Category Archives: U.S.

Maryland’s Mixed Economic Messages

By Barry Rascovar

May 22, 2017 – Talk about sending mixed messages, the latest jobs report for Maryland can be read as good news or the precursor of bad economic news.

Maryland added 3,500 jobs in April. That’s good, right?

Well, yes, but remember in March Maryland lost 7,900 jobs.

Want another mixed message?

Maryland’s unemployment rate rose slightly to 4.3%. That’s a disturbing sign, small though it may be.

It indicates more people who had dropped out of even trying to find a job are once again seeking work. A larger pool of job-seekers could keep the unemployment rate in Maryland on an upward path.

Yet it’s a good sign that Maryland’s jobless rate remains a notch below the national unemployment rate of 4.4%.

Conflicting Federal Signals

If you want to see an even bigger mixed economic message for the Free State, look at what’s about to happen in dysfunctional Washington.

President Trump will be releasing his first budget this week for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Early indicators point to a fiscal blueprint that slashes domestic programs especially for the poor and the environment but is exceedingly generous to the military.

How do you rate that package, good or bad?

Here’s one more: Trump trumpeted his “great day” in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, where a series of tentative agreements were announced.

Maryland's Mixed Economic Signals

President Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia

The White House claimed these still-evolving deals could be worth $110 billion, much of it in military equipment, plus a still-murky $40 billion joint infrastructure investment fund.

Good for the U.S. economy, right?

But these are merely “understandings” between the two governments. Nothing is written in stone.

First, these purchases may take a long time, if ever, to materialize. Tough and lengthy negotiations lie ahead.

Moreover, the Saudi government is demanding that a vast amount of the spending take place outside the U.S. – in the Arabian kingdom.

Lockheed Martin is trying to lock down $28 billion worth of military contracts with the Saudis, including air-missile defense systems and aircraft.

How much of this work will end up in Maryland remains unclear.

Signed contracts could be a long way off.

And the Saudi government is insisting much of this work be done in their own country. It’s part of the push by the deputy crown prince to move the Saudi economy away from its current over-dependence on petroleum production.

There’s also a sense of urgency in the kingdom to bring down the high unemployment rate among young adults who are well-educated but can’t find work.

So there may be less in Trump’s Saudi agreements for the U.S. economy than at first blush.

Budget Blues

Maryland’s bigger problem lies in the soon-to-be-unveiled Trump budget proposal.

The Environmental Protection Agency budget alone is scary: Eliminating the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, doing away with lead-abatement funding, cutting air and water quality cleanup grants by nearly half and tossing out lots and lots of environmental regulations.

There’s even $12 million set aside for buyouts and early retirement offers – part of the EPA’s determination to shrink the agency and restrict its role in state and local environmental efforts.

The good news is that Congress can disregard Trump’s draconian domestic spending agenda, though it is likely to give the military a huge budget boost. How the American public perceives this dramatic spending shift may remain uncertain until the 2018 elections.

Maryland and Virginia could be the biggest losers.

Trump can accomplish a massive government downsizing without congressional consent. While Capitol Hill may give Trump more money than he requests for domestic programs, the president need not spend that money.

This could mean more Marylanders thrown out of work. For state government, it could lead to a drop-off in tax revenue, a budget crisis in the State House and rising demands from localities for the state to step in and fund programs losing federal support.

Yes, the glass these days can be viewed as half-empty or half-full.

Yet it is hard to see how this is good news for those in Annapolis who must deal with the economic fallout stemming from Republican downsizing efforts in Washington.

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Hogan’s Worst Nightmare: Trumpcare

By Barry Rascovar

May 8, 2017 – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s worst nightmare is starting to come true. Trumpcare has passed the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Senate finds a way to give President Trump what he wants, it could spell a heap of trouble for Hogan in 2018’s general election.

The Republican Party’s mania with obliterating Barack Obama’s massive health insurance law has led the majority party in Washington to ignore common sense.

“Repeal and replace” is a GOP obsession – though an estimated 24 million people could lose their insurance, tens of millions more could be out of luck due to pre-existing conditions and medical programs for the poor could be cut 25%.

It also would damage the nation’s economy. That’s especially true in Maryland, where healthcare is one of the state’s biggest employers.Hogan's Worst NightmareIt is almost certain to be the No. 1 issue in the 2018 mid-term elections, even if the Senate approves a diluted Trumpcare bill.

What a devastating state of affairs for Republican Hogan. Until the House vote last week, he appeared in excellent shape to win a second term.

Now he has to figure out how to tiptoe around this explosive issue that already is proving highly unpopular.

Unfavorable Poll Numbers

A Washington Post-ABC poll last month found 61% of Americans opposed Trumpcare. A Quinnipiac poll the month before found Trumpcare support stood at just 17%.

Most Americans, it appears, would rather stick with the existing – though seriously flawed – Obamacare medical insurance program and fix parts that aren’t working well (“keep and improve” as opposed to the GOP’s “repeal and replace”).

