The Laurel Preakness? Get Real

By Barry Rascovar

May 25, 2015 — The Stronach Group, which owns Maryland’s two thoroughbred one-mile tracks, is making noise, once again, about moving the crown jewel of Free State racing, the Preakness Stakes, to Laurel Race Course.

 

Pimlico Race Course

Pimlico Race Course

It’s a non-starter — and the Stronach folks probably know it.

Legally such a move can’t take place without General Assembly approval, which won’t happen.

From a racing standpoint, owner Frank Stronach would have to be brain-dead to transplant the Preakness.

All the fabled history would be lost. Laurel races couldn’t be compared with the 140 years of past Preakness performances at Pimlico. Different track, different racing surface, different times for traversing a mile and three-sixteenths.

Laurel, as built, can’t hold 140,000 fans; Pimlico can and did this month. Nor is it a certainty Laurel could draw even a respectable Preakness crowd.

It’s an isolated, suburban site where families are more interested in their kids’ soccer games than a horse race. No one can walk to the track, or catch a bus, easily. Few folks from the Baltimore region would make the long trek.

Sure, Laurel’s a nice, more up-to-date track, but to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.”

Diminished Triple Crown

A Laurel Preakness would diminish the prestige and currency of racing’s Triple Crown, thus devaluing Stronach’s Maryland holdings.

It also would be perceived as a huge slap at Baltimore just when the city is trying to recover from April’s civil unrest and the black eye it received nationally and internationally. The bitterness from such a move would be harsh and unforgiving.

On paper, consolidating Maryland thoroughbred racing at one track might appear a no-brainer, but it isn’t once you start peeling back the multi-layers of reality.

What the Stronach folks really want — given the fact a one-track racing schedule is illegal and probably a long-term money-loser — is concessions from Baltimore City and the state of Maryland to offset the two tracks’ operating losses, estimated at $5 million to $8 million annually.

There are a number of ways politicians could provide the track owner with financial help.

Subsidy Options

The state legislature, for instance, could revise the division of slots revenues slightly to allocate up to $10 million annually if the Stronach Group holds a spring-summer meet at an upgraded Pimlico.

The state already guarantees each of Maryland’s two standardbred tracks $1.2 million a year for just 40 days of racing. The money comes out of the slots revenue designated for bolstering purses at those harness-racing tracks at Rosecroft and Ocean Downs.

Stronach’s thoroughbred tracks are expected to receive nearly $46 million in slots revenue for purse awards in fiscal 2017 and close to $50 million by 2020. Surely the law could be amended to let the tracks apply for a subsidy from that account to offset operating losses .

Pimlico logo

Both the state and city also could work with the Stronach Group to float inexpensive bonds for some of the improvements at Pimlico.

Baltimore City, which already is giving over $100 million in tax breaks and another $300 million in public subsidies to developers of Harbor Point downtown, could offer a similar but smaller package of infrastructure improvements and long-term tax rebates if the Stronach Group turns Pimlico into a redeveloped, multi-entertainment center.

Stronach’s Contribution

While Frank Stronach has dragged his feet in putting dollars into his Maryland tracks, he has been a good corporate citizen, even footing the bill for an expensive machine tool-and-dye training school south of the Pimlico track that taught inner-city residents the skills needed to secure good-paying, in-demand jobs.

Thanks to millions in slots revenue already designated for future race track improvements, Maryland has signaled its willingness to help revitalize thoroughbred racing.

Now it needs to seal the deal in a way that ensures Pimlico’s future and offers hundreds of new jobs for the depressed community that lies to the historic track’s south and west.

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Hogan’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Rascovar

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

Gov. Larry Hogan & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

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

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

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

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

Silent Secretary

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

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

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

Another bit of Hogan flummery.

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

No Dipping Allowed

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

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

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

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

He’s got his priorities reversed.

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

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

Harsh Consequences

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

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

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

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

He’s playing with political dynamite.

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

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

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

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

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

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

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

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

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

Narrow Legislative Focus

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

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

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

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

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

Bay Bridge toll cut

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

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

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

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

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

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

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

Next Big Test

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

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

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

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

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

Heartbreaking Failure of Leadership

By Barry Rascovar

May 4, 2015 — Baltimore deserves better. The citizens of Charm City, black and white, dutifully worked for decades to overcome obstacles of urban decline, including poverty and joblessness, with the goal of creating a thriving neo-urban, multi-racial environment attractive to residents and employers.

