community hospital Washington Adventist Hospital is building in Montgomery County. The two have as much in common as apples and oranges.

The Largo project will be far more expensive because the demands for services are far greater in Prince George’s – and infinitely more complex.

The current Dimensions hospital in Cheverly is the second busiest trauma center in Maryland. With violent crime rising in the populous county, you can expect an even greater need for more emergency room bays and high-cost trauma medical care. That’s not factored into Moffit’s equation.

Nor does the commissioner take into account the enormous size of the county with a population that will hit 1 million in the not too distant future. Yet there’s a lack of even one high-caliber hospital.

That’s unacceptable.

Centerpiece of Change

Moffit concedes “a new general hospital campus in Prince George’s County is needed.”

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that this large, fast-growing subdivision with a huge minority population has always been short-changed. For too long, this populous region of Maryland has been denied a first-class regional medical center that can handle diverse and complex cases.

The last thing Prince George’s needs is a shrunken, run-of-the-mill general hospital.

Additionally, Moffit fails to take into consideration that a highly competent and experienced operating team from a premier teaching hospital will be running things.

Moreover, the mission isn’t just cost-efficient management of the new Prince George’s hospital. There’s a larger goal: to transform the county’s entire health care delivery system.

The centerpiece of that transformation is the new regional medical center.

Dumbing down the medical centerpiece denies county residents the kind of top-flight regional inpatient facility they deserve. It sets the stage for a penny wise/pound foolish decision from the Health Care Commission.

It also could lead to an angry response in Annapolis from dismayed Democratic legislators who are unwilling to accept a second-rate compromise.

They could demand sweeping changes in laws governing the Health Care Commission, reconstituting the panel and ensuring that one commissioner no longer gets to rule with near-dictatorial authority on hospital-construction projects.

There’s still time for a sensible resolution. Dimensions and UMMS have until Aug. 31 to respond to Moffit’s unreasonably stiff demands. It would be just as unrealistic to under-build as to over-build at Largo.

This is one decision the Health Care Commission had better get right.

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Grading Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Five vetoes and two major appointments in the past week tell us a great deal about Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. – some good, some not so good.

He’s proving to be a more conservative governor than voters probably imagined when they voted him into office. He’s also proving surprisingly doctrinaire in the extreme language in his statements and messages.

Let’s look at Hogan’s recent decisions and grade him the way his college professors might have:

Transit oversight board  

Hogan’s veto language is hysterical in discussing the Maryland Transit Administration Oversight and Planning Board, HB1010. His veto message is a blatant political document meant to rally the faithful. Hogan said  the bill’s provisions “represent a sophomoric attack on sound transportation policy by creating an unprecedented imposition of a politically-driven board to second-guess the authority of an executive branch agency.”

That’s pure hogwash.

This bill merely sets up a transportation advisory panel, another toothless tiger, like the earlier transportation scoring system he vetoed but the legislature overrode. But at least citizens who ride public transit would have a voice to express their concerns via this advisory group.

Transparency and public input are at the heart of this bill, two elements any sane politician ought to applaud. But by vetoing the bill, Hogan comes down emphatically on the side of secrecy and imperial-style decision-making.

In his message, Hogan made the ridiculous claim that the bill degrades Maryland’s quality of life and harms the state’s competitiveness – total buncombe.

He gets an emphatic F.

Morgan State University housing

This bill bars redevelopment of the Northwood Shopping Center in Baltimore, where student housing is planned for nearby Morgan State University – unless a local community group approves.

This is a local spat that never should have been taken on by the General Assembly. It is dangerous overreach.

Besides, the conflict between town and gown largely has been settled. There’s no need for such a disruptive and intrusive piece of legislation.

Hogan chose the correct path.

He gets an A.

Bridge over the Potomac

The governor had nasty words for this bill, which forces the state to set aside $75 million over the next 10 years to start paying for a replacement for the scary-as-hell 76-year-old Harry W. Nice Bridge that connects the northern neck of Virginia with Southern Maryland.

Grading Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing of the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

Hogan accused the legislature of superseding the “professional judgment” of his transportation staff. Au contraire, governor.

This bill restores the priority status given to replacing the Nice Bridge by the O’Malley administration. Instead of building a modern $1 billion bridge, Hogan’s folks want a far cheaper expansion of the existing, dangerous crossing over the Potomac River.

