Category Archives: Maryland General Assembly

Hogan Wins an Important Victory

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 29, 2016 – Mixing politics and education can be lethal. They are best kept far apart.

That’s why Maryland, for 100 years, has isolated the governor and state lawmakers from the process of choosing the State Superintendent of Schools.

Liberal Democrats in the General Assembly, though, sought to change that.Hogan Wins an Important Victory

They worry that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. might fill the State Board of Education with conservative-leaning members who would name a superintendent with a staunchly right-wing education agenda.

So they floated a bill giving the Senate in Annapolis veto power over the selection of a state schools leader.

That was a very bad idea.

Partisan Rubbish

Hogan’s office called it “complete and utter rubbish” and a malevolent attempt to politicize public education. He stood firm and the bill thankfully died.

Imagine 47 politicians with the ability to manipulate this appointment to serve their own partisan objectives.

Wherever politicians impose their will on educators, bad things can happen in the classroom.

Back in 1914, a study by Abraham Flexner, a noted American educator, concluded Maryland’s public schools were “infested with the vicissitudes of partisan politics.” Two years later, the governor and lawmakers built a dividing wall in which the appointed state board members would, on their own, choose a state school chief for a four-year term.

It’s been that way ever since – and it has worked exceedingly well.

O’Malley vs. Grasmick

When former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley took office in 2008, he tried to fire Nancy Grasmick as state school superintendent for political reasons. He soon learned he didn’t have the power and that even his appointees to the state education board backed Grasmick.

O’Malley was thinking only as a politician, trying to oust a school chief beloved by his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, and by another O’Malley foe, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

He ignored the fact that under Grasmick’s two-decade reign, Maryland consistently ranked at the top of state school systems offering an excellent public education.

Yet politicians’ urge to intervene and impose their ideological will on schooling remains strong.

Look at the situation in Baltimore City, a troubled city with a troubled school system.

Costly School Reforms

The last superintendent, Andres Alonzo, reenergized city schooling and turned much of the system on its head. But after he suddenly left, the city belatedly discovered Alonzo’s grand plans had been costly, leaving the new superintendent $105 million in the hole.

Indeed, the current city school boss, Gregory Thornton, was brought in largely to make difficult down-sizing choices, which pleased no one. He hasn’t won many fans among community and education activists or with the wannabe power brokers in Baltimore politics.

Baltimore School Superintendent Gregory Thornton

Baltimore School Chief Gregory Thornton

They are demanding that Thornton be canned. They insist he’s had 18 months to work a miracle and he still hasn’t done it.

Mayoral candidates are promising a takeover of city schools, placing education decisions firmly in the hands of the next mayor and City Council. That will fix everything, right?

Wrong.

Very wrong.

Appeasing the Multitude

Decisions on education policies are best left to skilled, experienced education managers, overseen by a school board of non-partisan, concerned citizens dedicated to improving the learning environment for children.

Thornton is no neophyte, either, having had considerable success as school chief in Milwaukee in uplifting minority classroom performance and closing a big budget gap.

He may not have Alonzo’s charisma or the ability to appease the multitude of factions vying to control education decisions in Baltimore, but he’s made headway in the face of enormous urban challenges.

His problems could multiply in coming months unless the very same politicians seeking Thornton’s head find a way to persuade the governor to help city schools fend off a new $25 million budget hole caused by declining enrollment.

Hogan has budgeted funds to help three other counties facing that same predicament, but so far he’s shown no willingness to plug in extra money to deal with Baltimore’s far larger enrollment drop.

It was the governor’s adamant opposition to politicizing the state school superintendent’s appointment that forced legislators to abandon their power grab this year. That’s a huge victory for public school children in Maryland.

Following up with added funds to bolster education efforts in Baltimore would be icing on the cake.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. His email address is barascovar@hotmail.com

 

 

 

Hogan’s Foot-in-Mouth Disease

By Barry Rascovar

  Feb. 22, 2016 — Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s words and hyper-partisan messages caught up with him  last Thursday.
  He got hammered by Democratic legislators, and for good reason.
  The Republican governor forgot that the words he chooses can have consequences, especially when you belittle elected lawmakers and issue statements that are intended to insult and inflame.
Hogan's Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

  The Donald Trump approach to politics won’t work in Annapolis. It may make Hogan even more beloved by conservatives but his legislative agenda could go up in flames.
  Walling off Democratic lawmakers from participation in major state policy decisions is coming back to haunt Hogan. He’s out of touch with their thinking on key issues and his proposals could suffer as a result.

