Category Archives: Maryland General Assembly

2018 MD Assembly: All Politics, All the Time

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2018–Just in case there was any doubt the next 90 days in the Annapolis State House will focus like a laser on political opportunism, Gov. Larry Hogan tossed a Molotov cocktail into the air yesterday aimed at embarrassing Democrats.

Using Baltimore City’s weather-related school closings (extreme cold, bursting pipes, failing heating systems) as a foil, Hogan lashed out in a less than polite way at what he called a “horrendous crisis,” calling for the appointment of a state inspector general to police schools throughout Maryland — with subpoena power — looking for corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.

2018 Assembly Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

While you can debate the merits of a powerful state investigator sticking his nose into the operations of every single school system in search of wasteful spending, wrongdoing and poor judgment, keep in mind that Hogan’s theatrics are purely political: His suggestion doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in you-know-where when it is presented to the Democratic legislature. It will be dead on arrival.

And the governor knows it.

It’s a prime illustration of how the Maryland General Assembly session that starts Wednesday will be all about politics, all the time.

There’s no way House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller will allow Hogan a “win” during the 90-day session. It’s all about politics from their perspective, too. Anything these Democrats can do to put roadblocks in Republican Hogan’s re-election path is a victory in their eyes.

2018 General Assembly Session

Senate President Mike Miller

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

All Hogan really has is a bully pulpit to castigate Democrats in the party’s strongholds — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

He’s likely to continue his harsh rhetoric aimed at the struggling city in the months ahead.

It is raw meat for his devoted conservative followers. He might even gain some support from African-Americans by posing as the “savior” of their failing schools — even though he hasn’t lifted a finger to help solve this deeply entrenched problem.

Clash of the Politicians

Republican Hogan and legislative Democrats will clash on multiple fronts this session with political factors serving as the guiding light for both sides.

First up? Hogan’s veto last year of the Democrats’ paid sick-leave bill. The governor’s alternative plan may not even make it to a hearing, since a veto-override by both houses could happen almost immediately.

Call it a warning shot across the governor’s ship of state.

Some of Hogan’s appointments may find it rough sledding through the confirmation process, especially State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby of Worcester County, whom Hogan named to the Circuit Court late last month despite warnings the Legislative Black Caucus would vigorously oppose such an appointment.

Republican Oglesby was accused four years ago of using racially insensitive language and creating a racially hostile work environment. He’s involved in a related federal lawsuit, too.

Advice to Ogelsby: In this politically charged atmosphere, don’t quit your day job.

Tax-Code Politics

Wherever you look in the State House, politics is the word of the day.

For instance, sorting out the impact of massive federal changes in the income-tax code took on a political coloration when Hogan leapt at the chance to get on the good side of taxpayers by announcing he’ll do everything in his power to make sure no one in Maryland pays more state taxes as a result of those changes made by his fellow Republicans in Washington.

He said Democrats should jump on board his no-new-taxes bandwagon without hesitating.

If only it were that simple.

Tax reform, as enacted by Congress, is a highly complex issue, fraught with implications for state and local governments. Rushing to offset the federal tax changes that hurt Maryland filers won’t be easy and shouldn’t be done on a whim.

At the same time, Democrats see an opportunity in Washington’s tax changes to fund some of their top priorities, such as the Children’s Health Initiative Program (CHIP), countering the Trump administration’s steps to curtail Obamacare, providing more aid for public schools and finding more money to fight the crime and opioid epidemics.

Hogan’s view and the Democrats’ view on the Republican tax-cut law are starkly different. They may not find common ground during the next 90 days. Indeed, clarity about the tax-code changes and their impact in Maryland may not be apparent until later in 2018.

A special session in an election year is highly unusual, but it may become necessary.

Gerrymandering Stand-off

Hogan and the Democrats also will squabble over redistricting, with the governor putting in a DOA bill that sets up a non-partisan commission. This is a continuation of his efforts to give Republicans a boost during redistricting and to get on the right side of voters on this matter.

Lawmakers in the majority will try to embarrass the governor by passing gun-control legislation, such as a ban on bump stocks similar to the ones used in the Las Vegas massacre. That would force the governor to veto the bill — and antagonize moderate voters he needs for reelection — or sign the bill — and enflame his conservative backers he also needs to gain a second term.

Each side will try to out-maneuver the other. Substance will take a back seat to gaining political advantage in ways that could influence the outcome in November.

So get ready for lots of name-calling and hyper-partisan rhetoric in the coming months. Agreement on solving Maryland’s most pressing problems will have to wait until 2019.

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Neall’s Obamacare Challenge

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 3, 2018 — First, the good news: Gov. Larry Hogan has named a new health secretary who not only knows what he’s doing health-care wise but also is an experienced “Mr. Fixit” when it comes to devising solutions to knotty problems.

