Category Archives: Maryland Politics

Memorial Day Musings

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

Provisional Mistakes

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

Memorial Day Musings

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

But the state election board is culpable as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New-Age Electioneering?

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

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

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

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

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

Eye of the Storm

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

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

It could get messy, angry and even violent.

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

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

Edwards Still in Denial

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

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

Donna Edwards

Rep. Donna Edwards

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

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

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

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

School Board Secrecy

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

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

What will the board do next behind closed doors?

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

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

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

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

Both Hogan and Rawlings-Blake dropped the ball.

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

Transparency and openness in government be damned.

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Tag-Team Villains

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

They aren’t, of course.

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

Tag Team Villains

Comptroller Peter Franchot

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

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

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

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

Punitive Step

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

This punitive step accomplishes nothing.

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

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

Their action amounts to pure hypocrisy.

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

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

Scripted Anger

Hogan wasn’t any more reasonable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy Solution

Here’s the ultimate irony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abrupt Cut-Offs

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

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

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

It was a pre-arranged nasty meeting.

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

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

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

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

Franchot’s Future

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

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

This could turn into a Pyrrhic victory.

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

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

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

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

Post-MD Primary: Insiders and ‘The Donald’ Triumph

By Barry Rascovar

May 2, 2016 – On primary election day, Maryland Democrats sent a strong message that for them experience and proven ability in public office are what count most. Frustrated Maryland Republicans, though, opted to follow a charismatic Pied Piper with wild ideas and zero elective experience.

That’s the biggest take-away from the April 26 balloting in the Free State. Except for Donald Trump’s easy triumph in the GOP presidential primary, Maryland voters came down heavily on the side of polished politicians whom they feel they can trust to deal with society’s intensely complex problems.

Post-MD Primary: Insiders abnd 'The Donald' Triumph

The “mad as hell” euphoria sweeping parts of the country against establishment figures didn’t flood into Maryland. Pragmatic insiders got the nod over impractical outsiders.

Top of the Ticket

–In the Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton walloped Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. No “feel the Bern” groundswell of support for the far-left socialist-democrat in Maryland. He lost by a whopping 30 percentage points – one of his worst drubbings outside the Deep South.

That bodes well for Clinton in Maryland this November. She will benefit from solid Democratic support in a heavily Democratic state as well as the ABT (Anyone But Trump) factor: Two out of three Americans tell pollsters they view “The Donald” unfavorably.

–In the Republican president primary, Trump trumped two weak contenders, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. It was easy pickings in Maryland for the outspoken billionaire real estate developer. He’s popular in rural areas (where he held his only Maryland campaign events) but he is detested in the state’s population centers. Maryland won’t be on his November list of winnable states unless his advisers live in the same world of unreality as the candidate.

United States Senate

–In the Democratic race for U.S. Senate, voters overwhelmingly favored Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who blew away Rep. Donna Edwards by a far wider than expected margin. Edwards won African-American jurisdictions but not by stupendous totals. She got clobbered everywhere else, especially in the Baltimore suburbs and in the state’s largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County.

Van Hollen’s easy romp on May 26 will make it nearly impossible for the GOP nominee, state Sen. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, to compete in a November election where Democratic turnout could set a record. The ABT effect could severely undercut her chances, too.

Congressional Primaries

In two suburban Washington congressional primaries, Democratic voters again opted for well-qualified and proven establishment officials.

–In Montgomery County, state Sen. Jamie Raskin defeated two Democratic outsiders, a wine-business multi-millionaire, David Trone (who tried to buy the election by spending a record $13 million), and a former local news personality, Kathleen Matthews.

Raskin isn’t flashy or charismatic. But he’s a solid constitutional law professor and an ultra-liberal who learned in Annapolis how to work effectively within the legislative system. His legal smarts could prove a decided plus in the House of Representatives.

He and his wife, Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin, also could become one of Washington’s most prominent power couples after November, since Raskin is virtually assured of victory in the general election.

–In heavily Democratic Prince George’s County, former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown won a close congressional race against former two-time State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey. The two insiders far outdistanced the field, which included a vocal Latino-rights candidate.

Voters in Prince George’s clearly preferred the tried and true, remembering Brown’s quality service in the county as a two-term delegate rather than his weak performance as lieutenant governor and his abysmal run for governor in 2014.

Mayoral Race in Baltimore

–In Baltimore City, a stampede of candidates filed for the Democratic nomination for mayor but only two were taken seriously by voters. The non-politician outsiders, exemplified by lawyer Elizabeth Embry and multi-millionaire financial investor David Warnock, failed miserably to gain traction.

Warnock ran an uplifting campaign but he never persuaded voters he has what it takes to turn around a troubled, aging urban city. His advertising symbolism – driving through Baltimore in an old pickup truck – befuddled rather than enlightened viewers.

