Hogan’s Spending Tightrope

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 21, 2015 – Larry Hogan, Jr. is the ideal governor to take on the difficult task of balancing the need for stronger economic growth in Maryland while at the same time slowing government spending.

Republican Hogan is a committed conservative who gained election by pledging to cut the fat out of state government and lower taxes (eventually).

But Hogan also was elected because he is a pro-business executive intent on slashing business regulation and making Maryland more business-friendly.

The problem is that Maryland isn’t bouncing back strongly from the Great Recession. Tax receipts in Annapolis from consumer-related spending (the sales tax) are still sinking. Taxes from personal income are barely nudging forward.

It’s a sluggish state economy with slow employment growth, little wage growth and new jobs being created at a disappointing pace.

Weak Recovery

November’s unemployment report confirmed Maryland’s agonizingly slow recovery.

Since early summer, the jobless rate has come down but remains above the national average. The number of people out of work is largely unchanged over the past six months. New jobs rose just 16,000 in that period.

The situation is far better than the 7.7 percent unemployment of 2010, yet Maryland continues to lag in job-creation.

All this points to the need for a cautious approach in the next state budget. Revenue growth remains modest. Hogan’s cabinet will have to deliver on the governor’s mandate to trim the size of agencies without harming services that aid Maryland’s underclass.

Restraining government expenditures isn’t all good news, though.

Cutting out state jobs and lowering spending can boomerang and end up harming Maryland’s economic recovery.

It gets tricky for the governor.

Large Surplus Helps

He’s lucky there’s a projected $561 million surplus for next year’s budget. He isn’t likely to dip into that fund to enlarge existing programs as Democrats want him to do.

Indeed, Democratic lawmakers are calling for an expansion of state spending by nearly 5 percent, even though that could be risky.

Hogan’s budget chief assures us the governor will be well under the Democrats’ affordability limit.

But how do you hold down government spending while simultaneously pumping more dollars into jobs and economic growth?

It can be done.

Hogan needs to take one important step: Turn that $561 million surplus into capital spending to build worthwhile projects.

Jobs and Growth

By using surplus cash in this way, Hogan can create good-paying jobs in the construction trades and stimulate growth through the purchase of construction-related goods and services.

Using cash instead of state bonds serves another important purpose. It relieves pressure on Maryland’s costly capital bond program and lowers the state’s expenses not just in 2016 but for the next 15 years.

Paying cash for $500 million worth of new state buildings, rather than issuing bonds, is just what the state needs right now.

A large and continuing pay-as-you-go state construction program would eliminate a huge amount of future debt. It would trim Maryland’s long-term structural operating deficit by a substantial margin.

There’s an added bonus in a large “pay-go” construction program if it is focused on buildings that can lead to long-term economic growth.

Hogan can fortify the Baltimore area’s importance as a generator of health and technology advances (and jobs) by supporting a third health-sciences research tower at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; a life sciences building at UMBC, and a behavioral and social sciences building at Morgan State University.

Constructing a $100 million bioengineering building at the University of Maryland, College Park would do the same thing in the Washington suburbs.

Spurring Economic Growth

A cash investment of roughly $300 million in these science-related structures would be a wise use of the surplus – no interest payments or principal payments in future years.

The economic-development potential tied to such research and education-related buildings could spur job growth in key industries for years to come.

Hogan is walking a tightrope in trying to trim state government’s size and expenses while simultaneously enhancing Maryland’s economic-growth prospects.

If he uses the state’s projected surplus strategically, he can achieve equilibrium that might achieve both goals.

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Education Politics

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

That announcement was bogus, too.

No Done Deal

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

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

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

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

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

Education Politics

Declining enrollment in Carroll County schools poses dilemma.

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

Carroll’s Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longer-range Perspective

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

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

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

There’s an even bigger question not being discussed.

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

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

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

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Emily’s Mistake?

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

Million Dollar Blitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wider Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choice Supporters

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

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

It may not have much of an impact, though.

