Category Archives: Government

Hogan’s Budget Dilemma

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 18, 2016 – Tumbling oil prices, a bear market for stock and 401(k) investors and a sharp economic pullback in China and other developing countries could wreak havoc in Maryland as Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. prepares to release his budget for the coming fiscal year.

Even before lawmakers get a chance to analyze what’s in Hogan’s conservative spending plan, the state’s revenue assumptions for the next 18 months could be out of date.Budget balancingBudget projections made by the state’s Board of Revenue Estimates just a month ago have been eclipsed by the worst-ever start-of-the-year results on Wall Street, historic drops in oil prices and stock market losses totaling a staggering $2.5 trillion in just two weeks.

This bad news comes at a terrible time for Hogan. His budget already has gone to the printers. It’s too late to make adjustments. His fiscal blueprint could be out of sync with January’s realities.

Indeed, if this worldwide gloom persists, the modest economic growth anticipated by Hogan might prove optimistic. The governor’s spending and tax-cut proposals might have to be drastically reduced – even with a large surplus in the bank.

Maryland’s economy is tied to what happens nationally and internationally.

A sharp slowdown in China’s trade hurts the Port of Baltimore and BWI Airport. Ditto for the laggard economic activity in Europe and in emerging countries.

Too Much Oil

The oil glut is leading to 250,000 layoffs in the energy sector, which will mean less work for contractors, subcontractors and suppliers throughout the country, including Maryland.

Maryland’s income tax receipts will be hurt by the plunge in stock prices. Alarmed consumers, already unnerved by talk of terrorist attacks, could continue to rein in their spending, which hurts sales tax collections.

Economists aren’t yet predicting that international woes will lead to a second Great Recession.

But weak growth could make it exceedingly difficult for Hogan to carry out his pledge to cut taxes.

While the Republican governor will propose over $400 million in tax cuts in his address to the Maryland General Assembly this week, Democratic lawmakers aren’t likely to support them if economic conditions make those tax cuts unsupportable.

U.S. Resurgence?

The best news for Hogan would be if the current batch of bad news is replaced by a sharp and lengthy bounce-back on Wall Street and an uptick in consumer spending. The U.S. economy, after all, is in far better shape than the rest of the world.

Still, we live in an era of instant international linkage. What happens in China or France or Iran or Russia affects the U.S. economy. As journalist Thomas Friedman famously wrote, “The world is flat.”

Hogan has little, if any, control over Maryland’s overall economic well-being. He can’t stop the panicked selling on China’s stock exchange, or Iran dumping more oil exports on an oversaturated world petroleum market or a Republican Congress ratcheting down federal aid to the states.

Lower gas prices were supposed to stimulate consumer spending as drivers fill up their vehicles far more cheaply. Yet so far no such bump has occurred.

Low or No Growth

Shaun Driscoll, who manages T. Rowe Price’s New Era Fund, predicts low gasoline prices could persist for the next six months and the oversupply of petroleum might linger for a couple of years.

The U.S. could find itself in a sustained period of low growth or no growth. For Hogan, that would make tax cuts problematic not only this year but in the immediate future, too.

“Risks abound,” the state’s Board of Revenue Estimates warned last month, noting the nation’s economic outlook was “subdued.”

Those observations came before the history-making plunge on Wall Street and disappointing economic news from China.

Volatility around the globe and at home makes it tough for elected officials to accurately predict the future. Extreme caution may become the watchword as budget deliberations begin in Annapolis.

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

2015’s ‘Dumb & Dumber Award’

By Barry Rascovar

Before we get too far into the New Year, let’s dispense with the Maryland political maneuver deemed as the low point of 2015: Civil rights advocacy groups waited till the very end of the year to file the worst and most counter-productive legal complaint that’s been filed in a long, long time.

The groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, are essentially suing Gov. Larry Hogan administratively for daring to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line rapid rail route through Baltimore. Their reasoning: Hogan made a racially discriminatory decision that harms African Americans in Baltimore City.Red Line logoNot only is the complaint historically inaccurate, it is pointless and damaging to their cause. For this publicity-seeking waste of time and energy, the groups’ complaint richly deserves 2015’s “Dumb and Dumber Award.”

Leap of Logic

Republican Hogan has been heavily criticized for cancelling the Red Line project, but racial bigotry isn’t one of the charges that sticks.

Not only is it a stretch to make that wild accusation, there’s no evidence to back up the charge.

Did Hogan sit in his office plotting the death knell of the Red Line so he could keep African Americans “in their place”? Did he divert most of the Red Line money to rural and suburban highway projects as a discriminatory move against blacks?

The accusation is preposterous on its face.

Protesters even claim the Red Line was a vital piece of the state’s plan to remedy racial disparities, and that rejecting the Red Line was part of an historic pattern of racially imbedded transportation decisions by state governors.

Pure hogwash.

Red Line History

Never once in all the years I have reported and commented on the Red Line project have I heard such a distorted argument.

Never once did the Democratic O’Malley administration or the Republican Ehrlich administration make the argument that they wanted to proceed with the Red Line because of its civil rights implications.