Wait until the Congressional Budget Office issues its cost and impact analysis of the House-passed version of Trumpcare. It could expose the bill’s soft underbelly. Public resistance could grow louder.

For Hogan, House passage of Trumpcare might be the beginning of bad news.

He could be trapped in a nearly untenable position: A Republican who might have to disavow his own party leaders in Washington to survive.

Hogan won election in 2014 by promising “no new taxes.” Does that mean he will let Trumpcare’s 25% cut in federal Medicaid funds lay waste to Maryland’s health programs for the poor and near-poor? Where would he find hundreds of millions in state dollars to cover those unfunded programs?

How does he run for reelection with Trumpcare hanging over his head?

Justifying Republican Plan

How does Hogan justify to voters his party’s plan to let insurance companies charge outrageously high premiums – or deny coverage entirely – for people with “pre-existing conditions”? This could be anyone with acne, anxiety, depression, diabetes, obesity, cancer, pulmonary problems, asthma or even allergies.

How does he tell older working Marylanders that under his party’s plan their insurance premiums could jump an unaffordable 500%?

How does he explain a cut of $600 billion in taxes that supported Obamacare – a massive windfall for wealthy Americans, insurance companies and medical device companies?

How does he justify $880 billion in healthcare cuts to Medical Assistance for the poor?

Hogan & Company should be praying that the Senate junks the House bill and takes a few years to figure out what to do next.

Otherwise, the GOP across the country – including here in Maryland – could take a shellacking for its all-out effort to appease its conservative base.

Gift to Democrats

There’s no doubt Democratic candidates for Maryland governor will tie Hogan to Trumpcare.

Every candidate will be running ads with tales of how middle-class and working-class Marylanders would be hurt, how lives hang in the balance.

It is a gift from heaven for Democrats.

One Republican pollster called the GOP’s insistent quest to wipe out Obamacare “political malpractice.”

Until recently the notion of Democrats regaining control of the House by picking up 24-plus seats next year appeared wishful thinking. Thanks to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s determination to pass a draconian Trumpcare bill, that’s no longer the case.

Little wonder Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi – the former Nancy D’Alesandro from Baltimore’s Little Italy – was practically giddy.

Every Republican will be vulnerable, unless he or she disowns the GOP’s No. 1 issue and risks losing support from Trump’s supporters. “This vote will be tattooed to them,” Pelosi vowed.

That includes Republican Hogan, who has made an extensive effort to distance himself from Donald Trump and his controversial comments and proposals.

That may not be enough to give him immunity from this highly contagious political disease.

When virtually every healthcare group – from the American Medical Association to the American Hospital Association to AARP – as well as virtually every insurance group vehemently opposes the Republicans’ “repeal and replace” crusade, smart politicians should pay attention.

Failure by the GOP to “listen and learn” could prove fatal come November 2018 – both in Maryland and nationwide.

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Larry Hogan Sr. – Courage When It Counted

By Barry Rascovar

It happened long ago. Congressman Larry Hogan, Sr. stood alone and defied his party, voting not once but three times to impeach Republican President Richard Nixon. It was the most principled stand taken by a Maryland politician in our lifetimes.

He did what was right, not what was politically correct.

Hogan died last week at 88, eclipsed in the public eye by his namesake, the current Maryland governor – an office the father was denied due to his impeachment stance.

Larry Hogan, Sr.

Congressman Larry Hogan, Sr. and his son.

Yet it was the father, consigned to the pages of history, who offered a lesson in what it means to take the perilous moral and legal high road rather than the easy partisan and career-advancing low road.

It’s a lesson we must remember given the sorry state of affairs in this country. The rules of fair play, truthfulness and integrity are being tossed aside in the manic quest for political power.

The good of the country is being replaced by the quest for personal gain and prestige.

Those Watergate Years

We can’t afford to forget the Watergate era that so stained our country. For those who were around, it was a terrifying time.

The president had been caught approving and even leading a massive conspiracy to conduct a break-in and robbery; blackmail and bribe witnesses, and cover up the hideous truth.

When his own attorney general refused to knuckle under to Nixon’s demands to crush the Watergate investigation, the president fired this nation’s highest-ranking law-enforcement officer. His deputy also refused to defy his constitutional duty and was sacked, too.

It became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. What a scary time. Many feared the end of American democracy.

Sadly, there are echoes in what’s happening today in and around the White House.

Facts are regularly tossed aside in favor of expedient fairy tales that glorify the president and his cheerleaders. The Big Lie is replacing the uncomfortable truth.

Above the Law?

For Larry Hogan Sr., the uncomfortable truth was that his party’s and his country’s leader had lied and hidden what had happened, had violated his constitutional oath and had engaged in illegal acts.

No one is above the law, Hogan announced, not even the most powerful official in the land.