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

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

Union Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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Refugee Politics

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 30, 2015 – Playing to the public’s worst fears is the thing to do if you’re a Republican politician these days, be it Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio or Sen. Ted Cruz. It boosts your poll ratings.

Panic-mongering is in vogue inside the GOP.

Refugee Politics

Trump approves of beating up dissenters at his events, torturing Muslim terrorists, barring all Syrian refugees from this country, making U.S. Syrians register (but no yellow badge sewn to their clothing) and closing U.S. mosques.

Carson also wants to look at closing mosques, forcing Muslims to register and carry a special ID that notes their religion. He suggests suspected Muslim bad guys deserve the same fate as “a rabid dog.”

Rubio wants to shut down any place where Muslims might conspire – mosques, cafes, diners and internet sites. No Syrian refugees would be allowed in the U.S. He even invented a new adjective to describe our dire situation: “civilizational struggle.”

Cruz wants to bar Middle Eastern Muslims, especially Syrian Muslims (97 percent of the country’s population) but he’d let the U.S. take in Christian Syrians because “Christians are being crucified right now.”

Anti-Refugee Governors

Xenophobia and Islamophobia dominate GOP rhetoric – even on the state level. Hogan joined fellow Republican governors in announcing he’d refuse to accept Syrian refugees in Maryland who are fleeing the ISIS-Assad violence for fear they’d be terrorists.

He and the other GOP governors politicized the issue by asserting the Obama administration does a slipshod job vetting these refugees.

It would have helped if Hogan first had checked his facts. The vetting process is rigorous and takes 12 to 24 months.

But Hogan and the other GOP governors don’t care about facts. They’d rather put out false allegations and keep saying they’re true.

Hogan also decided to ignore another simple fact: He has no power to stop the president from re-locating Syrian refugees in Maryland. He can’t close Maryland’s borders.

Democrats Respond

Indeed, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake quickly announced she wants the president to bring refugees to Baltimore. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and the entire County Council did the same thing. Sure, these were political slaps at Hogan, but it served to illustrate the widely divergent views on refugee politics between Democrats and Republicans.

A total of 43 Syrian refugees have previously re-settled in Baltimore. Not one has been revealed as a terrorist. They have been assimilated into the community without problems.

Should they be deported for their religious beliefs or where they come from?

Hogan needs to clarify his position and explain precisely why this new batch of refugees, most of them women and children fleeing ISIS-Assad violence, are so dangerous to the welfare of Maryland citizens.

While Hogan’s anti-refugee stance puts him in lockstep with his fellow Republican governors, it is hardly what one would expect from the husband of a Korean immigrant.

Immigrants are especially sensitive to the plight of other people fleeing violence and religious oppression who see America as a safe harbor where their children can have a better life.

Hogan would do well to read carefully a letter he received from state Del. Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County on this topic.

Fleeing Oppression

Here’s what Reznik wrote in his pre-Thanksgiving Day letter:

“In the late 1970s, my family was granted refugee status to come to the United States from the country I was born in, the Soviet Union. You might recall it was the height of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was our mortal enemy.

“History tells us that the Soviets had over 40,000 nuclear warheads pointed at the United States, a far deadlier prospect than anything [ISIS] can offer. And yet, we came. Maybe it helped that our skin was white and our religion was Judaism. Nevertheless, the suspicion leveled at us when we arrived – our motivations for coming, our loyalties to our former country – was something that even a 5-year old boy clutching his mother’s skirt as she went for job interviews at the local diner could feel.

“History also teaches us that this is not the first time that we, as Americans, have betrayed our promise to the world when we accepted the Statue of Liberty as a gift from our French friends. We told the world to ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ I guess we added the asterisks later. . . .

