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.   ###

Pimlico’s Improving Future

By Barry Rascovar

March 20, 2017 – Thanks to revenue from Maryland’s successful slots casinos, the state’s thoroughbred racing industry has seen a re-birth that hints at prosperity for the Free State’s billion-dollar horse industry in future decades.

Breeders are returning to Maryland to take advantage of the huge jump in purse money fueled by slots proceeds. Off-track gambling revenue is rising. And the state’s most important day of sports entertainment, the Preakness, is breaking attendance and wagering records.

To keep those good times a-rollin’, though, will require a major investment by Annapolis political leaders and by their counterparts in Baltimore City.

Pimlico's Improving Future

The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course as horses near the first turn.

It won’t be easy but it is achievable.

The centerpiece of Maryland horse racing is the Preakness, run at historic Pimlico Race Course since 1873 (108 consecutive years since 1909). Last May’s second jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown drew 135,256 fans to Old Hilltop – a record turnout for any sports event in Maryland.

But Pimlico is badly in need of a facelift.

Stronach’s One-Track Plan

The Stronach Group that owns Maryland’s two major race tracks at Pimlico and Laurel, would love to shutter the Baltimore facility and run exclusively in the Washington suburbs to multiply its profits. Laurel is where Stronach is putting all its improvement money.

That would be a wise business decision if not for the history, tradition and psychic ties between the Preakness and Baltimore. Move the race to a more southern location and the race loses all its history and records. Close Charm City’s race track and the community, already in bad straits, suffers mightily.

A new Preakness site can never duplicate the warmth and friendliness that exists between Baltimoreans and the nation’s racing community during Preakness week. Ask any trainer of a Preakness entrant and you’ll hear nothing but kudos. Pimlico, despite its physical limitations, is far and away their favorite stop on the Triple Crown circuit.

Preakness guests are received like old friends and acquaintances and get VIP treatment in a relaxing, comforting environment.

If the Preakness moved to Laurel, where would Stronach take racing’s VIPs that week for fabulous, down-home evening functions? Beautiful downtown Laurel? The nearby Holiday Inn?

Move the Preakness and a century-old bond would be broken. The gloss and mystique of the Preakness would disappear. Stronach would be devaluing one of its most valuable commodities.

Legal Barriers

Beside, Stronach can’t move the Preakness or shutter Pimlico without approval of the state racing commission and the Maryland General Assembly. Neither is in a mood to oblige. Not now and in all likelihood not ever.

But Stronach certainly is trying to present a case for such a move.

This year it has put Pimlico on a starvation diet of just nine days of racing. That’s an insult to Baltimore area racing fans and to Baltimore officials. Mayor Catherine Pugh should take note.

There is a glimmer of hope, though.

Thanks in large measure to Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg, the Maryland Stadium Authority has come forth with a plan for modernizing and saving Pimlico.

It’s a “situational analysis” that paints an exciting future for a rejuvenated race track – if Pimlico’s owners are willing to take a realistic look at the state’s political landscape and accept a two-track solution.

Achievable Solution

This is a much-needed first step. It outlines a $285 million renovation program that is eminently achievable. There are amply ways to pay for this, thanks to the fact that it will have to be done on a multi-year basis.

By way of comparison, Churchill Down, home of the Kentucky Derby, underwent a $121 million renovation starting in 2001; it took nearly four years to complete. More renovations took place at Churchill in 2015 and 2016 (ultra-luxury suites, a fully renovated clubhouse and plans for a $37 million suite tower).

There’s no reason Pimlico’s re-make can’t be done in a similar phased-in way that divides the re-make into chunks with workable price tags over a decade.

Pimlico's Improving Future-2

Any they’re off on Preakness Day at Old Hilltop in Baltimore.

Stronach will have to chip in big-time if it wants Maryland and Baltimore to contribute handsomely, too. A public-private partnership only succeeds if all sides are fully committed financially.