One Really Bad Day

  Look what happened Thursday.
  First, Hogan went on a conservative radio talk show and belittled Democratic legislators with a truly insulting and unjustified slap: “It’s like they’re on spring break,” Hogan said. “They come here for a few weeks. They start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony.”
  The comparison is without foundation.
  No wonder Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, one of the more moderate Democrats, responded angrily later that morning on the Senate floor and demanded an apology. Not a single Republican rose to defend the governor.
  Hogan is having trouble grasping the role of the General Assembly as a co-equal branch of Maryland government. He thinks his surprise victory in 2014 and his popularity in recent polls should allow him to do what he wants, regardless of what lawmakers think.
  It doesn’t work that way. Unless Hogan takes a more cooperative approach, he’s going to have trouble even getting his appointments approved this session.

Capital Priorities Questioned

  Also on the Thursday morning radio show, Hogan rejected the idea that he had favored a new, expensive jail in Baltimore City over badly needed school buildings on historically black college campuses
.
  Yet that’s exactly what happened when Hogan put together his capital budget. The jail project received top priority and new university buildings – many with business-development implications – were given the back of the hand.
  Black lawmakers were visibly upset at a Wednesday budget hearing after they realized higher education had been sent to the back of the bus so a new jail could arise more quickly in Baltimore.
  That rage boiled over Thursday with a hailstorm of denunciations of Hogan by black legislators for a long list of controversial decisions:
• Killing the east-west connecting Red Line subway through Baltimore.
• Refusing to fully fund education aid for Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, among others, last year.
• Neglecting black Marylanders, who constitute some 30 percent of the state’s population, and shifting state funds and programs to rural, white areas that favor Hogan.
• Not including funds in his initial budget for a new Prince George’s County hospital or for demolition of blocks of blighted houses in Baltimore.
  “There are assaults going on our black communities,” said Del. Curt Anderson of Baltimore. “We are not going to take it anymore. . . . We are not stupid. We know what’s going on, and we are going to retaliate.”
  Of Hogan’s preference for a new jail over new college buildings, Del. Barbara Robinson of Baltimore called it “unconscionable.”
  Black lawmakers indicated that Hogan gave the appearance of favoring a lock’em-up penal philosophy over improved educational and job opportunities.

Hasty Retreat

  By day’s end, the governor threw in the towel.
  He asked legislators to deep-six his jail planning funds and instead use the money for the very higher-education building projects he had put on the back burner.
  It was a humiliating defeat for the governor, and he had no one to blame but himself.
  Had he consulted initially with Democratic lawmakers about his jail project and the trade-off in delaying a half-dozen new college buildings, he would have learned immediately it was a non-starter.
  Instead, Hogan excluded elected Democrats from his jail deliberations and never bothered to test the capital budget waters with legislators.
  His hyper-partisan rhetoric only inflamed the situation with Democratic lawmakers last week.
  Unless Hogan tones down his spokesmen and his Change Maryland broadsides, there could be sharper responses from legislators.
  They have the power not only to get mad but to get even.
  Democratic Senate President Mike Miller tried to put a positive spin on the trials and tribulations of his friend the governor. “Everybody has a bad day and this was not a good day for the governor,” Miller said charitably.
  Unless he changes his approach, Hogan could experience many more bad days over the next six weeks.
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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at www.brascovar@hotmail.com.

Procurement Clash Coming?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 15, 2016 – First, the good news: Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. last week created a 19-member commission to come up with ways to fix Maryland’s maddeningly inefficient system for purchasing $7 billion worth of goods and services each year.

Here comes the bad news: This group may wind up trying to re-invent the wheel because state legislators appear ready to pass legislation, based on three years of study, that could dramatically change state purchasing practices.Procurement Clash Coming?

There’s no doubt Maryland’s now-antiquated and creaky procurement system needs an overhaul.