Such independence and gutsy courage were rare in the early 1970s among Republicans. Hogan stood by himself when he announced on the eve of that crucial House Judiciary Committee session in 1974 he would vote to impeach Nixon. No other committee Republican joined him in defying the president.

He knew at the time his impeachment vote might doom his chances of running successfully for governor that November. Sadly, Hogan’s intuition proved accurate.

In September’s Republican primary, Maryland GOP voters turned their backs on the congressman who had sought to remove Republican Nixon. Instead, they nominated a hapless, socially prominent party loyalist, Louise Gore.

It was payback time for Republican ideologues and hardliners, even if it meant obliterating any chance of beating Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel. Indeed, Louise Gore was crushed in a laugher of a November general election.

Resurrection in Prince George’s

Yet the ex-congressman refused to be driven from the political stage. He resurrected his career two years later in a heavily Democratic jurisdiction and won election as Prince George’s County Executive.

He did so by capitalizing on voter anger over the high cost of supporting the county’s population boom and suburbanization, which translated into the need for ever-higher property taxes to pay for expanded public services. Hogan won by a 3-2 margin, despite his Republican label.

As county executive Hogan proved a tough man with a dollar, cutting spending even on schools and libraries, eliminating 3,000 government jobs, holding the line on pay raises and lowering the property tax rate 20%.

No wonder his son ran for governor in 2014 on the same promises as his dad – lower taxes and fiscal belt-tightening.

To an extent, the son has followed through on those promises. Like his father, he is in strong position to win reelection in a heavily Democratic state.

But that election is still 18 months away. Hogan Jr.’s biggest test may lie ahead, thanks to an eerily similar situation to the one faced by his father during those Watergate years.

Then vs. Now

By 1974, the Watergate scandal had made Nixon a highly unpopular and controversial president, much like Donald Trump.

Today, Maryland’s governor has tried to separate his own work from the incendiary comments and actions of Trump and Tea Party congressmen. He didn’t support Trump in the presidential campaign and cast a write-in vote for his father in November.

Still, Hogan has refused to make a public break with Trump for fear of alienating diehard Republicans he needs to get reelected.

Yet the more radical the Trump administration becomes in the months ahead, the more difficult it could be for Hogan to remain a dispassionate governor.

At some point Republican Hogan may have to forcefully oppose a Republican president, just as his father did in 1974.

This time the issue might be curtailment of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, elimination of health care coverage for low-paid workers and their families, the loss of tens of thousands of federal jobs in Maryland or violence tied to tough immigration enforcement efforts.

Separating Hogan from Trump may become more and more difficult in voters’ eyes by late 2018. It is one of the few ways he could lose.

Refusing to place party loyalty over what’s best for the country cost Larry Hogan, Sr. the governorship in 1974. He never regretted doing the right thing.

His son may end up facing a somewhat similar predicament.

Will he stay true to his inner moral compass or stubbornly stick to the Trump-Tea Party line? Far more than Hogan’s reelection may be at stake. ##

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

A Week of Vetoes

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

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

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounding the Alarm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reelection Takes Priority

None of this needed to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hogan dodges Trump bullet, fracking, ‘road-kill’ & more

By Barry Rascovar

March 27, 2017Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan can thank his lucky stars the bitter and intractable Republican disputes in Washington sabotaged plans to do away with the nation’s current healthcare plan, the Affordable Care Act.

Passage of the Trumpcare alternative – imposing horrific added costs on older Americans, endangering Medicare funding and removing healthcare coverage for 14 million citizens next year – would have had cataclysmic effects in Maryland and placed Hogan on an untenable political hot seat.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

President Trump

Instead, Hogan gets a slight reprieve, which helps his chances of getting reelected next year.

Then again, if the president and GOP hardliners insist on pressing a second time to wipe out the ACA and succeed, Hogan will be in the bull’s eye when furious Maryland Democrats seek revenge at the polls.

Equally ominous for the first-term Republican governor is Trump’s obsession with making exceedingly deep cuts in the federal budget. Even if Congress ignores the president’s budget submission from last week, the administration has its marching orders – cut personnel wherever possible, cut back severely on spending wherever possible and hold back on doling out money for programs run by the states.

Take, for instance, Trump’s budget that eliminates all federal funds for Chesapeake Bay restoration. Any sizable elimination of funds will infuriate many moderates and independents who voted for Hogan in 2014. Anger toward Trump could be taken out on Hogan on Election Day next year.

Hogan Dodges Trump Bullet

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The Maryland governor’s silence about Trump’s assault on federal spending isn’t helping him, either. Of course he’s in an unwinnable bind – criticize Trump and Hogan’s conservative followers will feel betrayed; support the president and Democrats will unload on Hogan.

It’s a tough time to be a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state. Hogan has his work cut out trying to separate himself from a wildly unpopular president without alienating died-in-the-wool Republican voters.