Now the bad news: Bobby Neall has a king-sized dilemma staring him in the face as he steps into his Baltimore office suite on Jan. 9: The perilous steps taken by Republicans in Washington to subvert and eventually kill the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Robert R. Neall, the governor’s new health secretary.

Over 150,000 Marylanders signed up for Obamacare insurance coverage in the recently closed enrollment period, even though premiums are skyrocketing.

According to Chet Burrell, president/CEO of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, without rapid response from State House leaders “we believe the individual market segment” of Obamacare  “will catastrophically fail in the next 12 to 24 months leaving tens of thousands of individuals without affordable coverage options.”

Given that CareFirst is far and away the dominant insurer in Maryland’s individual market, that’s an alarming prediction but one many health care economists have been warning about.

Here’s the immediate problem: President Trump and congressional Republicans tacked onto their giant tax-cut law a provision that eliminates from Obamacare the mandate that every adult have health insurance or pay a penalty at tax time.

Thanks to Trump & friends, there no longer is any punishment if adults want to go without health-care coverage.

‘Death Spiral’

This move “constitutes a direct threat” to Maryland’s individual market, Burrell says in a letter, “because it will almost certainly accelerate a ‘death spiral’ already underway in this market segment by spurring younger and healthier people to exit the market — leaving too high a concentration of those who are ill to make premiums affordable to all.”

Since 2014, CareFirst has jacked up Obamacare premiums 150 percent — “horrific increases” Burrell calls them — yet the insurer lost over $400 million insuring people in this market.

He says his company expects to lose as much as $100 million more over the next year and could be forced to raise rates another 50 percent in 2019.

At that point, he notes, health-care coverage for this group — whose incomes are not quite low enough to qualify for government subsidies — could become unaffordable, both for individuals and for insurers.

Burrell suggests it is time for Annapolis to devise “sound public policy” that helps provide insurance for “a population that undeniably needs coverage.”

Enter, Bobby Neall.

He’s got years of experience running the state’s largest managed-care organization for Medicaid recipients. In short order, he turned a money-losing operation into a profitable business for Johns Hopkins Health Care while also increasing quality indicators. He’s exceptionally well-liked and respected by state legislators, too.

Yet there’s not much time to come up with a brand-new state insurance program. In four months, health-care insurers must submit their rates for 2019. Time is the enemy.

Burrell’s Proposal

Fortunately Burrell has put a plan on the table that might be controversial with his fellow insurance executives but points to a way out of this bind.

Here’s what he suggests:

  • Simplify Maryland’s public insurance option by offering just one plan with a $1,000 deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,500.
  • Create a state health-care fund to re-insure individuals with high medical costs and for people needing premium subsidies.
  • Impose a 3 percent fee on insurers who do business in Maryland but fail to participate in the ACA market (at the moment only CareFirst and Kaiser offer such policies).
  • Pass a law mandating that every adult in Maryland obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty that goes into the state health-care fund.
  • Base future premium subsidies on age and income so that younger adults are eligible for attractive insurance rates.

CareFirst analysts believe these steps could lower premiums up to 40 percent, cut out-of-pocket expenses for most individuals and draw many more younger, healthier Marylanders into the program.

That would be a win-win-win.

This plan may not check all the boxes. It may draw considerable opposition. But it gives the new health secretary a concrete starting point and knowledge that the state’s largest insurer stands behind the plan.

Prompt Action Required

Burrell points out, though, that his proposal requires a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and General Assembly action. Lots of actuarial and economic analysis must be submitted and lots of discussions must take place to hammer out a consensus in Annapolis in short order.

From the governor’s perspective, finding an answer is a political imperative. Hogan cannot afford to be saddled with the charge he failed to help middle-income Marylanders keep their health insurance coverage.

The last thing he wants is to face that charge in the midst of his re-election campaign. It’s a potential issue that could anger and energize interest groups favoring broad health-care coverage.

Burrell is offering a public-private solution, which should appeal to the governor — not a state handout.

There’s much to like in his plan. But Health Secretary Neall knows only too well the proverbial devil lies in the details.

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Hogan vs. the Legislature: A Constitutional Clash

By Barry Rascovar

On the surface, it seems much ado about nothing – an esoteric argument most folks can safely ignore. But the dispute over whether two state Cabinet appointees can legally remain in office without Senate confirmation raises an important constitutional question that cries out for judicial resolution.

Gov. Larry Hogan precipitated this divide with some unorthodox moves that appear aimed at stripping power from the General Assembly and enlarging his ability to ignore actions of the state legislature when it comes to appointments subject to Senate confirmation.

Following hearings earlier this year, two of Hogan’s Cabinet nominees raised alarms for lawmakers. That is precisely the way the “advise and consent” section of the state Constitution is supposed to work. It’s one of the defensive mechanisms James Madison and Alexander Hamilton inserted into the federal Constitution – and embraced by most states – to place a brake on the chief executive’s power.

It provides a chance for legislators to interview Cabinet nominees, question them on the issues and pass judgment on their readiness to serve in important, decision-making state jobs.