What once was a national model in the 1980s for sensible and effective state purchasing practices is now a costly embarrassment.

Practically every month, the Board of Public Works hears another horror story of botched bids, favoritism by state agencies in awarding contracts and an arcane set of practices and procedures that ties the bureaucracy in knots and delays major contracts for months and sometimes years.

It’s a procurement lawyer’s dream and a nightmare that costs the state dearly.

Broken System

Hogan was right to call Maryland’s system “a patchwork of archaic laws and processes that are inefficient, ineffective and results in wasted taxpayer dollars.”

Comptroller Peter Franchot has been on the warpath for years complaining about this “increasingly unworkable” and “broken” purchasing system “in dire need of reform.”

Lawmakers, especially Del. Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County, have been pushing for procurement reforms, too.

So why are the executive and legislative branches unable to synchronize their reform efforts?

Hogan, on his part, appears to want full credit for any changes. He’s hesitant to work with legislators and seems to have ignored the extensive work already completed on procurement reform.

O’Malley’s Role

There’s a lingering sense Republican Hogan wants nothing to do with anything initiated by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, whom the current governor has indirectly criticized time and again while announcing his own reforms.

Yet it was O’Malley who first took steps to revamp Maryland’s procurement system.

Back in 2012 O’Malley asked the Board of Public Works “to bring someone in to kick the tires” of the purchasing system. “We need to pull this apart and put it back together.”

The board contracted with Treya Partners for a thorough study of Maryland’s procurement activities.

The consultant found fragmented oversight of procurement bidding and the ultimate awards, with multiple state agencies setting their own standards and procedures; conflicting and inconsistent interpretations of procurement practice;, lax contract management, and poor relationships with state vendors.

In other words, the system is pretty much out of control.

Suggested Changes

Treya made 11 recommendations. After studying these proposals in 2014 and examining procurement laws in other states, the Department of Legislative Services backed many of Treya’s suggestions and added some of its own.

Among the main recommendations to lawmakers: Create a Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) under the Board of Public Works and consolidate most procurement officials spread throughout state government under the CPO.

State purchasing would be centralized, uniform processes would be followed consistently and one official would be accountable for ensuring that Maryland gets the best deal and the best quality for dollars spent on services and supplies.

It turns out Maryland is one of only a handful of states lacking a Chief Procurement Officer. The Free State is way behind the curve.

None of this is reflected in Hogan’s announcement. Nor is there any recognition that Democratic lawmakers are ready to turn into law many of these procurement recommendations.

It’s as though the governor doesn’t want to give credit to the hard work already done on procurement reform one floor below him.

Two Ships in the Night

Even before Hogan’s procurement commission gets off the ground the panel’s work may be rendered meaningless. It’s another indication that in the Maryland State House, Hogan and Democratic lawmakers continue to steer in different directions.

Still, the governor can salvage the situation – but only if he teams up with Del. Peter Hammen of Baltimore City, who chairs the House committee that is likely to pass the DLS procurement reform package (HB 353) that gets a hearing this Wednesday.

That would mean sharing credit with Democratic legislators, which Hogan has not wanted to do previously.

It would mean altering the mandate of the governor’s procurement commission so its main purpose becomes assessing the effectiveness of any new procurement law enacted this session and then recommending how to make the new process more efficient, more transparent and more effective in giving Maryland the best value on every contract.

On its own, Hogan’s procurement commission cannot change Maryland’s purchasing laws. Legislators can do that and they seem ready to act.

Hogan can avoid an embarrassment and come out looking like a true reformer by joining forces with like-minded legislators – regardless of their political party – who want a better procurement system for Maryland,

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Manly Words, Manly Deeds?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 8, 2016 – Though lacking flair and imagination, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s second State of the State address proved a solid effort with just the right theme: conciliation and compromise.

That leaves unanswered the key question: Will these promising words be followed by matching deeds?

Manly Words, Manly Deeds?

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivers annual State of the State address in MD State House.

The governor called his speech “A Middle Temperament,” taking a page from Robert J. Brugger’s definitive state history – “Maryland A Middle Temperament 1634—1980” and from Captain John Smith’s written description of the Chesapeake’s munificent bounties in the early 1600s.

