Politicizing Ethics Reforms in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 23, 2017 – Two bleak views of American society were on display last week coming straight from our elected executives – expressed first by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and the next day by President Donald Trump at his inauguration.

On Thursday, Hogan stood in front of the State House steps at a staged event so he could rail against the “culture of corruption” in Maryland’s legislature – though evidence of this “culture” is limited to a handful of examples.

Politicizing Ethics Reforms

Gov. Larry Hogan promoting his ethics reforms

Then he marched up the steps in photo-op fashion to present one of his ethics reform bills to House and Senate officials.

On Friday, Trump used his first speech as president to paint a deeply negative portrait of the country – despite years of prosperity and slow, steady growth. “This American carnage” he called the situation.

In each case, the Republican speakers left no doubt they were riding to the rescue on a white horse to save citizens from a clear and present danger perpetrated by the Democratic establishment.

Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric was understandable. That’s his style. This billionaire New Yorker sees himself as champion of “the people.” He says he inherited an Augean stable of stench – miserably failed government policies only “The Donald” can clean up and “make America great again.”

He promised radical change and his Friday message signaled his intention to follow through on his pledge to disrupt the status quo.

White Knight in Annapolis

Hogan’s bombastic rhetoric on legislative corruption also was understandable. It’s all about positioning Hogan in his reelection bid as the white knight doing battle with evil Democrats in the General Assembly.

Recent indictments of an ex-state legislator, a nominee for a House of Delegates vacancy and the Prince George’s County liquor board chairman set the stage perfectly for Hogan’s call to clean up the political arena.

But he combined that call for ethical government with continual bashing of the Democratic establishment in the state legislature.

Remember the “let’s work together” governor who told lawmakers only a week earlier how much he wanted to set partisanship aside and solve problems together?

That proved a mirage.

The real Larry Hogan resurfaced on Thursday, full of outrage about the Democratic-controlled legislature’s “climate of corruption” he wants to erase. Instead of sitting down and devising a joint ethics package with lawmakers, Hogan took the partisan route sure to grab all the headlines for himself.

Weak Ethics Commission

Hogan says he wants lawmakers to turn over the power to punish wayward colleagues to the State Ethics Commission, which has very limited enforcement and punishment tools.

Indeed, the commission already oversees lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms – and in 2015 fined four legislators a whopping $250 each for missing the filing deadline.

The power to discipline, humble and even eject elected legislators lies solely with the legislative bodies themselves.

Hogan wants to change that, though whether a panel controlled by the governor should hold such authority over legislative branch officials could bump up against separation of powers provisions in the Maryland constitution.

In practical terms, Hogan faces a bigger problem: His reform plan won’t work.

It won’t root out or stop wayward lawmakers from pursuing unethical behavior tied to monetary payoffs.

How Corruption Happens

Legislative corruption in Annapolis usually occurs when a delegate or senator accepts cash or favors from businesses in exchange for helping those businesses gain passage of favorable bills or friendly regulatory actions.

Two former delegates are embroiled in a liquor board payoff scandal in Prince George’s County. Hogan’s reforms wouldn’t have stopped the alleged payoffs.

Why? Because the transactions were hidden from view. There was no way Hogan or the legislature or the State Ethics Commission could have known a crime was being committed.

The lawmakers apparently lied on their disclosure forms, knew they were doing it and continued pushing legislation to aid businesses that stuffed cash in their pockets. Only dogged work by federal prosecutors unearthed what was going on.

The same holds true in the case of Ulysses Currie, accused in 2013 of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars as a consultant for a supermarket chain while pressing state and local bureaucrats to give the company favorable treatment.

Hogan’s reform proposals wouldn’t have unearthed Currie’s questionable behavior. (A federal jury failed to convict Currie, whose defense boiled down to admitting that he wasn’t mentally alert to the fact his actions might be criminal.

Marijuana Mischief

Even in a current case involving Del. Dan Morheim of Baltimore County, Hogan’s ethics package would not have revealed Morheim’s unorthodox behavior or his links to a marijuana growing and distribution firm vying for state licenses.

Morheim, who claims he abided by legislative ethics rules, kept his employment arrangement with the marijuana company secret. Only when the company started touting the expertise of its newest employee to help win state licenses did reporters shine a light on this odiferous situation.