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From the “sound and fury signifying nothing” department, here are two items of wasted energy by elected leaders in Annapolis who should know better:

Pointless fracking debate

Environmental activists are in a tizzy over their insistence that hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus shale rock formations deep beneath Garrett County and a portion of Allegany County be forever banned in Maryland.

They’ve made such a stink that Hogan has flip-flopped on the issue – abandoning his efforts to help Republican Western Maryland landowners who might some day benefit from extraction of oil and gas using this “fracking” technique that has been in use for over 60 years.

Yet here’s the reality:

·         There is no fracking taking place anywhere in Maryland.

·         There is no likelihood of fracking taking place in Maryland any time in the years to come.

·         Fracking in Maryland is uneconomical today and will be for a long time to come.

·         Regulations proposed by Hogan are so tough that no exploration companies in their right mind will venture into Maryland unless oil prices soar far beyond $100 a barrel – an unlikely scenario thanks to the glut of fracked oil wells in more hospitable, resource-rich regions of the country.

So environmentalists will win this empty victory and Hogan will win over some environmentalists come Election Day – but he might also lose votes from the Western Maryland landowners he betrayed.

Ludicrous “Road Kill Bill” dispute

Both Hogan and lawmakers are in the wrong here.

The governor has completely politicized a law that is so insipid and toothless it’s not worth arguing about.

The law in question has no enforcement provisions and leaves the governor in full control of road-building decisions. All it does is provide a bit of transparency on the relative value of each project being funded.

Hogan’s empty threat of not funding projects because of this law is strictly for next year’s campaign sloganeering. He’s made a mountain out of a teeny molehill just to win political points with rural and suburban voters.

Democratic lawmakers said they were going to amend the law this year to make it even clearer the law is strictly advisory. They also said they would simplify the evaluation process.

Instead, Democrats in the Senate are pushing for a two-year delay in implementing a toothless law while wasting time studying how to make the law even more meaningless.

The whole thing is pointless and a turnoff to voters of all stripes.

Surely the governor and lawmakers can spend the remaining days of this General Assembly session on something that really is constructive and helps Maryland citizens.

Moxie from the mayor

Here’s a shout-out to new Baltimore Mayor Catherin Pugh, who took an unpopular stand because it was the right thing to do.

She vetoed a bill mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage for most workers in the city – a move that would have been an economic calamity for Baltimore.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh at her inauguration in December.

We all want every worker to take home a decent paycheck. But not if it means businesses will fire personnel, reduce hours for their remaining staff and consider moving across the city-county line.

Those weren’t idle threats when this well-meaning but idealistic bill passed the naively liberal City Council.

Such an ordinance would leave the city deep in debt, according to its own financial analysts, with businesses fleeing to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to take advantage of a lower minimum wage, far lower property taxes and lower insurance rates.

Baltimore City must be competitive. The state’s minimum wage already is scheduled to rise this July and in succeeding years, too.

Besides, minimum-wage jobs are not intended to be permanent positions but rather a starting point for people eager to work their way up the economic ladder to more responsible and good-paying jobs with long-term career potential.

Pugh’s veto protects Baltimore’s economic well-being, even if liberal critics unfairly condemn her.

She’s been quiet and withdrawn during her initial months in office. Yet when it truly mattered, Pugh didn’t hesitate to analyze the facts and make a tough, courageous decision.   ###

Hogan, Trump & Trouble?

By Barry Rascovar

March 13, 2017–Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, Jr., has done all in his power to separate himself from the new, controversial Republican president, Donald Trump.

Given Trump’s unpopularity in Maryland – he lost by a whopping 25% in November – that wall of separation keeps Hogan in good stead with most voters in this top-heavy Democratic state.

His popularity remains sky-high and Hogan continues to skirt controversial social issues that could bring him trouble with liberal voters while losing the backing of GOP conservatives.

Hogan, Trump & Trouble?

MD Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

His prime objective is getting reelected in 2018 while dragging in with him enough Republican legislators to ensure a veto-proof state Senate.

Then Hogan would have more leverage and ability to help the state GOP turn the corner in Maryland and become a truly viable statewide alternative to Democrat hegemony.

But that scenario could blow up in Hogan’s face through no fault of his own.

Trump Referendum?

The 2018 election is looking more and more like a national referendum on Donald Trump’s manic, unpredictable presidency. If that become the case, Hogan’s continuation in office could hang by a thread.

The beginning of the end for Hogan may have commenced last week with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s rush to eliminate Obamacare and replace it with a haphazard health-care insurance program that punishes the lower-middle class, the poor and citizens nearing retirement age.

It also is sending the nation’s health-insurance industry into a prolonged period of chaotic uncertainty. The result could be a rapid pullout next year by insurers from what’s left of Obamacare to avoid gigantic losses caused by the program’s slow, agonizing demise mandated by Ryan’s legislation.

The Congressional Budget Office on Monday estimated a whopping 14 million Americans would lose their health insurance coverage next year under the Republican plan being rammed through the House of Representatives. That’s terrible for Republicans who have to run for reelection in the fall of 2018.