Hogan heaped ample praise on himself in the speech, taking credit for everything that went right over the past 12 months in Maryland – even if he had nothing to do with it.

For instance, he raved about Maryland’s job growth and his big budget surplus – both the result of national macro-economic factors in which any governor plays virtually no role.

Education Puffery

He boasted about his record spending on education – though that’s the result of mandated increases in Maryland’s education aid formula. Hogan didn’t lift a finger to make that happen.

He even claimed credit for being the first governor to fully fund a program giving extra education aid to higher-cost counties. This, despite the fact he cut that aid in half last year and only fully funded the program in his new budget because infuriated lawmakers made it a legal requirement.

Hogan also sounded alarm bells about Maryland’s ballooning borrowing costs. Yet the governor did little in his budget to sharply rein in borrowing over the next fiscal year.

Actions, not words, will tell us if Hogan is serious about working with Democratic lawmakers on that and other serious problems the governor discussed in his annual address.

Legislative leaders have plenty of reasons to doubt whether Hogan will follow through on his pledge to “seek middle ground where we can all stand together.”

Partisan Moves

In his early dealings with lawmakers, the Republican governor struck a partisan tone. He refused to meet them halfway. He has continued to shut them out of policy development and rarely keeps them informed about his plans before he makes a splashy PR announcement. He’s been the opposite of inclusive.

He also has lacked consistency.

Last fall, out of the blue, he announced extra education aid for three Republican counties to help them deal with falling student enrollment. Yet Democratic Baltimore City, facing a far larger and more costly enrollment plunge, got nothing.

Then last week, Hogan finally caved to demands from legislative leaders to ante up money promised by the O’Malley administration to support Prince George’s Hospital Center until a new regional medical complex is built.

Hogan did so only after the House speaker and Senate president announced they’d push through a bill forcing Hogan to put up these funds in future years.

Yet Hogan praised his action, asserting such an arrangement was long overdue – as though the O’Malley administration had dropped the ball. It was a transparent re-writing of history.

Missing Demolition Funds

In December, Hogan suddenly announced plans to pour $700 million over a number of years into Baltimore City’s housing demolition program. Yet when Hogan’s budget arrived, the first installment of demolition money wasn’t there, nor an explanation of where all that $700 million would come from.

Hogan blamed Baltimore City for this gap in his budget. He claimed the city had failed to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that had been in negotiation for months.

But wait a minute: There’s no signed MOU for the Prince George’s hospital, either. Yet that didn’t stop Hogan from putting supplemental funds into his budget last week.

Where’s the consistency?

“There is so much we can find agreement on,” Hogan said in his speech. Indeed there is. But it will take more give than take from the governor – a reversal of his style from his first legislative session.

t also will take less partisan one-upmanship, less headline-grabbing announcements that blindside legislative leaders.

The opportunity is there, though, for Hogan to put together a winning legislative record this year. That will mean not only saying the right things about “finding the middle ground” but making the right moves to make compromise possible.

That may not prove popular with his hard-core conservative base, but if Hogan is serious about avoiding a rough road for his priorities and avoiding hyper-partisan gridlock in Annapolis, he’s the one who must take the initiative by backing up his conciliatory words with conciliatory deeds.

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Hold Off on Internet Hotel Tax

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 12, 2016 – Vetoed bills are on the minds of all 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly as they begin their annual 90-day session in Annapolis. Indeed, it’s the first order of business on Wednesday.

Among the most controversial is a vetoed bill concerning a dispute between large hotel operators, like Bethesda-based Marriott and Rockville-based Choice Hotels, and internet travel companies. The fight is over tax payments to the state by those internet companies when they book in-state hotel rooms.

The vote to override Hogan’s veto puts three “swing” Democrats with centrist records on the hot seat — Sen. Jim Mathias of the Eastern Shore and Sens. Kathy Klausmeier and Jim Brochin of Baltimore County.

All three Democrats come from districts where anger over high taxes led to large Hogan victories in 2014 with margins topping 60 percent for the Republican governor.

Now Democratic leaders want the three senators to go against Hogan on the internet hotel tax bill. For them, that may not be the wisest political move, especially on a piece of legislation viewed by many constituents as a tax increase.

