Category Archives: Maryland Politics

Hogan vs. Kamenetz?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 21, 2015 – In a bizarre twist, we might witness a preview of the 2018 gubernatorial campaign at the next Board of Public Works meeting.

Then again, a threatened confrontation between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz may never occur.

 

Hogan vs. Kamenetz?

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz

Even more bizarre is the issue that could bring these potential foes into a debate arena: air-conditioning.

Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, his tag-team partner in beating up on unsuspecting officials at BPW meetings, blame Kamenetz for allowing thousands of Baltimore County children to swelter through hot, humid early- and late-summer days because their schools lack A/C.

Four dozen Baltimore County schools still have no air-conditioning, which is shameful.

But Kamenetz is not to blame, nor is current county school superintendent Dallas Dance.

Hogan and Franchot are pointing accusing fingers at the wrong individuals.

$1.3 Billion in Upgrades

If the two men did some basic research they would find that Kamenetz and Dance are trying hard to rectify this sorry situation, which has been festering for decades.

They have embarked on a $1.3 billion school renovation program that will bring A/C and other upgrades to 99 percent of county schools within a decade.

Accelerating the county executive’s remediation plan – and how to do it — ought to be the focus of this debate.

More likely, though. is a battle of angry words with Hogan and Franchot having a field day criticizing Baltimore County’s mistreatment of school kids.

On the surface, Hogan and Franchot are right. No child in today’s public schools should have to sit all day in classrooms that top 90 or 100 degrees.

But what are Hogan and Franchot doing to eliminate this intolerable situation other than voice displeasure?

Neither official has lifted a finger to bring A/C to more schools in Baltimore County.

And what about Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioning? Why aren’t Hogan and Franchot livid about that even more appalling situation?

The reason is politics.

2018 Political Foes?

Hogan sees a chance to embarrass a likely opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Franchot sees an opportunity to tarnish a potential rival for the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor.

Odd bedfellows, indeed.

The two men not only denounced Kamenetz for Baltimore County’s un-air-conditioned schools, they requested that he and Dance appear before the Board of Public Works in early October.

But there’s nothing on the board’s agenda that requires Kamenetz and Dance to show up in Annapolis on Oct. 7. Neither the governor nor the comptroller can force such attendance.

Still, it makes for good theater when politicians call-out a potential foe.

If the confrontation takes place, it may not be a propaganda victory for Hogan and Franchot. Indeed, they could end up with egg on their faces.

Problem-Solver

Kamenetz complained about the lack of air-conditioning when he ran for county executive five years ago. Since taking office, he has reduced the percentage of no-air-conditioned schools from 52 percent to 20 percent with enough money appropriated to lower that figure to 15 percent.

By 2021, he wants A/C in nearly every one of the county’s 173 school buildings, or at least have the money in hand to begin the work.

Clearly, Kamenetz and Dance are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

If Hogan and Franchot want to blame someone, they should chastise former Baltimore County school chiefs and former county executives Jim Smith and Dutch Ruppersberger. They are the ones who dropped the ball and failed to make air-conditioned schools the county’s highest priority.

Indeed, the real culprits are bureaucrats in the county’s school system who made some astounding blunders beginning 15 or 16 years ago.

Back then, school officials hired an out of state company to analyze the physical defects of county schools. The estimated repair costs, including air conditioning: $130 million.

But county officials delayed acting on those expensive recommendations. Each year, work was put off. Nearly a decade later, the county asked the state for funds to begin the long-overdue school renovations.

Yet no one updated the original report to account for soaring construction costs.

Lack of Funds

Thus, when engineering firms were hired to start the school repairs, the county found itself woefully short of funds.

Then the county goofed again, asking the engineers to fix only the highest priority items at each school. Plumbing defects, leafy roofs and dangerous electrical wiring took precedence, not air-conditioning.

The engineering firms complained that this made no sense. Why not use available funds to totally renovate the schools in the worst shape and ask the state for more money to renovate the other county schools over the next few years?

Those complaints were ignored.

A renovation at Ridgely Middle School under Smith’s admiistration somehow managed to overlook the need for air-conditioning and windows that opened for ventillation. Franchot heard about that debacle and showed up at the school to lend support to the angry parents.

Not until Kamenetz arrived as county executive in 2010 did air-conditioning become a priority.

Solutions, Not Complaints

At this stage, what needs to happen is for Kamenetz and Hogan to agree on a speed-up of the county’s air-conditioning timetable. How that will be financed is the key question.

Both of them must put more school construction money on the table, even if the money goes toward window air-conditioners in some schools until a more permanent fix is completed. (Anne Arundel County air-conditioned 20 of its elementary schools with window units, getting a huge discount by making a bulk purchase of commercial air-conditioners.)

Hogan, though, has been Scrooge-like in spending state dollars. Kamenetz, too, has shied away from spending that could mean a tax increase.

The time has come to fashion a solution rather than using school children as political pawns.

The campaign for governor can wait. There’s no reason to begin the blood-letting at this early stage.