“Since September 11, 2001, the United States has accepted over 700,000 refugees from the Middle East and South and Central Asia. Yet, the most acts of terror have come from home grown evil. People like Wade Michael Page who opened fire on a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin because he thought they were Muslim; Jim David Adkisson who shot up a Unitarian Church in Knoxville because they supported marriage equality; Joseph Stack who flew a plane into the IRS building in Austin; and, most recently, Dylann Roof who shot up an AME Church in Charleston, and on and on. Not to mention the countless terrorists who walk armed and unimpeded onto schools and university campuses on what feels like a weekly basis.

“The people running to Europe and the United States are begging for refuge, hence the term, refugees. I remember what that was like. So, as we all sit down to eat turkey and watch football in a couple of weeks, maybe we can do something truly thankful and help our global community. Since your powers as Governor do not actually include stopping refugees at the Maryland border, let’s try some compassion instead.”

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

 

Hillary to Martin: Thank you, thank you

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 23, 2015 – If Martin O’Malley wasn’t a participant in the current presidential election cycle, Hillary Clinton would have to find a replacement figure to fill his essential role.

The same goes for Bernie Sanders.

Hillary to Martin: Thank you, thank you, thank you

Martin O’Malley (left), Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

He and O’Malley are perfect foils for Clinton as they seek to impress Democratic voters.

Clinton badly needs the publicity that flows from a contested set of presidential primaries.

Think what it would be like if Sanders and O’Malley weren’t there: All the political talk from coast to coast would be about the Republican bloodbath among more than a dozen contenders. Clinton would be without primary foes and without key TV debate coverage.

So in spite of the critical words flowing between the ex-Maryland governor and the former secretary of state, Hillary’s unspoken message to O’Malley is: Thank you, thank you.

Helping the Frontrunner

O’Malley’s continuing presidential role is enormously helpful for the clear Democratic frontrunner. Sure, he’s only polling 3 percent nationally (Bloomberg), 5 percent in New Hampshire, 3 percent in Iowa and 1 percent in South Carolina.

Let’s face it: He’s doing poorly. He’s not impressing many people. He’s not judged to be presidential timber.

But his very presence is enough to put a glow on Hillary Clinton’s face.

The candidacies of Sanders and O’Malley gives the illusion of a serious contested election when in fact it looks more and more like a runaway verging on a coronation.

That last description – coronation – is the one Hillary Clinton wants to avoid. She needs to give the appearance of earning the right to represent Democrats rather gaining it by virtue of her husband’s presidency and the Clinton name.

U.S. voters get a bit unhinged by the notion of an American royal class. Crowning a second Clinton without a true primary contest strikes many as too regal.

Republicans would heap scorn on her if Hillary didn’t have Bernie and Martin trying to nip at her heels. They’d skewer her for believing in the divine right of Clintons.

The Debate Game

O’Malley and Sanders are most useful on the debate stage.

Their last debate performance was heavy on substance, unlike the Republican shouting and insult matches. Sanders and O’Malley scored a few points, though they failed to damage the Clinton juggernaut.

Exposing weaknesses in Clinton’s answers now rather than later is a major benefit for Hillary. Thanks to Sanders’ and O’Malley’s persistent critiques during the debates, Clinton will be fully seasoned and ready for the all-important debates next fall.

O’Malley and Sanders are serving as batting practice pitchers for Clinton and occasionally turning the debates into spring training contests. These preliminaries prep Hillary for the World Series of debates against the GOP nominee.

So while O’Malley remains 52 percentage points behind Clinton nationally, some 40 percent behind both Clinton and Sanders in New Hampshire, 52 points behind Clinton and 34 points behind Sanders in Iowa and a staggering 69 percentage points behind Clinton in South Carolina, his continuing role as a supporting character in the Democratic drama remains important.

Air Beneath His Wings

Don’t expect Clinton operatives to pressure O’Malley to drop out any time soon. He’s too useful to the Democratic frontrunner. They want to keep enough air under O’Malley’s fluffy balloon so he can remain barely aloft as a presidential candidate through the early primaries and into the spring.

Americans love competitive races. Even the fiction of a real contest seems to draw voters to the Democratic debates and keeps Hillary Clinton in the headlines almost as frequently as the Republican loudmouths.