Millions toward a Pimlico renovation could come from the 1 percent of slots revenue that already flows into a race track improvement fund. The $2 million in tax revenue generated each year by the Preakness also could be dedicated toward paying the interest on bonds for the renovations.

And remember how the Ravens’ football stadium was built: With special instant scratch-off lotteries. A similar money-raiser through the lottery agency could be devised for Pimlico’s facelift.

With bond interest rates near historic lows, this is an ideal time to start getting serious about what a beautified Pimlico will look like, the timing of improvements and the financing arrangements.

Racing Revival?

Moving the Preakness is out of the question. From a sports perspective, such a move would be a PR and financial disaster. It would be devastating to Baltimore and a black eye if the state of Maryland allowed such a travesty to take place.

Thoroughbred racing once was the Sport of Kings with huge crowds flocking to the tracks daily. The sport has been in decline in recent decades but there are signs of a rebound.

That rebound is clearly evident in Maryland. Additionally, cutting-edge technology advances such as virtual reality, augmented reality and electronic sports gaming hold immense potential to boost racing’s popularity and profitability.

For all those reasons, it’s time to get serious about making Pimlico a first-rate race course with all the creature comforts fan expect. It would be a big win for the surrounding communities, the city and the state.

Pimlico is an economic resource that holds considerable potential, but only if we take advantage of the opportunity.

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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.  ##  

Morhaim’s Moment of Shame

By Barry Rascovar

March 6, 2017—It had to be one of the most painful and humiliating moments of Dan Morhaim’s life.

Last Friday he sat in the House of Delegates chamber as his colleagues voted 138-0 to reprimand him for not informing them and a state commission he had a conflict of interest on medical marijuana issues.

Morhaim's Moment of Shame

Maryland House of Delegate in State House chambers

All the while he was offering reams of advice and guidance to the very commission setting up rules for awarding those lucrative state licenses.

He broke no laws but he stepped far over the ethics line for elected legislators.

While Morhaim continues to insist “I did nothing wrong,” his colleagues unanimously disagreed.

Panel’s Findings

As the legislature’s joint ethics committee wrote in its report, Morhaim’s “belief that he could keep his role as a legislator, advocating for the implementation of policy and regulations for the use of medical cannabis, separate from his position as a paid consultant for a company seeking to enter the medical cannabis business reflects poor judgment to the detriment of the broader interests of the public. . .”

Further, the panel concluded Morhaim’s less than forthright actions “eroded the confidence and trust of the public and other governmental officials who work with legislators, bringing disrepute and dishonor to the General Assembly.”

The panel not only recommended a public reprimand but asked Morhaim to consider making a public apology. He did so in writing but declined to speak on the House floor.

He had not violated disclosure laws, Morhaim wrote. Nor had it been his “intent” to use his elective office for monetary gain. His sin, he explained, was that “I failed to appreciate the public perception of these issues.”

It was not much of an apology. A day earlier he had issued a three-page defense, blaming the media for “erroneous” reports of his activities. He later called the whole thing a “circus” in which his actions had been badly distorted.

Placing the onus on others for his predicament may salve Morhaim’s ego but it won’t sit well with elected leaders or with the public.

Who’s to Blame?

After reading the 17-page committee report, it is clear only Morhaim is at fault for what went wrong. It cost him his credibility, his subcommittee chairmanship and his leadership post in Annapolis.

Morhaim's Shame

Del. Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County

He agreed to have no future communications with the medical marijuana commission or its staff and to exclude himself from legislative activities regarding cannabis.

That’s a big concession from a politician who fought relentlessly and passionately for over a decade to bring medical cannabis to Maryland.

He also is giving up his financial arrangement with the medical marijuana company, Doctors Orders, a compensation deal the joint ethics committee called “substantial.”

Some legislators and ethics groups denounced the punishment as insufficient. Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., in his haste to throw dirt on Democrats totally mischaracterized Morhaim’s actions, refused to acknowledge he had gotten the facts wrong and then called for Morhaim’s removal from office.