Never once did the Hogan administration even hint at a racial motive for stopping the Red Line in its tracks.

The civil rights groups are far, far off-base.

Yes, cancelling the Red Line, and the $900 million in federal funds, ranks as the most boneheaded decision of the century (so far) in Maryland.

Yes, it will harm African Americans in Baltimore – but also whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

But Hogan’s move was largely a political decision. Racial discrimination didn’t enter into the discussion.

Not Worth the Cost

He did it because he’s a rigidly conservative Republican who hates big government spending projects that primarily benefit Democratic strongholds. He didn’t feel this controversial construction undertaking was worth the huge outlay of state funds.

He wrongly called the Red Line a “boondoggle” because in his mind any oversized project that won’t help his voter base in rural and suburban Maryland isn’t a priority.

He called the Red Line “unaffordable” even though it clearly could have been downsized and revamped to make it more cost-efficient and make it fit into the state’s long-term transportation budget.

Nixing the Red Line was decided by Hogan long before he took office.

He promised during the 2014 campaign to kill the Red Line. Race had nothing to do with it; conservative ideology had everything to do with his decision.

The civil rights groups also make the argument Maryland has a long history of racially discriminatory transportation and housing decisions.

Excuse me, but how did housing get into this argument over building the Red Line?

Not in My Neighborhood

There’s no doubt housing discrimination was at play in the Baltimore region over the past 100 years. My former colleague at The Baltimore Sun, Antero Pietila, brilliantly presents the case against the federal, state and city governments for their racially biased housing policies in his book, “Not in My Neighborhood.”

But the issue here is transportation, not housing.

Where did the civil rights groups get the idea that building Baltimore’s Central Light-Rail Line and the region’s Metro Line were purposely designed to discriminate against blacks?

That’s buncombe. It rewrites history to fit the groups’ distorted, conspiratorial world view.

Marvin Mandel built the Red Line not to serve white Marylanders but because there was a right-of-way available from the old Western Maryland Railroad that ran through Northwest Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Today, Baltimore’s first mass-transit rail line well serves areas that are both black and white, as well as Hispanic.  Even the line’s county stations serve a very large and growing African American community.

Key Right-of-Way

William Donald Schaefer built the Central Light-Rail Line because there was an abandoned right-of-way available — the former Northern Central Railroad route. It was a cost-and-efficiency engineering decision. The goal, then as now, was to make public transportation to jobs, stores and entertainment easier for EVERYONE – especially those living in Baltimore City.

Neither Mandel nor Schaefer posed as George Wallace seeking to deny blacks better public transportation. Quite the opposite. Race was never a factor in their decisions to build those routes, plain and simple. It did not enter into discussions.

There’s no question Baltimore lacks quality public transportation. There’s no question the city and the state should have done a better job anticipating the need for a comprehensive, coherent and connected mass-transit system that gets low-income adults to job sites.

It’s been a huge failure by state and local officials.

You can blame it on politics, both in Annapolis and in Washington. But you cannot blame Baltimore’s sorry transportation situation on racial discrimination.

Civil rights groups are wasting time and money on this canard. There are important civil rights issues confronting Baltimore at this time, but not the Red Line’s demise.

Fait accompli

The civil rights groups’ complaint to Washington bureaucrats contains another huge leap of illogic: It’s too late to undo what’s been done.

Hogan killed the Red Line. It’s a fait accompli. The federal government is redistributing that $900 million to other cities that weren’t stupid enough to turn their backs on such a huge federal gift.

You can’t revise history to satisfy your wishes. The Red Line money from Washington is gone. A civil rights complaint, even if upheld, won’t make that money reappear.

Besides, who’s to say the Red Line would have solved Baltimore’s discrimination woes? Since when did these civil rights groups become experts in the most advantageous public transportation modes for Baltimore residents of color?

How do they view Hogan’s decision to spend $135 million on improving Baltimore’s sub-par bus system? That’s a whopping amount of money for such an undertaking that will primarily benefit the city’s lower-income workers and residents.

Is that part of the discrimination conspiracy, too?

What a distraction.

These civil rights groups should be ashamed. Demonizing Larry Hogan for unfounded civil rights affronts is a terrible mistake that politicizes the legitimate work of those groups. It polarizes the situation and needlessly antagonizes the one person who holds the purse strings for future transportation projects.

The complaint hurts, rather that helps, Baltimore City in its appeals to Annapolis at a time when the city needs all the help it can get.

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Dump Those Hateful Lyrics

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 4, 2016 – I strongly disagree with “politically correct” crowds that frequently seek to re-write history for their own present-day purposes. But when it comes to the hateful lyrics of Maryland’s official state song, I say quite emphatically, “Dump them.”

The words to “Maryland, My Maryland,” composed by an emotionally wrought Rebel sympathizer, James Ryder Randall, are despicable.

Dump Those Hateful Lyrics

James Ryder Randall

Abraham Lincoln is called a despot. Those supporting the United States rather than the Confederacy are called “Northern scum.”

The poem is a blatant call for Maryland to separate from the U.S. and join the Confederacy.