If the appointees are found lacking, the Senate can vote down the appointments. That’s how American government works. Each branch plays a role that is independent yet interdependent. Both the chief executive and the legislative branch must give the OK.

But what happens when the governor doesn’t want to share power, when the chief executive thumbs his nose at the legislative branch?

That’s the situation Hogan and lawmakers are facing.

Schrader and Peters

Hogan’s choice for health secretary, Dennis Schrader, has good management credentials, a government background and good political contacts but no professional medical or academic health care credentials.

Constitutional Crisis

Interim Health Chief Dennis Schrader

Lawmakers on the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, after hearing from Schrader, became alarmed and delayed a vote on his confirmation. Then Hogan, surprisingly, withdrew Schrader’s nomination – even though he had assurance from the Senate president that the full Senate would eventually assent to Schrader’s appointment.

Senators had even more concerns about Hogan’s Cabinet appointment as Planning Secretary, Wendi Peters. She lacks any professional planning credentials. She worked as a paralegal and served as a Republican on the Mount Airy Town Council before losing a race for House of Delegates in 2014.

Legislators heard horror stories about Peters terrorizing Planning Department workers, firing them for little cause and creating an oppressive work environment.

That led the Senate committee to reject her nomination. But before the full Senate could finalize that move, Hogan withdrew Peters’ nomination, too.

Once legislators adjourned in April, though, Hogan re-appointed both to their jobs on an interim basis, sticking a thumb in the eyes of lawmakers.

Legislative counter-move

Assembly leaders anticipated Hogan’s move. They’ve seen how he insists on having it his way. So they inserted language in the state budget that bars Peters and Schrader from being paid after July 1 because they lack confirmation by the Senate committee.

Constitutional Crisis in MD

Interim Planning Secretary Wendi Peters

The state attorney general issued a legal opinion noting that Hogan has every right to reappoint the two Cabinet officials but the General Assembly has the right to cut off their pay checks because the two failed to gain Senate confirmation.

(Hogan’s office made the astounding statement that the elected attorney general’s opinion doesn’t count for a hill of bean but Hogan’s own, unelected staff counsel’s determination should be the last word.)

Then Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has continually shown an eagerness to side with Republican Hogan, did so again, announcing he would pay Peters and Schrader.

But the key signature on those paychecks isn’t Franchot’s but state Treasurer Nancy Kopp’s.

She read Attorney General Brian Frosh’s legal opinion. Frosh’s office is, after all, the constitutional authority for all state government agencies. As a spokeswoman for Kopp put it, “Her attorney is the attorney general” – not Hogan’s staff lawyer.

Kopp’s conclusion: She has no choice but to follow the guidance laid down by the attorney general and abide by the language added to the state budget. Thus, Schrader and Peters will not be paid until this disagreement is resolved.

Shaky Power-sharing

Since his election as governor, Hogan has inveighed against sharing power with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. This is another example of his unwillingness to accept the limitations  laid down in the state constitution that make the two branches co-equal parts of Maryland state government.

Other governors, when faced with rejection of an executive department nominee would have moved on, recognizing that’s the right of the state senate. There are plenty of other positions Peters and Schrader could fill in Hogan’s expansive jobs orbit.

More important, there are plenty of better suited individuals who could ably fill those Cabinet slots, individuals that agree with the governor’s conservative views but are acceptable to Democratic leaders in the General Assembly.

That’s how governance is supposed to work in Maryland – and how it has worked in the past. Unfortunately, Hogan is looking for a fight rather than consensus.

This war of words could persist into the future if Hogan wants to it drag out, reappointing Peters and Schrader, then withdrawing their nominations before the full Senate votes to reject them, then re-appointing the two once next year’s session ends.

It would make a mockery of the “advise and consent” section of the Maryland Constitution. It would send a signal Hogan isn’t willing to share power.

That’s one of the reasons Hogan must take the matter to the Maryland Court of Appeals. When two co-equal branches of Maryland government disagree this strongly on the constitutional powers of the other branch, the third branch, the judiciary, is there to interpret the law and render a definitive answer.

Failure to seek a judicial decision on this constitutional issue would be playing politics instead of seeking a final judgment as to which side is right.

It’s time for Hogan to tell his minions to stop with the name-calling and angry allegations of unethical behavior and instead order his legal counsel to take the matter to court. It would be good for both feuding branches of state government. ##

 

Sen. Kasemeyer Responds

This missive arrived the other day from Sen. Ed Kasemeyer of Howard County, chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee — a defense of his entire committee and his own role in the budget process.

Kasemeyer’s low-key approach to legislating — first in the Maryland House of Delegates and now in the Maryland Senate — rarely grabs the headlines. It is a refreshing reminder of how lawmakers can work effectively but quietly, with fewer partisan and parochial conflicts.

He chairs one of the hardest-working committees, given the unenviable task of cutting budget allocations rather than adding to them.