The governor used the Morhaim case to trumpet his call for tougher ethics laws and for placing enforcement under an executive office agency.

While it is obvious language in the ethics statute needs greater clarity, turning adjudication over to the executive branch could be unconstitutional and certainly is impractical.

Public shaming, such as Morhaim’s reprimand, has proved an effective tool for disciplining wayward public officials since biblical times. It’s the General Assembly’s responsibility to police conduct of its members, just as is true for the U.S. Congress.

Ultimately, though, it is up to voters to determine the fate of lawmakers who stray over the line of acceptable conduct.

Re-election Challenge

That is where Morhaim’s toughest battle may lie.

When campaigning begins next year in his northwest Baltimore County district, the physician-delegate will face constant questions and criticism. He could confront significant challengers harping loudly on his reprimand and denouncing his lack of responsible ethical judgment.

It’s an unfortunate turn of events for Morhaim. In his 23 years as a state delegate, he had developed into a standout lawmaker. His medical expertise as an emergency-room physician prove invaluable to his colleagues as they grappled with complex and often technical health-care issues. He has been a leader in much-needed procurement reform efforts in state government, too.

While public shaming is tough for any politician to swallow, Morhaim remains in a position to rehabilitate his badly damaged reputation.

How?

Put his grudges and hurt feelings aside, focus on using his knowledge and experience to help enact solid, progressive legislation and never again be tempted to abandon a strict standard of ethical conduct.

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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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Avoiding MD’s Pension Reality

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 14, 2017 – Let’s be honest: No one wants to face up to Maryland’s giant $19 billion long-term shortfall in its retirement program for state workers and teachers. Not the Republican governor nor the Democratic legislature.

True to his Lone Ranger approach, Gov. Larry Hogan is calling for a dramatic change – an optional 401(k)-style retirement program for new state employees.

It sounds good but falls apart when examined close up.Avoiding MD's Pension Reality

The best that can be said about this plan is that it saves both the state and new workers upfront money. Unfortunately, it could leave tens of thousands of state workers far worse off in their retirement years.

Hogan didn’t bother consulting with legislative leaders, pension agency officials or the employee unions to get their input and cooperation. Thus, the governor’s plan has zero chance of passing.

But it goes over well on TV and radio. It allows Hogan to brag that he tried to fix Maryland’s pension problem – though he really didn’t.

Flawed Retirement Approach

Hogan’s plan would weaken the current retirement program by encouraging new workers to leave the system and instead sign up for his 401(k) savings plan. This could mean the loss of a huge sum of regular contributions to the existing pension system. The retirement system’s shortfall would grow, not shrink.

As for workers opting for this “defined contribution” program, 5 percent of their paychecks would go into their IRA account, matched equally by the state. (State workers today contribute 7 percent of their salaries into the pension fund.)

Workers then could invest all that retirement money into the stock market or other financial instruments.

That’s where the risk soars.

In bad economic times, state workers could lose much of their retirement nest egg if they’re not careful. Worse, they’d no longer be eligible to receive a regular state pension. They could find themselves leading a hard-scrabble life in retirement.

The notion of providing state workers with optional ways of saving for their “golden years” makes sense. But not if it means entirely eliminating that pension check.

Existing 401(k) Option

There’s no reason to embrace Hogan’s plan because the state already offers supplemental retirement programs that do much the same thing: a 401(k) investment option and tax-deferred annuity and investment plans. Workers can defer up to $18,000 in salary annually.

The only catch is that the state does not offer a matching payment, as nearly all private-sector businesses with 401(k) plans do. A healthy state match could go a long way toward encouraging workers to save a lot more for retirement.

Perhaps the best way to go is a hybrid system combining a smaller, defined pension benefit with a 401(k) savings component that includes a generous state match. That would put most state retirees in a much stronger position after they leave work. It also could ease the state’s retirement-fund shortfall over the long run.