It’s a blood-thirsty state anthem, written in New Orleans by the 22-year-old Randall following the first casualties of the Civil War during Baltimore’s Pratt Street riot of April 1861.

Rebel Call to Arms

Thus the words:

“Avenge the patriotic gore

That flecked the streets of Baltimore,

And be the battle queen of yore, Maryland! My Maryland!”

Randall, who spent most of his adult life far from Maryland in Augusta, Georgia and other Southern outposts as an editorial writer, quickly became a hero among Southern separatists.

His words, set to a catchy German college tune that we know today as “O Tanenbaum” or “O Christmas Tree,” caught on with Rebel soldiers and supporters.

Why such mean-spirited, blood-curdling words would come to represent the state of Maryland – whose citizens were decidedly mixed in their views of the Civil War – remains cloaked in mystery.

Adopting a State Song

Republican Gov. Harry Whinna Nice vetoed a bill making Randall’s lyrics the state song in 1935. He felt the words were inappropriate. Nice was on the mark.

But the next governor, conservative Democrat Herbert R. O’Conor, went along with legislators, especially those from rural parts of Maryland with Southern sympathies. O’Conor signed the bill making “Maryland, My Maryland” the state song in 1939.

Big mistake.

Other states have dumped offensive lyrics in their state songs. Florida did it twice (“Swanee”), Kentucky did it (“My Old Kentucky Home”) and so did Virginia (“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”).

Yet for 20 years, Maryland legislators have refused to get rid of lyrics that don’t come close to representing the state’s citizens. The words are hateful, viciously un-American and written to encourage Maryland to secede from the United States.

It is past time to reverse that dreadful decision by the 1939 General Assembly and Governor O’Conor.

Correcting a Mistake

This is not, as Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. put it recently, “political correctness run amok.”

He needs to re-think his position. Randall’s lyrics never should have been allowed to represent Maryland’s citizens. Does he really want school children singing those words?

Hogan’s right that the “PC Crowd” frequently careens out of control trying to revise history to further their own current-day ideological goals.

Taken to an extreme, this would mean tearing down the Washington Monument and re-naming the District of Columbia because George Washington owned hundreds of slaves, frequently ordered severe whippings and refused to liberate them until after his death.

It would mean tearing down the Jefferson Memorial and removing Thomas Jefferson’s face from American currency because he, too, owned hundreds of slaves and conceived children with them.

It would mean melting down the austere statue of Roger Brooke Taney on the grounds of the Annapolis State House because of his refusal as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to abolish slavery. Taney’s other sensible and forward-thinking Supreme Court opinions, and his extremely important work in Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet, would be ground into dust.

Byrd Stadium No Longer

The PC Crowd already had its way at the University of Maryland, College Park, where the name of Harry C. Byrd was erased from its football stadium – even though Byrd, who tried vigorously to keep Negroes out of University of Maryland colleges, arguably did more to turn UM into a first-rate state university than any of his successors.

“You can’t change history, and we’re not going to be able to rewrite history,” Hogan said. That’s true. The past is water under the bridge, it is time that already has ticked off the clock.

We can, though, learn from mistakes of the past. We can glean a greater understanding of the flawed decisions of former leaders and why those mistakes happened – so that we, in the present, don’t make similar mistakes.

As philosopher George Santayana wrote in 1924, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Lessons from Yesterday

Hogan should learn from Governor O’Conor’s mistake in 1939. He should review and learn from Governor Nice’s courageous veto in 1935.

There’s nothing sacred about a state song, especially one that fiercely and savagely promotes secession.

It makes sense to follow the suggestion of an advisory panel to replace Randall’s odious lyrics with words that better represent Maryland’s history and its citizens’ good intentions.

Overturning a legislative and gubernatorial mistake made 77 years ago isn’t a matter of political correctness.

It’s common sense that ought to be supported on a bipartisan basis in the State House.

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

Hogan’s Happy Holidays

By Barry Rascovar

(From The Community Times (a publication of the Carroll County Times)

Dec. 23, 2015

What a whirlwind year this has been for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. He’s seen phenomenal highs and
lows.

The year’s emotional peak came with his swearing-in as Maryland’s 62nd governor. The low point came when Hogan announced he had been diagnosed with advanced non-lymphoma Hodgkin’s disease that required prolonged and extensive chemotherapy.

As we near the end of 2015, Hogan has every reason to celebrate the holidays with joy and optimism.

Hogan's Happy Holidays

MD Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Hogan’s cancer is gone, oncology specialists at the University of Maryland Medical Center have told him; his hair is slowly growing back and his future looks sunny.

On the political front, Hogan goes into the holidays with high approval ratings. For a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state, that is heartwarming.

A note of caution is in order, though, at this time of good cheer and warm wishes.

Hogan’s high approval could be fleeting. Governors always see their ratings sink during legislative sessions when there’s controversy swirling around executive department proposals.

So Hogan can expect his numbers to drop when the General Assembly convenes next month.

No 2016 Honeymoon

This will be Hogan’s second legislative session. The first was pretty much a honeymoon for the new chief executive — except for a nasty tug-of-war over education funding. This time, Democratic leaders will be more aggressive in opposing Hogan initiatives. There won’t be an extended honeymoon.