But there is every reason to try to come up with a solution that will bring air-conditioning to every classroom, not only in Baltimore County but in all Maryland schools.

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Redistricting Reform: Mission Impossible?

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 17, 2015 — Reformers want to take partisan politics out of the redistricting equation. So does the governor. That may be Mission Impossible.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s Current Congressional Districts

On the surface, their goal sounds easy to achieve. Pass a state constitutional amendment empowering an impartial panel of citizens to revise Maryland’s congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years (after the new U.S. Census is taken) so the districts conform to the Supreme Court’s 1962 “one-man, one-vote” edict.

Conservative Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. has joined liberal reformers in this crusade. He’s positioned himself so it looks like those mean Democrats are defiantly standing in the way.

As usual, the situation is far more complicated than the cover story.

Hogan’s Goal

The governor’s motives are hardly pure. He’s looking for political advantage for his outnumbered Republican Party. Stripping control of redistricting from the Democratic controlled General Assembly is his objective.

Right now, thanks to manipulation of redistricting maps by Democratic leaders, seven out of eight Maryland congressmen are Democrats. Hogan thinks a 4-4 split would be more like it.

Yet the current distribution isn’t far off the voter registration numbers.

Had state and national Republican organizations given Sixth District challenger Dan Bongino more financial and organizational support last year (he lost by less than 2,800 votes), the congressional split in Maryland would be 6-2, or 25 percent. That’s almost precisely what the GOP’s registered voter figure is in Maryland today.

So maybe Republicans aren’t so bad off under the current redistricting process after all.

GOP Pickup?

Hogan, though, believes creating more evenly balanced districts would benefit the state GOP, particularly in the General Assembly. He’s placing his bet on a non-partisan revision of legislative district lines in 2021 or 2022.

That premise may not be valid, either.

Republicans currently hold 30 percent of the state Senate seats in Annapolis and 35 percent of the House of Delegates seats. Both figures exceed the party’s statewide voter registration percentages.

Even under Democratic control of the redistricting process, the GOP is doing better than expected.

What skews such comparisons are the large number of unaffiliated voters — 672,000 of them statewide. They are neither Republicans nor Democrats yet they make up 18 percent of registered Maryland voters.

Winning over these independents has been the GOP’s downfall in Maryland. When a Republican candidate reaches out to these middle-roaders, like Hogan did, success is more likely.

How unaffiliated voters will react under impartially drawn redistricting maps is unknown. Nothing may change. Or everything.

Miller’s Response

Hogan knows that Democrats in the legislature will not allow him to win this redistricting fight. Senate President Mike Miller, the savviest politician in Annapolis, has said, quite bluntly, “It won’t happen.”

Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch have nothing to gain from cooperating with the governor.  They understand that Hogan will do whatever it takes to help the Republican Party, with or without a new redistricting commission. They’re not going to help him in that effort.

The best practical outcome would be a pledge by both Hogan and the two Democratic legislative leaders to turn to a group of impartial redistricting experts and citizens for their preliminary re-mapping of Maryland after the 2020 Census.

Such early guidance from non-politicians might dissuade either side from creating the kinds of grotesque districts that now dominate Maryland’s congressional boundaries. It also might lead to more sensible boundary lines for legislative districts that respect communities of interest.

Ever since the Supreme Court removed itself from most redistricting decisions, the two political parties have had a field day throughout the country twisting and turning congressional and legislative districts to their advantage. Each party has sinned mightily.

Gerrymandering is a longtime American tradition, starting with Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812.

Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry, Vice President and Mass. governor forever linked to “gerrymandering.”

Trying to remove all political partisanship from this politically sensitive process is wishful thinking.

Still, we can do better than what Maryland has now.

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Hogan’s Health and Harsh Words

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 4, 2015 — Complaints and harsh words have poured in about my Aug. 3 column, for daring to raise the possibility that Gov. Larry Hogan’s health may have played a role in his turn toward nastiness.

Let’s be clear: The governor’s treatment for late Stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma cannot be ignored.

Everyone wishes Hogan a speedy return to good health. Doctors I’ve spoken to have been optimistic about his recovery chances given today’s advancements in chemotherapy.

But the situation — and its ramifications for governing Maryland — cannot be swept under the rug.

Gov. Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail announcement. Hogan's Health and Harsh Words.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Corrections Secretary Stephen Moyer at Baltimore jail announcement.

Could the governor’s unseemly swipes at Democratic leaders be partly related to how he’s feeling during and after his intense medical treatments?

It is a possibility. You don’t have to agree, but it’s a thought worth considering — which is why it was raised ever so briefly (17 words) in my previous column.

Governor’s Response

Hogan’s spinmeisters used my column to reject the notion he has turned from Mr. Nice to Mr. Nasty. In a Facebook posting, Hogan asserted:

“In spite of 10 days of 24 hour chemo I haven’t become mean and nasty, I’m still the same nice guy I have always been, and we are still accomplishing great things for Maryland.”