Sen. Kasemeyer Responds

Howard County Sen. Ed Kasemeyer

Here is Kasemeyer’s email:

“I was reading one of your articles in [MarylandReporter.com] dated 4/16/17 regarding the Maryland budget and the out-year predictions.

“I realize that most of the people who follow the legislature are constantly praising Sen. [Rich] Madaleno — and I totally agree that he is incredibly competent and intelligent.

“However, your comment about [Gov. Larry] Hogan, [Del.] Maggie McIntosh, and Sen. Madaleno working together to put the budget together is an insult to my committee and me.

“I met with Del. McIntosh from early in the session to deal with Baltimore City’s issues so that she knew we (the Senate) would be totally supportive. I think if you asked any of my members they would tell you I am firmly in control.

“As a progressive leader I am supportive of my members and try to put them in situations where they will shine (including Rich). Sometimes I wonder if you all know what is really going on.”

Ed Kasemeyer

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Maryland’s Balanced Budget – For Now

By Barry Rascovar

April 17, 2017 – Another Maryland General Assembly session has come and gone with Gov. Larry Hogan proclaiming victory and legislative leaders breathing a positive sigh of relief.

There were no big wins for Hogan but no shocking defeats, either. His ideologically driven, conservative agenda may sell well with die-hard Hogan backers but it was a non-starter with Democratic lawmakers.

His most solid step forward?

A compromise bill giving manufacturers tax breaks, especially if they provide workers with new job skills (that’s the part Democrats insisted on). It’s not a huge benefit for those companies but it is another incentive that could help persuade manufacturers to move to the Free State.

His biggest defeat?

A set of restrictions imposed on the Hogan-selected state school board, which had its hands tied by Democratic lawmakers to prevent state intrusions into local school board autonomy on figuring out how to turn around failing schools.

Constitutional Mandate

Still, the most important issue of every General Assembly session revolves around dollars and cents.

Passing a balanced budget is the only constitutional requirement both the governor and legislature must achieve every year.Maryland's Balanced Budget--For Now

This time, they cobbled together a fiscal blueprint that avoids deep spending cuts while expanding state aid and services in targeted areas.

The outcome is a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 that grows only 1.2%, to $43.6 billion.

The general fund budget essentially remains level. The state workforce holds at 80,000 (no pay raises or longevity increases).

That is a tribute to Hogan’s ability to hold down spending without taking a Trumpian axe to state government and local aid.

That’s the good news.

Dark Days Ahead?

The bad news: Those ominous storm clouds coming from the nation’s capital – potentially massive federal job losses, large cuts in healthcare, medical research and local aid.

This could give Hogan an Excedrin-sized headache he doesn’t need as he approaches an election year.

There’s an additional problem, too.

The respected Department of Legislative Services (DLS) predicts that over the next five years, Maryland’s revenue will grow 3.5% annually – versus a 5.4% rise in state spending.

That yawning gap was partially closed in the just-passed budget, eliminating 88 percent of the state’s structural budget gap.

The trouble is that this budget magic was achieved by stripping out money from the state’s Rainy Day reserve fund and moving other money around –$202 million worth of “fund transfers.” Another $185 million was saved through budget cuts by the legislature.

Thus, Hogan, Del. Maggie McIntosh and Sen. Rich Madaleno, among others, worked together in the budget process and balanced the state’s books with $91 million to spare.

Tepid Economy

Yet DLS predicts the budget gap will reach $716 million next year, $1 billion in two years and a staggering $1.5 billion by FY 2022.

Why?

“. . .a combination of tepid revenue growth, fueled by a lackluster economy, and growth in mandated spending and entitlements.”

DLS concludes “the Administration will need to take action to address a shortfall in excess of $700 million in Fiscal Year 2019.”

It adds, “The magnitude of the projected shortfalls suggests that discussion will need to focus not only on what services are provided by the State but also the fundamental revenue structure currently in place.”

That’s a polite way of announcing tax INCREASES could be back on the table, whether Hogan likes it or not.

This is especially true if the dire forecasts of historic Trump budget cuts become reality.

Closing a $700 million fiscal gap next year in Annapolis exclusively through spending reductions would be extraordinary – and painful. If Trump multiplies that deficit through massive federal budget cuts and layoffs of Maryland residents, the state could face a financial crisis.

For now, though, the state’s revenue and spending plan for the next fiscal year is in good shape.

But things could change in a hurry between now and year’s end as Trump and the Republican Congress get serious about slashing federal programs, positions and aid to local counties and states.

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MD General Assembly muscles up at Hogan’s expense

By Barry Rascovar

March 10, 2017 – When the clock strikes 12 tonight, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan will breathe a huge sigh of relief. With luck, the Maryland General Assembly – which has been increasingly aggressive in opposing the Republican chief executive – won’t return to Annapolis until next January.