Those intent on achieving that dream have suffered a heartbreaking setback.

Failure of Leadership

Baltimore’s younger generation of African Americans decided anger and violence were more important than taking constructive steps toward empowerment.

They seized on a failure of leadership at multiple levels and drove their inflammatory actions, like a spear, through Charm City’s armor.

Partial Responsibility

The roots of this civil unrest will be analyzed for decades.

One obvious flash point could become a bone of contention in the Democratic presidential campaign. Another could dominate next year’s election for mayor.

History may record that both Martin O’Malley and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, mayors past and present, bear partial responsibility for what went wrong in Baltimore over the last week.

O’Malley, who has set his sights on the U.S. presidency, won election in 1999 to Baltimore’s top position with the courageous support of Rawlings-Blake’s father, Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings, one of the most influential power brokers in the Maryland General Assembly and a staunch defender of black Baltimore.

The O’Malley mayoral campaign of 1999 centered on the need for tougher police enforcement after eight years of a failed community policing policy under Baltimore’s first elected black mayor, Kurt Schmoke.

Indeed, O’Malley made a name for himself on the Baltimore City Council as a persistent critic of the soft, ineffective policing tactics put in place by Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

Discontent with Violence

Baltimore is a heavily African American city. For a white to win the city’s top elected post speaks volumes about the discontent with the violence and rising crime rate in 1999. Pete Rawlings’ endorsement of O’Malley over two major black contenders proved pivotal.

Martin O’Malley came into office promising a tough law-and-order stance that would deter crime. He initiated a zero-tolerance approach based on New York City’s successful “broken windows” theory — go after petty crimes, such as vandalism or a broken window, and it would prevent more serious criminal action. Young blacks simply congregating on street corners ended up in jail on suspicion of drug dealing.

Over 100,000 arrests were made one year (in a city of 650,000). O’Malley also embraced New York City’s statistical analysis, renamed Citistat, to pinpoint crime hotspots.

The two initiatives led to a dramatic drop in law-breaking. At the time, O’Malley was lauded for his tough stance that seemed to have made Baltimore safer. It also eased the way for his reelection as mayor.

Residue of Anger

But zero-tolerance sowed the seeds of discontent and bitterness among young black men. Much of the fury expressed on the city’s streets last week flowed from those mass-arrest sweeps and the targeting by police of young blacks during the O’Malley years.

His tough-on-crime approach as mayor stands in stark contrast to O’Malley’s current attempt to position himself as the ultra-liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, zero-tolerance policing is the antithesis of what Democratic liberals believe in.

His hard line on law enforcement could well dog O’Malley during presidential campaign debates and interviews.

His successor as mayor, Sheila Dixon, quickly discarded O’Malley’s zero tolerance strategy in favor of a more humanizing law-enforcement tool — increased on-the-street patrols and closer affiliation with community groups.

O-Malley and Rawlings-Blake

Mayors past and present in happier times

Rawlings-Blake has continued that less confrontational approach to policing.

Some now contend the mayor’s permissiveness on that first night of clashes encouraged young blacks to engage in looting, arson and attacks on policemen and firefighters knowing there would be no crackdown.

In hindsight, the mayor’s critics may have a point. But on-the-spot decisions are easily faulted after the fact.

No Rapid Response

Rawlings-Blake will be dogged over the next year and a half by those who point to her failure to go after the miscreants immediately — before the violence got out of hand.

Her mystifying refusal to request help from Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. in the critical hours leading up to the outbreak of lawlessness now looks like a tragic mistake. Her standoffishness from the governor since then defies explanation.

Prior to last week’s upheaval, Rawlings-Blake looked like an easy winner in next year’s mayoral election.

That’s no longer the case — especially with the hero-worshipping status accorded Baltimore’s new state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, who rushed to charge six police officers with a kitchen sink of wrondoing.

Winning convictions may prove infinitely harder, though, which could color the public’s perception of Mosby in the months ahead.