He also defended his failure to notify Democratic legislators before announcing the closing of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Why? Because he didn’t want to tip off the gangs about what was about to happen.

Fair enough.

Gangs and the City Jail

For the record, here’s what Mr. Nice Guy had to say in blaming the disgraceful gang problems of the city jail on former Gov. Martin O’Malley:

“When the first indictments came down the previous governor called the case ‘a positive achievement in the fight against gangs.’ It was just phony political spin on a prison culture created by an utter failure of leadership.”

The facts tell a slightly different story that Hogan conveniently ignored in his spiteful comments.

It was O’Malley’s corrections secretary, Gary Maynard, who uncovered the deplorable Black Guerilla gang control of the city jail and called in the FBI. Maynard wanted to act immediately to end the gang’s stranglehold on the detention center and prosecute the guards involved, but the FBI insisted on months and months of further investigation.

This long delay was a huge, inexcusable mistake, but that failure of leadership should not be blamed on O’Malley. Hogan needed to point an accusing figure at the FBI.

Attacking the Opposition

It was easier and more useful politically to demonize the opposition party leadership.

Thus, Hogan politicized the jail-closing announcement in terms that pilloried both O’Malley and the Democratic legislature.

Such “smack-down” rhetoric doesn’t further cooperative governance.

Two of the most level-headed Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Ed De Grange of Anne Arundel County and Sen. Guy Guzzone of Howard County, co-chaired a commission that studied the city jail situation and developed a long-term, bi-partisan solution.

Hogan not only disregarded their work, he bragged about the fact he had “never even looked at” this plan.

Legislative Response

Is it any wonder the co-chairs accused Hogan of having “circumvented the Legislature” and of  “making decisions behind closed doors”?

That last accusation has surfaced on other Hogan decisions, too. He doesn’t seem to believe in listening to a wide-range of divergent views before making up his mind. That approach is not always helpful.

Closing the Baltimore jail was absolutely the right decision. Hooray for Hogan.

He is correct it should have happened long ago — perhaps even under the governorship of the last Republican chief executive, Bob Ehrlich.

But there was no reason to turn the announcement into a political tongue-lashing.

It only exacerbates the growing gulf between the governor and Democratic lawmakers, the very people he needs if he hopes to make headway in achieving his large-scale goals for Maryland.

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The New, Nasty Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 3, 2015 — What happened to the friendly, smiling, easy-going Larry Hogan? Mr. Nice Guy has morphed into Mr. Nasty.

Gov. Larry Hogan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan poses at Baltimore City Detention Center. (AP)

Perhaps he’s spent too much time with his pal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the combative presidential hopeful with the mouth that roars.

Perhaps his new Kojack look, as well as his grueling chemotherapy sessions, help explain what’s going on.

Or maybe it’s just a recognition by Maryland’s Republican governor that tough talk and decisive action go over well with his conservative-to-moderate constituents. Excoriating hapless, fumbling Democrats and going it alone make you look like John Wayne riding to the school marm’s rescue.

Whatever the reason, Hogan has taken a turn down a dark alley. It may lead to a promising political future but from a governing standpoint it could turn into a disaster.

Alienating Democrats

In less than nine months, Hogan has managed to offend or alienate much of the Democratic elected leadership in Maryland. He has:

  • Immediately shuttered the disgraceful Baltimore City jail and detention center without even bothering to inform local officials, judges or prosecutors — or provide any details about how this is feasible.
  • On an impulse, unilaterally re-opened the old Senate Chamber in the State House while the prime mover in this historic restoration, the Democratic Senate President, was out of the country.
  • Punitively eliminated $2 million in renovations for an arts center cherished by the Democratic House speaker.
  • Slashed education aid to Democratic strongholds, then reneged on a compromise.
  • Killed the Baltimore region’s rapid rail Red Line without any backup plan.
  • Stripped to the bone the state’s contribution for the Washington area’s rapid rail Purple Line, them squeezed two counties for $100 million more.
  • Shifted all the money saved to rural and exurban road and bridge projects.
  • Named a commission to do away with regulations and made sure the member solidly pro-business and Republican.

In nearly every case, Hogan’s made it clear he’s the act-now, think-later governor of Maryland who doesn’t need to consult with Democratic lawmakers or local officials who might offer valuable input. That would complicate matters.

It’s his party and he’ll do what he wants.

Hogan is giving the public what it wants: Simplistic, quick answers to difficult, highly complicated problems. It’s also how he campaigned for governor.

Sort of reminds you of Donald Trump, doesn’t it?

Fixing the Mess 

Here’s the catch: If easy solutions could fix government’s worst dilemmas, they would have happened long ago.

If simply closing the Baltimore City jail and detention center could solve that jurisdiction’s incarceration and detention nightmare, that step would have been taken by Republic Gov. Bob Ehrlich or Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Governor Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail-closing announcement.

Governor Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail-closing announcement.