There have been few reasons for Hogan to take comfort in his dealings with the state legislature this year – or indeed for the two earlier 90-day sessions.

Hogan and President Trump want to run things the way they did as private-sector real estate CEOs. Working cooperatively with a large, diverse and divisive legislature isn’t in their DNA. Nor is give-and-take compromise.

Yet that’s the very nature of the legislative branch, where no one ever gets 100 percent of what he or she wants.Md General Assembly gains power at Hogan's expenseLawmakers come to realize they must settle for a half-step forward or a partial victory while the opposition gains concessions that make tolerable what, in their eyes, could have been a truly bad law.

That sort of meeting of the minds hasn’t happened all that often during Hogan’s time in the governor’s mansion.

Going Nowhere on Bills

In many respects, 2017’s legislative session was the most miserable for Hogan. His No.1 objective – eliminating a paper-tiger of a law requiring transparency in ranking transportation projects – went nowhere.

He pilloried the Democrats’ “Protect Our Schools Act” designed to prevent state school board conservatives appointed by Hogan from stripping local school systems of autonomy to deal with underperforming schools.

The result? A humiliating defeat as the bill passed by large margins. The governor then vetoed the measure – as promised – only to see Democrats easily override the veto.

Hogan harshly assailed Attorney Genera Brian Frosh’s bill to expand his powers and allow Frosh to sue the Trump administration without first gaining the governor’s consent. That’s a huge increase in Frosh’s clout at Hogan’s expense.

Lawmakers also stripped Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot of their authority to dole out school construction funds in the humiliating “begathon” sessions imposed on school superintendents. The duo had withheld millions from Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools a year ago and that helped precipitate this session’s payback.

Hogan as Trump

In lawmakers’ eyes, Hogan came to symbolize President Trump, even though the two Republicans disagree more often than not.

Legislators approved language that would use state dollars to replace any federal funds taken from Planned Parenthood by Republicans in Washington. Maryland Public Television received the same assurances from Democratic lawmakers.

There were some areas of agreement in the State House, though.

Hogan and lawmakers worked together on a bill to stem opioid overdoses through treatment and prevention.

They found middle ground on a partial relief measure to help Baltimore City schools dig out of their deficit by tying this aid to school funds for Republican-voting counties with a similar lower-enrollment problem.

Broadsides and Animosity

Hogan did a convenient flip-flop on banning hydraulic fracturing in drilling for oil and gas in Maryland to assuage environmentalists – a meaningless action since no such drilling takes place in Maryland or is likely any time soon.

But the governor kept hammering away at Democrats in the General Assembly with broadsides that only deepened the animus.

He was especially harsh of lawmakers indicted for a string of alleged wrongdoing, from campaign finance violations to local liquor board shenanigans to shady actions tied to the award of medical marijuana licenses to a payoff scam in return for promising passage of special legislation.

Yet when the legislature finally agreed on tougher ethics laws, Hogan was full of praise, though the result came nowhere near achieving what the governor had demanded.

Hogan did a good job working out differences on the state budget – largely because he proposed little that was new or controversial. He deserves credit for keeping a tight lid on spending as Maryland approaches a time of enormous economic uncertainty.

Unmet Needs

One thing the governor failed to do was formulate a comprehensive relief plan for beleaguered Baltimore City. Two years after the Freddie Gray riots, scant progress has been made. Hogan has been conspicuously absent.

He also has yet to take steps to prepare the state for what appear to be massive federal spending cuts that could cost Maryland and Virginia tens of thousands of jobs and create an enormous economic ripple effect.

So as legislators finish their chores and head for home, they can look back on a session in which they reversed roles with the governor. Lawmakers were the pro-active initiators of actions, not the chief executive, who became a reactive and largely ineffective objector.

It was not Larry Hogan’s best 90 days of work. That may be because his main focus continues to be winning a second term next year – not working out public policy deals with lawmakers.

For the rest of 2017, he’s likely to have Annapolis and state government all to himself.

That’s the way he likes it, especially as he moves into campaign mode to ease his way into another four-year stay in Maryland’s top elective office.

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

 

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

By Barry Rascovar

April 3, 2017–When it comes to dealing with the Maryland General Assembly, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan could well be called “Mr. Irrelevant.”

He’s threatening to veto a batch of bills recently enacted by Democrats in the state legislature – yet he lacks the votes to support his negative actions.

It amounts to more venting of angry “sound and fury” by the highly partisan governor that gets him nowhere.

He still insists on playing “Mr. Nasty” when he goes on conservative talk shows or holds a staged media event, denouncing Democratic lawmakers and their proposals in harsh terms as though their proposals will bring down the wrath of a furious GOP deity on Maryland citizens.

He demands that Democrats abandon their ideological beliefs and join Hogan’s Heroes in marching lockstep behind his decidedly conservative agenda.

A Week of Vetoes

This State House drama is nearing a climax in what could be called “veto week.” Democrats rushed through a number of bills Hogan could well reject – but there’s still time in the General Assembly session for near-certain veto-override votes.