Most public performers need a second banana. Jerry Lewis best comedy was performed with Dean Martin. Penn won’t go on stage without Teller. And Groucho needed Chico and Harpo Marx to make entertainment magic.

You could view Martin O’Malley as the Harpo Marx  of the Democratic primaries while Bernie Sanders fills the role of the more serious Chico. Either way, they’re not the star of the show. They do, though, make the star a success.

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The ‘Trump Effect’ in Baltimore

 By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 16, 2015 – Let’s call it the “Trump Effect” or the “Trump-Carson Effect.” Either way, it’s come to Baltimore.

The 'Trump Effect' in Baltimore

Donald Trump in action

In the campaign for mayor of Charm City – a dubious honor these days – there’s a veritable stampede of unqualified “outsiders” running to become the most powerful elected insider.

They’re betting on the same public discontent that has rocketed an unqualified, mouthy billionaire developer, Donald Trump, and an unqualified retired pediatric neurosurgeon, Ben Carson, to the lead in early Republican presidential polls.

Here’s how Baltimore wannabes have gotten into the mayor’s race:

You leak to the media that you’re thinking of running for mayor, thus garnering flattering press coverage. Then you leak word that you’re going to hold an announcement event, gaining more uncritical attention. Finally, you hold a rah-rah, “yes, I’m running” media event where you promise that you have the key to ending all of Baltimore’s most troubling ills. More positive media spin.

Something is missing from this scenario, which has been followed by an ex-phone company engineer, a government lawyer and a venture capitalist in their mayoral campaign unveilings.

All of them are certain that their lack of strong political credentials makes them ideal for the city’s most powerful political job.

What’s lacking is realism.

No Details

Not one of them – Nick Mosby, Elizabeth Embry or David Warnock – comes close to describing what their administration would do to miraculously transform Baltimore from an impoverished, crime-infested and crumbling urban center.

Mosby, 36, at least has one term under his belt as a city councilman – time enough to barely get his feet wet in city government. He says he’ll fight for “a better Baltimore,” fight “against poverty, against illiteracy” and bring “world-class education” to town. He’s promising safer streets, less homelessness and an open government.

The big, unanswered question: How?

If it were easy, those things would have happened long ago.

Elizabeth Embry, 36, has white liberal support because of her well-known dad, Abell Foundation President Bob Embry. His daughter lacks elective experience. She does, though, promise to “hustle” and “work hard” as mayor.

Golly. That sounds like a pledge from kids running for class president. Can we have free ice cream on Fridays, too?

Elizabeth Embry proudly asserts she’s “not a politician” – echoes of Trump and Carson. (That attribute sure is going to help when she confronts real-life politicians.)

She says that thanks to her years as a government prosecutor she will “end the killings on our streets,” “dismantle pockets of poverty,” improve transportation and “rationalize taxes” – whatever that means.

Once again, we’re missing an answer to that vital question: How?

Warnock’s Entry

The same thing applies to Warnock’s entry into the race. The 57-year-old venture capitalist and philanthropist says he’ll attract new business and jobs to Baltimore and revive parts of the now-dead Red Line rapid-rail plan.

Pardon the skepticism, but here we go again: How?

Running government is pretty simple when you’re taking uninformed potshots and promising to deliver idealized results without bothering with the specifics.

It’s one thing to pick stocks, run a mutual fund and invest in companies. You’re not dealing with the nitty-gritty of keeping a poor, on-edge, tax-poor city on an even keel.

Once you have to run a $2 billion government with billions of unmet problems staring you in the face, it gets complicated in a hurry – even as people pound on your door demanding immediate results.

None of these candidates, although well-meaning, has a clue about what it takes to sit in the mayor’s chair. Not one has the experiential credentials to handle the next big crisis.

No Qualifications Necessary

But thanks to Trump and Carson, many voters today believe political qualifications aren’t necessary, that they are a detriment. Just make impossible claims of what you will do and, voila, voters line up to cheer.