Cutting subsidies out from under Obamacare also would devastate state health budgets. Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders now receiving health insurance support or care through Medicaid could be cut off without the resources to afford health-care protection (CBO says premiums could rise 20 percent next year alone).

Ryan’s plan calls for Maryland and other states to receive far less to undergird their health insurance programs. Hospitals could be flooded by non-paying patients with nowhere else to go. Preventive health care, a key component of Obamacare, would disappear; people would show up at emergency rooms needing far more costly medical treatment.

Bad timing

For Hogan, the timing couldn’t be worse. By next year, Maryland’s entire health care network could face an unprecedented financial and medical crisis. Maryland’s health expenditures could balloon, and many of the state’s citizens could be panicking over the loss of their medical safety net.

That’s a recipe for problems at the polls.

Unfortunately for Hogan, this could be just the initial blow coming from Trump’s Washington.

Sweeping federal layoffs this year and next seem in the cards — the largest cutbacks since the end of World War II by one account.

Last week, Comptroller Peter Franchot wrote down state revenue estimates for the next 18 months by $33 million and warned of the likelihood of major job losses in federal agencies employing hundreds of thousands of Free State citizens.

The budgets for programs affecting all aspect of the Maryland economy are at risk, from housing assistance critical in poor communities like Baltimore and rural Maryland to severe reductions in funding for the Coast Guard that could hurt the state’s important maritime economy and policing of the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland impact

Massive budget cuts in the space program, food and drug enforcement, agriculture, the Census Bureau, the Medicaid agency, education aid, medical research and environmental protection would reverberate ithrough Maryland, home to many of these agencies.

All of this is dreadful news for Hogan.

He’s got nothing to do with what Trump and his Republican allies are foisting on the American public. Yet he may end up paying the ultimate political price.

Let’s face it. Hogan’s 2014 election victory was a fluke, the result of a well-run campaign and exceedingly good luck: Democrats nominated a historically bad candidate (Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, now a member of Congress) who ran one of the worst-ever gubernatorial campaigns.

Given Maryland’s 2-1 Democratic voter registration edge, Hogan’s re-election was always less than certain, even with his high poll numbers. Inflame the state’s Democratic voters and any Republican, even a popular incumbent, could have big problems.

So if Marylanders are infuriated with Trump & Friends; if hundreds of thousands are scared, angry and afraid of having little or no health coverage; if the state’s large federal workforce endures unprecedented layoffs and spending cuts, and if Democrats are so enraged they take out their fury on Election Day, Hogan had better prepare for the worst.

Déjà vu?

It’s happened before.

In 2006, Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich enjoyed exceptionally high polling numbers right up till the general election. Most people said Ehrlich had done a pretty good job. Yet he lost by 6% – nearly 120,000 votes.

How could that happen?

Ehrlich’s loss was linked to the unpopularity of a Republican president, George W. Bush, saddled with a wobbly economy, a flagging war on terrorism, an unnecessary, trumped-up war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and ineptness in the White House.

By the November 2006 election, Bush’s poll rating – which hit 90% after the 2001 terrorist bombings, had plunged to 38%. (It would continue to sink to a low of 25%).

Voters wanted to send Bush a message – and in Maryland the only way to do that was by voicing disapproval of the top Republican candidate on the ballot that year – Bob Ehrlich.

Hogan should be alarmed that Donald Trump’s approval rating as of two weeks ago was just 38% – identical to Bush’s low appeal in 2006. The Obamacare controversy and the new president’s angry Twitter insults, unsubstantiated allegations and inflammatory rhetoric could shrink Trump’s approval numbers to record lows for an American president.

Should 2018 turn into a “message” election, Larry Hogan’s “good guy” image and Marylanders’ lack of animus toward him may prove all but worthless.

He could well become, for state voters, Donald Trump’s surrogate on the ballot.

It could be 2006 all over again in Maryland.  ##  

To Frack or Not to Frack?

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cracking Open Shale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Push for Complete Ban

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

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

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

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

But petroleum firms no longer show interest in Maryland.

Deterrents to Fracking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Giving Frosh His Independence

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 20, 2017—You can’t blame Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., for getting irritated over the Maryland attorney general’s new authority – granted by the General Assembly – to sue the federal government without the governor’s permission.

This strips Hogan of a smidgen of his enormous powers. Yet if the Republican chief executive truly wished to stop this slight weakening of his powers all he had to do was pick up the phone and negotiate a compromise.

Instead, Hogan gave Attorney General Brian Frosh, one of the mildest mannered men in politics, the cold shoulder when Frosh requested the go-ahead to object in court to President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim nations.

Giving Frosh His Independence

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh

Hogan called the delegation of power to Frosh “crazy” and “horrible” – but the real nuttiness lies in Hogan’s refusal to talk through his objections with Frosh and come to a reasonable arrangement each could live with.