Travelocity

The big hotel operators want travel companies to pay taxes on the fees they charge customers when travelers book Maryland hotel rooms through an intermediary. (The internet sites already add the state sales tax to the negotiated rate going to the hotels.)

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. vetoed this bill.

He did so for the most sensible of reasons: Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot already is suing an internet company, Travelocity, over what he claims is $6 million in unpaid taxes on those service fees between 2003 and 2011.

Hogan’s Message

“The General Assembly should respect the long-standing practice of not passing legislation that would directly affect matters being litigated in a pending court case,” Hogan wrote in explaining his veto last May.

Why in the world would state lawmakers interfere in a court case brought by the state’s comptroller?

Why not do what nearly all prior General Assemblys have done and let legal proceedings play out before taking action?

The answer is partisan politics. Democratic leaders want to show Hogan who’s in charge by overturning the governor’s vetoes.

On this one, pragmatism and practicality should prompt lawmakers to let well enough alone until there is a definitive ruling from the Maryland Tax Court.

Hurting Ma and Pa

It’s a complicated issue. Legislative controversies usually are.

For instance, the hotel booking tax could hurt local Ma & Pa travel agents, who are having a hard time as a result of shrinking commissions from hotels and other destination sites.

The fees they charge customers are their profit margin. If those fees get taxed, it could mean staff reductions to make up the difference.

Besides, they already pay local and state income taxes on revenue derived from those fees.

The new sales tax also could have the unintended consequence of harming small businesses such as tour operators, event planners and service providers, who might be forced to pay a new tax.

Fewer Bookings?

Industry data indicates that for every percentage increase in hotel rates, there is a negative two percent drop in bookings. That could be huge in Maryland if the legislature overrides Hogan’s veto. It could easily wipe out the revenue gain, estimated at $3 million to $4 million, from taxing service fees on third-party hotel bookings at a rate of six percent.

Large hoteliers say this tax “levels the playing field.” Yet it also forces third-party booking agencies to hike their prices to consumers and thus become less competitive with the hotels’ in-house booking operations.

The biggest booster of the new tax is Marriott, which has enormous clout among legislators from Montgomery County.

Ironically, Marriott was a big beneficiary in 1999 of state tax breaks topping $58 million in exchange for keeping its headquarters in Maryland. Part of the deal called for Marriott to expand its HQ staff by 700. Instead, there’s been a major workforce reduction.

Think how much the state’s tax coffers would have benefitted if Marriott had followed through on its 1999 commitment.

Consumers Pay More

Those opposing this bill say this amounts to a new tax, which it definitely is for third-party hotel booking services. You can rest assured most of this tax increase would be passed along to customers booking lodging in Maryland through them.

As noted, this is not a cut and dried issue.

Should all services fees be subject to the state sales tax, or just fees charged by internet hotel booking companies? Should local travel agents and travel-related companies be exempt from the tax?

The legislature is acting prematurely. It should await a Tax Court decision. Then it should form a work group to study the full, wide-ranging implications, including the mixed responses to this problem in other states.

All that points to a go-slow approach.

When SB 190 comes before the Senate and House of Delegates on Wednesday, lawmakers should avoid a hasty decision. There’s no need to rush to judgment – unless bitter partisan politics overrules common sense.

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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 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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Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

By Barry Rascovar

October 5, 2015 – Good intentions and wishful thinking will not get advocates of redistricting reform very far. They fail to grasp that the process is 100 percent political. The sweeping changes they seek won’t happen.

Reporters, editors and editorialists are strongly on the side of the reformers. So are political science academics and supporters of “good government.”

None of that matters one iota.

Ever heard of a homeowner relinquishing ownership of half his acreage so his neighbor can construct an obnoxious tennis court and swimming pool that increases the neighbor’s property value but decreases yours?

Ever heard of a politician putting his reelection in grave jeopardy by giving away his most loyal precincts?

Self-protection is a natural human response. Asking someone to place his or her career in harm’s way – especially a politician – is counter-intuitive.

Gerry’s Salamander

From the inception of political parties in this country, redistricting has been ruled by each major party’s burning desire to gain every conceivable advantage to win elections.