Former Mayor Dixon looms as a potential contender, too.

Clearly, Rawlings-Blake has some serious repair work to do politically, once things return to normal in Baltimore, if she hopes to remain in the mayor’s office for another term.

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

Taming MD’s Structural Deficit

By Barry Rascovar

April 27, 2015 —  Can Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. tame Maryland’s long-standing structural budget deficit? Judging from his first stab at it, he’s more than halfway there.

But high hurdles lie ahead if he is to reach the point where the state’s ongoing revenues far exceed annual spending.

Taming MD's Structural Deficit

Hogan may grumble to appease conservative groups about the remaining $206 million structural imbalance in the budget that’s been approved for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Yet that is a sharp reduction from the deficit anticipated back in November of a $525 million shortfall under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Not Too Shabby

The General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services (DLS) says Hogan is 68 percent of the way toward wiping out the structural imbalance — and if he continues to hold firm in denying state workers a 2 percent pay raise starting July 1, he will reach 82 percent of his goal.

Not too shabby for a Republican governor facing an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

Those deficit numbers will grow somewhat if Hogan decides to give Democratic lawmakers some of the $202 million they asked him to restore to various education, health and wage programs.

Still, Hogan begins preparation for his second budget in remarkably good shape.

It’s no secret that the Big Three growth items in Maryland’s budget are: 1) soaring debt service payments; 2) continually rising education aid, and 3) ever-rising health-care costs.

Too Many Bonds

Debt service alone will jump by $167 million next year. Payments on general-obligation bonds has tripled in the last three years. Hogan needs to take a hard look at ways to reduce or slow Maryland’s issuance of those bonds, including the always popular school construction allocations, which in July’s budget hits a record $380 million.

Complicating matters for the governor is Maryland’s too-slow economic recovery from the Great Recession. DLS estimates state revenues in fiscal year 2017 will grow a modest 4 percent. Yet it will take a 5.7 percent growth rate to balance spending with revenue.

More economic development is the key. That’s a long-term proposition, though.

Hogan’s aggressive “Maryland is open for business” theme won’t result in major tax gains for the state any time soon. So the governor will have to continue cutting back on state agency spending while finding areas where deeper cuts can be made without creating a harsh backlash in the legislature.

Ratcheting down the structural imbalance is Hogan’s best course. The problem is that he’s also determined to deliver on his main campaign promise — lower taxes.

Thus, balancing the state’s books isn’t enough. He’s got to go further so he can justify a tax cut that does not create a new structural deficit.

More Daunting Problems

That’s where Hogan’s problems multiply. Aid to local governments is a likely target, until you start to pull the plug on specific spending programs, like money for schools, police, fire-fighting, the poor, libraries and parks.

MD's Structural Deficit

Indeed, almost every area of state government spending affects huge numbers of Maryland citizens. Hogan must take care not to antagonize too many of them. If he does, it could jeopardize his re-election

Looking down the road, Hogan faces even more daunting budget difficulties, Indeed, DLS puts the state’s combined deficit for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 at $1.165 billion .

As bad as this sounds, it is a huge improvement over what O’Malley left behind: a combined estimated deficit for those two years of nearly $2 billion. Hogan reduced that future imbalance by 41 percent in his first budget.

Fundamental spending changes won’t be possible with Maryland’s Democratic legislature acting as a brake on Hogan’s budget-cutting tendencies. That’s why the slow-but-steady approach makes so much sense.

It won’t please Hogan’s absolutist supporters, but gradualism could prove the most practical and politically astute path to follow.

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Procurement Disgrace

By Barry Rascovar

March 20, 2015 — Maryland’s system of contracting for services through competitive bids is in shambles. It has been that way for years — and is getting worse.

It’s an embarrassment to taxpayers. Yet a long list of procurement debacles hasn’t been enough to spur sweeping reforms.

That seems likely to change, thanks in part to a royal screw-up on a food-service contract that all three members of the Board of Public Works strongly denounced last week.

Procurement Disgrace

Maryland Board of Public Works

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. described the badly botched prison-food procurement as “one of the most disgraceful displays of mismanagement” he’s seen in his long business career.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a persistent but lonely critic of these contracting disasters, called it “the most troubling procurement” in his eight years on the board.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp, ever the diplomat who chooses her words with care, said she was “sorely troubled.”