Hogan’s quick action at the Baltimore jail opens a new can of worms. You can’t mix people awaiting trial with convicted felons, but that’s apparently the plan. How do you tend to the medical and transportation needs of 1,000-plus former city jail inmates about to be spread among other state prison facilities? Where’s the intake center for new arrivals?  Are you overwhelming nearby state prisons? Will the state face additional, unwinnable ACLU lawsuits?

Hogan says he won’t build a replacement city jail. That would make Baltimore unique in the United States. How is this going to work? Hogan is mum on that point. What does he know that other correctional expert don’t?

The city jail announcement came with gratuitous, nasty and factually inaccurate swipes at  O’Malley. It sounded like a re-hash of Hogan in last year’s campaign.

Nor did the Republican governor spare Democratic legislators from his wrath. Then again, he displayed a stunning lack of preparation: He admitted he hadn’t read a detailed report from a special legislative commission on handling Baltimore’s chronic jail/detention situation.

Another Agnew?

Hogan is playing to his political crowd: angry white men and women — most with limited education — that Spiro Agnew appealed to. If the governor continues along this combative line of attack, he could well become a talked-about contender for the Republican vice presidential nomination, just like Agnew.

We live in an era of presidential campaigning dominated by sound bites, blunt talk, insults and easy answers. Hogan seems to be following that path, too.

The difference is that presidential candidates don’t have to govern. Hogan does, and he has now made that part of his life far more difficult. Maryland could be in for at least three years of government gridlock in Annapolis. It may not be pretty or helpful for Marylanders, but it could well serve Larry Hogan’s political purposes.

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Hogan to Baltimore: ‘Drop Dead’

By Barry Rascovar

June 29, 2015 –Larry Hogan Jr. never has had an affinity for Baltimore. He’s never lived in a big city. He’s a suburban Washington, suburban Annapolis kind of guy.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. standing in front of Purple Line map

Hogan also is a cold, calculating political animal. He has embraced  a staunch right-wing mindset — all government spending is bad, all liberal social programs are wasteful, all outlays that don’t help him politically are a boondoggle.

Thus, it was easy for Governor Hogan to kill more than a decade worth of work, more than a quarter-billion dollars already spent and to forfeit $900 million in federal funds that would have gone toward building a pivotal rail-transit line for Baltimore, the Red Line.

No Help

It is reminiscent of President Gerald Ford’s stern rebuke to New York City’s pleas for urgent help to avert imminent bankruptcy in 1975. As the New York Daily News summed it up so aptly in its banner headline the next day: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.

Ford thought a bailout would be a wasteful boondoggle, too. Why save the nation’s greatest city? That’s not government’s role!

New York Daily New, 1975

New York Daily New, 1975

Hogan takes the same unyielding attitude toward Baltimore, which in his mind really isn’t part of Maryland.

It’s such a nonentity — where poor people live — that when he sent word on Twitter of his $2 billion in road projects and $167 million for the Purple Line project in the Washington suburbs, Hogan’s aides failed to show Baltimore City on their map. It had vanished into the Chesapeake Bay.

Freudian slip? You bet.

When asked that day what was in his transportation package for Baltimore, the Republican governor said there was nothing.

Saw It Off

Hogan would just as soon see Baltimore and its expensive needs disappear, or as Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater famously said in 1963, “Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”

GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater

GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater

It’s no surprise Hogan committed over 90 percent of his transportation package to roads and bridges, becoming the darling of the asphalt and concrete industries. Fund-raising checks will roll in from those interest groups.

Giving the back of the hand to Baltimore is becoming a Hogan habit. Sure, he put on a good face by sending in the National Guard and jovially walking the mean streets of the city briefly (with State Police protection, of course).

But what has the governor done for Baltimore since then to address city residents’ discontent? Precious little.

This is the same governor who deep-sixed needed education aid for city schools in his first budget and then backed out of a compromise to restore some of those funds.

It was just more wasteful, irresponsible spending in Hogan’s eyes.

Body Blow for City

Failing to support the Red Line is a crushing blow for the state’s only large city, a city that in many respects is barely treading water.

The Red Line could have been a giant jobs-generator and income-producer in an urban center with very high unemployment. Instead, he called it a “boondoggle.” (Ironically, Hogan at the same event praised the Purple Line because of it jobs-producing potential.)

it would have been a godsend for the people in West Baltimore who rioted in April over their impoverished conditions, creating access to employment opportunities along the Red Line route, from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview.

it would have sparked retail and commercial development and housing at nearly two dozen Red LIne stations.

it would have rejuvenated Baltimore’s sagging downtown business district.

It would have eased some of the traffic gridlock and auto pollution.

Most of all, it would have given Baltimore a connected, viable rail-transit system, providing the missing link not just for city residents but for suburban families living to the east and west.

Sticking to Pledge

The Red Line is dead, killed by a stubborn Larry Hogan. He has fulfilled his campaign promise to conservative, non-urban followers.