Thus in 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with a hard G) re-drew state senate districts to help his Democratic-Republican (Jeffersonian) Party. One of Gerry’s distorted Senate districts wrapped around Boston like a salamander.

At least that’s how the Boston Gazette depicted it in a now-famous cartoon, giving birth to the conjoined name, “gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

Famous redistricting cartoon from 1812 turning Gerry’s new state Senate district into a salamander.

The scheme worked, keeping the state Senate in Democratic-Republican hands.

Over 200 years later, little has changed.

Rules laid out by the courts require equally populated districts after each Census and due regard for forming majority-minority districts when feasible. In each state, local courts and laws set out additional mandates for state legislative districts, such as respect for geographic boundaries and communities of interest.

But ever since the early 1800s, one thing has remained constant in the United States: the political imperative of the party in power to tilt redistricted lines heavily in their favor every ten years.

Each Party is Guilty

In Republican-dominated states like Texas, that means grossly distorted political boundaries that throw most elections to Republican candidates. In Democratic Maryland, it means the reverse.

Maryland Democrats used their dominance in Annapolis to re-draw congressional lines in some weird ways after the 2010 Census.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s current congressional districts. Rep. John Sarbanes’ gerrymandered district is the one shown in light green.

Republicans were packed heavily into one district dominated by the Eastern Shore and conservative parts of Harford, Carroll and Baltimore counties.

Meanwhile in sparsely populated Western Maryland, dominant Republicans found themselves outnumbered in a new district that joined them to heavily Democratic and urbanized Montgomery County.

All the other congressional districts were tailor-made to keep Democratic incumbents in office. Not surprisingly, Democrats won seven of Maryland’s eight congressional seats (although the margin in the Western Maryland-Montgomery district last time was razor-thin).

The same tactics were used by Democrats in Annapolis in re-drawing General Assembly districts.

Is Reform Possible?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., has made a big deal about reforming the redistricting process. What he really wants to do is elect more Republicans and contort future redistricting maps in the GOP’s favor.

He’s got a redistricting commission holding hearings across Maryland, listening to disgruntled citizens and interest groups seeking a more equitable system. They’re also hearing from Republican outsiders who want to get inside the political tent.

The panel’s work is for naught.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly won’t listen to recommendations for an impartial redistricting process. There is no hope of changing their minds.

Hogan understands this reality, but he knows a good political theme when he sees one. He’s happy to campaign for “fair elections” and point to the prime example of horrendous redistricting – the bizarre congressional boundary lines Rep. John Sarbanes helped draw for himself.

Hogan has a winning campaign pitch with no effective push-back from the other side.

Still, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch aren’t about to commit political hari-kari to satisfy Republican Hogan and redistricting reformers.

They hold the high cards in this game of brinkmanship.

What to Do?

There’s no getting around the fact that Maryland’s congressional districts are Exhibit A in what’s wrong with gerrymandering.

That could be overcome if Hogan drops the pretense that he can achieve a redistricting revolution and instead starts dealing realistically with the two Mikes.

Instead of trying to achieve the impossible, why not see if there’s common ground for removing the most flagrant abuses of redistricting?

Why not agree on a panel of six representatives – two pragmatic Republicans and four pragmatic Democrats – with the goal of producing for the governor and legislative leaders new congressional lines that eliminate salamander-like boundaries, that keep districts as compact as possible and that don’t hopscotch all over the state?

The results might be the same – six or seven Democrats and one or two Republicans – because that’s roughly the breakdown of the two party’s voter-registration strength in Maryland.

Yet giving voters compact districts that no longer divide communities three or four ways would help immensely. People might actually know, when asked, who represents them in Congress.

A similar gubernatorial-legislative panel could help the competing parties draw more sensible state legislative district lines.

The idea should be to eliminate the worst aspects of redistricting. That’s doable. Eliminating gerrymandering entirely in Maryland is a non-starter.

2020 Census

In the next redistricting fight after the 2020 Census, Hogan (if he’s still in office) could create headaches for Democrats, especially if Republicans win enough General Assembly seats in 2018 to uphold Hogan’s veto threat.

But Democrats are not going to give away the farm. They won’t sacrifice their built-in advantages.