Embry, meanwhile, kept harping on criminal justice reforms – a misleading platform since Baltimore’s mayor plays a minor role in this area. That’s the job of the state’s attorney and the state legislature. Her smarmy last-minute advertising blitz portraying the two leading candidates as virtual criminals was a black mark in an otherwise constructive campaign.

Seven out of ten city voters supported the two most experienced insider candidates, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Cathy Pugh. That’s a ringing endorsement of competence in office over protesting voices from outside the government arena.

Pugh very narrowly defeated Dixon by winning over the city’s white voters and business community. Dixon ran strongest among African Americans who remembered her decades of constituent service and who deeply believe everyone deserves a second chance.

The city should benefit from Pugh’s victory, which all but officially makes her the next mayor in December, given the Democrats’ lopsided voter advantage in Baltimore. She is on friendly terms with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and key state lawmakers and will have an open door in seeking help from Baltimore’s business and civic leaders.

On April 26, Maryland proved in most cases an island of sanity and stability in an election season marked by bizarre and hard to explain developments. The state’s voters, by and large, seem to have their feet – and their senses – planted firmly on the ground.

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MD Democrats: Will It Be Symbolism or Substance?

By Barry Rascovar

April 25, 2016—Tuesday’s primary election in Maryland has more drama and national attention than any in recent memory. Democratic voters, in particular, have an eventful choice to make in the U.S. Senate primary: Will they favor symbolism or substance?

If the election were based on achievements and legislative accomplishments, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County would be a landslide winner. His record is heads and shoulders above that of Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County, who has little to show for eight years in Congress.

Edwards’ campaign pitch, delivered almost exclusively to African Americans and women, is that she is a crusader for those two groups. Other voters in the state have been largely ignored.

Edwards is pitching the notion that it is more important to elect a symbolic black female than an accomplished male with solid credentials in the fight for women’s rights and equality for minorities.

Protesters vs. Pragmatisim

In many ways, it is the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders divide all over again. Sanders and Edwards are idealists and protest movement leaders. They excel at sweeping denunciations of the status quo and demanding radical change to obviate social injustice.

But as far as finding practical solutions and realistic ways to solve intractable problems, Sanders and Edwards come up woefully short. They are visionaries and crusaders, not worker-bees and negotiators.

They may claim credit for the ultimate reforms but they weren’t in the room doing the hard work of finding a path forward through a thicket of political and societal obstacles.

Clinton and Van Hollen are pragmatists who recognize Rome wasn’t built in a day (legislatively speaking) and that steady progress toward Democratic social goals is the most pragmatic tactic. It’s not an exciting or emotionally riveting approach but it gets you where you want to go.

When he was in Annapolis as a state delegate and then a state senator, Van Hollen was viewed as a rising star. When he went to Congress, it wasn’t long before he became a key member of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle. Why? Because he’s effective. He knows how to get things done and to do so in ways that won’t alienate colleagues or blow up compromises.

Views in Congress

Van Hollen is exceptionally well-liked by those who have worked with him; Edwards is not. Fewer than 10 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed her Senate bid, which is a telling slight. The vast majority of elected black officials in Maryland have cast their lot with Van Hollen as well.

Edwards has given residents of her congressional district the back of her hand, preferring to focus on national feminist and African American causes rather than delivering quality constituent service. She also has spent little time canvassing the entire state, especially in the Baltimore region where many voters wouldn’t recognize Edwards if she bumped into them.

One of the oddities of this Senate primary is the peculiarly myopic position of Emily’s List, which has poured nearly $2.5 million into a drive to nominate Edwards, even though Van Hollen has an equally sterling record in support of women’s rights.

It could come back to haunt supporters of women’s rights because Edwards is the Democrat that Maryland Republicans want to run against. She is viewed as vulnerable in the November election.

Edwards’ base of support is narrow, but in a Democratic primary she is hoping that vast numbers of African American women will exert enough voting power to pull her over the top.

In November, though, the African American vote isn’t nearly as great. Republicans see a legitimate chance to cast Edwards as a far left-wing radical who does not represent the views of mainstream Marylanders.

Anger Among Supporters

Emily’s List opted to divert $2.5 million of its funds from other Senate races where strong female candidates could well oust incumbent Republicans if given a big financial boost.

It was not a smart move and it angered many supporters of the group in Maryland who view the group’s endorsement and financial backing of Edwards destructive to the Democratic Party and overtly sexist.

How this primary race turns out is likely to determine the type of senator Maryland gets for the next six years (or more). Van Hollen is far closer to the image of retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who speaks loudly and gruffly but knows how to work the legislative system to get what she wants for her home state. Edwards has shown no inclination she would follow Mikulski’s formula.