There won’t be any major rail transit expansion in Baltimore for two decades or more, thanks to Hogan. That $900 million set aside for the Red Line is lost forever. The highway boys are cheering

The $288 million already spent by the statehas now been turned by Hogan into government waste. His staff, in typical Republican fashion, blamed Democrat Martin O’Malley for that spending on the Red Line, though the onus rightly should have been placed on Republican Bob Ehrlich, who gave the go-ahead.

What Hogan won’t admit is that this money had been well spent — until Hogan turned that sophisticated planning and detailed engineering blueprints to ashes. The wasteful governor is Larry Hogan.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz astutely asked Hogan in a statement what he proposes as his Plan B, his back-up plan, for Baltimore.

There is no alternative. Hogan to City: ‘Drop Dead.’

Now Hogan’s aides are scrambling to come up with some pitiful city road work that can be paraded as a Potemkin Village of a transportation substitute for Baltimore.

Political Calculation

The governor’s decision was a cold, calculated political move: fortify rural and suburban support with $2 billion in road and bridge work and hunt for additional votes for the next election in the Washington suburbs, thanks to his tentative support of the Purple Line.

But don’t be surprised if the Purple Line never gets built.

Hogan remains hostile toward rapid transit. He wants to do the job on the cheap, squeezing Prince George’s and Montgomery counties for hefty extra contributions and then getting a private-sector consortium of builders to chip in another $400 million or more.

This most likely means a slimmed-down rail line that won’t work well or no line at all. There’s also the chance the private-sector developer will be forced to charge exorbitant ticket fares for decades to recoup the investment demanded by Hogan.

Birds of a Feather

It’s no accident Hogan picked a transportation secretary known as a highway man, with zero experience in rapid rail transit. He was brought in to kill at least one of the expensive mass-transit projects, and he  may eventually succeed in killing both.

No wonder Hogan and Secretary Pete Rahn talked about the Red Line as “fatally flawed” and a “boondoggle” because — horrors of horrors — it included costly tunnels through the heart of downtown Baltimore.

Exactly how do you build an efficient subway line — or an “underground” as the British call it — without spending a lot of money to take the Red LIne below grade through the heart of a crowded urban center?

Anything built on the surface would compound downtown gridlock and make a joke of Red Line time savings. Sure, tunneling is very expensive but not if you take into consideration that it will be serving Baltimoreans a century from now.

By Hogan’s and Rahn’s thinking, all of the Washington Metro’s downtown subterranean rail network is a gigantic boondoggle. So is New York City’s subway. And London’s, too.

It’s a phony argument that stalwart conservatives like Hogan trot out.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Hogan get elected, used the same sort of illogic in 2009 to blow up a badly needed $12 billion rail tunnel between his state and New York City that would have doubled New Jersey commuter capacity.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie, like Hogan, set aside the long-term good he might do so he could boast to voters about chopping off the head of a wasteful project.

Solid Democratic

What’s wasteful in this case is failing to give Baltimore a decent mass-transit system that holds the potential to stimulate economic development, job growth and improve residents’ quality of life.

Hogan has no interest, though, in anything dealing with Baltimore. He feels like a stranger there. It’s overwhelmingly Democratic turf. Why bother?

“With these projects, we’re going to touch the lives of citizens across the state,” Hogan said in his announcement. He needed to add the words, “except in Baltimore.”

Now Rahn & Co. are hastily trying to jerry-rig an alternative transportation scheme for Baltimore.

More buses on narrow, overcrowded city streets?

Paving over the existing light-rail line and converting it into a busway?

Or just shoveling more transportation dollars to the city to re-pave its potholed network of deteriorating asphalt?

Without speedy rail transit nothing will prove effective in the long run. Yet Hogan says won’t pay for it in Baltimore (though he will in suburban Washington).

Burying Baltimore

Larry Hogan has put a deep nail in Baltimore’s coffin. He’s not looking to ameliorate the damage, either.

Maryland’s governor is a jovial, common-man sort of figure, but we’re learning that he holds a rigidly conservative view of the world.

In Hogan’s world, Baltimore needs to fend for itself because this governor — to use lyrics from the musical  “West Side Story” — would rather “let it sink back in the ocean.”

# # #

Hogan’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Rascovar

May 18, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. makes it sound like he’s riding to the rescue of Maryland’s underfunded pension program that has been continually “raided” by evil Democratic legislators in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Gov. Larry Hogan (left) & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

What a bunch of hogwash. It’s pure Hogan hypocrisy.

Hogan’s stance — torpedoing a $68 million education appropriation to the state’s most populous jurisdictions and shifting some of that money into the state pension fund — is based on politics, not policy.

Indeed, Hogan is a late convert to the cause of pension-fund integrity.

Silent Secretary

When legislative analysts went before House and Senate budget panels and proposed a 50 percent reduction in Hogan’s $150 million supplemental appropriation to the pension fund, the governor’s budget secretary not only failed to object but congratulated lawmakers for their assiduous work in responsibly paring Hogan’s budget request.

