Category Archives: Government

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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Tough Job? Call Bobby Neall

By Barry Rascovar

May 23, 2016–They never seem to give Bobby Neall easy assignments. Now Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. wants the former Anne Arundel County Executive, former state senator and former state delegate to take on another near-mission impossible: reorganize state government.

It sounds like a simple task but it isn’t – not when Maryland’s government spends $42 billion a year and employs over 80,000 entrenched bureaucrats and nearly 10,000 contract workers.

Tough Job? Call Bobby Neall

Robert R. Neall, the governor’s new senior adviser

Compounding Neall’s assignment: Republican Hogan’s motives are deeply distrusted by the Democratic legislature. Any move that smacks of cutting government operations to pay for election-year tax cuts will be buried by legislative Democrats.

Neall says Hogan hasn’t asked him to slash government spending to make way for voter-appealing tax cuts. Instead, “this is something the governor wants to be part of his contribution – modernizing government and make it perform better, and maybe in the process saving money.”

The idea, according to Neal, is to come up with “a new platform capable of doing more and delivering better services and hopefully at lower unit prices. The businessman in the governor is coming out. It’s not just about budget cuts to make tax cuts possible.”

State government certainly could use a good shake-up.

Mandel’s Magic

There hasn’t been a major reorganization in 46 years, when Marvin Mandel, taking his cue from proposals put forth by the 1968 Constitutional Convention, took 248 unwieldy agencies and boxed them into 12 cabinet-level departments.

Suddenly the governor, not individual fiefdoms, controlled state government. It was one of Mandel’s great achievements, giving Maryland government a modern organization that was manageable and the envy of other states.

While Mandel’s basic structure has stood the test of time, the state’s operations again have spread its wings, becoming ungainly, duplicative and inefficient.

Neall sees his main opportunity in an area that would avoid headlines: government’s “backroom” operations – the massive services and supplies needed for the daily activities of 90,000 state workers.

“Having a Department of Veterans Affairs is fine,” he noted, “but it may not need its own personnel office, its own purchasing office, its own procurement office.”

Centralized backroom services might make sense, especially in an age of computers and two-way video communications. But it can still be controversial – witness the furor among parole office workers when personnel functions were removed from their workplace and consolidated at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

IT Laggard

Maryland government also has a reputation for lagging behind the times in information technology. Witness the disgracefully botched software to handle the Affordable Care Act and the continual IT screw-ups in social services computer operations.

Neall diplomatically notes, “Maryland state government has never been good at using technology. We’ve lost a lot of ground.”

Improved IT operations may hold the key to a leap forward in government efficiency and customer satisfaction but Neall’s efforts could encounter a major barrier – the costs involved.

Maryland’s Parole Commission, for instance is awash in paperwork. Boxes of inmate records are piled to the ceiling in large storage rooms. Converting these legal documents to computer-accessible records and protecting this data from cyber theft won’t be cheap or rapid.

Neall sees his main job as taking a hard-eyed look at state operations and then answering this question: “What’s the best way to deliver services to citizens today?”

For example, “We no longer get all our clothes in a clothing store; we shop online off a website.”

Process, Not Overhaul

Neall is not talking about wiping out entire departments and turning government into an amorphous internet presence. Instead, he wants to zero in on how state employees and agencies go about their jobs: “How they organize their work, the processes and the time sensitivity.”

In many areas, government is unnecessarily slow and cumbersome, irritating the heck out of constituents. It may be time to learn from the private sector.

There are private companies that will deliver to you your birth and death certificates in a matter of hours – for a fee. But ask state government for that same information and it could take weeks.

A cottage industry has sprung up due to the frustration people encounter waiting hours in long lines at the Motor Vehicle Administration. For a fee, these companies will take care of everything for you. While there have been improvements at the MVA, it still isn’t market-sensitive or people-friendly.

Those are the types of efficiency changes Neall has in mind.

Avoiding Controversy

He’s hoping it won’t involve wholesale reorganizations that would raise hackles among legislators, unions and other interest groups.

So the chances of a Mandel-style re-shuffling of powerful state agencies aren’t likely. Indeed, most state operations will look the same to Marylanders.

“The storefront stays if you can deliver products in a timely fashion, create a sense of urgency and customer satisfaction,” Neall says.

Throughout his career, Neall has been recognized as an insightful budget analyst skilled in dissecting complicated business and government operations and then suggesting cost-saving efficiencies.