The biggest Hogan hissy fit is likely to surround the “Protect Our Schools Act of 2017,” a Democratic measure that more accurately could be called “Protect Our State from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.”

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

MD Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Education Secretry Betsy DeVos meet with children at a Bethesda elementary school.

The bill stems from fear that Hogan wants to impose a Republican education agenda on local school systems – dozens of charter schools, lots and lots of vouchers for kids to opt out of public schools, more aid to religious schools, private companies running under-performing schools and a state takeover of the worst-performing schools.

Democratic legislators fear the new U.S. Department of Education secretary will move heaven and earth to eliminate public schools and replace them with charter, religious and privatized schools. That’s what DeVos – who married into the billionaire family that founded and runs Amway – has loudly advocated for years.

It’s pretty much what Trump trumpeted on the presidential campaign trail last year, too.

And it’s awfully close to what Hogan has been seeking as his way to “improve” education in Maryland.

He tried to get a bill passed this session creating a special board with the power to authorize charter schools at the drop of a hat and without local school board approval. Private schooling is Hogan’s panacea for improving education achievement.

Sounding the Alarm

No wonder Democrats in Annapolis are alarmed. They aren’t going to let Hogan undercut public education systems in Maryland’s 24 subdivisions, which is what privatization, charter schools and a wide-spread voucher system could do.

Hogan falsely claims the Democrats’ bill he plans to veto will cost Maryland $250 million in federal funds under an improvement plan the state must submit to Washington.

But he intentionally ignores the fact that the new Republican president has essentially gutted that required improvement plan put in place by the Obama administration.

What Hogan has pledged to veto is a defensive bill Democrats urgently want on the books to block the Hogan-DeVos-Trump triumvirate from directly imposing their will on failing schools or creating – without local approval – charter schools and vast voucher systems.

The Baltimore Sun’s editorial page rightly pointed out that the legislature is stepping too forcefully into education matters better left to the state education board. The state board has complained, too, about legislative overreach.

Yet given the fact that the Republican governor is slowly converting that board into a conservative panel that could well embrace the Hogan-DeVos-Trump education agenda, the restrictions spelled out in the Democrats’ bill are quite understandable.

Reelection Takes Priority

None of this needed to happen.

Had Hogan opted to make love not war with Democratic legislators, Maryland could be making greater headway on classroom achievement – including agreements on permitting more charter schools in the state.

But Larry Hogan is first and foremost a political survivalist who appears most interested in his reelection, not in finding compromises on sensible bills that improve life in Maryland.

The result is a preventive measure drafted by alarmed and worried Democrats that almost certainly will go on the books. Hogan could have avoided this confrontation, but unlike General Electric, progress is not his most important product – politics is.

He’ll continue to denounce and demonize Democrats alleging that Maryland will lose federal school funds. He’ll continue to ream out Democrats for “outrageous and irresponsible” actions that he asserts are blocking his education reforms.

It’s all designed to construct a reelection campaign story in which the poor, underappreciated underdog governor, a man trying to do the right thing, finds himself once again under attack from mean, corrupt, unethical Democrats in Annapolis.

Meanwhile, the exceedingly difficult task of finding ways to improve learning in Maryland’s public schools gets shuttled to the sidelines. Politics, not policy, must come first. ###

Morhaim’s Moment of Shame

By Barry Rascovar

March 6, 2017—It had to be one of the most painful and humiliating moments of Dan Morhaim’s life.

Last Friday he sat in the House of Delegates chamber as his colleagues voted 138-0 to reprimand him for not informing them and a state commission he had a conflict of interest on medical marijuana issues.

Morhaim's Moment of Shame

Maryland House of Delegate in State House chambers

All the while he was offering reams of advice and guidance to the very commission setting up rules for awarding those lucrative state licenses.

He broke no laws but he stepped far over the ethics line for elected legislators.

While Morhaim continues to insist “I did nothing wrong,” his colleagues unanimously disagreed.

Panel’s Findings

As the legislature’s joint ethics committee wrote in its report, Morhaim’s “belief that he could keep his role as a legislator, advocating for the implementation of policy and regulations for the use of medical cannabis, separate from his position as a paid consultant for a company seeking to enter the medical cannabis business reflects poor judgment to the detriment of the broader interests of the public. . .”

Further, the panel concluded Morhaim’s less than forthright actions “eroded the confidence and trust of the public and other governmental officials who work with legislators, bringing disrepute and dishonor to the General Assembly.”

The panel not only recommended a public reprimand but asked Morhaim to consider making a public apology. He did so in writing but declined to speak on the House floor.

He had not violated disclosure laws, Morhaim wrote. Nor had it been his “intent” to use his elective office for monetary gain. His sin, he explained, was that “I failed to appreciate the public perception of these issues.”