What we have now is sanctimonious comments from the governor on the need for redistricting reform and support from shiny-bright, good-government supporters and Republican hardliners looking for a way to do in Democrats.

Lots of sound and fury signifying very little.

How nice it would be if Hogan momentarily set aside his political predilections and Miller and Busch did the same. Then they might reach a common-sense compromise that straightens out – somewhat – Maryland’s gerrymandered districts.

That, at least, is a realistic possibility.

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Marvin the Manipulator

(Second of two parts)

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 9, 2015 — Former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel died last week at 95 after a life of enormous achievements and puzzling contradictions.

Marvin the Manipulator

Marvin Mandel, House of Delegates portrait

On the surface he could be wise, funny, kind, brilliant and farsighted. Yet there was a darker side behind the implacable façade he showed to the public.

As governor for ten years, he manipulated legislators better than anyone before or since. Victory after victory, reform after reform piled up.

What we didn’t know was that Mandel also had been manipulating his first wife, engaging in a long-running affair with a blonde femme fatale from Southern Maryland. He devised a convoluted cover-up and denial when the public finally got wind, after his government car was involved in a late-night fatal crash on a mysterious return trip from Southern Maryland.

He also manipulated the media, planting favorable stories about his administration as well as unfavorable stories on his enemies. He delighted in playing word games with reporters at his weekly press conferences — until those very words got him in deep trouble with federal prosecutors.

What came out in two high-profile trials, marked by a health scare and jury-tampering, was the extent of Mandel’s venality.

He was the behind-the-scenes puppeteer, using his power as governor to reward close political friends in return for a slew of financial windfalls he desperately needed — especially to pay for an expensive divorce from his first wife and the expensive tastes of his paramour (and second wife).

How It Began

Little did I know my very first day reporting on the Maryland General Assembly in 1972 would reveal a key element of Mandel’s manipulations-for-profit.

By that session’s sine die adjournment 90 days later, it was clear a dark, deep conspiracy was at work — with Marvin Mandel acting as the fulcrum.

Here’s what happened in that fateful General Assembly session.

As set out in the Maryland constitution, vetoed bills were the first order of business. One of those concerned a transfer of 18 racing days from the defunct Hagerstown track to Marlboro, a bedraggled half-mile oval in Prince George’s County.

The previous spring Mandel had rejected the bill, claiming it was unconstitutional on technical grounds.

Yet when lawmakers took up the Marlboro veto in early January a surprising thing happened.

Marvin Mandel, the State House wizard with near-total control of the legislature, didn’t lift a finger to defend his veto.

Independence Day

First the House, then the Senate overrode the governor’s action, thus doubling Marlboro’s racing days in less than two weeks after the track changed hands.

But no one in the legislature knew about this change of ownership.

Reform Democrats and Republicans mistakenly crowed that legislators finally had stood up to Mandel and taught him a lesson. It was Independence Day for the General Assembly.

More cynical minds saw it quite differently. Something didn’t smell right, they said.

One of those doubters was Bentley Orrick, The Baltimore Sun’s always-skeptical bureau chief. He saved me from my fresh-on-the-job naïveté.

My written version of the Marlboro action for the next day’s newspaper bought into the theme of rebellious legislators standing up to a powerful governor.

Orrick, though, had the good sense to re-write my lead paragraph so it said Mandel had “all but ‘publicly’ acquiesced” to the veto override that doubled Marlboro’s racing days. He knew something was going on behind the gubernatorial curtains.

Thank the stars for Ben Orrick.

Big Pay Day

We now know Mandel’s cronies were concocting a whopping bonanza for themselves, thanks to Mandel’s actions and non-actions.

When the governor vetoed the Hagerstown-to-Marlboro transfer in the spring of 1971, it sent the price of Marlboro’s stock tumbling.

Thus on New Year’s Eve, Mandel’s close associates secretly bought the half-mile track at a deeply discounted price.

Two weeks later, thanks to Mandel’s unexpected failure to defend his veto, Marlboro had twice the number of racing days. The governor’s pals had doubled the race track’s worth in a blink of a legislative eye.

Marvin the Manipulator Mandel

Gov. Marvin Mandel and his second wife, Jeanne, leaving the federal courthouse in Baltimore.