That’s not good enough. Until Hogan cut tolls on Maryland roads and bridges, the state had designated a replacement for the Nice Bridge as one of its top objectives. Now there’s not enough money to do the job.

There’s nothing wrong in the legislature expressing its will on major transportation projects. The long debate over the original Bay Bridge took place in the General Assembly. Governance in Annapolis is a shared responsibility – something Hogan wants to change.

Give him an F.

Supporting renewable energy

This bill forces utilities to turn more rapidly to renewable energy for electricity. It’s a boon for advocates of solar and wind power.

The current goal is 20 percent renewables by 2022. This bill forces utilities to reach 25% and to do so two years sooner.

That’s a steep challenge, even with subsidies from ratepayers that could cost close to $200 million by 2020. It may be asking for the impossible.

Maryland has made good progress on the road to renewable energy. But there’s a limit to how far this state, given its latitude and harsh winters, can march in that direction. We’re not part of the Sunbelt and state officials have walled off vast stretches of Western Maryland for renewable wind farms.

Besides, utility rates have been rising for Marylanders, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. Hogan is not about to permit what he sees as a backdoor tax increase.

He merits an A for this veto.

Education collaborative

This bill, SB910, runs into all sorts of constitutional conflicts. The goal is noble – a panel tasked with devising ways to help poor students do better in school. But two members of the General Assembly would hold seats on this board, which would hire a director and staff and set far-reaching education policy.

That’s the job of the executive, not the legislative branch, as any student of high school civics knows.

Hogan is right to teach the bill’s supporters a lesson in constitutional government.

His veto gets a grade of A.

New Public Service Commissioner

Del. Tony O’Donnell of Calvert County is the governor’s latest Public Service Commission nominee. In some ways, it’s a curious choice. O’Donnell, a former House minority leader, is a sharp, talkative conservative Republican who seems to have worn out his welcome even in Republican circles in the House of Delegates.

He knows a lot about the inner workings of electric utilities and the science of nuclear energy, having worked as a supervisor for BGE at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

Yet he’s a pro-business Republican who isn’t likely to give much weight to environmental pleas for “green” power. He’s also not a lawyer and hasn’t steeped himself in the arcane statutory meanderings of utility regulatory law.

O’Donnell will bring an interesting outlook to PSC deliberations. But he’s liable to find those endless hearings dull, long-winded and extraordinarily dense.

Hogan could have done better. He gets a B-minus for this appointment.

New Court of Appeals judge

The governor played political favoritism here, nominating his chief lobbyist, Joe Getty, to the state’s highest court.

Yes, Gov. Marvin Mandel did the same thing with Judge John C. Eldridge. But Eldridge brought to the bench considerable experience with a high-powered law firm. He was widely respected as a legal scholar.

Getty, in contrast, is a former legislator and solo practitioner from Carroll County. He could be overwhelmed by the immensity of confronting 200 highly complex legal appeals each year.

Getty, a staunch but sensible conservative, replaces one of the most liberal judges on the appeals court, Lynne Battaglia. He brings a different perspective to deliberations.

But he also could find himself over his head, having never served as a jurist or been under the gun to write dozens of obtuse appellate decisions on technical legal disputes.

Hogan should have named Getty to a lower court so he could gain much-needed experience before throwing him into the judicial lion’s den.

The governor’s grade: C-minus.

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Memorial Day Musings

By Barry Rascovar

May 30, 2016—A number of thoughts while celebrating the contributions of the men and women who served or serve in our nation’s military:

Baltimore City’s elections on May 27 offered two striking lessons for politicians and state election officials.

Provisional Mistakes

Yes, there was a terrible screw-up: Over 1,100 provisional ballots were mistakenly counted before the legitimacy of voters casting the ballots could be checked.

Memorial Day Musings

City election board officials have been pilloried for this mess. Fair enough, since it is clear there had not been nearly enough education or training of election judges.

But the state election board is culpable as well.

Converting from an electronic, computer touch-screen system – where voting errors are few – to an old-fashioned paper-ballot system that is known to be error-prone – was ripe for confusion and mistakes.

Not one city election-day judge had ever worked with the state’s new paper-ballot/automated counter system before. Baltimore City had used the old lever mechanical voting machines before jumping directly to the computer touch-screens. The city never held a paper-ballot election in anyone’s lifetime.