Baltimore does have a trio of mayor candidates with solid political backgrounds. Yet they could find themselves overshadowed by the political newcomers who have captured the media’s fickle attention.

Sheila Dixon was a first-rate mayor till she appropriated for herself gift cards meant for the poor. She’s been mayor, City Council president and a council member – 22 years in elective office.

Carl Stokes has been in the City Council 22 years, chairs the budget committee, ran for mayor before and knows what should be fixed within city government.

Kathy Pugh has served in both the state legislature and the City Council – 10 years in Annapolis (currently majority leader) and five years on the City Council. She, too, understands what’s not working at City Hall.

Street Politicians

None of the three is a glamour candidate. These are nose-to-the-ground street politicians with decades of experience in helping citizens resolve problems with government.

Yet they could become the Jeb Bush and John Kasich of the mayor’s race – exceptionally well-qualified politicians lacking the social media buzz and new-face-on-the-scene novelty of a Trump or a Carson.

Baltimore is at a crossroads. It is a deeply troubled community with deeply ingrained societal problems. Turning control of City Hall over to a relative neophyte with barely an inkling of how to do the job would be a tragic mistake.

But it could happen. Baltimore would be worse off if it does.

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Transparent Political Ploy on Surplus

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 9, 2015 – When Democratic legislators announced last week that a huge budget surplus would make it possible for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to reverse his earlier decision to cut $68 million in school aid, it was the equivalent of beating a dead horse to death.

(That’s an idiom occasionally used by unlettered Maryland politicians.)

Transparent Political Ploy on Surplus

Asking a politician of the opposite party to recant his prior action is a waste of time and energy. It’s not going to happen.

Democrats are doing it only to gain propaganda points. “Look! See! Larry Hogan is such a meanie he won’t use surplus funds to educate our children!”

Instead of trying to embarrass the governor, Democrats should have suggested practical ways for Hogan to spend this money wisely. That, at least, would be within the realm of possibilities.

Big Bucks?

The surplus could top $700 million. That sounds like a lot of money but it is a one-time happening. It can’t support a major tax cut, or any other tax reduction – Hogan’s prime objective.

It would be a horrific mistake if Hogan sought tax relief based on a one-year surplus.

Maryland’s budget is precariously balanced. Another dip in the nation’s economy would send the state back into the red.

Sharply reducing taxes on the basis of one good fiscal year isn’t sound fiscal policy.

So how should the governor spend this extra cash?

Thoughtful Democrats and Republicans understand these one-time dollars are best used to pay for one-time spending projects – primarily purchases of badly needed equipment and construction projects.

Bonds, Bonds, Bonds

Maryland has a long-range financial crisis because the state overspent over the past 15 years by  issuing too many construction bonds. Under Governors Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley, the amount of new bonds issued each year jumped from $400 million to $1 billion.

Each of those bonds must be paid off, with interest, over 15 years. The compounding effect of issuing more and more bonds each year is staggering.

Two years from now, Maryland will max out its bonding capacity. Meanwhile, state taxpayers are spending in excess of $1.1 billion this fiscal year to pay the principal and interest on that growing mountain of bonds.

Hogan has a rare opportunity to make significant headway in turning around this out-of-control borrowing situation.

He might, for instance, use most of that surplus on a giant pay-as-you-go school construction program instead of issuing bonds. Thus, he’d be using only surplus dollars to fund Maryland’s school-building efforts.

And if he’s smart, he’d also use surplus dollars on another important school need: air-conditioning every single classroom in Maryland. It is shocking how many classrooms statewide lack even a window air-conditioner, not to mention central A/C.

Fewer IOUs

By using cash for these projects, Hogan would lower Maryland’s future bond obligations and the state’s future interest payments. A $400 million pay-go program for school buildings (including an A/C funding provision) would be a bold and sensible way to get a major fiscal problem under control.

Hogan also could use a portion of the state’s one-time surplus for other important construction activities.