It’s clear state ethics laws need considerable strengthening. Unfortunately Hogan chose to turn the issue to his political advantage rather than initiating a non-partisan crusade aimed at overhauling government standards of conduct.

He opted to take the moral high ground and denigrate the legislative establishment because it helps his political advancement. That’s smart politics but dumb governance.

Like Trump, Hogan too often prefers a sledge hammer instead of a peace pipe. He’d rather boost his poll numbers than do the hard work of thrashing out complex details and compromises with Democrats in order to make significant ethics reforms happen.

To the public, though, Hogan is the hero. It is part of his strategy to claim the title of good-government reformer in the next election.

Democratic legislator now must carve out tougher ethics provisions governing public officials on their own. Hogan has made them the bad guys in this matter and they must prove him wrong.

But if ethics reforms are successfully enacted into law, citizens won’t give Democratic legislators much credit. They’ve been outflanked by Hogan once again.

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‘Honest Prince George’ Strikes Again

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 16, 2017 – Back when I was a naïve and newbie political reporter covering the Maryland General Assembly in the early 1970s, I was baffled when legislators joked in lounges and hallways about “Honest Prince George.”

I found out soon enough it was a jovial but derogatory reference to the questionable “pay for play” politics practiced by some leaders of Prince George’s County.

Rapid land development and the county’s population explosion made the Washington suburb prime ground for under-the-table payoffs to elected officials who got builders construction permits and re-zoning approval.'Honest Prince George' Strikes Again

Straight-arrow Prince George’s senators and delegates would join in the verbal State House sparring about their “honest” county, but they knew better than most what was going on.

Now “Honest Prince George” has surfaced again.

Blown Cover

Arrests by federal prosecutors so far have nabbed a liquor board commissioner, a longtime former councilman and a yet-to-be-named state legislator involved in a bribery and payoff scheme.

Will Campos, a ten-year councilman and ex-delegate resigned his state post in 2015 after only nine months in office, realizing the feds were hot on his trail.

He pled guilty earlier this month to taking nearly $50,000 in payoffs to direct $325,000 in county funds to business owners over a seven-year period. On one occasion, he was handed a white envelope in the bathroom of a College Park restaurant. It was stuffed with $3,000 in cash.

Another ex-delegate, Michael Vaughn, turned in his resignation letter last Wednesday due to “ongoing health challenges” – like avoiding a long prison sentence (clearly not good for your health).

Prosecutors say one of their targets is a delegate who voted in committee to extend Sunday liquor sales in Prince George’s as part of a bribery scheme. Vaughn was the only county delegate on that committee who voted in 2015 for that Sunday liquor-sales bill.

More shoes will drop as federal investigators continue the latest Prince George’s County corruption probe.  It’s certainly been a lengthy, and sad, saga.

Baggett First to Fall

The first bigshot in Prince George’s to fall was Jesse Baggett, chairman of the then-all-powerful Board of County Commissioners during the county’s massive land-development boom in the 1960s and early 1970s. Baggett went to prison in 1971 for taking a $3,500 bribe from a builder in exchange for help on re-zoning.

The county became ground zero for the headline-grabbing Marvin Mandel racetrack scandal in which the secret sale of a county half-mile track in Upper Marlboro formed the case against Governor Mandel and his co-defendants, including a prominent county lawyer, Ernest N. Cory, Jr., who lied repeatedly to the state racing commission about the Mandel group’s ownership of the track.

This unsavory reputation by county leaders helped unseat many of them in the 1970s. Leading the reform group was Steny H. Hoyer, now the county’s longtime congressman, and an influential lawyer-politician, Peter F. O’Malley.

Yet the smell of money proved irresistible for a few. A veteran state senator, Tommie Broadwater, went to prison for food stamp fraud. A delegate, Leonard Blondes, was found complicit in a bribery scheme.

A one-term delegate and county councilman, Tony Cicoria, stole $65,000 in campaign contributions, lied on his tax returns and then while on the council went AWOL for 13 months to avoid arrest. Cicoria eventually was nabbed in Florida  where his return to Maryland was delayed by local charges of using a phony drivers license.