Van Hollen appears to have the advantage – in recent polls, in the support of elected officials, in key newspaper endorsements, in his fund-raising prowess, in the quality of his advertising and in his ground-level election operations (his team knocked on seven times more doors during the week of early voting than Team Edwards).

Turnout could prove telling, but excitement over the presidential races, two hotly contested congressional races in the Washington suburbs, an equally intense race for Baltimore mayor and the Edwards-Van Hollen contest could boost voter intensity all over the state.

Do Democrats in Maryland want a senator who is an eloquent civil rights protester or a practitioner of the practical? The outcome could weigh heavily on the direction of state politics in the years to come.

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Ceding Power to the Legislature

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

Scant Progress for Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filling the Void

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

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

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

On these critical issues, Hogan was missing in action.

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

Aggressive Legislators

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

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

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

That has started to change.

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

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

Who Will Be in Charge?

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Larry, Bad Larry

By Barry Rascovar

  March 14, 2016–From day to day, lawmakers in Annapolis don’t know what to expect from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.
  Will it be “Good Larry” who moderates his comments, works to find middle ground and comes out making everyone happy?
  Or will it be “Bad Larry” who uses heated political rhetoric; sounds false warnings of doom to energize his conservative base, and alienates the very legislators he needs to accomplish things?
Good Larry, Bad Larry

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, at press conference denouncing spending mandates.

   Perhaps someday Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. will learn how to govern and deal with Maryland’s co-equal branch, the General Assembly. So far, though, it hasn’t happened.
  Most of the time Hogan stays in partisan campaign mode, pretending he can have what he wants simply by reminding legislators of his popularity in polls.

Two to Tango

  Then he bumps up against the hard reality of American politics: Without support from the legislative branch, no state’s chief executive can make headway toward his goals.
  The “Good Larry/Bad Larry” dichotomy was on full display last week in the State House.
On Tuesday, “Bad Larry” went ballistic because Democratic lawmakers aren’t about to gift-wrap for him new budget powers so he can make deeper cuts in spending.
  Yet on Thursday, “Good Larry” mollified those same legislators by adding construction dollars for historically black colleges, by accelerating construction of a biomedical sciences building on the University System of Maryland’s Shady Grove campus, and by giving Baltimore City schools funds to partially offset falling student enrollment.
  It was a bravura Thursday performance after an embarrassing Tuesday display of staged anger.

Hogan’s Dilemma

  The Republican governor can’t decide whether he wants to govern or campaign.
  Governing requires that he be practical and pragmatic, compromising with Democrats so he can achieve partial victories.
  Campaigning requires that he abandon any chance of winning over lawmakers and instead launch a continuous barrage of verbal assaults on Democratic legislators in preparation for the 2018 elections – still two-and-a-half years away.
  Usually, Hogan has chosen to stay in campaign mode.

Distorting the Facts

  On Tuesday, he condemned Democrats for not taking seriously his bill to eliminate many of the spending mandates established by legislators over the years. Asking any legislature to cede budget power to the governor is a non-starter – unless the governor can provide some persuasive reasons.
  Hogan failed to do so.
  Instead, he blamed it on “eight years of financial mismanagement” under the prior (Democratic) governor and Maryland’s current “precarious fiscal situation” on the (Democratic-dominated) legislature.
  Neither statement is true.
  The state’s past fiscal woes stemmed mainly from the deep and long Great Recession. As for that “precarious fiscal situation,” it doesn’t exist at the moment – not when Hogan is sitting on a $300 million budget surplus and $1 billion in a “rainy day” account.

Powerful Governor

  It’s campaign hyperbole, as was the chart Hogan continually pointed to at his Wednesday press conference, the one claiming Democrats seek to impose on Marylanders $3.7 billion in spending mandates this session.
  Hogan already has more budget power than any other governor in the country. He doesn’t need extra authority to short-circuit spending mandates in troubled economic times.
  Why? Because he already can make drastic cuts in two different ways – with approval from the Board of Public Works, or with the cooperation of state lawmakers through a budget reconciliation bill.
  Thus, Hogan’s “mandates reform” is a bogus issue put forward mainly for partisan political purposes.

‘Power Grab’ or Transparency?

  The same is true of his earlier wailing over Democratic bills forcing Hogan to explain the rationale for building roads and bridges that appear to be low-priority items.
  Hogan claimed in almost hysterical terms how this was a “reckless power grab” and a “thinly veiled power grab.”
  It is neither.
  The package of bills doesn’t stop Hogan for doing whatever he wants in selecting the state’s transportation projects. The bills simply force him to explain why he’s picked road project F over road project A on the state’s priority list.
  Senate President Mike Miller clearly explained that these bills remove “the mystery of how, why and where roads get built.” The measures encourage government transparency while leaving intact the governor’s road-selection powers.
  What’s wrong with that?