Turnaround Artist

He’s worked for Johns Hopkins Medicine for a quarter-century, the last 12 as head of Hopkins’ managed-care organization for the poor and near-poor. Priority Partners is the largest MCO in the state, but when Neall took over it was $10 million in the red. Within a year, he had eliminated the red ink.

Neall is trusted and respected by both Republicans and Democrats in Annapolis. He knows the magnitude of his task.

If anyone can pull this off it is Bobby Neall. The goal he has set is modernization, not wholesale reorganization.

It may not be sexy, but Neall would be happy to see a quiet, successful implementation that most people don’t even notice.

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Tag-Team Villains

By Barry Rascovar

May 16, 2016 – Watching elected officials punish school children for alleged sins of other public officials is painful and embarrassing.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot should be ashamed.

They aren’t, of course.

Each is on an ego trip, enjoying the power they can wield in a vanity-filled attempt to humiliate and disparage political foes. All this is being done ostensibly to help these kids, though their actions will make school kids suffer.

Tag Team Villains

Comptroller Peter Franchot

The issue is a parochial one – the lack of air-conditioning in many Baltimore County and Baltimore City schools.

This has been a cause celebre for Franchot, allowing him to savage former County Executive Jim Smith and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for not installing window air conditioners in thousands of classrooms so studentswon’t swelter in 100-degree heat on a handful of school days each year.

The two jurisdictions have been dragging their feet for a long time. Franchot is right to bring it to public attention.

But his solution isn’t a solution at all – it exacerbates the problem.

Punitive Step

Franchot and Hogan voted last week to withhold $10 million in school building funds from Baltimore County and $5 million from Baltimore City – unless the jurisdictions install AC in 4,000 classrooms by September.

This punitive step accomplishes nothing.

First, it is mission impossible. This massive undertaking would take far longer and requires engineering studies to figure out if such a move would overload half-century-old electrical systems. Then what do you do and who pays for it?

Second, losing $15 million means fewer schools can get a permanent solution – central air-conditioning.

Their action amounts to pure hypocrisy.

Franchot went on a 20-minute rant at the start of Board of Public Works meeting with frenzied denunciations of legislative leaders and Kamenetz. Then he did it again later on. He spewed venom toward the Senate president, the House speaker, the state attorney general, the Baltimore County executive, the board’s own school construction agency, the Baltimore Sun, and even Wall Street bond counsels.

It was a Trumpian performance filled with sound and fury – but it did nothing to fix what’s broken.

Scripted Anger

Hogan wasn’t any more reasonable.

He put on a self-important display of scripted anger, assuring everyone he was doing this for the kids.

He and Franchot played fast and loose with the facts so they could pummel Kamenetz and Democratic legislators. They were cheered on by a crowd filled with supporters, who were allowed to speak.

Anyone who might object or discuss the facts was denied permission to talk. Even State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a BPW board member, was barely allowed to get in a word to counter the tag-team terrors.

She accurately called this “political theater” that was “outrageous and disgraceful.” Worse, it was “a travesty and illegal.”

Franchot and Hogan want to impose their will on Baltimore County and city leaders and determine education policy for them.

This is a dangerous precedent. Given complaints heard during the BPW meeting, the Hogan-Franchot duo could go after school board actions in other jurisdictions, too.

Easy Solution

Here’s the ultimate irony.

The governor has the ability to solve this dilemma but he hasn’t lifted a finger.

Why? Because he doesn’t want to help Democrats out of a bind of their own making.

All Hogan or former Gov. Martin O’Malley had to do was include extra school construction money in his budget and earmark it specifically for air-conditioning-related engineering studies, window air-conditioners and long-term central air-conditioning projects.

It might prove expensive, but with a budget surplus in the hundreds of millions of dollars Hogan has had the cash to handle this problem. He opted not to do so. The reason is political.

He enjoys whipping up an emotional frenzy to humiliate and embarrass a potential Democratic opponent in 2018 – Kamenetz.

It has nothing to do with “the kids.” Otherwise, Hogan would have resolved the matter back in January.

Franchot knows this problem is ripe for gaining popularity with angry school parents.

It’s political for him, especially in his scripted display of righteous anger.

Abrupt Cut-Offs

Hogan and Franchot didn’t want to hear the facts. They were told directly by a deputy attorney general their action would be illegal.  When she tried to explain the details, Hogan cut her off.

Baltimore County’s school superintendent was there, too. Hogan wouldn’t let him speak.