It was not much of an apology. A day earlier he had issued a three-page defense, blaming the media for “erroneous” reports of his activities. He later called the whole thing a “circus” in which his actions had been badly distorted.

Placing the onus on others for his predicament may salve Morhaim’s ego but it won’t sit well with elected leaders or with the public.

Who’s to Blame?

After reading the 17-page committee report, it is clear only Morhaim is at fault for what went wrong. It cost him his credibility, his subcommittee chairmanship and his leadership post in Annapolis.

Morhaim's Shame

Del. Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County

He agreed to have no future communications with the medical marijuana commission or its staff and to exclude himself from legislative activities regarding cannabis.

That’s a big concession from a politician who fought relentlessly and passionately for over a decade to bring medical cannabis to Maryland.

He also is giving up his financial arrangement with the medical marijuana company, Doctors Orders, a compensation deal the joint ethics committee called “substantial.”

Some legislators and ethics groups denounced the punishment as insufficient. Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., in his haste to throw dirt on Democrats totally mischaracterized Morhaim’s actions, refused to acknowledge he had gotten the facts wrong and then called for Morhaim’s removal from office.

The governor used the Morhaim case to trumpet his call for tougher ethics laws and for placing enforcement under an executive office agency.

While it is obvious language in the ethics statute needs greater clarity, turning adjudication over to the executive branch could be unconstitutional and certainly is impractical.

Public shaming, such as Morhaim’s reprimand, has proved an effective tool for disciplining wayward public officials since biblical times. It’s the General Assembly’s responsibility to police conduct of its members, just as is true for the U.S. Congress.

Ultimately, though, it is up to voters to determine the fate of lawmakers who stray over the line of acceptable conduct.

Re-election Challenge

That is where Morhaim’s toughest battle may lie.

When campaigning begins next year in his northwest Baltimore County district, the physician-delegate will face constant questions and criticism. He could confront significant challengers harping loudly on his reprimand and denouncing his lack of responsible ethical judgment.

It’s an unfortunate turn of events for Morhaim. In his 23 years as a state delegate, he had developed into a standout lawmaker. His medical expertise as an emergency-room physician prove invaluable to his colleagues as they grappled with complex and often technical health-care issues. He has been a leader in much-needed procurement reform efforts in state government, too.

While public shaming is tough for any politician to swallow, Morhaim remains in a position to rehabilitate his badly damaged reputation.

How?

Put his grudges and hurt feelings aside, focus on using his knowledge and experience to help enact solid, progressive legislation and never again be tempted to abandon a strict standard of ethical conduct.

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To Frack or Not to Frack?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 27, 2016–With apologies to W. Shakespeare, the continuing battle over gas exploration in Maryland’s far-western Garrett County reads like this:

“To frack or not to frack, that is the question.

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer environmentalists’ slings and arrows of an outrageous drilling ban or take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing them, let the state moratorium lapse, crack open Marcellus shale and unleash the fortunes flowing from natural gas.”

It’s a furious dispute which has dragged on for years.

Environmentalists view hydraulic fracturing of black Marcellus shale in mountainous Garrett County as pure evil sure to pollute drinking water, pristine streams, the health of citizens and lay waste to 100,000 acres in the state’s most remote county.

Proponents say that’s buncombe. Done safely and with plenty of state oversight, “fracking” as it is called can be accomplished – and is accomplished all over the country – without damning side effects.

(Fracking has been used in well production since 1950, but didn’t become the superstar of oil drilling until this century, thanks to recent advances in petro-geology, fluid dynamics, engineering, computing, horizontal drilling and 3D seismic imaging.)

Cracking Open Shale

Today, one-half of all U.S. crude oil production and two-thirds of all natural gas production comes from wells that employ fracking – sending a mix of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals through underground pipes drilled horizontally that cracks open ancient layers of shale, thus releasing previously unreachable pools of petroleum liquids.

Yet in Maryland, the “shale revolution” hasn’t happened.

Under intense pressure from a core Democratic voting group – environmentalists – Gov. Martin O’Malley declared a moratorium in 2011 while a scientific study was undertaken.

Much to the activists’ dismay, the panel concluded fracking could be done safely if the state imposed strong regulations. This led O’Malley to promulgate tough, restrictive rules for fracking in 2014.

Unsatisfied, anti-frackers got the legislature to approve another two-year moratorium in 2015. Gov. Larry Hogan refused to sign the bill but didn’t stop it from becoming law.

That led to new state regulations now awaiting approval by a joint legislative panel. Meanwhile, the moratorium runs out in October.

Push for Complete Ban

Environmentalists are determined to push through a permanent fracking ban in Maryland this legislative session. Whether there would be enough votes to overturn a likely Hogan veto remains in question.

Forgotten in this bitter back-and-forth are the land owners of isolated Garrett County who sorely need the financial boost that could come through drilling on their lands.

Farming communities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have reaped huge lease and royalty payments from oil companies who hit pay dirt in those two states.