Political Divide

Sure, Hogan is a conservative Republican to the core and Frosh is a down-the-line Montgomery County liberal Democrat.

Still, Frosh almost never picks a fight. His 20 years in the legislature were marked by quiet persuasion based on facts, open dialogue and finding middle ground.

Only when Frosh asked for permission to sue, provided back-up documentation to the governor and was met by silence did he opt to make an un-Frosh-like aggressive move.

Democrats in the House and Senate were happy to help him, since they were alarmed by Trump’s executive order against Muslim refugees and immigrants.

Numerous state attorneys general sued to stop the president’s executive order and temporarily succeeded in blocking it. Frosh wanted authorization from Hogan to do the same thing.

He said he was concerned by clear indications the new administration will wipe out the Affordable Care Act that gives health insurance to 430,000 Marylanders and anti-environmental steps that could damage the health of the Chesapeake Bay. He wanted the tools to speak out on Maryland’s behalf in court.

Weak A.G.

Maryland is one of a handful of states that didn’t –until last week – give its attorney general the independence to sue the federal government without getting an okay from the governor.

Indeed, this state has one of the weakest attorney general offices in the country. Only on rare occasions can Frosh’s office conduct a criminal investigation and try the case—the state’s constitution handed over those broad powers to the local state’s attorneys in 1851.

Maryland’s attorney general primarily staffs the law offices of state agencies, gives legal advice to the governor, General Assembly and judiciary, handles consumer protection issues, defends the state in court litigation and files lawsuits on behalf of state agencies.

Yet this is a statewide office just like the governor and state comptroller. All three are elected by Maryland voters every four years. Their authority is spelled out in the Maryland constitution. Yet Frosh’s office is unusually dependent on the governor for permission to act.

That’s never been a healthy situation.

Why create a constitutional law office without giving that office the freedom to carry out the full range of legal responsibilities normally handled by an attorney general in other states?

Why make the Maryland attorney general such a weak reed, unable to speak for the state on legal matters without first coming on bended knee to the governor for consent?

The current conflict over separation of powers never surfaced when Democrats occupied both offices. Usually the two elected officers were on the same political wave length and agreed on occasional litigation to protest federal actions.

Cover for Hogan

Under Hogan and at times under Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich disagreements have surfaced. Yet this need not have reached a point of separation if Hogan had ordered his skilled legal counsel, Robert Scholz, to work out an accommodation.

Frosh may have been close to the truth when he suggested this new arrangement actually gives Hogan the best of both worlds – despite the governor’s public protests.

Hogan doesn’t want to go on record opposing the new Republican president. He’s trying hard to ignore anything and everything Trump says that provokes controversy.

Yet it’s no secret radicals in the new administration want to deep-six Obamacare and purge all sorts of environmental regulations that could set back efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Someone has to speak out and protest in court at the appropriate time. Hogan doesn’t want to alienate his Republican core base, yet extreme actions in Washington may require pushback from Maryland to avert harm to citizens and the “Land of Pleasant Living.”

The new delegation of authority by the legislature to Frosh solves that dilemma quite neatly for Hogan. He can continue to ignore Trumpian broadsides and dangerous executive orders while Frosh, on his own volition, tries to block Trump’s moves in court.

The governor’s hands are clean. He hasn’t forsaken the Republican president.

(He also can try to dissuade Frosh through well-reasoned arguments. The power granted Frosh requires that he notify Hogan of the attorney general’s intention to sue, wait 10 days so the governor can put any concerns he has in writing, and then Frosh must “consider the Governor’s  objection before commencing the suit or action.”)

Re-election Battle?

The real danger for Hogan could lie in the next six to 12 months if Trump takes such extreme steps affecting Marylanders, the state’s social programs and its natural resources that Frosh becomes the hero of the day – filing lawsuits repeatedly to stop or reverse Trump’s moves.

Should Hogan continue to remain mum during that time, ignoring the human toll of Trump’s actions, it might hurt the governor’s re-election chances.

Thus, Brian Frosh might place himself at the head of the pack of candidates running for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Could Hogan then face off against the attorney general in November 2018 just as Frosh’s popularity in vote-heavy Central Maryland soars due to his role as Maryland’s defender against heavy-handed actions from Washington?

It’s not far-fetched.

That possibility gains credence with Frosh’s request for a future annual budget of $1 million to create a five-person legal staff to sue the Trump administration when the public interest or welfare of Maryland citizens is threatened – be it their health, public safety, civil liberties, economic security, environment, natural resources or travel restrictions.

If Hogan, for political reasons, won’t oppose Trump and radicals in the administration, Frosh is the logical person to fill that void.

Giving him the power to act isn’t wild and crazy. It’s in line with the way things work in most other states. It ensures that Maryland’s interests will be defended by at least one statewide, constitutional officer elected by the people.