Good old “Honest Prince George.”

Johnson’s Shame

In the 21st century, the most flagrant offender has been former County Executive Jack Johnson, who used his office to extort $1.6 million from developers during his eight years in office.

When Johnson and his wife, herself a county councilwoman, were arrested by the feds, Johnson was shouting at his wife to stuff illicit cash into her bra and panties and to flush the rest down the toilet. (Officers recovered $79,600 from Leslie Johnson’s undergarments and another $100,000 from the water closet.)

Then there was the sad case of current Sen. Ulysses Currie, accused of using his office and committee chairmanship to twist arms for his client while getting a kickback worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Currie beat the rap, but not without humiliating himself with a defense that claimed Currie was too dumb to be dishonest.

And of course there was Tiffany Alston, who avoided criminal punishment by resigning as a state delegate 2012 after she stole thousands from her campaign fund to pay herself and cover her wedding expenses.

Constant Surveillance

Unfortunately, a few politicians in Prince George’s continue to regard elective office as a way to enrich themselves through quid pro quos.

Other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore County and Baltimore City, have similar shameful histories – witness the recent indictment of Gary Brown, Jr. on the eve of his appointment as a state delegate for laundering $18,000 in campaign contributions for his boss, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, through his relatives.

At least Prince George’s voters had the good sense to elect a reformer, Rushern Baker, as county executive to help clean up the mess left behind by Jack Johnson.

Still, the ballooning liquor board scandal points to a continuing problem in the county that will need constant surveillance and scrutiny to scrub Prince George’s County of its “pay to play” reputation.

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Response from Franchot’s Top Aide

Jan. 10, 2017–Len Foxwell, a longtime confidante and aide to Comptroller Peter Franchot responded to the column, “Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues” (see next item below) with the following lengthy defense of his boss. It’s three times longer than the column Foxwell finds objectionable, so be prepared.

Also note:  Maryland’s Jan. 25 “begathon” can be viewed live on the Board of Public Works page of the maryland.gov website. Watch the long hours of 24 school superintendents trooping before the board trying to justify more money for school construction — and then judge for yourself the value of this exercise.

Meanwhile, here is Foxwell’s missive:

January 9, 2017

Dear Mr. Rascovar:

Good afternoon, and Happy New Year.  Here’s to good health and both personal and professional fulfillment in the year ahead.

Having read your most recent contribution to MarylandReporter.com – a politically-lubricated jeremiad against the Maryland Public School Construction Program’s longstanding appeals process – I feel obliged to respectfully rebut several of your more misleading and uninformed points.

My first is in response to your characterization of the process itself – “a demeaning ‘begathon’ that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise and reward their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.”  From this passage, your readers might assume that you have diligently attended previous school construction appeals hearings in recent years, and that you are personally familiar with the tone and tenor of the proceedings.

That would be incorrect.  I have had the good fortune of attending every Public School Construction Program appeals hearing since Comptroller Franchot took office in 2007.  To date, I haven’t actually seen you at any of them.  I find it highly improbable that you have followed this annual event – which customarily lasts several hours – on the Board of Public Works’ streaming video feed.  Therefore, I have to question your authority to editorialize on the performance of the Board members at this annual event.

The Board of Public Works provides the public with both a video archive and written transcripts of past meetings.  I would respectfully encourage you to go back, catch up on what you’ve missed over the past decade or so, and offer your readers with specific instances in which Board members gratuitously “humiliated” participants in the meeting or otherwise demonstrated inappropriate conduct.

In stark contrast to what you have described in your column, I think you’ll find that the Board of Public Works is, for the most part, quite laudatory of the efforts of Maryland’s local school systems to carry out their shared mission effectively in this age of limited financial resources.  As for Comptroller Franchot, you will find that he reserves particularly high praise for those school systems that have performed well on their annual public school maintenance surveys, as conducted by the Interagency Committee for Public School Construction.

This is a longstanding priority of his, one that dates back to the early days of our previous governor’s administration, because schools that are maintained properly tend to have a longer life span, which leads to cost savings for Maryland taxpayers.  Even more important, we believe, is the fact that – all things being roughly equal – students who have the opportunity to learn in safe, comfortable and attractive schools tend to outperform those who don’t.