Nightmarish Tales

Nearly every month, the board hears nightmarish tales of state contracting efforts gone awry, of contractors who submit low-ball bids only to seek costly add-ons later, of inept procurement  officials who misapply contracting rules, tilt the playing field, make a mess of the bid-and-award process or fail to use common sense.

Hogan and Franchot earlier this year repeatedly skewered University System of Maryland officials for ineptly explaining cost overruns and excessive spending on university capital projects.

Now the prison-food contract horror story has led board members to the brink of action.

It’s a tale of stupidity by corrections officials under former Gov. Martin O’Malley.

It’s a tale of a contractor using the threat of cutting off food deliveries to Baltimore inmates to secure a whopping 54 percent boost in state payments.

It’s also a tale of misleading statements that are coming back to haunt the winning bidder.

Franchot called the misadventures of this contract award “highly irregular.” He urged the governor to ask Attorney General Brian Frosh to investigate and determine whether this was the result of “staggering incompetence — or something else.”

Franchot also should have asked the governor to appoint a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts to study recent procurement disasters and recommend ways to fix a dysfunctional system.

Meals Per Day

In short, here’s what happened on the prison-food contract.

State corrections officials made the inexcusable mistake of erring on how many meals are served to Baltimore prison inmates each day. This should have been basic math, backed up by recent meals-per-day figures.

Yet corrections officials requested contractors submit bids for serving 23,000 daily prison meals. The actual number should have been closer to 15,000.

That’s a huge difference because the contractor is paid on a price-per-meal basis.

The incumbent contractor, based on its seven years of experience at the Baltimore prisons, estimated it would cost $89 million over three years to fulfill the food contract. The other bidder came up with a stunningly low figure of $37 million.

That’s a whopping difference — a gap in bids so gigantic it should have set off alarm bells. Something was very wrong with the state’s request for proposals (RFP).

Board Approval

Instead of catching the mistake early, state prison officials went ahead and awarded the contract to the low bidder, which hadn’t even taken the basic step of inspecting the prison kitchen facilities before bidding.

Such naiveté never surfaced when the board, under O’Malley, approved this contract in early January. Instead, the company called itself award-winning and pledged to do a great job.

Almost immediately that promise collapsed.

The prison kitchen facilities needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades that the contractor hadn’t figured on. Health inspectors listed 11 pages of required remediation.

The vendor was serving nearly 8,000 fewer meals per day and losing $70,000 a week.

On Feb. 24, the company informed the state it would stop serving inmates on Feb. 28 — just four days later — unless its compensation was boosted immediately by 53 percent.

Faced with the prospect of inmates going without food, new corrections secretary Stephen Moyer had little choice but to give the vendor what it wanted — an emergency, six-month, $6.6 million contract that dramatically jacked up payments to the vendor.

Moyer wisely cancelled the original contract award, which is supposed to be re-bid in about six months. Good luck on that one — especially since the department that bungled the first RFP-and-award process is still running the show.

Franchot called the winning vendor’s explanations “deplorable.” “You essentially deceived us,” he told the company’s owners last week.

But whose fault was it? The state is so culpable that legal action against the winning bidder may not be possible.

Thorough Vetting

In reality, it is a systemic problem.

From top to bottom, Maryland’s procurement laws and procedures need a thorough vetting by experts. The process is too easily manipulated by contractors and by state officials.

Hogan has grown increasingly irritated by the flawed and costly contracting mistakes that have come before the Board of Public Works since he took office in late January,

Enough already.

Actions to revamp and improve the system will speak far louder than angry words of disgust.

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Minimalist Legislative Session

By Barry Rascovar

April 15, 2014 — Not much was expected from the 2015 Maryland General Assembly session — and we weren’t disappointed.

Minimalist Legislative Session

Think I’m kidding? Then try this one on for size:

(Fill in the Blank)

“The Maryland legislature’s greatest achievements this past session were _______________________,  ___________________________ and  ______________________________.

I couldn’t complete that sentence.

There was no big-league legislation to crow about when the final gavel sounded sine die Monday night.