The state’s long-serving director of the school construction agency quit as a result of this crude power play. Hogan was publicly gleeful.

It was a pre-arranged nasty meeting.

School construction funds for any jurisdiction now could be at risk if local politicians get on the wrong side of the tag-team villains.

It was, as Kopp noted, “the politics of fear and demagoguery.”

It could result in a lawsuit the attorney general says Hogan and Franchot could lose.

It could make Maryland bonds for school construction impossible to sell, according to Kopp, who handles all of Maryland’s bond sales.

Franchot’s Future

It now looks likely that Franchot will face a strong Democratic challenge in 2018. He essentially severed ties last week with the state’s top legislative leaders and Kamenetz, who is term-limited.

Alarmed Democratic lawmakers could feel an urgency to pass veto-proof legislation next year to strip Hogan and Franchot of their ability to further politicize the state’ school construction allocations.

This could turn into a Pyrrhic victory.

There’s no doubt Baltimore City and Baltimore County failed for over a decade to confront the lack of air-conditioned classes. Local leaders never found the courage to raise taxes to pay for immediate, multi-billion-dollar school improvements.

But that is a local dilemma for local voters to address. It is not a state matter.

For Hogan and Franchot to dictate school system decisions is troubling. It could signal more moves to intervene in local matters when they think it helps them politically.

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

Responsive Legislative Actions

By Barry Rascovar

April 18, 2016 – In chalking up results from the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session that concluded a week ago today, it appears lawmakers have much to crow about.

In at least four areas, they achieved major steps forward that should prove enormously beneficial to Maryland residents.

Re-shaping prison sentences and parole

No bill holds more promise than this one, which had the backing of blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the governor and lawmakers.

The goal is to unclog prisons by placing minor drug offenders in alternative treatment, counseling and training programs instead of sitting unproductively in a jail cell.

Proponents made a big deal of the supposedly enormous savings in the original bill, which is of minor importance compared to providing offenders with constructive ways to turn their lives around while reserving incarceration for society’s truly bad apples.

State senators hesitated to give full support to the advocates’ liberal “get out of jail card” approach, worrying hardened criminals might be getting breaks they don’t deserve and return quickly to a life of street violence.

In the end, they agreed to give it a try, but the issue is certain to return to the State House next year to close unintended loopholes and weaknesses in the bill that won’t appear until the law is fully implemented.

Underwriting a Baltimore renewal program

One of Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s worst moments this past session was his failure to present a city revival package to the General Assembly. Given the governor’s no-show on this vital issue, Democratic lawmakers stepped in and fashioned their own combination of aid bills.

It includes state money to upgrade city parks; mentoring for promising middle-school students; a guaranteed, multi-year housing demolition aid package; youth summer jobs, and longer library hours.

It’s a step in the right direction to engage city youth in positive activities and improve life in their communities. But far more needs to be done on the state level to help the city launch an economic revival in distressed, unsafe communities. Whether Hogan views this as an imperative remains a huge question mark.

Enlarging UM’s College Park-Baltimore research ties

No, it’s not a merger between the University of Maryland, College Park and UM’s impressive professional schools university in Baltimore. Instead, the legislation fully opens the doors for collaboration between talented researchers previously separated by insular university system politics.

Equally significant, the bill allocates millions of dollars to identify promising breakthroughs and get them on the commercial development fast track. That translates into jobs and strong economic growth.

The partnership bill also provides an overdue financial boost to two underfunded campuses that have become stars in the state’s higher education constellation – Towson University and UMBC. There’s also research-development money for Morgan State University.

Almost forgotten is the bill’s mandate that Bob Caret, chancellor of the vast UM system, move his office from the College Park area to downtown Baltimore. This holds immense significance. Caret will immediately become a key figure in city business and leadership groups, an advocate for Baltimore and a potent force in leveraging the university system’s brainpower to help reverse Baltimore’s fortunes.

A healthy Baltimore City remains pivotal to Maryland’s well-being. Taking steps to rejuvenate the city puts Maryland government in a stronger position to lure companies – and jobs – to the area, to boost the quality of life for the region’s citizens and to bolster the state’s tax collections in and around Charm City.

Thwarting repeat drunk drivers

It’s about time. From now on, individuals who get caught driving while seriously inebriated will be forced to install ignition interlock devices on their cars. If they ever abuse alcohol again and try to get behind the wheel to drive home, they won’t be able to start the engine.