Good Republicans, Evil Democrats

  Hogan and his second-floor Republican ideologues are good at promoting phantom crises they blame on Democrats. They’re applying national GOP tactics to Maryland: Make this a fight between good Republicans and evil Democrats and point an accusing finger at the party of evil.
  No wonder Hogan has won few legislative victories in a Democratic-dominated General Assembly. At the moment, it looks like he’s headed for a large basketful of defeats this session, too.
  That’s why Thursday’s supplemental budget from Hogan is so intriguing. The governor negotiated deals with Democrats on a host of issues and wound up getting praised by his opponents for working out win-win compromises.
  That victory could set the stage for more moments of Hogan playing the role of Great Conciliator as the General Assembly moves rapidly toward its conclusion.
  But he won’t get very far in that direction if he continues to alienate and infuriate key lawmakers with his “Good Larry/Bad Larry” routine.
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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

 

 

 

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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Education Politics

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

That announcement was bogus, too.

No Done Deal

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

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

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

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

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

Education Politics

Declining enrollment in Carroll County schools poses dilemma.

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

Carroll’s Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longer-range Perspective

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

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

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

There’s an even bigger question not being discussed.

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

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

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

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Emily’s Mistake?

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 7, 2015 – What in the world was Emily’ List thinking when it threw $1 million into the Maryland Senate primary race for a candidate who could be an easy mark for Republicans next November?

Why would the women’s political empowerment group try to defeat a much stronger Democratic candidate who has an unblemished pro-choice record and strong support from elected female leaders in Maryland and women’s rights advocates?Emily's Mistake

It’s a baffling call, especially in an election season where a $1 million advertising blitz could make a huge difference in a number of pivotal general election Senate races around the country involving other Democratic, pro-choice, female candidates.

Emily’s List early on endorsed Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County for the Senate seat held by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring after next year’s election.

Edwards is running against Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who has a big lead in the most recent poll, the vast majority of endorsements from elected Democratic officials and a solid corps of female supporters, including the former national board chair of NARAL, a leading pro-choice advocacy group.

Million Dollar Blitz

Yet Emily’s List insisted not only on snubbing Van Hollen’s two decades of solid pro-choice support but then decided to become an issue in the Democratic primary race with its $1 million Edwards ad campaign.

It’s an independent expenditure committee ad campaign, which by law means Emily’s List cannot coordinate its activities with the Edwards camp. But the obvious similarities of Edwards’ campaign pitch and the Emily’s List ad is striking and raises concerns.

Even more troubling is Emily’s List’s attempt to target its ad to an African-American audience, with an obvious African-American narrator proclaiming Edwards will “work for us.”

If the same language had been used in support of a white candidate, there would be hell to pay – and rightly so.

What’s so odd about Emily’s List’s love affair with Edwards is that her victory in the April 26 Democratic primary would be a gift from heaven for Republicans.

While Edwards has a legitimate shot at winning on April 26, in the general election she might not be the favorite, even in heavily Democratic Maryland.

Wider Support

That’s not the case with Van Hollen, who enjoys far broader statewide support than Edwards.

Republicans are hoping for a repeat of Larry Hogan’s upset win in the governor’s race last year. He defeated Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who lacked broad statewide support among Democrats, independents and elected officials.

If either of the two GOP front-runners, Del. Kathy Szeliga or Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is nominated, they could duplicate Hogan’s success if Edwards is the Senate opponent.

Both are good campaigners who want to come across as smiling, Hogan-esque figures.

Edwards, on the other hand, is a lightning rod for controversy. Her hard-edge political approach is far to the left of the Democratic center, she does not work well with her fellow politicians and she often has forgotten to tend to the services demanded by constituents.

In contrast, Van Hollen has spent two decades networking within Maryland’s political establishment. He’s popular with his colleagues and has worked relentlessly to pass meaningful legislation rather than showboat on behalf of liberal causes.

Choice Supporters

The ultimate irony is that Van Hollen and Edwards are on the same page when it comes to defending abortion rights. There’s no difference in their level of support.

That’s why Emily’s List’s $1 million worth of aid for Edwards is so puzzling.

It may not have much of an impact, though.

Far more valuable may be Van Hollen’s endorsement by a key labor union, SEIU, which redrew its prior support for Edwards in previous elections.

One SEIU official said Edwards had turned her back on the labor movement after SEIU helped get her elected in 2008.

Union Strength

SEIU brings considerable on-the-ground organizational muscle to Van Hollen’s campaign.

The labor union works hard to get out the vote for its endorsed candidates. Moreover, the core of SEIU’s 40,000 members live in areas of the state Edwards needs to win big-time: Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County.

That’s one reason SEIU’s endorsement of Van Hollen is so meaningful.

It’s surprising that Emily’s List didn’t look at the bigger picture, both in Maryland and nationally, before tossing $1 million into its Edwards advertising effort.

The group’s decision could turn out to be a very costly Pyrrhic victory.

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