He has the chance to set up a win-win situation at the old Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point by dedicating surplus dollars to bridge and interstate access improvements.

Those would be critical steps in jump-starting what could become Maryland’s largest and potentially most successful economic development initiative.

Additionally, the state’s current surplus could let Hogan set aside a substantial pot of funds to accelerate Baltimore’s vacant housing demolition program and help build safe, green neighborhoods in Maryland’s most troubled and largest city.

Democrats were foolish to try to politicize the announcement of a large state surplus. They sought to create conflict instead of an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual decision-making.

Hogan is right to ignore this transparent political ploy.

Instead, he should distribute those surplus dollars to one-time projects that are fiscally conservative and beneficial in the long run for Maryland.

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Hogan’s Curious Facebook Blasts

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 2, 2015 – Like every politician these days, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has a Facebook page. His political organization, Change Maryland, is on Facebook, too. The comments on the two blogs often are identical.Hogan's Curious Facebook Blasts

Hogan’s Facebook blogs tend to be powder-puff, good-news summaries of visits and actions by the governor. That is par for the course.

It’s pretty much what his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, put out on his Facebook page – at least until O’Malley started planning his run for president. Then his Facebook musings turned heavily partisan and highly politicized.

That doesn’t work as well, though.

Social networking websites are ideal for promoting ideas and policies, of telling the world about your successes and new programs and ideas. It’s perfect for promoting all the good deeds and heart-warming things you do every day.

Facebook isn’t the best vehicle for expressing anger and hurling cheap shots at your enemies.

Facebook Stories

Hogan has endeared himself to his supporters and even to his political opponents by his courageous fight against cancer and his willingness to use his illness to promote cancer awareness and sympathy for others with this dangerous disease. He has used his Facebook page to tell those stories.

Most of the other blogs are revised versions of press releases on Hogan initiatives and Hogan speaking appearances around the state.

But occasionally, Hogan’s Facebook writer gets carried away and turns the governor’s remarks venomous and stridently partisan.

Last week, the governor’s online comments went too far. His staff writer lied.

“Today, a small band of out-of-touch legislators have convened a ‘hearing’ in Annapolis to complain about our closing of the {Baltimore City] jail,” Hogan wrote on his page. “[I]t seems a few professional politicians in Annapolis want to try somehow to defend the indefensible failed status-quo.”

Hogan should disavow his staff writer’s statements. He knows they aren’t true. His Facebook “friends” deserve an apology.

The Facts

Fact: There was a hearing in Annapolis on Hogan’s decision to close the City Jail. Such a “hearing” is routine. It’s what legislators all over the country do.

Fact: There was no “small band of out-of-touch legislators.” Indeed, no one at the hearing made any “out-of-touch” comments. It was a status-updating session.

Fact: No one at the hearing complained about the jail closure. Legislators wanted to know how the closure was proceeding. Some lawmakers praised the governor’s action.

Fact: Not a soul at the hearing tried “to defend the indefensible failed status-quo.”

Hogan’s Facebook remarks were made up out of whole cloth. The blog was written before the hearing even commenced. It was a trumped-up display of partisanship designed to make Hogan’s foes look like fools.

Instead, Hogan’s staff writer made the governor look like the fool by criticizing something that never happened.

Misleading Message

Then the governor’s minions compounded this error with another strange and intentionally misleading post.

It stated the legislature had held a “partisan” hearing to “question” Hogan’s jail closure. Wrong on both counts.

It was an impartial, fact-finding session where Hogan’s prisons chief received plaudits for a job well done.

Then Hogan’s post mocked the Baltimore Sun for daring to write in an editorial that Hogan had tried to politicize the hearing with his Facebook comments.

The Sun’s assessment, though, was on the mark.

The fact that Hogan’s Facebook staff writer didn’t like that his boss had been caught trying to turn a routine legislative hearing into a political ambush (which it was not) makes Hogan sound petty, parochial and a bit paranoid.