If you, too, have trouble coming up with truly significant steps forward by the General Assembly this session, you’re not alone.

It got so bad that when the Baltimore Sun spent 24 column inches on legislative achievements, every section detailed the General Assembly’s failures — not successes — on education, transportation, environment, criminal justice and health. Few accomplishments were even mentioned.

Turnover Hurt

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

High turnover after Assembly districts were re-drawn before last year’s elections meant a large number of freshmen lawmakers spent the 90-day State House gathering learning the ins and outs of lawmaking, how to file their expense accounts, where the bathrooms are located and what it takes in practical terms to get bills enacted.

No wonder this was a minimalist session.

New Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. didn’t help matters. The Republican came into office with zero experience as an elected official, just a handful of campaign promises and no legislative agenda.

The wish list he submitted proved thin and lacking in substance or realism. Few of his bills passed; those that did were given Democratic-friendly face-lifts.

Minimalist Legislative Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan failed to provide the Maryland legislature with strong guidance or leadership — other than his effort to chop  the size of the state budget. He was a no-show on legislative matters for much of the session.

Uber, Divorces & Midwives

When the most newsworthy votes deal with Uber’s taxi service, granting quicker divorces, allowing midwife home-births, higher speed limits and letting ex-felons vote, it signals that Maryland lawmakers knew they weren’t ready to tackle heavy-duty issues.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Who says every General Assembly session must contain blockbuster legislation? Sometimes it’s nice to know state lawmakers are content to tinker around the edges of state law.

That means taking small steps to clarify existing statutes, modernizing antiquated sections of the Maryland code and giving interest groups incremental adjustments instead of sweeping change.

Who Sets the Agenda?

Legislatures are not designed to provide strong leadership on dominant social issues. Too many people are involved — 181 in Maryland’s case. It’s up to the governor to set the agenda each year. He’s the state’s top elected leader after all.

But Hogan wasn’t prepared to lead so soon after his surprising election last November. Next year, though, should be different.

His challenge will be to assess what practical moves can be made to help grow jobs in Maryland, improve education and transportation, protect the environment and public safety while helping the state’s large underclass.

Then he’s got to find ways to reach out to Democrats in the legislature for support.

Failure to do so could make next year’s session an even bigger disappointment.

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Hogan: Strike One

By Barry Rascovar

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

Hogan: Strike One

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

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

He also left a trail of non-accomplishments.

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

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

Seeds for a Pushback

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

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

The Republican governor’s inexperience showed.

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

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

Pay Cut Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hogan’s Choice

By Barry Rascovar

April 13, 2015 — Has Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. overplayed his hand? We’ll find out today as the Maryland General Assembly tries to wrap up its 2015 session.

Hogan's Choice on budget compromises

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan has two choices: Continue to play hardball with the Democratic legislature and risk losing all of his legislative priorities, or negotiate a settlement that gives everyone partial victory.

The first choice is really the nuclear option.

Hogan already has dug in his heels a couple of times in budget negotiations by demanding full passage of his partisan agenda that Democrats find unacceptable. Meanwhile, he says he won’t give Democrats what they want on education, Medicare and salary adjustments.

Another Ehrlich?

This “my way or the highway” approach is what punctured former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s balloon and led to four years of bitterness and open warfare between the political parties in Annapolis.

Does Republican Hogan, who was part of the Ehrlich administration, wish to go down that dead-end road again?

He shouldn’t misread the election results. This state remains heavily Democratic, as reflected by the make-up of the General Assembly. For a Republican governor, power-sharing is the only rational road to travel — if you want to make headway on your goals and win reelection.

Today, Hogan must decide if he wants to fight or smoke a peace pipe. It shouldn’t be a difficult call.

Shrinking Budgets

Even if he gives Democrats what they want in the budget, Hogan still has achieved his immediate objective — sharply lowering Maryland’s structural deficit and sending a clear signal that more slimmed-down budgets are coming.

Hogan is in control. But he could lose that advantage if he touches the third rail of Democratic politics in Maryland — aid to education.

A sharp cutback in state education funding for large Democratic subdivisions would be met by howls of protests by parents. It might well lead to teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and bitter anger in those subdivisions.