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Hogan and the Elephant in the Room

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 6, 2017 – If a Martian had landed in Annapolis last week and watched Gov. Larry Hogan’s State of the State address, he/she would have thought: “Wow, what a nice guy. What a perfect blend of bipartisanship and leadership. He’s my kind of governor.”

Indeed, that’s the image Hogan wants to project to the voting public – nice guy, good ideas, wants to cast politics aside and work with his foes to get things done.

Except the reality, rather than the distorted image, is quite different.

Hogan acts the role of bipartisan governor quite well for the cameras. Behind the scenes, though, he’s unwilling to open the door to Democrats and quick to play the blame game. He sharply mocks his political critics.

During his two years in office, Hogan rarely has worked cooperatively with Democrats. Instead, he lays down a take-it-or-leave plan of action – and he did last week – and refuses to negotiate a middle ground.

Back-Patting

You can chalk up his most recent State of the State speech to political hype and self-congratulatory back-patting. If there’s anything wrong happening in Maryland, it’s not his fault but those self-absorbed Democrats. Nary a negative word was sounded by Hogan – until he took some swipes at Democrats.

Hogan and the elephant in the Room

Gov. Larry Hogan delivers State of the State Address in House of Delegates Chamber

There’s no surprise here. Hogan wants to put a politicized, glossy filter on the Maryland scene.

What did come as a surprise was Hogan’s complete avoidance of the proverbial elephant in the room – widespread fear and trembling as a radical populist takes charge of the U.S. government just 32 miles away.

Hogan’s high popularity numbers stem in part from his careful “I’m not involved” approach to hot-button societal controversies. That now includes anything and everything happening in Trumpland.

Yet how can the governor ignore the dire situation Maryland could face later this year once President Trump and determined tea party Republicans in Congress demolish the Affordable Care Act providing health insurance for 430,000 Marylanders?

He said not a word about the ACA’s demise and what, if anything, he will do to avert a health-care crisis in the Free State. Hogan remains mum.

Cuts Coming from Washington

Similarly, Hogan ignored the clear and present danger to Maryland posed by vast federal budget cuts Trump and congressional Republicans have promised. Such massive reductions will reverberate throughout Central Maryland, costing possibly tens of thousands federal jobs.

The implications for Marylanders and Hogan’s budget are immense. That should have been a priority item in Hogan’s address to the legislature. Instead, he remained silent.

Once again, Hogan proved himself anything but a pro-active governor. He’s almost completely reactive, and only after factoring in popularity numbers and his reelection campaign effort.

Hogan gave no indication he is making plans to cope with what appears to be a whirlwind of destructive actions in Washington that could bring Maryland to its knees.

Maryland and Virginia are the states most at risk from Draconian budget moves by Trump and Congress. Federal employees constitute 8 percent of Maryland’s workforce.

Sweeping personnel and spending reductions will affect all of the Maryland economy. Yet we’ve heard not one word about this from Hogan.

No More Balanced Budget?

Trump’s anti-immigrant executive order is causing confusion, fear and uncertainty at Maryland colleges and universities and within immigrant communities.  It could create massive disruptions at research and education centers at College Park, the University of Maryland Medical Center and Johns Hopkins – both the university campus and the sprawling East Baltimore medical complex.

For state government, Hogan’s balanced budget could rapidly tumble into a deep deficit, requiring massive revisions this legislative session and special sessions later in the year to react to sharp federal funding cuts and job layoffs.

Hogan could have no choice but to make highly unpopular cutbacks, a move that won’t help his reelection chances.

It would have helped if the governor had reassured lawmakers and the public that he and his staff are hard at work developing alternative plans and creative approaches to help Marylanders who might lose health insurance or their federal jobs en masse.

Instead, Hogan pretends the threat from Washington doesn’t exist.

That’s not leadership; that’s pretending the problem doesn’t exist. His speech lacked transparency and honesty. Hogan gave listeners political Pablum.

Dark, threatening storm clouds are on the horizon, heading toward the Annapolis State House from the southwest.

Yet Hogan keeps telling us it’s a sunny day and everything is copasetic.

Maybe it’s time for the governor to adopt the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” and get the state and its people ready for what could be a tumultuous and unsettling time.

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Trump & Hogan Agree: Corporate Welfare Works

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 5, 2016 – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. may not have supported or voted for President-elect Donald Trump but they agree on one thing: Corporate welfare works.

Throwing money and tax breaks at Northrop Grumman, Marriott International and United Technologies did the trick this past week – along with a good deal of loud, Trumpian threats in the case of UT’s subsidiary, Carrier Corp., in Indiana.

Trump, Hogan Agree

President-elect Trump celebrating deal to keep Carrier manufacturing plant open in Indiana.

To prevent Carrier from moving 1,400 jobs to Mexico, Trump used heavy-handed insinuation of future punishment to deliver a largely symbolic message that he’ll stop at nothing to save American manufacturing jobs.

Hogan’s task was somewhat different and involved persuasion rather than threats – backed by wads of cash.