Hogan has to keep in mind that Democrats will be far more anxious to criticize the Republican governor and block his proposals.

They don’t want to give him victories that might lead to his re-election.

So this winter could be a rocky period for the governor as Democratic leaders in the General Assembly try to gain the upper hand.

Hogan needs to remember that the most recent Republican governor also had high approval ratings through most of his term — only to lose his re-election bid.

At a similar stage of his governorship, Bob Ehrlich enjoyed very strong poll numbers, yet it wasn’t enough to win him another four years in office.

Inevitable Push-back

Next year could be a pivotal year from Hogan’s governorship. He’s had time to figure out how to run this huge ship of state. He now knows what he wants to change.

Streamlining government sounds easy in principle. Getting rid of costly and pointless regulations couldn’t be that hard, right?

Think again.

For every action Hogan takes to eliminate government rules and regulations, there will be an equal and opposite reaction from politicians and groups that fought hard to put those mandates on the books.

Similarly, if Hogan follows up on recommendations by his task force to reorganize state departments and agencies, he can expect fierce opposition.

Quarrels or Cooperation?

The governor will be tested on his ability to work cooperatively with Democrats in the legislature. Hogan got into a needless quarrel last time over education aid and then refused to compromise.

If the same things happens in 2016, there could be gridlock in Annapolis.

Hogan has a lot going for him right now. His public fight to overcome cancer won him countless admirers. He cut highway tolls — a popular move. He has avoided hot-button social issues that could stir an uprising against him.

But can he make headway on his key issues, such as reducing government spending and lowering taxes? Those will be tough to sell to Democrats, who see a need for more, not less, help from government for society’s underclass.

This year turned out to be a blessed one for Larry Hogan. Politically, though, he faces some daunting challenges in the year ahead.

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Hogan’s Spending Tightrope

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 21, 2015 – Larry Hogan, Jr. is the ideal governor to take on the difficult task of balancing the need for stronger economic growth in Maryland while at the same time slowing government spending.

Republican Hogan is a committed conservative who gained election by pledging to cut the fat out of state government and lower taxes (eventually).

But Hogan also was elected because he is a pro-business executive intent on slashing business regulation and making Maryland more business-friendly.

The problem is that Maryland isn’t bouncing back strongly from the Great Recession. Tax receipts in Annapolis from consumer-related spending (the sales tax) are still sinking. Taxes from personal income are barely nudging forward.

It’s a sluggish state economy with slow employment growth, little wage growth and new jobs being created at a disappointing pace.

Weak Recovery

November’s unemployment report confirmed Maryland’s agonizingly slow recovery.

Since early summer, the jobless rate has come down but remains above the national average. The number of people out of work is largely unchanged over the past six months. New jobs rose just 16,000 in that period.

The situation is far better than the 7.7 percent unemployment of 2010, yet Maryland continues to lag in job-creation.

All this points to the need for a cautious approach in the next state budget. Revenue growth remains modest. Hogan’s cabinet will have to deliver on the governor’s mandate to trim the size of agencies without harming services that aid Maryland’s underclass.

Restraining government expenditures isn’t all good news, though.

Cutting out state jobs and lowering spending can boomerang and end up harming Maryland’s economic recovery.

It gets tricky for the governor.

Large Surplus Helps

He’s lucky there’s a projected $561 million surplus for next year’s budget. He isn’t likely to dip into that fund to enlarge existing programs as Democrats want him to do.

Indeed, Democratic lawmakers are calling for an expansion of state spending by nearly 5 percent, even though that could be risky.

Hogan’s budget chief assures us the governor will be well under the Democrats’ affordability limit.

But how do you hold down government spending while simultaneously pumping more dollars into jobs and economic growth?

It can be done.

Hogan needs to take one important step: Turn that $561 million surplus into capital spending to build worthwhile projects.

Jobs and Growth

By using surplus cash in this way, Hogan can create good-paying jobs in the construction trades and stimulate growth through the purchase of construction-related goods and services.

Using cash instead of state bonds serves another important purpose. It relieves pressure on Maryland’s costly capital bond program and lowers the state’s expenses not just in 2016 but for the next 15 years.

Paying cash for $500 million worth of new state buildings, rather than issuing bonds, is just what the state needs right now.

A large and continuing pay-as-you-go state construction program would eliminate a huge amount of future debt. It would trim Maryland’s long-term structural operating deficit by a substantial margin.

There’s an added bonus in a large “pay-go” construction program if it is focused on buildings that can lead to long-term economic growth.

Hogan can fortify the Baltimore area’s importance as a generator of health and technology advances (and jobs) by supporting a third health-sciences research tower at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; a life sciences building at UMBC, and a behavioral and social sciences building at Morgan State University.

Constructing a $100 million bioengineering building at the University of Maryland, College Park would do the same thing in the Washington suburbs.

Spurring Economic Growth

A cash investment of roughly $300 million in these science-related structures would be a wise use of the surplus – no interest payments or principal payments in future years.