What Hogan’s minions did in his name on his Facebook page should embarrass the governor.

It gives ammunition to his enemies and needlessly antagonizes legislators he will need on his side when the General Assembly convenes in January.

In His Own Words

Even worse, these errant Facebook diatribes run contrary to Hogan’s own words.

Here’s what the governor wrote on his Change Maryland page and reproduced on his Facebook page on October 26:

“Too often we see wedge politics and petty rhetoric used to belittle our adversaries and inflame partisan divisions.

“It is only when the partisan shouting stops that we can hear each other’s voices and concerns.

“I am prepared to create an environment of trust and cooperation. . .”

“Wedge politics,” “petty rhetoric,” “belittle our adversaries,” inflaming “partisan divisions.” That describes Hogan’s Facebook blasts. There’s no hint of “trust and cooperation.”

What to Do

If Hogan is serious in what he wrote for Change Maryland, if he wants to bridge the political divide in Maryland and solve problems based on mutual respect, he’s got to clamp down on his Facebook staff writers, who seem eager to light fires, divide and exploit the politics of nastiness.

As governor, it is his obligation to follow his own written words and stop the partisan shouting.

Hogan has a choice: Stick to the facts and try to overcome Maryland’s political divisions through good will and honest dialogue, or snarl sarcastically at the opposition and fabricate events and intentions.

He can’t have it both ways.

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GOP-style Campaign Entertainment

By Barry Rascovar

October 29, 2015 – Yikes! This is how Republicans are going to pick a presidential nominee?

The Reality TV Circus – also known as the GOP presidential debates – continued in Colorado Wednesday night and it was rip-roaring fun to watch.

Campaign Entertainment

Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado

Not that we learned very much about the candidates’ abilities to lead the nation. Heck, no one got to speak for more than 10 minutes during the two-hour performance.

Even then, what we heard were wise-cracking broadsides, accusations against other contenders, shouting matches, sweeping promises of revolutionary change (with no detail) and denunciations of the media.

The youthful, Republican audience loved it. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. The candidates played to the audience’s prejudices.

What a bizarre scene. Imagine what viewers in other parts of the world thought.

Fantasyland

Give Ohio Gov. John Kasich credit for beginning this comedic romp through Politics, GOP-style by angrily shouting that what other candidates were offering America is “just fantasy, folks. We’ve got to wake up.”

Some of the gibberish espoused by Ben Carson & Co. is “a joke” and “empty promises,” Kasich said. He clearly believes experience in government actually counts, that rank amateurs cannot simply walk into the White House and magically turn everything around.

Those trying to talk common sense were drowned out or given little or no time for detailed explanations. If you’re not a loud, angry and skilled 30-second debater, you don’t stand a chance in this venue. Jeb Bush, an accomplished Florida governor, is the prime example.

The night belonged to the slick and quick-witted. Ted Cruz, a champion college debater and darling of the tea party, shined. Marco Rubio had rehearsed his lines extremely well and delivered them in machine-gun rapidity. Chris Christie, when he could get a word in, showed he will tell it like it is.

Was any of this presidential? Not by a long shot.

Inept Questions

That includes the terribly inept work of the CNBC questioners, who had been primed to stir controversies and high ratings, but instead ended up as targets of hostile responses from the candidates.

Beating up on the press proved popular Wednesday night, so many of the candidates chimed in, drawing loud cheers from the audience.

At times it felt more like a televised, staged wrestling match than a presidential debate.

Serious voters in early primary states must be perplexed.

They’re being asked to vote for a man who wants Mexico to pay to build a 2,000-mile wall on the U.S. border (fat chance), another who wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service (do we pay our taxes on the honor system?), another who wants a flat income tax rate that leaves a trillion-dollar deficit, another who wants to eliminate practically the entire federal government, etc., etc.

No Time for Explanations

When are we going to give candidates the time to set forth concrete, detailed explanations of their domestic and foreign policies?