The Board members have also utilized this open and transparent public forum to encourage local school systems to consider alternative construction practices and other strategies – such as the use of geothermal energy whenever possible – to achieve cost savings and better learning outcomes.  All of these would seem to be valuable points of discussion for those who share an interest in the fiscal well-being of our state and our ability to prepare students for success in a complex global economy.  Yet, inexplicably, none of these points found their way into your analysis, which leads me to speculate — with apologies in advance for being impolite —  that you simply have no idea what you are talking about.

In fairness to you, these meetings have had their moments of honest disagreement between Board members and local school systems.  Last year, for instance, the Board members sought to hold the Howard County Public School System accountable for its management of, and response to, the presence of unacceptable levels of mold in several of its schools, which had led to several reported cases of illness and hospitalization.

Similarly, there was considerable discussion about the decision of the Carroll County Public School System to close multiple schools within the county due to insufficient enrollment, despite Governor Hogan’s willingness to invest $4 million to forestall that effort.  Given the number of Maryland students, teachers and families whose lives were affected by these two issues alone, I think we would all be interested in knowing whether you regarded those public discussions as (to borrow your own terms) “distasteful” and “unbecoming.”

You correctly note that Comptroller Franchot has “conducted a consistent crusade to force [Baltimore County] to install portable, temporary air conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.” However, you incorrectly suggest that his effort is rooted in a desire to discredit the incumbent Baltimore County Executive and thwart whatever political ambitions he may harbor.

It is worth noting that Comptroller Franchot’s engagement in this subject dates back to June 16, 2011, when he wrote letters to then-Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres A. Alonso.  Noting that the conditions within many of their school facilities can “pose an obvious health and safety risk to all concerned,” he asked “how…children can focus and learn – much less perform to the best of their abilities on final exams and standardized tests – in such an environment.”

He went on to write that “it is equally hard to see how teachers and staff members can feel like their hard work and sacrifice are truly valued when they are forced to work in such unpleasant workplace conditions,” and noted that these conditions “erode the quality of the learning experience” and “sends a disturbing message of indifference to those who have dedicated their lives to serving our children.”

Bear in mind that in June of 2011, Mr. Kamenetz had been in office for approximately six months, and was still several years away from being mentioned, within Maryland political circles, as a probable candidate for statewide office.  To that same point, the letters in question were authored more than three years prior to Governor Hogan’s successful gubernatorial campaign.

Therefore, the notion that the Comptroller’s commitment to safer classrooms for the children of Baltimore City and Baltimore County is inspired by a nebulous political rivalry with Mr. Kamenetz, or an equally nebulous political alliance with Governor Hogan, is beyond asinine.  Your insistence on force-feeding this discredited narrative erodes whatever credibility you have accumulated over the course of your career and – at a time when our political system is in such desperate need of sunlight – serves as a reminder of why public confidence in the media is trending in the wrong direction.

It is my belief that Comptroller Franchot’s perspective on the air conditioning issue has been well-documented.  For the sake of brevity, I won’t unpack his entire argument in response to yours.  Suffice to say that, in the year 2017, every child, teacher and public school employee is entitled to air conditioned classrooms in the warmer months – when it’s not uncommon for building temperatures escalate into the triple digits – just as they are entitled to heated classrooms on frigid days.

Despite the fact that hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars have been invested in the Baltimore City and Baltimore County school systems for building improvements since Comptroller Franchot took office, more than 50,000 school children in these two jurisdictions – most of whom hail from low and moderate-income communities – are unable to learn in the same conditions that are taken for granted elsewhere.  They are, however, expected to demonstrate the same academic progress and perform comparably on standardized tests as their peers.

The Maryland NAACP regards this as a “neglected civil right;” Comptroller Franchot views it as a fundamental matter of social and economic justice, and Governor Hogan has lent his support, and that of his Administration, to a grassroots coalition of families who demand equity for vulnerable children and teachers who otherwise would have no voice.

I suspect there is space for honest disagreement – however irrational – over the need for immediate relief for these children.  However, I would respectfully suggest that it is the height of disrespectful arrogance to blithely dismiss, as “plants,” those who have attended past Board of Public Works meetings to make their voices heard.