Not until it became politically expedient later in the session to slam Democrats for cutting the supplemental appropriation in half did Hogan belatedly turn into a pension-funding hawk.

Since then, he’s continually referred to Democratic lawmakers’ “raid” of pension money.

Another bit of Hogan flummery.

The pension agency got so offended at this misguided gubernatorial propaganda pitch that it issued a press release regarding “the mistaken impression that the pension fund had been ‘raided’ by the General Assembly during the recently-completed session. This is not the case.”

No Dipping Allowed

The agency explained that the dispute centered on how much extra should be spent to help the state more quickly reach full funding to pay for future pension payouts. The state’s required $1.8 billion budget contribution to the retirement account this year remained untouched.

Indeed, it’s illegal for the legislature or the governor to “dip into” the $45.7 billion pension fund. That money can only be used to make pension payouts. No “raids” are permitted. But you’d never know that from listening to the governor’s spiel.

Hogan’s pension purity pursuit was his way of diverting attention from his other action — denying important state dollars to Baltimore City and other high-cost subdivisions to help them avoid layoffs or cuts in school programs.

He said it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to give that money to the schools instead of pouring it into the pension fund.

He’s got his priorities reversed.

The greatest immediate urgency is bolstering education achievement in distressed communities like West Baltimore. That takes money.

Further fortifying the state’s pension program can be done more gradually over the next decade or two.

Harsh Consequences

Especially in light of civil unrest in poor, racially blighted Baltimore neighborhoods, Hogan’s decision to yank $11.6 million away from the city school system seems short-sighted and counter-productive.

The consequences of his action could be quite harsh when the General Assembly meets next January.  This slap in the face to Baltimore schools won’t be forgotten. Nor will legislators from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties forget Hogan’s slight, either. They lost a combined $37 million in school money.

The governor’s next big decision could be the fate of the two mass-transit lines affecting those three major jurisdictions — the east-west Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

His actions on the two lines could prove pivotal in his dealings with Democratic lawmakers. Deep-sixing either project will prompt an uproar. Yet Hogan is intent on appeasing his conservative base by finding ways to sharply reduce mass-transit costs.

He’s playing with political dynamite.

If he sets off a Democratic explosion over the fate of the Red and Purple lines, the resulting fallout could cripple Hogan’s efforts to constructively deal with the General Assembly over the next three years.

Judging from his rejection of supplemental education aid, this governor seems determined to restrict Maryland’s future spending habits at all costs. His goal is to lower taxes. Everything else is secondary.

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

May 11, 2015 — Larry Hogan Jr. is proving to be an unusual governor for Maryland, in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessors, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Both Democrat O’Malley and Republican Ehrlich love publicity and making a PR splash. They craved the spotlight, issued a tidal wave of propaganda pitches and tried to dominate the daily news coverage.

Republican Hogan wants none of the above. He’s such a modest, low-key governor that he brings to mind the gubernatorial years of an equally low-key Maryland chief executive, Harry Hughes.

But there’s a difference. Hughes came to Maryland’s top office steeped in state government and political expertise. Hogan, in contrast, was a novice who had never held an elective post.

During his campaign last year, Hogan followed a disciplined KISS strategy — “keep it simple, stupid.” His themes purposely avoided divisive social issues and stuck to a few key promises — cut the state budget and then cut taxes.

Narrow Legislative Focus

Hogan followed a similar KISS approach in his first legislative session. His one and only focus: developing a slimmed-down budget that came close to wiping out Maryland’s chronic structural deficit.

The rest of his so-called “agenda” consisted of leftovers from the campaign trail — unrealistic Republican proposals that stood no chance in a heavily Democratic General Assembly.

During those 90 days in Annapolis, Hogan held few press conferences, issued few press releases and remained pretty much in the background.

By session’s end, he had won much of the budget battles, setting the stage for a similar push next year to make room for tax cuts.

He gave us a preview of his intentions last week by announcing reduced tolls on Maryland’s roads and bridges.

Bay Bridge toll cut

While this puts a giant crimp in Maryland’s efforts to replace aging bridges and improve interstate roads, the symbolism of Hogan’s toll-cutting action is what counted for the governor.

Even when dealing with the volatile protests and unrest in Baltimore, the new governor kept his participation low-key — and simple.

His actions were few but decisive — calling in the National Guard when requested, moving his office to Baltimore and delivering daily updates in which he basically introduced law-enforcement leaders to brief the media.

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

When cornered by reporters, Hogan refused to blame the mayor for what had occurred and refused to discuss details of events. He sounded a one-note response: “We are here to keep the peace.”

Compared with the frenetic, 24/7 campaign styles O’Malley and Ehrlich brought to the governor’s mansion, Hogan’s modest and even shy approach is a refreshing change.

His eternal optimism, concern and ready smile serve him well with Marylanders.

Next Big Test

That widespread popularity soon could be tested when Hogan decides what to do about two costly but critical mass-transit projects — Baltimore’s Red Line and the suburban Washington Purple Line.