The economic-development potential tied to such research and education-related buildings could spur job growth in key industries for years to come.

Hogan is walking a tightrope in trying to trim state government’s size and expenses while simultaneously enhancing Maryland’s economic-growth prospects.

If he uses the state’s projected surplus strategically, he can achieve equilibrium that might achieve both goals.

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Education Politics

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 14, 2015 – He masks it well, but Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. plays a good game of partisan politics. Behind that smile and friendly voice is a fierce Republican eager to further the conservative cause.

Education is a prime example of Hogan’s conservative partisanship trumping over sound public policy.

First, he needlessly nixed $68 million in education aid to 14 high-cost subdivisions, basing his action on the false premise that this money was needed to bolster the state’s pension fund. (The money instead sat unused in the state treasury.)

He tossed a bunch of moderate non-partisans off the Baltimore County school board and named one replacement who is an outspoken social conservative with views on public education that are far from mainstream.

Then he announced a surprise gift of $5.6 million to three Republican-voting counties to help them with their loss of state funds due to shrinking enrollment.

That announcement was bogus, too.

No Done Deal

Hogan is talking as though he can write a check to the three counties – Carroll, Garrett and Kent. He can’t.

In reality, he’s only putting a request for this appropriation in his next budget, due in January. It will be up to the Democratic General Assembly to determine if Hogan’s “gift” to three of 24 school systems is warranted.

It’s highly unlikely Hogan’s maneuver to aid just the three Republican counties will be approved as submitted.

Moreover, this funding from Hogan is only a temporary, one-year sop to the three Republican counties. It does nothing to solve their long-range education budget woes caused by too many school buildings and a dwindling number of students.

But the governor got raves from some Republican politicians and angry parents in Carroll County, who have been waging a concerted effort to keep three schools open, despite the fact that flat migration and slowing birthrates has led to a 7 percent drop in school enrollment, with more losses expected over the next five years.

Education Politics

Declining enrollment in Carroll County schools poses dilemma.

Hogan’s aid plan merely kicks the proverbial can down the road – the very same tactic Candidate Hogan railed against when attacking the O’Malley-Brown administration during last year’s campaign.

Carroll’s Conundrum

Following lengthy studies and deliberations, Carroll’s school superintendent recommended closing three under-capacity schools next fall and possibly two more later. This would save at least $5.2 million. He wants to address $14 million in unmet needs within the school system caused by the county leadership’s refusal to raise more local tax dollars for education.

Hogan is pandering to a few of Carroll’s Republican legislators, who want the state to bail them out of this education dilemma of their own making. The cold, hard reality is that maintaining a quality school system is a costly proposition for local governments.

The option they sought to avoid: Closing no-longer-needed schools, which are expensive to maintain. Such a move is intensely unpopular with those that are affected – parents and their children.

But Carroll’s school board refused to take Hogan’s bait. Members recognized they were being offered fool’s gold. They understood this would only add to the anguish and costs.

A true conservative wouldn’t play this type of political game.

Instead, a true conservative would let the downsizing (or “right-sizing”) commence so the school system spends its limited dollars more wisely and efficiently.

Isn’t the conservative approach espoused by Hogan all about eliminating wasteful government spending?

Longer-range Perspective

Rather than taking a partisan, piecemeal and temporary approach to this problem, why not examine the need to make long-range changes in Maryland’s school-aid formula?

Schools with declining enrollments shouldn’t suffer such immediate and deep aid cuts. That’s a flaw in the state’s education formula. Garrett County, impoverished and isolated, is a prime example of how this portion of the formula unfairly harms jurisdictions most in need.

At the same time, other parts of the formula need fixing. Baltimore City is being penalized because its property wealth grew last year due to waterfront developments. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into more local money for schools.

There’s an even bigger question not being discussed.

With the state likely to show a huge surplus in January, isn’t it time to take a bipartisan look at possibly raising Maryland’s per-pupil spending as the state’s economy gains momentum?

A panel is studying changes in the school-aid formula, with its final report due next fall. Republicans need to open their minds to supporting a future increase in state funding if they truly want to help schools in Republican counties.

Partisanship won’t disappear, though. We can expect a major tug of war on this issue starting in January and extending through the next gubernatorial election.

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The ‘Trump Effect’ in Baltimore

 By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 16, 2015 – Let’s call it the “Trump Effect” or the “Trump-Carson Effect.” Either way, it’s come to Baltimore.

The 'Trump Effect' in Baltimore

Donald Trump in action

In the campaign for mayor of Charm City – a dubious honor these days – there’s a veritable stampede of unqualified “outsiders” running to become the most powerful elected insider.

They’re betting on the same public discontent that has rocketed an unqualified, mouthy billionaire developer, Donald Trump, and an unqualified retired pediatric neurosurgeon, Ben Carson, to the lead in early Republican presidential polls.

Here’s how Baltimore wannabes have gotten into the mayor’s race:

You leak to the media that you’re thinking of running for mayor, thus garnering flattering press coverage. Then you leak word that you’re going to hold an announcement event, gaining more uncritical attention. Finally, you hold a rah-rah, “yes, I’m running” media event where you promise that you have the key to ending all of Baltimore’s most troubling ills. More positive media spin.