Or are Republicans supposed to vote on the basis of who gives the best one-liners, who comes up with the most outrageously appealing schemes or who can get the loudest audience cheers?

The media insists on turning this presidential campaign into a televised horse race filled with colorful and captivating moments sure to draw high ratings. They don’t want a discussion of issues. That’s too dull. It’s not entertaining.

When it comes time to vote next year, though, that’s not good enough.

American voters need to hear informed, intelligent discussions from the candidates, not insults and shouting matches.

Otherwise, the Republican Party could be heading toward an epic train wreck. That’s not good for democracy, the country and especially for those who care about the GOP.

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Hogan’s Hopes for Bus Transit

By Barry Rascovar

October 26, 2015 – Let’s take Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., at his word: He sincerely wants to make Baltimore’s inadequate bus transportation system better.

He’s come up with a plan to achieve that goal, too.

Hogan's Hopes for Bus Transit

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., and a mock-up of a CityLink bus he wants to bring to Baltimore.

The odds, though, are stacked against him.

He’s given himself an unrealistically short time frame (June, 2017) to totally revamp Baltimore’s complex bus network.

He’s underestimated the cost ($135 million) of pulling off such a massive turnaround.

He’s got no support from key elected local executives.

Is It Possible?

Much of what he calls for in his plan may not be feasible or sensible. It also might make traffic gridlock worse rather than better.

He ignores the past sensitivity of Baltimore’s bus riders to major route changes. Resistance to his plan could be strenuous among those who are inconvenienced or will lose access to existing jobs via bus routes being eliminated.

If, indeed, Hogan intends to shrink Baltimore’s bus system to a dozen color-coded routes, his approach could well be “transformative” in shrinking the state’s operating costs. It might make the system less accessible for Baltimoreans, too.

We may not get a good handle on the viability and pros and cons of Hogan’s bus initiative until the state Department of Legislative Services gives the plan a thorough analysis early next year.

Going Negative

As is his pattern, Hogan in his announcement excoriated Baltimore’s current transit system in sweeping, negative language. He once again pilloried the rail transit Red Line he killed earlier this year with hot rhetoric that bears little relationship to the facts.

Once again, he portrayed his Republican administration riding to the rescue of a mismanaged Democratic city with “transformative” changes.

This time, though, Hogan has got to deliver a vastly improved bus system. Executing his plan may not be as easy as he made it appear in his announcement.

Exactly how will Hogan pull off this transformation without cooperation from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake over the next 13 months? The two are barely civil and don’t see eye to eye on Baltimore’s people-mover needs.

Exactly which north-south and east-west roads does Hogan intend to use for his dedicated, separated bus-only lanes? There are no good options, especially downtown.

Such a move would squeeze existing traffic into fewer lanes, making rush hours more of a daily nightmare. Besides, Hogan needs the city to bless such an undertaking, which doesn’t seem likely given the uproar and traffic mess that could result.

Changing Signals

Exactly how is Hogan going to implement computerized bus signalization to turn red lights green on his 12 new, color-coded bus routes?

Every light change commanded by a bus driver will exacerbate traffic tie-ups on the cross street. What happens when buses going north-south and east-west hit the same downtown intersection at the same time in rush hour?

There’s a serious question whether Hogan’s signal-change idea will even do much to cut travel times. It sounds good on paper but in practice it doesn’t work well. The state and city have been trying to do this along the light-rail route on Howard Street for several decades with minimal success.

Hogan will get little opposition and some cheers for other parts of his plan, such as moving bus routes closer to suburban job centers; extending light-rail hours on Sunday; putting more focus on “last mile” problems for urban dwellers trying to reach their jobs in the suburbs; creating multi-modal transit hubs, and giving some financial support to Baltimore’s popular, free Charm City Circulator.

It’s now up to Hogan to make his bus plan reality.

Given the last Republican governor’s muddled attempt to markedly improve Baltimore bus service, there’s considerable room for skepticism that Hogan can pull it off.

Here’s hoping he succeeds. The city needs something to go right for a change.

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