In fact, Pennsylvania now ranks No. 1 in shale gas production (ahead of Texas) and West Virginia ranks No. 3. They are the prime beneficiaries of the massive amounts of Marcellus shale under land in that part of the country.

But petroleum firms no longer show interest in Maryland.

Deterrents to Fracking

First there’s the regulatory and legislative uncertainty. No company wants to risk tens of millions of dollars in a state where the door could be slammed shut at any time.

Second, there’s the extremely low price of natural gas, a trend that shows no signs of abating, possibly for decades.

Third, there’s the small amount of reachable petroleum liquids in the Marcellus shale beneath Garrett County and a portion of neighboring Alleghany County. The numbers just don’t add up for oil companies.

Tapping into shale formations with new technologies revolutionized this nation’s energy situation. Fracked wells tripled in just five years. Drilling has been most intense in North Dakota, Montana, Texas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But this fracking phenomenon also has driven down the price of natural gas to such low levels that exploration in questionable regions like Maryland is uneconomic.

A law permanently banning fracking in Maryland would foreclose any chance of Garrett landowners ever benefiting from higher natural gas prices and breakthroughs in drilling technologies that might make hydraulic fracturing safe and secure.

Events beyond the state’s control already have determined that fracking won’t happen in Maryland any time soon. That plus Hogan’s new regulations – said to be the toughest in the country – appear to provide assurance that environmentalists’ worst nightmares won’t come true.

That should have ended this rancorous discussion but it hasn’t. Environmentalists want a grand-slam home run that purges even the thought of fracking ever occurring in Maryland.

But forever is an awfully long time, a fact that may dissuade enough lawmakers from turning their backs totally on Garrett County land owners.

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Avoiding MD’s Pension Reality

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 14, 2017 – Let’s be honest: No one wants to face up to Maryland’s giant $19 billion long-term shortfall in its retirement program for state workers and teachers. Not the Republican governor nor the Democratic legislature.

True to his Lone Ranger approach, Gov. Larry Hogan is calling for a dramatic change – an optional 401(k)-style retirement program for new state employees.

It sounds good but falls apart when examined close up.Avoiding MD's Pension Reality

The best that can be said about this plan is that it saves both the state and new workers upfront money. Unfortunately, it could leave tens of thousands of state workers far worse off in their retirement years.

Hogan didn’t bother consulting with legislative leaders, pension agency officials or the employee unions to get their input and cooperation. Thus, the governor’s plan has zero chance of passing.

But it goes over well on TV and radio. It allows Hogan to brag that he tried to fix Maryland’s pension problem – though he really didn’t.

Flawed Retirement Approach

Hogan’s plan would weaken the current retirement program by encouraging new workers to leave the system and instead sign up for his 401(k) savings plan. This could mean the loss of a huge sum of regular contributions to the existing pension system. The retirement system’s shortfall would grow, not shrink.

As for workers opting for this “defined contribution” program, 5 percent of their paychecks would go into their IRA account, matched equally by the state. (State workers today contribute 7 percent of their salaries into the pension fund.)

Workers then could invest all that retirement money into the stock market or other financial instruments.

That’s where the risk soars.

In bad economic times, state workers could lose much of their retirement nest egg if they’re not careful. Worse, they’d no longer be eligible to receive a regular state pension. They could find themselves leading a hard-scrabble life in retirement.

The notion of providing state workers with optional ways of saving for their “golden years” makes sense. But not if it means entirely eliminating that pension check.

Existing 401(k) Option

There’s no reason to embrace Hogan’s plan because the state already offers supplemental retirement programs that do much the same thing: a 401(k) investment option and tax-deferred annuity and investment plans. Workers can defer up to $18,000 in salary annually.

The only catch is that the state does not offer a matching payment, as nearly all private-sector businesses with 401(k) plans do. A healthy state match could go a long way toward encouraging workers to save a lot more for retirement.

Perhaps the best way to go is a hybrid system combining a smaller, defined pension benefit with a 401(k) savings component that includes a generous state match. That would put most state retirees in a much stronger position after they leave work. It also could ease the state’s retirement-fund shortfall over the long run.

The catch: It would cost Hogan & Co. a lot more money each year to get such a program started, money the governor doesn’t have in these uncertain economic times.

Besides, Hogan isn’t about to pour more money into worker pensions if he can avoid it.  In fact in his new budget he eliminated a mandated $50 million supplemental contribution to the retirement program created to help bring down the shortfall.

That move deepens Maryland’s pension predicament.

There’s no incentive for Democratic lawmakers to support Hogan’s poorly thought-through bill, either. They’d just as soon let the pension problems slide, hoping against hope for a return of strong economic growth, which could mean high investment returns for the retirement agency.

Thus, the governor’s bill will get a polite hearing – followed by a dignified burial.

Then Hogan can denounce Democrats for failing to “save” the state retirement program. He’ll score political points while kicking the true pension-funding dilemma into the future.

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