Something is missing from this scenario, which has been followed by an ex-phone company engineer, a government lawyer and a venture capitalist in their mayoral campaign unveilings.

All of them are certain that their lack of strong political credentials makes them ideal for the city’s most powerful political job.

What’s lacking is realism.

No Details

Not one of them – Nick Mosby, Elizabeth Embry or David Warnock – comes close to describing what their administration would do to miraculously transform Baltimore from an impoverished, crime-infested and crumbling urban center.

Mosby, 36, at least has one term under his belt as a city councilman – time enough to barely get his feet wet in city government. He says he’ll fight for “a better Baltimore,” fight “against poverty, against illiteracy” and bring “world-class education” to town. He’s promising safer streets, less homelessness and an open government.

The big, unanswered question: How?

If it were easy, those things would have happened long ago.

Elizabeth Embry, 36, has white liberal support because of her well-known dad, Abell Foundation President Bob Embry. His daughter lacks elective experience. She does, though, promise to “hustle” and “work hard” as mayor.

Golly. That sounds like a pledge from kids running for class president. Can we have free ice cream on Fridays, too?

Elizabeth Embry proudly asserts she’s “not a politician” – echoes of Trump and Carson. (That attribute sure is going to help when she confronts real-life politicians.)

She says that thanks to her years as a government prosecutor she will “end the killings on our streets,” “dismantle pockets of poverty,” improve transportation and “rationalize taxes” – whatever that means.

Once again, we’re missing an answer to that vital question: How?

Warnock’s Entry

The same thing applies to Warnock’s entry into the race. The 57-year-old venture capitalist and philanthropist says he’ll attract new business and jobs to Baltimore and revive parts of the now-dead Red Line rapid-rail plan.

Pardon the skepticism, but here we go again: How?

Running government is pretty simple when you’re taking uninformed potshots and promising to deliver idealized results without bothering with the specifics.

It’s one thing to pick stocks, run a mutual fund and invest in companies. You’re not dealing with the nitty-gritty of keeping a poor, on-edge, tax-poor city on an even keel.

Once you have to run a $2 billion government with billions of unmet problems staring you in the face, it gets complicated in a hurry – even as people pound on your door demanding immediate results.

None of these candidates, although well-meaning, has a clue about what it takes to sit in the mayor’s chair. Not one has the experiential credentials to handle the next big crisis.

No Qualifications Necessary

But thanks to Trump and Carson, many voters today believe political qualifications aren’t necessary, that they are a detriment. Just make impossible claims of what you will do and, voila, voters line up to cheer.

Baltimore does have a trio of mayor candidates with solid political backgrounds. Yet they could find themselves overshadowed by the political newcomers who have captured the media’s fickle attention.

Sheila Dixon was a first-rate mayor till she appropriated for herself gift cards meant for the poor. She’s been mayor, City Council president and a council member – 22 years in elective office.

Carl Stokes has been in the City Council 22 years, chairs the budget committee, ran for mayor before and knows what should be fixed within city government.

Kathy Pugh has served in both the state legislature and the City Council – 10 years in Annapolis (currently majority leader) and five years on the City Council. She, too, understands what’s not working at City Hall.

Street Politicians

None of the three is a glamour candidate. These are nose-to-the-ground street politicians with decades of experience in helping citizens resolve problems with government.

Yet they could become the Jeb Bush and John Kasich of the mayor’s race – exceptionally well-qualified politicians lacking the social media buzz and new-face-on-the-scene novelty of a Trump or a Carson.

Baltimore is at a crossroads. It is a deeply troubled community with deeply ingrained societal problems. Turning control of City Hall over to a relative neophyte with barely an inkling of how to do the job would be a tragic mistake.

But it could happen. Baltimore would be worse off if it does.

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Transparent Political Ploy on Surplus

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 9, 2015 – When Democratic legislators announced last week that a huge budget surplus would make it possible for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to reverse his earlier decision to cut $68 million in school aid, it was the equivalent of beating a dead horse to death.

(That’s an idiom occasionally used by unlettered Maryland politicians.)

Transparent Political Ploy on Surplus

Asking a politician of the opposite party to recant his prior action is a waste of time and energy. It’s not going to happen.

Democrats are doing it only to gain propaganda points. “Look! See! Larry Hogan is such a meanie he won’t use surplus funds to educate our children!”

Instead of trying to embarrass the governor, Democrats should have suggested practical ways for Hogan to spend this money wisely. That, at least, would be within the realm of possibilities.

Big Bucks?

The surplus could top $700 million. That sounds like a lot of money but it is a one-time happening. It can’t support a major tax cut, or any other tax reduction – Hogan’s prime objective.

It would be a horrific mistake if Hogan sought tax relief based on a one-year surplus.

Maryland’s budget is precariously balanced. Another dip in the nation’s economy would send the state back into the red.

Sharply reducing taxes on the basis of one good fiscal year isn’t sound fiscal policy.

So how should the governor spend this extra cash?