The catch: It would cost Hogan & Co. a lot more money each year to get such a program started, money the governor doesn’t have in these uncertain economic times.

Besides, Hogan isn’t about to pour more money into worker pensions if he can avoid it.  In fact in his new budget he eliminated a mandated $50 million supplemental contribution to the retirement program created to help bring down the shortfall.

That move deepens Maryland’s pension predicament.

There’s no incentive for Democratic lawmakers to support Hogan’s poorly thought-through bill, either. They’d just as soon let the pension problems slide, hoping against hope for a return of strong economic growth, which could mean high investment returns for the retirement agency.

Thus, the governor’s bill will get a polite hearing – followed by a dignified burial.

Then Hogan can denounce Democrats for failing to “save” the state retirement program. He’ll score political points while kicking the true pension-funding dilemma into the future.

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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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Will Hogan’s Slimmed-Down Budget Implode?

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 30, 2017 – Through no fault of his own, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s slimmed-down, $43.5 billion budget could implode at any moment, depending on actions in Washington by President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress intent on slashing federal domestic spending.

Just one example: Trump wants immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act – the hated Obamacare he pilloried in the campaign. Tea party Republicans in Congress are marching rapidly down that same path.

It sounds wonderful to Trump’s followers and foes of the ACA.

But the loss of ACA funds would blow an immediate $1.26 billion hole in Hogan’s balanced budget – and would add up to a stunning $7.7 billion loss for Maryland over the next five years.

That’s just the tip of Maryland’s deficit iceberg if Trump and his Republican majority on the Hill start chopping with their budget axes.

Maryland’s Budget Plight

Losing ACA funds would cost Maryland $100 million in savings from drug rebates that Hogan is counting on in his budget, $62 million in child health matching money, $16 million for home care and $225 million in federal support that subsidizes health insurance for 60,000 moderate- or low-income Marylanders.

Then there’s Trump’s federal job freeze, with Virginia and Maryland most at risk of seeing large declines in its federal work force.

Think what it would mean for the Free State’s economy – and tax collections – if Trump and Congress slash the workforce at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Social Security Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health – all centered in Maryland.

There’s nothing in Hogan’s budget to cushion the state from a Trumpian-sized downsizing of the federal government. Instead, his fiscal blueprint ignores that approaching whirlwind and focuses instead on ratcheting downing spending without destroying existing social programs.Hogan's Slimmed-Down Budget

Clearly, the governor is trying to make it past the next election using smart spending hold-downs and a hoped-for upward bump in revenue collections.

He certainly wasn’t considering the anti-spending mood in Washington or the state’s precarious long-term budget outlook. Hogan just wants to get through 2018.

But legislative budget analysts noted last week there are very large deficits looming that Hogan hasn’t addressed.

Budget Quicksand

Those potential pools of red ink leave “the state vulnerable to expected federal cost containment actions” that include personnel cuts, greatly reduced agency budgets and repeal of the ACA without a viable replacement.

As it stands, Hogan’s budget could run into big trouble with Maryland’s Medicaid program this coming fiscal year. Legislative analysts politely wrote that the governor’s budget “contains optimistic assumptions” about slower Medicaid enrollment and the state’s ability to recoup drug rebates from pharmaceutical companies.

If Hogan’s number are wrong, his Medicaid allocation could be in deficit territory by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some of the governor’s budget-balancing tricks aren’t likely to work, either.

For instance, he figures he can save nearly $100 million if the legislature repeals spending mandates lawmakers approved last year. Don’t count on Democratic lawmakers giving the Republican governor what he wants.

Additionally, Hogan wants to increase the budget deficit in future years by handing out tax cuts to military retirees, police and firefighters, tax savings to those with student loans, and tax breaks to small business owners offering sick leave to workers.