Throughout that tumultuous 1972 session Mandel continued playing the role of innocent bystander as his friends worked ceaselessly with gubernatorial aides to multiply their race track fortunes.

Out of the blue came a vast racing consolidation bill. It awarded Marlboro a staggering 94 days — more thoroughbred dates than any track in Maryland had ever run before. It amounted to a 500 percent increase in days of racing for a crumbling, small-time track.

The consolidation bill also called for a state buyout of the one-mile Bowie track, with all of Bowie’s racing days — plus Marlboro’s 94 days — transferred to the far more profitable Pimlico and Laurel one-mile tracks.

Marlboro got to keep its night-time harness racing schedule, too.

What an astounding payoff for Mandel’s friends. In less than four months, they would have increased the worth of their recent purchase by nearly $10 million, or $57 million in today’s dollars.

Bit by bit, though, this nefarious profit-making scheme came into public view, thanks to legislative hearings and filings with the Maryland Racing Commission.

Senate Resistance

By session’s end, Mandel’s crew had dropped all pretense of disinterest. His lobbyists were pressing legislators hard to pass the consolidation bill.

Yet resistance in the Senate remained intense.

Among the most vehement foes: Steny Hoyer, Jack Lapides, Jervis Finney, Vic Crawford and Manny Emanuel — all on the Senate Finance Committee that eliminated the bill’s worst elements and eventually refused to pass the measure (on two tie votes).

The ever-observant Finney predicted what would take place next.

He told his Senate colleagues “on the very last night of the session we’ll be called [by the governor’s lobbyists] and told, ‘you can have your bill’ and ‘you can have your bill’ and ‘you can have [racing] consolidation’ and who do you think is going to be getting all its racing days back – good old Marlboro, coming ’round the track.”

On cue,  with less than a hour to go before sine die adjournment Mandel’s chief Senate mouthpiece, Roy Staten of Dundalk, rose to resurrect the racing bill.

Lapides and others started a mini-filibuster. With just ten minutes left before the legal midnight adjournment, Staten tried again to ram the bill through. He failed. Debate persisted for another 20 minutes with Staten pleading for a final, post-midnight vote.

At that point, Lapides tried diplomacy, asking a wavering Senate President William S. James to do the right thing.

“Mr. President,” Lapides politely intoned, “this bill has been properly defeated. . . . The integrity of the Senate is at stake.”

James realized he had no choice, despite the enormous pressure put on him by Mandel. He ruled further deliberations would be “improper.”

No Endgame

For the first time in his career as governor, Mandel had been denied a prime objective — though he and his cronies found a way around the legislature, thanks to a pliant racing commission that Mandel controlled.

A year later the Marlboro owners got regulatory permission to shift their 36 racing days to the larger Bowie track. They reaped a nifty $2.1 million profit — $12 million in today’s dollars.

These shenanigans were to form the basis of federal corruption charges against Mandel.

His reward from his pals included a $300,000 share in a lucrative federal building lease (today’s value: $1.7 million ); a prime parcel of Eastern Shore land ready for development (today’s value: $200,000); lavish vacation travel and wardrobes, and money to finance his expensive divorce from his first wife and the expensive tastes of his paramour (and later second wife).

The value of these “gifts” from friends, in today’s dollars: nearly $3 million.

Clouded Judgment

Mandel’s deceptions and cover-ups, his steadfast refusal to admit any wrongdoing, have clouded the public’s perception of his unmatched contributions to Maryland government.

Did he cross ethical and moral boundaries?

Did he betray the public’s trust?

Elected officials are supposed to provide the public with honest government and honest policy decisions. Was their faith in Mandel misplaced?

Four decades after the fact, those questions still are debated.

Marvin Mandel could have gone into the history books as Maryland’s best governor, an inductee into the national governors’ Hall of Fame.

Instead, he is remembered for his messy divorce; his lies and deceptions; his secretive scheming to enrich his friends; the financial rewards he received in exchange for his underhanded actions, and his incessant denials.

That is the tragedy of Marvin Mandel.

Greatness was within his grasp, but the temptations of love and an elevated lifestyle proved more alluring.

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