These are working parents who took unpaid time off from work to stand with their children as they described conditions in a classroom without air conditioning or even functioning windows.  They are members of our civic and faith community – such as the Rev. Dr. Alvin Hathaway of the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore – who refuse to stand by as certain children are held accountable for all of the obligations of enrollment in a Maryland public school without a fundamental right that is available to their peers.

All of them took advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by the Board of Public Works to express their points of view in an open, transparent forum, and many of them did so after feeling as if nobody else was bothering to listen to them.  None of them did so with professional benefits in mind, or to curry favor with members of the Annapolis political establishment.  Rather than trivialize their service, I would humbly suggest that you regard them as an aspirational model.

As a point of reference, I have attached copies of the 2011 correspondence that I referenced earlier in this letter.  I thank you in advance for considering the points articulated in this letter, and wish you, once again, a happy new year.

Sincerely,
Len N. Foxwell Chief of Staff Comptroller of Maryland

Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2017— Here we go again. In a few weeks, school superintendents will trek, en masse, to the second floor of the Maryland State House to grovel before the Board of Public Works for additional school construction funds.

It is a demeaning “begathon” that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise, and reward, their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.

This time, the target for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot is Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – a man who has signaled a desire to run for statewide office next year.

Anything Hogan and Franchot can do to undercut Kamenetz’ credibility helps their reelection chances.

That explains the consistent animosity by this tag-team tandem toward Kamenetz’ requests.

Comptroller’s Crusade

Franchot has conducted a consistent crusade to force the county to install portable, temporary air-conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.

Former Baltimore County executives bear the brunt of the blame for leaving too many school kids in overheated classrooms during the early fall and early summer.

Kamenetz, on the other hand, has been making up for lost time with a $1.3 billion program to get students into air-conditioned schools. But his expensive plan is phased in due to fiscal constraints.

Maryland's Demeaning 'Begathon' Continues

School Construction in Montgomery County

Franchot has persisted in pummeling Baltimore County’s leader for not following his insistence that Kamenetz buy window A/C units.

Each has a point: Kids should not swelter on extremely hot days, yet it makes little sense to spend millions for a short-term fix when a long-term fix is in the works.

The ideal solution is for the state to forward-fund the money Baltimore County needs to finish the job ASAP through a combination of costly upgrades and replacement buildings.

Embarrass Kamenetz

However, neither Franchot nor Hogan has lifted a finger to support the county’s efforts. They could have designated a pot of school construction money for jurisdictions needing window-unit air-conditioners. Instead, they remained silent.

Their goal is to publicly embarrass Kamenetz. Thus, the dynamic duo voted last May to punish Baltimore County (and its school kids) by withholding $10 million in state funds for county school construction – thus delaying portions of the work on air-conditioning classrooms.

The two also withheld $5 million in badly needed construction dollars from Baltimore City, which also is in the process of getting all schools air-conditioned.

They demanded that the two jurisdictions air-condition all classrooms in a matter of months – an impossibility for any number of legal and practical reasons.

The two Annapolis politicos apparently think the city and county can simply wave a wand and, voila! they’ll reverse a situation that’s been festering for two decades.

The reality is that it will take a number of years – and billions – to correct this situation.

Political Favoritism

When the “begathon” parade shamelessly takes place on Jan. 25, it is likely Hogan in particular will look kindly upon Baltimore City’s requests, including the withheld $5 million, as a goodwill gesture toward the city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh.

He and Franchot will save their contempt for Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and, indirectly, Kamenetz. There could well be “plants” in the room to demonstrate Hogan and Franchot are supported by county residents in their harsh criticisms.

It’s all part of the set-piece melodrama the “begathon” has become.

In most cases, conservative, Republican-leaning counties will be treated with kid-gloves by the Republican governor while Democratic strongholds get a cold reception.

It’s quite a distasteful scene, one that is as unbecoming for the governor and comptroller as it is for the school chiefs forced to grovel before them.

Re-imagining State Center

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2017–As an early New Year’s gift to Maryland taxpayers, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivered the final blow to an outrageously priced scheme to turn over to private investors the 28-acre State Center complex in Baltimore for redevelopment.