The cost? $106 million in the first year and $488 million over the next five years.

Deficits Return

Hogan says he wiped out the state’s structural deficit with this budget – but only because he grabbed $170 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Even worse, analysts say Hogan’s financial plan does little to prevent a widening structural deficit in future years, growing to $432 million a year from now and $1.2 billion four years later – and that doesn’t even take into account the worsening fiscal situation if Obamacare is repealed.

The Department of Legislative Services also points to deeply troubling trends in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s six-year capital spending plan. MDOT can’t build all the projects it is promising due to a tightening revenue picture.

Maryland’s gas tax receipts are far less than expected, debt service costs are rising and MDOT operating expenses are galloping ahead of projections.

On top of that, Hogan has set aside $747 million in MDOT cash to greatly increase highway-construction aid to Maryland counties. That move would require a sharp cutback in bonds issued by MDOT, which means reducing the number of promised transportation projects over the next six year.

MDOT’s Growing Budget Hole

All told, MDOT is $1.7 billion short of the money it needs to complete projects on its list. Moreover, analysts say the department is underestimating its own operating expenses by $585 million in future years.

There could be tough questioning and resistance to Hogan’s transportation program when his minions try to explain this disturbing situation to the General Assembly’s budget panels.

Yet the MDOT quagmire could rapidly become a secondary concern if the White House and Congress go on a budget-cutting rampage this spring, creating “carnage” in state capitals.

On its own, Hogan’s budget appears to be a sensible, Republican-styled attempt to slowly diminish spending in ways that begin to align appropriations with the state’s annual revenue flow.

He resorts to a number of gimmicks to balance this year’s fiscal package, but what governor doesn’t?

There are almost certain to be fireworks over Hogan’s more questionable budget proposals in the next few months—especially if the man in the White House turns off much of Maryland’s fiscal pipeline from Washington.

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Del. Dan Morhaim’s Response

Jan. 27, 2017 — Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim of Baltimore County, the subject of an ethics inquiry over his lack of transparency concerning his financial arrangement with a marijuana dispensary and growing company, took issue with last week’s column on ethics in Annapolis in which he was mentioned.

His lengthy, legalistic response — which delves into aspects not mentioned in my column — is reproduced below in full. He disputes any and all claims of ethics violations. He asserts he followed legislative rules of conduct.

Not discussed is what the legislature’s Joint Ethics Committee is still considering: Whether his decision to not fully publicize his financial relationship with a company applying for marijuana licenses was acceptable behavior.

Morhaim was a longtime supporter of legalizing medical marijuana and co-sponsored the bill that became law. He also spoke out frequently at meetings of the Medical Cannabis Commission as it promulgated rules for awarding grower and dispensary licenses. He failed to publicly inform the panel, his fellow lawmakers and constituents of his financial relationship with Doctor’s Orders, which won preliminary licenses. He is now the company’s medical director.

Does this constitute a violation of the public’s trust or the General Assembly’s rules of conduct? Morhaim says no.

Morhaim’s other work in the General Assembly over two decades has been exemplary, acting as a leader on procurement reforms and giving much-needed expert guidance, as an emergency room physician, on a host of medical matters.

Yet the marijuana ethics issue was so troubling to legislative leaders that Morhaim was removed from the committee handling key health policy bills and lost his subcommittee chairmanship.

This is not the first time Morhaim has defended himself against an accusation of unprofessional conduct.

In 2005, he was reprimanded by the state’s physician disciplinary board. He agreed to a one-year probation for pre-signing blank forms falsely certifying he had examined nursing home residents and found that they met conditions required for withdrawal of treatment.

Morhaim, juggling two jobs as an ER doctor and a physician for a nursing home, maintained this was a clerical mistake and that no patient safety issues were involved.

The physician board felt otherwise but gave him one of it less severe penalties.

Here, then, is Morhaim’s letter explaining his side of the current ethics controversy:

“Mr. Rascovar/Barry:

             “You got several important points wrong in your articles about me.