Why risk hostility that could sabotage cooperation with the Democratic legislature over the next three years and foreclose chances of Hogan gaining Assembly approval of his promised tax cuts?

Negotiating Tactics

So far, the governor has played the budget negotiating game well. He’s kept Democratic leaders off-balance. He’s already moved Democrats in his direction.

Indeed, he made them look foolish on their efforts to strip money from state worker and teacher pension accounts. He’s also won concessions on a handful of bills he wants passed.

If he cuts a deal at this stage and declares victory, Hogan will emerge from the session with incremental successes and few hard feelings on the Democratic side.

That’s not a bad outcome given the fact that most legislative triumphs take more than one session to achieve — and that legislative victories for a Republican governor in Maryland are always difficult.

Of course, compromise won’t please hard-edged  conservative Republicans who will accept nothing less than Democratic capitulation. Hogan would be wise to ignore them and focus on the bigger picture.

He’s got four years to construct a positive list of accomplishments. He’s made a sound start over the past 90 days. He’d be foolish to blow it at this late stage.

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

Hogan Wins Round 1

By Barry Rascovar

April 6, 2015 — Even before the final votes are taken the verdict is in: The winner of Maryland’s 2015 budget fight, by a wide margin, is Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Actually, Hogan was playing with a stacked-deck.

Maryland governors almost always win these budget fights because they’re the only ones who can add money to programs and priorities; the legislature has the power to subtract, period.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

But remember where Hogan started: He was handed a wildly out of balance budget by outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who had neglected to take strong steps to stem the growing deluge of red ink on the state’s books.

Even worse, projections called for far wider deficits in future years. O’Malley wasn’t up to the task of pulling back hard on the spending reins because he was preparing to leave office and run for president as a darling of the Democratic liberal left.

So O’Malley passed the baton and dropped the budget mess he had created in Republican Hogan’s lap.

Judicious Budget-Cutting

Thanks to the work of career budget analysts and former state Sen. Bobby Neall, Hogan whipped up a budget-balancing plan in about six weeks. It was a tough but judiciously pared-down financial blueprint that went nearly all the way toward eliminating Maryland’s chronic and widening structural gap between revenues and spending.

Hogan also called for long-term steps to ratchet down future spending growth in costly education and health programs.

Democratic legislators didn’t bite on that last Hogan proposal. Yet there is nothing they can do to stop the governor from shrinking budget increases for state and local aid programs in each year of his administration.

The result is a half-loaf victory for Hogan, which is impressive for a Republican in a heavily Democratic state. If he persists over the next three years, he’ll almost certainly pick up the other half of the loaf — and more.Government Spending

Hogan came into office promising to squeeze excesses from the state budget so he can lower taxes.

He’s started down the first path with considerable success. The tax-cut pledge will be infinitely harder to fulfill, as Democrats have shown in this legislative session.

In office, Hogan has proved to be a realist. He recognized that without a truly balanced budget that slowed spending, there is no hope of gaining meaningful tax reductions.

He’ll have to keep shaving Maryland’s expenditures — and especially the state’s overly ambitious and costly capital spending program. Ever-rising health and education costs remain enormous challenges, too.

Power-Sharing

Still, the direction of future Hogan budgets is now transparent to both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

To the relief of Democratic legislators, the new governor isn’t a scorched-earth program cutter. He understands the importance of the social safety net, of education advancements and offering improved health care options.

He also understands the dynamics of Annapolis.

Hogan knows he must share power with the heavily Democratic legislature. He must find common ground and avoid the mistake of the last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, who proved too partisan and confrontational.

So far, Hogan is succeeding.

Fiscal Turnaround

He’s won this year’s budget battle, regardless of the final negotiations over legislative demands for restoration of funds for public schools and health care.

The new governor has turned around Maryland’s bleak fiscal forecasts in a matter of months, not years.

Once legislative adjournment comes on April 13, Hogan will have the rest of  the year to implement spending hold-down ideas, analyze where downsizing makes sense, educate lawmakers on sensible ways to shrink the cost of state government and start eliminating excessive and harmful business regulations.

Not bad for a guy given almost no chance of winning the governorship a year ago — or of working constructively and peacefully with legislative leaders of the opposite party.

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