Thoughtful Democrats and Republicans understand these one-time dollars are best used to pay for one-time spending projects – primarily purchases of badly needed equipment and construction projects.

Bonds, Bonds, Bonds

Maryland has a long-range financial crisis because the state overspent over the past 15 years by  issuing too many construction bonds. Under Governors Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley, the amount of new bonds issued each year jumped from $400 million to $1 billion.

Each of those bonds must be paid off, with interest, over 15 years. The compounding effect of issuing more and more bonds each year is staggering.

Two years from now, Maryland will max out its bonding capacity. Meanwhile, state taxpayers are spending in excess of $1.1 billion this fiscal year to pay the principal and interest on that growing mountain of bonds.

Hogan has a rare opportunity to make significant headway in turning around this out-of-control borrowing situation.

He might, for instance, use most of that surplus on a giant pay-as-you-go school construction program instead of issuing bonds. Thus, he’d be using only surplus dollars to fund Maryland’s school-building efforts.

And if he’s smart, he’d also use surplus dollars on another important school need: air-conditioning every single classroom in Maryland. It is shocking how many classrooms statewide lack even a window air-conditioner, not to mention central A/C.

Fewer IOUs

By using cash for these projects, Hogan would lower Maryland’s future bond obligations and the state’s future interest payments. A $400 million pay-go program for school buildings (including an A/C funding provision) would be a bold and sensible way to get a major fiscal problem under control.

Hogan also could use a portion of the state’s one-time surplus for other important construction activities.

He has the chance to set up a win-win situation at the old Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point by dedicating surplus dollars to bridge and interstate access improvements.

Those would be critical steps in jump-starting what could become Maryland’s largest and potentially most successful economic development initiative.

Additionally, the state’s current surplus could let Hogan set aside a substantial pot of funds to accelerate Baltimore’s vacant housing demolition program and help build safe, green neighborhoods in Maryland’s most troubled and largest city.

Democrats were foolish to try to politicize the announcement of a large state surplus. They sought to create conflict instead of an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual decision-making.

Hogan is right to ignore this transparent political ploy.

Instead, he should distribute those surplus dollars to one-time projects that are fiscally conservative and beneficial in the long run for Maryland.

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Hogan’s Curious Facebook Blasts

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 2, 2015 – Like every politician these days, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has a Facebook page. His political organization, Change Maryland, is on Facebook, too. The comments on the two blogs often are identical.Hogan's Curious Facebook Blasts

Hogan’s Facebook blogs tend to be powder-puff, good-news summaries of visits and actions by the governor. That is par for the course.

It’s pretty much what his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, put out on his Facebook page – at least until O’Malley started planning his run for president. Then his Facebook musings turned heavily partisan and highly politicized.

That doesn’t work as well, though.

Social networking websites are ideal for promoting ideas and policies, of telling the world about your successes and new programs and ideas. It’s perfect for promoting all the good deeds and heart-warming things you do every day.

Facebook isn’t the best vehicle for expressing anger and hurling cheap shots at your enemies.

Facebook Stories

Hogan has endeared himself to his supporters and even to his political opponents by his courageous fight against cancer and his willingness to use his illness to promote cancer awareness and sympathy for others with this dangerous disease. He has used his Facebook page to tell those stories.

Most of the other blogs are revised versions of press releases on Hogan initiatives and Hogan speaking appearances around the state.

But occasionally, Hogan’s Facebook writer gets carried away and turns the governor’s remarks venomous and stridently partisan.

Last week, the governor’s online comments went too far. His staff writer lied.

“Today, a small band of out-of-touch legislators have convened a ‘hearing’ in Annapolis to complain about our closing of the {Baltimore City] jail,” Hogan wrote on his page. “[I]t seems a few professional politicians in Annapolis want to try somehow to defend the indefensible failed status-quo.”

Hogan should disavow his staff writer’s statements. He knows they aren’t true. His Facebook “friends” deserve an apology.

The Facts

Fact: There was a hearing in Annapolis on Hogan’s decision to close the City Jail. Such a “hearing” is routine. It’s what legislators all over the country do.

Fact: There was no “small band of out-of-touch legislators.” Indeed, no one at the hearing made any “out-of-touch” comments. It was a status-updating session.

Fact: No one at the hearing complained about the jail closure. Legislators wanted to know how the closure was proceeding. Some lawmakers praised the governor’s action.

Fact: Not a soul at the hearing tried “to defend the indefensible failed status-quo.”

Hogan’s Facebook remarks were made up out of whole cloth. The blog was written before the hearing even commenced. It was a trumped-up display of partisanship designed to make Hogan’s foes look like fools.

Instead, Hogan’s staff writer made the governor look like the fool by criticizing something that never happened.

Misleading Message

Then the governor’s minions compounded this error with another strange and intentionally misleading post.

It stated the legislature had held a “partisan” hearing to “question” Hogan’s jail closure. Wrong on both counts.

It was an impartial, fact-finding session where Hogan’s prisons chief received plaudits for a job well done.