State election officials knew this. They also knew the city historically has voting snafus.

Yet state officials failed to take extra steps to help the city election board adapt to a brand-new voting system. Nor did they dispatch personnel to assist with training or offer more supervisory help on Election Day.

Instead, the state board and its staff sat back and watched the easily-predicted train wreck occur.

The main problem – confusion over how to handle those casting provisional ballots – could have been avoided if the state board had used treated paper for provisional ballots that the counting machines automatically rejected.

This and other ideas were scotched by the state board in Annapolis.

City election officials say they have learned the hard way and will make sure this doesn’t happen again in November. Perhaps the state election board will do more, too, and start acting like a cooperative partner instead of a stern superior.

New-Age Electioneering?

The May 27 city election held a lesson for young politicians as well. Some of them counted heavily on social media connections to springboard them to victory.

DeRay Mckesson was the most prominent social media star convinced that his heavy Facebook and Twitter presence was all it took to win at the ballot box. Local media made a big deal of his entry into the mayor’s race.

He and others forgot that while millennials might run their lives with a constant eye tuned to social media, the vast majority of voters aren’t plugged in. Indeed, Mckesson’s campaign turned into an embarrassment.

Despite his national Facebook renown, Mckesson received just 3,445 votes – a mere 2.6 percent of the votes cast.

The message is clear: You have to earn voters’ support the old-fashioned way, at least for the next decade or two.

Eye of the Storm

Lucky Elijah Cummings. He gets a starring role at the Democratic National Convention.

Now the bad news: He’s chairing the convention’s Platform Committee, where the hell-hath-no-fury-like-Bernie-Sanders-scorned protests will be heard.

It could get messy, angry and even violent.

Here’s one example. Two Sanders delegates on the committee are determined to have Democrats on record as condemning Israeli violence toward the Palestinian cause. That could set off a cataclysmic response from Jewish delegates and Clinton supporters.

So congratulations to the Baltimore area’s long-serving congressman. But he’d better bring a thick skin and a heavy gavel with him to Philadelphia in July.

Edwards Still in Denial

Defeated Congresswoman Donna Edwards, who lost badly to Congressman Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary for United States Senate, remains bitter and angry. She’s gone public now with her sour grapes and excuses as to why she failed to advance her career.

Edwards thinks there’s a “glass ceiling” for black women like herself. That’s why Van Hollen won.

Donna Edwards

Rep. Donna Edwards

Maybe it had something to do with the lousy constituent service Edwards provided for her Washington-area constituents, her grating personality that alienated House colleagues and her failure to sell herself to voters in the Greater Baltimore region.

Maybe her loss had something to do with her meager record in Congress versus Van Hollen’s all-star record.

Elections are won on the basis of merit and executing a solid campaign plan, not proportional representation based on race and gender.

Edwards needs to stop blaming others for her deficiencies. She lost because her campaign focused almost exclusively on race and gender rather than persuading Maryland Democratic she was the best candidate.

School Board Secrecy

Baltimore City’s school board decided to hide its business from the public. So it intentionally circumvented its own rules and picked a new school superintendent in total secrecy. The board didn’t even feel it necessary to tell the public it had fired the incumbent school chief months earlier.

It was a process more suited to the old Soviet Union than the U.S. of A.

What will the board do next behind closed doors?

All sorts of public officials are wringing their hands and criticizing the school board while proclaiming nothing can be done about this outrageous display of heavy-handed secrecy.

That’s not true. There’s plenty both the governor and mayor could have done.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., who appoints half the board members, could have picked up his telephone and read the riot act to school board members for acting in such a cavalier and undemocratic manner. He could have hinted that any shadowy repetition would have consequences when it comes to state funds for city schools.

Meanwhile, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake could have picked up her telephone and shouted at school board officials, too. Then she could have demanded an end to secrecy. She could have gotten the near-certain next mayor, Sen. Cathy Pugh, to echo those sentiments and make clear more secret actions would jeopardize budget support from City Hall.

Both Hogan and Rawlings-Blake dropped the ball.

Hogan doesn’t spend time worrying about what happens in Baltimore City anyway; Rawlings-Blake has been missing in action since announcing her plans to retire.

Transparency and openness in government be damned.

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