He called them unaffordable during the campaign, but rejecting either project will create deep antagonisms and hostility toward the Republican governor that could dog him in the legislature for the rest of his term.

So far, Hogan has avoided these kinds of flash points, knowing that a Republican governor can ill afford alienating a large chunk of the legislature’s majority party.

How he navigates between his campaign statements and strong public sentiment for the Red and Purple Lines in three of Maryland’s largest and most politically influential jurisdictions will tell us much about Hogan’s ability to navigate his way through perilous political situations.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. Contact him at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Hogan: Strike One

By Barry Rascovar

April 14, 2015 — In his stubbornly conservative and highly politicized approach to governing Annapolis over the past week, Republican Larry Hogan Jr. took a step that may seal his fate as a one-term governor.

Hogan: Strike One

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Let’s see: In just a few days Hogan managed to alienate and infuriate state workers, public school teachers and education advocates, disability workers, supporters of medical assistance for poor pregnant women and doctors who treat Medicaid patients.

He also left a trail of non-accomplishments.

Hogan’s refusal to follow-through on a final budget accord and instead turn the issue into a political football left Democratic legislators resentful and itching to show they can play hardball, too.

For someone who entered the governor’s mansion as Mr. Nice Guy cooing bipartisanship, Hogan ended his inaugural legislative session as Mr. Tough Guy defiantly declaring great success for what was clearly a disappointing 90-day performance.

Seeds for a Pushback

His flimsy legislative agenda got shredded. He turned victory on the state budget into an easily avoidable defeat.

He sowed the seeds for a strong Democratic pushback that could make Hogan’s legislative life miserable over the next three years.

The Republican governor’s inexperience showed.

He let hard-line ideologues on his staff get their way. Democrats reacted by tying his hands in future years on making budget cuts to education. They blocked him at nearly every turn.

Teacher layoffs that are sure to follow from Hogan’s budget-cutting actions will haunt him. He has awakened a key element of the Democratic Party’s base. Teachers and public school parents in core Democratic jurisdictions will neither forgive nor forget.

Pay Cut Coming

He also made enemies of 80,000 state workers by cutting their paychecks 2 percent, starting in July.

He still has a chance to spend the money set aside by the legislature for those two groups but that would require political accommodations Hogan doesn’t seem willing to make.

The irony is that Hogan had a golden opportunity to negotiate a budget giving him much of what he wanted without enraging large voting groups.

Indeed, Democratic negotiators thought it was a done deal — until Hogan made intentionally unacceptable demands at the last moment.

The new governor showed his naiveté and lack of insight into Maryland’s complex legislative process. His hard-nosed, conservative roots were showing.

His biggest mistake: Failing to accept the divided nature of governance in Maryland. Election as governor does not entitle Republican Hogan to rule the land in an imperial, “I’m the boss” manner.

Democrats firmly control the General Assembly. They are co-rulers. They make the laws, set policy and sit in judgment on the governor’s budget.

Hogan can’t demand obeisance to his legislative wishes. He can’t insist Democrats support a decidedly Republican agenda. Yet that’s what he tried to do in the final week before Monday’s sine die adjournment.

Budget Progress

Picking up the pieces won’t be easy for the governor.

He did, though, take a major step toward truly balancing the state’s budget. Simply by trimming government spending in the next few years, identifying areas where money can be saved without significantly impacting services and keeping expenditures lower than Maryland’s growth rate, Hogan can tame the state’s structural deficit demon.

But don’t expect savings large enough to support major tax cuts. Even if that were to happen, Democrats in Annapolis would write laws that re-direct this surplus in ways more appealing to their constituents in Maryland’s big, Democratic subdivisions.

Hogan gets the next nine months to operate without legislative interference. He’ll have time to assess his next moves and prepare more carefully for the 2016 General Assembly session.

Will he seek to re-build bridges to Democratic lawmakers on issues of mutual concern?

Or will he continue to take the path of political opportunism that makes governing impossibly difficult in the Maryland State House?

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Madaleno Crosses the Line

By Barry Rascovar

April 2, 2015–If only it had been an April’s Fool joke — but it wasn’t. Instead, a highly regarded Maryland state senator, who happens to be gay, got carried away with his anger over a discriminatory Indiana law and dragged the governor’s wife unwillingly into the conversation.

Sen. Richard Madaleno went too far. He crossed the line. His letter to the governor was hurtful to an innocent bystander.

State Sen. Richard Madaleno

State Sen. Richard Madaleno

Madaleno lost his credibility, and his argument, as soon as he dragooned Gov. Larry Hogan’s wife, Yumi, into his pitch for the governor to ban travel by state officials to Indiana.

Yumi Hogan, Madaleno wrote, could be subjected in Indiana to “public humiliation” under the new law and refused service by a business because she is a divorcee.

Spouses as Fair Game

It’s ludicrous statement. Worse than that, it unfairly makes a spouse fair game in rough-and-tumble political controversies.

How would Madaleno like it if the governor made a disparaging remark about the senator’s gay partner during a heated political debate?