Then Hogan’s post mocked the Baltimore Sun for daring to write in an editorial that Hogan had tried to politicize the hearing with his Facebook comments.

The Sun’s assessment, though, was on the mark.

The fact that Hogan’s Facebook staff writer didn’t like that his boss had been caught trying to turn a routine legislative hearing into a political ambush (which it was not) makes Hogan sound petty, parochial and a bit paranoid.

What Hogan’s minions did in his name on his Facebook page should embarrass the governor.

It gives ammunition to his enemies and needlessly antagonizes legislators he will need on his side when the General Assembly convenes in January.

In His Own Words

Even worse, these errant Facebook diatribes run contrary to Hogan’s own words.

Here’s what the governor wrote on his Change Maryland page and reproduced on his Facebook page on October 26:

“Too often we see wedge politics and petty rhetoric used to belittle our adversaries and inflame partisan divisions.

“It is only when the partisan shouting stops that we can hear each other’s voices and concerns.

“I am prepared to create an environment of trust and cooperation. . .”

“Wedge politics,” “petty rhetoric,” “belittle our adversaries,” inflaming “partisan divisions.” That describes Hogan’s Facebook blasts. There’s no hint of “trust and cooperation.”

What to Do

If Hogan is serious in what he wrote for Change Maryland, if he wants to bridge the political divide in Maryland and solve problems based on mutual respect, he’s got to clamp down on his Facebook staff writers, who seem eager to light fires, divide and exploit the politics of nastiness.

As governor, it is his obligation to follow his own written words and stop the partisan shouting.

Hogan has a choice: Stick to the facts and try to overcome Maryland’s political divisions through good will and honest dialogue, or snarl sarcastically at the opposition and fabricate events and intentions.

He can’t have it both ways.

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Hogan’s Hopes for Bus Transit

By Barry Rascovar

October 26, 2015 – Let’s take Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., at his word: He sincerely wants to make Baltimore’s inadequate bus transportation system better.

He’s come up with a plan to achieve that goal, too.

Hogan's Hopes for Bus Transit

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., and a mock-up of a CityLink bus he wants to bring to Baltimore.

The odds, though, are stacked against him.

He’s given himself an unrealistically short time frame (June, 2017) to totally revamp Baltimore’s complex bus network.

He’s underestimated the cost ($135 million) of pulling off such a massive turnaround.

He’s got no support from key elected local executives.

Is It Possible?

Much of what he calls for in his plan may not be feasible or sensible. It also might make traffic gridlock worse rather than better.

He ignores the past sensitivity of Baltimore’s bus riders to major route changes. Resistance to his plan could be strenuous among those who are inconvenienced or will lose access to existing jobs via bus routes being eliminated.

If, indeed, Hogan intends to shrink Baltimore’s bus system to a dozen color-coded routes, his approach could well be “transformative” in shrinking the state’s operating costs. It might make the system less accessible for Baltimoreans, too.

We may not get a good handle on the viability and pros and cons of Hogan’s bus initiative until the state Department of Legislative Services gives the plan a thorough analysis early next year.

Going Negative

As is his pattern, Hogan in his announcement excoriated Baltimore’s current transit system in sweeping, negative language. He once again pilloried the rail transit Red Line he killed earlier this year with hot rhetoric that bears little relationship to the facts.

Once again, he portrayed his Republican administration riding to the rescue of a mismanaged Democratic city with “transformative” changes.

This time, though, Hogan has got to deliver a vastly improved bus system. Executing his plan may not be as easy as he made it appear in his announcement.

Exactly how will Hogan pull off this transformation without cooperation from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake over the next 13 months? The two are barely civil and don’t see eye to eye on Baltimore’s people-mover needs.

Exactly which north-south and east-west roads does Hogan intend to use for his dedicated, separated bus-only lanes? There are no good options, especially downtown.

Such a move would squeeze existing traffic into fewer lanes, making rush hours more of a daily nightmare. Besides, Hogan needs the city to bless such an undertaking, which doesn’t seem likely given the uproar and traffic mess that could result.

Changing Signals

Exactly how is Hogan going to implement computerized bus signalization to turn red lights green on his 12 new, color-coded bus routes?

Every light change commanded by a bus driver will exacerbate traffic tie-ups on the cross street. What happens when buses going north-south and east-west hit the same downtown intersection at the same time in rush hour?

There’s a serious question whether Hogan’s signal-change idea will even do much to cut travel times. It sounds good on paper but in practice it doesn’t work well. The state and city have been trying to do this along the light-rail route on Howard Street for several decades with minimal success.

Hogan will get little opposition and some cheers for other parts of his plan, such as moving bus routes closer to suburban job centers; extending light-rail hours on Sunday; putting more focus on “last mile” problems for urban dwellers trying to reach their jobs in the suburbs; creating multi-modal transit hubs, and giving some financial support to Baltimore’s popular, free Charm City Circulator.

It’s now up to Hogan to make his bus plan reality.

Given the last Republican governor’s muddled attempt to markedly improve Baltimore bus service, there’s considerable room for skepticism that Hogan can pull it off.

Here’s hoping he succeeds. The city needs something to go right for a change.

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