Re-imagining State Center

The $1.5 billion State Center plan rejected by the Board of Public Works.

Hogan’s predecessor as governor, Martin O’Malley, had pushed hard  forthe State Center deal in a way that benefited the developers but left the state with unconscionably high rental payments for the next half-century – beginning at $30 million or more per year and escalating by 15 percent every five years.

O’Malley’s proposal also would have threatened the state’s triple-A bond rating by smashing through Maryland’s debt ceiling.

Additionally, the deal hinged on the state constructing for the developers a high-priced underground garage, costing $28.3 million. The money to pay for the 20-year bonds on the garage would come out of the state’s struggling Transportation Trust Fund at roughly $2 million a year.

As an extra kick-in-the-pants, state workers would have to pay to park in the underground garage even though they now get free parking on surface lots at State Center.

It was a boondoggle of immense proportions disguised as a mixed-used redevelopment of State Center to help revive midtown Baltimore.

Public-Private Partnership

The initial plan, worked out by former Gov. Bob Ehrlich in the early 2000s, made sense as a model for smart transit-oriented development. It was the sort of public-private partnership that would benefit Baltimore, the state and the developers – office space, retail, apartments and community amenities centered around two mass-transit lines.

Then came the Great Recession. What had been feasible plans for State Center’s re-birth crumbled. As lingering effects of the recession dragged on, the State Center proposal took on more of a Mission Impossible cast.

When O’Malley revived the concept with new developers and a new set of financing figures, what had been a good deal became more and more suspect.

The legislature started asking questions and looking at the proposal’s details. Analysts for the General Assembly didn’t like what they discovered.

The state was being asked, essentially, to underwrite this massive $1.5 billion project. There would be only one prime tenant in the developer’s lone Phase One building – the state of Maryland, occupying nearly all of the office space.

Even worse, the developers wanted to charge the state unheard of water-view rental rates for a mid-town building in a tenuous neighborhood overlooking other mid-town buildings, a hospital and a public housing project.

Then the underground garage was added to the state’s to-do list by the developers. As the Department of Legislative Services put it, “A significant amount of private investment has been continuously stripped out of the plan.” It was replaced by state taxpayer dollars.

Kopp, Franchot Skeptical

Comptroller Peter Franchot bailed out as a State Center supporter some five years ago, complaining about the exorbitant rents and the fear of losing Maryland’s money-saving triple-A bond rating.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp kept worrying about breaching the state’s borrowing limit by undertaking the capital leasing costs of the State Center project.

Thus, O’Malley no longer had the votes to gain Board of Public Works approval to complete the revised deal with the developers.

When Hogan entered the picture, he tried to work out a fair settlement that would not leave the state holding the bag and the developers reaping all the rewards.

He even turned to mediation with the developers. But the numbers wouldn’t work unless the state contributed heftily to the privately built project.

So Hogan pulled the plug on the State Center arrangement just before Christmas and then sued the developers to leave no doubt the deal has been cancelled.

What Next?

The fate of State Center after the legal finger-pointing ends is an open question.

It would cost in excess of $200 million for the state to replace its office buildings on the site. That’s capital money the state lacks at the moment.

More sensible would be leasing deeply discounted office space for state agencies in nearly empty downtown high-rises while working with the city on a new residential-and-retail plan for the State Center acreage.

Franchot even proposed a pie-in-the-sky idea: a large sports arena for Baltimore at  State Center. Hogan immediately asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to investigate this remote possibility.

It’s unfortunate a prolonged recession cut the economic legs out from under the original State Center development plans.

But it did.

Now it’s time to start all over.

Let’s re-imagine what State Center could become a decade from now: A catalyst for strengthening midtown neighborhoods, creating a new corridor of residences and shops, and givng state workers quality office space for state workers on the current site or at a more affordable location somewhere in Baltimore’s downtown area.

Hogan faced reality and pulled the plug because the deal on the table didn’t work. His next move will be even more important: defining the future uses for this valuable 28-acre property.

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Hogan’s Holiday Hoax

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 19, 2016 – You’ve got to hand it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. What a prankster he is!

He’s pulled off one of the great holiday hoaxes of recent times in Maryland.