The bill makes our streets safer and might persuade more abusers to think twice before imbibing alcoholic beverages away from home.

That’s an impressive foursome of major legislation. Missing from this list is any tax reduction – which actually is good news.

Maryland’s economic rebound remains uneven and modest, despite the solid March jobs report. It is wiser to till next January before messing with tax cuts. With luck, Hogan will have a much bigger pot of cash to use for this purpose – a welcome move as he starts gearing up his reelection efforts.

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

 

 

 

Ceding Power to the Legislature

By Barry Rascovar

April 11, 2016 – It’s been an unusually contentious 90-day Maryland General Assembly session. The Republican governor and Democratic legislature are pulling in starkly different directions.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has made it clear he’d just as soon do away with those pesky lawmakers and rule by executive fiat.Ceding Power to the Legislature

His propaganda pitch is simple: I’m immensely popular right now and that should be enough to sweep away all opposition to my policy proposals.

Hogan, the most powerful governor in America when it comes to budget-making, wants even more unfettered ability to do as he pleases in cutting mandated aid programs.

He mocked lawmakers repeatedly during the session, even comparing them to college-age pranksters at one point.

Scant Progress for Hogan

In most cases, he refused to let his underlings work with lawmakers behind the scenes to improve the final work product and reach a compromise.

He kept demanding total surrender by Democratic legislators on a host of conservative Republican initiatives.

No wonder Hogan made scant progress on his agenda. It was too ideological, too partisan and too in-your-face bad-mouthing.

Indeed, Hogan’s decision to play Lone Ranger politics rather than work cooperatively with Democrats in the General Assembly has set the stage for what could be a momentous power shift in the Annapolis State House.

Throughout Maryland’s history, legislatures have let the governor take the lead in setting the agenda for the state’s annual General Assembly session. Lawmakers followed the old adage – the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.

But this time Hogan failed to lead. His 13-point initiative was long on Republican talking points featuring lots of tax cuts, fee cuts and tax credits for businesses as well as impossibly idealistic conservative goals such as wiping away state spending mandates and stripping the Democratic legislature of any power over the decennial redistricting process.

It’s no surprise Hogan met failure on the majority of these items.

Filling the Void

What did come as a surprise was legislative leaders’ determination to jump into the policy void created by Hogan.

Where was the comprehensive gubernatorial aid package for riot-torn Baltimore City –the most pressing problem confronting the state?

Where was the gubernatorial package of bills to improve the environment, public schools, state universities or health care?

On these critical issues, Hogan was missing in action.

Instead, House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller became the initiators, setting their own achievement goals. For the most part, Hogan was left on the sidelines where he shouted nasty criticisms of the players but never offered to join them on the field.

Aggressive Legislators

The legislature’s Baltimore aid package, while far from ideal, offered the first tangible evidence of Democratic lawmakers imposing their will on the governor, not vice versa.

It could be the start of a more aggressive approach by legislative leaders, making demands on the governor or even requiring gubernatorial actions.

In the past, lawmakers were deferential and passive partners in the law-making process, giving the governor the primary role in formulating policy and pushing legislation to fruition.

That has started to change.

Over the next two legislative sessions, Hogan’s influence will wane as the 2018 elections draw near and political reelection becomes the driving force. Democratic lawmakers will be less willing to grant Republican Hogan what he wants if it involves partisan goals and initiatives, as seems likely.

His agenda could be put on the shelf as legislators fashion their own package of priority legislation and steer it through the House and Senate with enough votes to override a Hogan veto.

Who Will Be in Charge?

By the time Hogan finishes his first term, he may have created a legislative monster for future chief executives – a General Assembly more capable of replacing the governor as the initiator of major legislation. Their power could increase; his could diminish.

It is likely Hogan can continue to milk his popularity by belittling Democratic lawmakers, portraying himself as the victim of their misguided actions and positioning himself as the advocate of lower taxes and less intrusive government. It’s worked so far.

Yet at the same time, if the chasm between Hogan and legislative leaders widens the governor may not have much in the way of achievements to show voters. By 2018, a cynical public may not view him so positively.

A more powerful state legislature seems on the horizon, and that’s not good news for any governor – unless he is willing to collaborate and compromise. Hogan has shown a lack of interest in either.

The verdict on the governor is still out. He’s shown he can retain his popularity. But can Hogan get major legislation approved while taking a confrontational approach toward a more assertive General Assembly?

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