A $57.5 million five-year package of “loans” and tax credits eventually persuaded Northrop Grumman to keep its 10,280 employees in Maryland – including the 6,800 who work at the massive former Westinghouse electronics complex near BWI Airport in Linthicum.

Meanwhile, a state-county incentive package of some $60 million was needed to keep Marriott’s headquarters in Montgomery County instead of shifting to Northern Virginia.

The bonus here is that Marriott intends to erect a $600 million complex in downtown Bethesda for its 3,500 HQ employees. That number should expand due to Marriott’s recent $13 billion acquisition of Starwood International.

Democratic Roadblock

The two Maryland deals have been in limbo for months due to high-risk brinkmanship by legislative leaders. The idea was to squeeze money out of Republican Hogan for other purposes dear to the hearts of Democrats in exchange for approval of the Northrop Grumman package.Trump, Hogan Agree

That gambit, which was poorly conceived from the get-go, fell apart when the state’s tax collections underperformed, leaving a gaping hole in Hogan’s budget.

Hogan had always balked at legislators’ extortion effort to hold the Northrop Grumman package hostage until local school funds and other goodies were released.

Lawmakers didn’t seemed to care that reneging on the business deal would have sent a terrible message about Maryland’s business climate to corporations thinking about relocating operations.

But the weak revenue figures this fall put an end to this embarrassing folly. There was no money to make the lawmakers’ strong-arm deal work.

Miller-Hogan Find Middle Ground

Hogan, though, still needed to gain the support of legislative leaders not only on the Northrop Grumman economic-development package but also the Marriott headquarters proposal.Trump,Hogan Agree

He and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller finally came up with a workable compromise involving $20 million in school pension funds for localities in next year’s budget.

Now it is up to Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch to complete their end of the bargain by winning approval for the two business-assistance packages from a legislative panel they control.

There’s plenty of irony here.

Had a Democrat been in the governor’s office, there’s no question Busch and Miller would have rushed to support these economic-development packages, just as they did under former Gov. Martin O’Malley.

But with a Republican in the governor’s mansion, Busch and Miller suddenly found problems with these deals.

Demands to Stay In-State

Liberal Democrats, in particular, blanch at the thought of giving away millions in business-retention packages, labeling it “corporate welfare.”

It’s become customary for large companies to demand payments from local and state governments if those governments want to prevent these businesses from moving elsewhere. Democrats fear that more companies will use the same tactic to pry millions from the state, money Democrats want spent on social programs.

Rigidly ideological Republican conservatives also rail against giveaways to corporations, complaining about government interference with the free-market system. (Over the weekend, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin called the Carrier deal “crony capitalism.”)

The thinking goes that if Carrier wants to move its furnace plant to Mexico or to another state to cut costs, the company should have the freedom to do so. That’s how the free market works, fiscal conservatives say.

Yet Trump intervened to make political hay and win cheers from Carrier workers in Indiana.

At the same time, he did nothing to stop United Technologies from closing another Indiana plant, costing 700 workers their jobs.

Nor did he lift a finger to halt Rexnord from shuttering a factory just a mile away from the Carrier building. The job loss there is 300. Rexnord is moving its manufacturing business to Mexico.

A third company, CTS, is also shutting down an electronics manufacturing facility in Indiana, creating unemployment for 200 more workers.

On top of that Carrier is continuing with plans to downsize its Indiana plant, laying off 600 union workers at the furnace factory. Also, despite Trump’s plea Carrier is moving its fan coil-making business to Monterrey, Mexico.

So while Trump can crow about the one plant he pressured to remain open, saving by his count 1,000 U.S. jobs (the actual jobs preserved: 730), he hasn’t done a thing about the other 1,800 manufacturing jobs being lost in Indiana.

Choosing Winners

The downside of corporate bailouts (Carrier is getting $7 million in tax breaks from Indiana to remain there) is that these small triumphs fail to address the larger problem:  U.S. manufacturing plants increasingly find they are unable to compete against low-cost overseas competitions.

Here’s a hint why moving production abroad is happening: The average salary for a unionized Carrier plant worker in Indiana is $30.90 an hour.

Choosing winners and losers, as Trump did in Indiana, solves little and provides job solace for just a fraction of the manufacturing workforce at risk of losing their source of income. A more comprehensive approach is needed.

Since the beginning of 2015, 1,600 American companies have shifted production overseas. In November alone, the U.S. lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs.

Clearly, Trump has a gargantuan task ahead of him in which a partial victory at Carrier’s Indiana plant doesn’t put a dent in the problem.

At the same time, Hogan is having more success keeping large corporations content with their Maryland digs. All it takes is persistent negotiations, expressions of good will and a basketful of state and county tax breaks, job-training grants and forgivable loans.

It’s worked most of the time for both Democratic and Republican governors in Maryland.

Hogan’s job is far easier because he’s only competing against other U.S. states, not Third World, low-wage countries.

Trump has a much more difficult field to plough.

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