He’s got everyone convinced he is willing to kill 66 major highway projects in Maryland in order to get the legislature to repeal a law requiring a transparent advisory evaluation and ranking of big road, bridge and transit proposals.

Hogan's Holiday Hoax

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

He’s worked himself into a lather about what, for political purposes, he niftily calls “the road kill bill” saying it will “wreak havoc on our entire transportation system.”

Anyone who disagrees with Hogan’s the-world-is-ending interpretation “is ignorant of the facts.”

This repeal-law effort, he says with a straight face, is his No. 1 priority in the coming General Assembly session.

That’s pretty strong stuff.

It’s got to be a holiday hoax. After all, virtually nothing Hogan is saying is based on a truthful, fact-based assessment of the situation.

He’s made the whole thing up – hopefully to give us a good laugh this joyful season (ho, ho ho!).

Darth Vader in Annapolis

Under Hogan’s alternative-universe scenario, the law passed by Democrats in the legislature ties his hands and requires him to kill road projects in all but a handful of urban jurisdictions – even though that’s not even close to what the statute says.

The state’s highest-ranking legal officer, the attorney general, says Hogan’s “Rogue One” interpretation of the law is pure science fiction. But for some reason Hogan wants to play Darth Vader in this reality show.

If you read the law, HB 1013, you’ll conclude it’s pretty meek: A toothless attempt to force more transparency in the state’s transportation funding process.

The law has no enforcement provision.

There is no penalty if Hogan ignores the statute.

It merely calls for a quality analysis, and ranking, of proposed transportation projects. After that list is compiled, Hogan & Co. are free to disregard the results – without any negative consequences.

Free Rein for Hogan

To drive home the point that the new law gives Hogan carte blanche to do as he pleases, lawmakers added this concluding sentence: “[N]othing in this Act may be constructed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, Hogan can fund whichever road, bridge and transit projects he wants regardless of the score it receives.

All he’s gotta do is give “a rational basis for the decision. . . in writing.”

Like, “it will make the road safer.” Or “it will reduce traffic congestion.” Or “it will help economic development.”

Sounds easy for Hogan to abide by this law while he continues to dole out transportation dollars any way he wants.

Not according to the governor and his transportation boss, Pete Rahn. Indeed, Rahn has put forth four pages of regulations that ensure a fiery head-on collision in which dozens of road projects will be denied state funds.

As one witness put it at a Nov. 18 hearing on Rahn’s convoluted regulations, Hogan & Co. “are determined to not make this work.”

Transportation Funding Shortfall

Why would they do that?

One reason could be Hogan doesn’t have the funds to pay for all the road projects he’s promised the counties, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

DLS calculates Hogan will have to cut $315 million next year from his previous transportation proposals (and $1.6 billion over six years) to stay within the department’s debt ratio.

It seems that the six-year forecast for gas-tax receipts is falling far short of Hogan’s estimates and that the governor is overspending on transportation operations.

Something’s got to give. So naturally the politician in Hogan wants to shift blame to those evil Democrats in the legislature.

Suddenly a law that is unenforceable and totally advisory gets transformed by Hogan into Maryland’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Political Posture

Hogan is likely to continue beating this bogus “road kill” issue to death as the 2018 election approaches.

He won’t get much help, though, from Democrats in the legislature.

It was clear at the Nov. 18 hearing that lawmakers want to work out a compromise in which the law is tweaked in ways that make it even more explicit Hogan remains fully in charge of deciding which transportation projects get funded and which do not.

Democrats aren’t going to cave in to Hogan’s illogical repeal demand. That is rightly seen as a politically inspired subterfuge.

Indeed, Hogan’s holiday hoax could backfire.

If, as expected, lawmakers amend the law so most everyone – except the governor – is happy with the outcome, Hogan no longer will be able to blame Democrats for killing road projects.

The governor remains the only person who can put forth funds for state transportation projects.

If he fails to deliver on his earlier road-improvement promises, he’ll have to man up to the fact that it was his decision.

That’s not the posture he wants as his reelection campaign draws near, which seems to be the most likely explanation for the governor’s bizarre “road kill” holiday hoax.