             “First, this investigation began because of an erroneous Washington Post report that suggested I had not made proper disclosures.  In fact, I did. The Post has since retracted its erroneous report. [Editor’s Note: The Post did not retract its story nor indicate it was “erroneous.” It simply elaborated on the article, presenting more of Morhaim’s side and fuller details about Maryland’s legislative disclosure rules.]

           “The Washington Post made the following correction on 10/14/2016 that recognized that I followed all disclosure rules.  The Post wrote: ‘Correction: Earlier versions of this article included incomplete information about what Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County) reported on financial disclosure forms. While Morhaim did not report that he had been hired as a consultant to be the clinical director of the prospective medical cannabis company Doctor’s Orders, he did disclose that he might work as a consultant in the medical cannabis field and had received income as a consultant. Maryland law requires lawmakers to disclose sources of income but does not require those who work as consultants or lawyers to reveal their clients. A July 14 letter from Dea Daly, ethics counsel to the General Assembly, said Morhaim was not required to disclose his consulting clients on the form.’

            “In an email (9/28/2016) sent to me, the Washington Post reporter concluded that, ‘I plan on reporting that nothing in these emails shows that you were trying to lobby for Doctor’s Orders and nothing shows you pushing regulations that appear to narrowly benefit Doctor’s Orders.’  On 9/29/2016, the Post published, ‘The emails do not show Morhaim directly pushing for any changes­ that appear to be tailored specifically to benefit Doctor’s Orders’(This statement appeared in paragraph 20 of a 24-paragraph article.)   

             “It’s unfortunate and inappropriate that you’ve based your articles on allegations solely from other media. At no time did you contact me to get my perspective on these issues.

             “Second, before I had any business dealings with a medical cannabis applicant, I consulted with the Legislative Ethics Committee’s counsel about its propriety, and I followed their advice. All the proper disclosures as required by State Ethics Law were made, and these are in the public record.

            “Third, because I was following the written advice of the Legislative Ethics Committee staff, it was felt that there might be a conflict of interest on the part of that staff. Therefore an independent counsel was deemed advisable to insure that the investigation was above suspicion. There is no suggestion that retaining the independent counsel reflects on the gravity of the investigation. It’s also important to note that no charges or complaint have been filed in the case.

            “Fourth, I had no contact with any medical cannabis applicant until after the enabling 2015 legislation was enacted. I have been fighting for Maryland patients to have access to medical cannabis for the last 14 years, and my record on disinterested health public policy is second to none. For the one related bill I introduced after that (HB104 – 2016), I received clearance in writing in advance from the ethics counselor. Further, neither I, nor any member of my family, has any financial interest in any cannabis entity.

             “Fifth, my consulting work for an applicant was never kept secret. That’s why we’re having this discussion to begin with. It was properly disclosed on the application, which is a public document. I didn’t tout this association because this would have been improper. Had I done so, it would have been perceived as lobbying for the applicant instead of letting the rigorous double blind selection process of the Cannabis Commission play out. My consulting work was focused exclusively on clinical issues and concluded in the fall of 2015.

             “Sixth, my work as a consultant and as a practicing physician is not different in any way from the work done by the many legislators – in our citizen legislature – who are lawyers, accountants, or businesspersons. They are required to disclose that they have dealings with subject matter affected by state legislation, but as consultants they are not required to name their clients on the Legislative Ethics disclosure forms. The ethics counselor, as part of the disclosure filing process, confirmed this policy to me in writing.

             “If you wish, documentation of any or all of the above can be provided to you.

            ” Last, I respectfully ask you to do what the Washington Post did: print a correction to the facts.

             “Thank you for your consideration, and should you choose to write further articles about this one aspect of my legislative activities, I trust you will keep in mind the factual record provided to you now. 

“Sincerely,

“Dan

“Del. Dan Morhaim”

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