It is unacceptable. Period.

Senate President Mike Miller did the right thing by telling senators “we don’t mention other people’s spouses in any type of correspondence — their spouses or children.”

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Madaleno knows better.

He harmed his cause and his effectiveness in the State House. While his intentions were pure, his recklessness proved counter-productive.

Hogan rejected the senator’s letter as a “stunt.” He didn’t even bother reading beyond the offensive statement about his wife, who was needlessly reminded of a painful chapter in her life.

Rich Madaleno is respected for his fiscal expertise. He plays a major role in the legislature’s all-important budget deliberations.

Hurting Constituents

Now, though, he’s persona non grata on the second floor of the State House. The governor isn’t going to accommodate his requests or give his statements much credence. He’s damaged his ability to help Montgomery County constituents.

The senator is right to protest loudly Indiana’s deeply disturbing and un-American law that sanctions discrimination (especially since more conservative states are following suit).

But in his haste and emotional distress, Madaleno made a mess of his message.

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Phony ‘Rain Tax’ War

By Barry Rascovar

March 24, 2015 — Opponents, especially Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., deceptively call it the “rain tax.” But the name and the issue are about as phony as a three-dollar bill.

Hogan used his mischaracterization of the stormwater remediation fee to great effect in winning the governorship. “Why they’re even taxing the rain!” he exclaimed in a highly effective TV ad.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor Larry Hogan Jr.

It’s actually a broad user fee based on how much stormwater pollution flows from roofs and parking surfaces — runoff that can cause great harm if it ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.

Hogan turned this into a political anti-tax, anti-government crusade. For him, this unconscionable levy showed the overreach of the O’Malley administration, which taxed anything that moved to fund an ever-growing list of do-gooder social programs.

Hidden Facts

His propaganda pitch worked; now Hogan is governor.

He pledged to eliminate the “rain tax.” but It isn’t working out that way.

Here’s a fact Hogan never told voters: Even if he could eliminate the “rain tax,” that step wouldn’t lower state or county spending by a penny.

Indeed, wiping out the “rain tax” would have zero impact on Hogan’s state budget. Repeat: zero impact.

It would affect some county taxpayers who now are assessed a stormwater remediation fee on their annual property tax bill. They could see their county taxes lowered minimally.

Another Catch

Here’s another catch: In each of the 10 jurisdictions affected by the “rain tax,” eliminating the levy could force county officials to make cuts in other programs like schools and public works.

It would be a lose-lose scenario.

That’s because these counties and Baltimore City are under a federal mandate to reduce polluted stormwater pouring into the bay. With or without the “rain tax,” they are required to continue paying for costly stream restoration and other cleanup efforts.

For example, Baltimore County spends $22 million a year on its remediation work. That money comes from the “rain tax.”

Eliminate the levy and the county still must come up with $22 million for those environmental-protection projects. That’s about the cost of a new elementary school.

In other words, it’s a zero-sum game.

If Hogan were to get his way, county governments would be squeezed to find money for those mandated environmental activities. Other programs financed by the counties would take the hit, be it schools, government-worker pay raises, road repairs or social programs.

Symbolic Reduction

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz already has made a symbolic reduction in his county’s stormwater remediation fee, lowering the levy by one-third. He found roughly $8 million of savings in his budget that now will be used for these anti-pollution projects.

Stream restoration

Stream restoration project in Baltimore County

The county’s stormwater remediation work continues unimpeded. In future years, though, it could become increasingly difficult to find that extra money without cutting back in other areas.

 

Miller’s Plan

On the state level, symbolism is the name of the game, too.

Senate President Mike Miller, the most astute political mind in Annapolis, came up with the ideal Democratic response to Republican Hogan’s “no rain tax” demand.

Miller won unanimous Senate approval for his bill that makes the county remediation fee optional.

If Frederick County, Harford County or Carroll County wants to get rid of the fee totally, they are free to do so. But they still have to ante up millions to finance a long list of remediation projects.

That burden remains.

Indeed, Miller’s bill requires those counties to specify their remediation efforts and identify how they will be funded. Failure to do so could lead to a loss of state dollars.

Smarter county officials, who understand the value of spreading the tax burden for these anti-pollution efforts, could continue their fees under Miller’s bill. They won’t have to limit other county programs to make room for mandated remediation projects.

Curious Debate

Whether Miller’s “rain tax” option makes it through the House of Delegates is in doubt. Some Democrats there want to keep the current fee in place, despite the political advantage it gives Hogan and his conservative allies.

It’s one of the more curious debates to grip Annapolis in years.

No state taxes are involved.

No county saves a penny if Hogan gets his way.

The stormwater anti-pollution programs must continue — unless a county wants to get sued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Miller’s compromise bill offers a sensible way out for everyone. That’s why Hogan has thrown his support behind it.

Regardless of the outcome, this phony “rain tax” war will continue. Hogan will milk it for all it is worth — even if the facts aren’t on his side.

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