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What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 12, 2016 – Reality is beginning to set in: The political world has been dramatically altered by Donald Trump’s surprise victory on Nov. 8.

Some politicians are adjusting while others are wailing like it’s the end of democracy, organizing pointless protests a full five weeks before Trump even takes office.

In Maryland both kinds of politicos – the realists and the hopeless idealists – have been on display recently.

What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

Mayor Catherine Pugh and Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. at her inauguration in Baltimore’s War Memorial .

Count Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and new Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh among the pragmatists. They want to deal with reality on the ground.

The governor continues to steer an independent course largely free of ideological rigidity and party obeisance. His words and actions in Baltimore over the past week indicate that Hogan now understands the importance of carving out alliances with like-minded pragmatists such as the new mayor.

His gracious words of support at Pugh’s inauguration were followed by a celebratory event in West Baltimore marking a big step forward in attacking the city’s vast vacant-housing problem. Republican Hogan knows he has a quiet supporter in Democrat Pugh and it will be up to him to show her he’s determined to do what he can to uplift Baltimore’s economic development.

Putting Results Ahead of Ideology

For her part, Pugh made it clear she’ll be a non-ideological mayor who is interested first and foremost in results. Going to war with the Republican governor isn’t on her agenda – a marked change from the last City Hall occupant. She’s a lifelong networker who now intends to ask for favors and assistance from those in her wide-ranging list of business, political and foundation contacts.

Rather than snub the president-elect at Saturday’s Army-Navy game in Baltimore, she warmly met him and handed Trump a letter detailing how the “make America great” president-in-waiting can jump-start the city’s lagging economy with some big-ticket infrastructure projects.

She also has expressed the hope that she and Hogan can team up to win over the next president for development programs in Baltimore that create jobs and reduce government dependence.

Pugh isn’t being helped, though, by other Baltimore officials. The new City Council, as its first act, voted unanimously to condemn Trump and his intemperate Tweets and verbal assaults.

That counter-productive move achieved nothing positive and created a hostile atmosphere for Trump two days before he visited Baltimore.

Council Incompetence

It was a sign that the new City Council will pander to liberal political emotions and do little to help Pugh bridge differences with Republicans soon to be running the country.

What the new Baltimore Council members need to keep in mind is that war whoops and fiery denunciations bring nothing in the way of results. The city’s legislature already has a well-earned reputation for incompetence and irrelevancy. Sadly, it may get worse.

When faced with a staggering crime and drug crisis, intensely imbedded poverty and lack of economic opportunity, what action does the Council take on Day One? It alienates the president-elect. Now that’s really going to help address the city’s most pressing needs.

The new members of the City Council should step back and reconsider such rash behavior. They should take a cue from outgoing U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who made a strong call for civility and understanding among politicians of differing stripes in her farewell speech on the floor of the Senate in Washington.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Mikulski was a down-the-line liberal Democrat yet she never stopped trying to find common ground with Republicans and conservatives. Getting things accomplished was paramount in her mind.

That’s the lesson the eight freshman Baltimore City Council members need to learn. They’re off to a terrible start – and that soon may be compounded by votes to approve a $15 an hour minimum wage that could prove so onerous businesses will quickly flee across the city-county line.

Politics, veteran practitioners tell us, is the art of the possible. Hogan, Mikulski and Pugh understand the truism of that expression. Getting bogged down in emotional ideology and name-calling is a sure sign of a weak political hand – and a formula for continuing failure to produce constructive results and progress.

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

 

The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 6, 2016 — It started with such bright promise,  yet as Stephanie Rawlings-Blake leaves the mayor’s office today for the last time there’s a deflated feeling that she failed to live up to expectations.

She came into the mayor’s job with an ideal pedigree — the youngest elected City Council member in history, 12 years as a councilwoman, vice president and then president of the City Council. A lawyer and Public Defender, she learned important lessons from her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, a legendary figure in Annapolis known for his courage and dedicated budget expertise,

The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Outgoing Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Like her father, she was a policy wonk with the determination to make tough decisions for the betterment of the city. Rawlings-Blake followed after her father in doing what’s right, not what’s popular.

She straightened out Baltimore’s red-ink-laced budget, took on the police and fire unions to get the city out of a horrendous pension bind and found a way to cut the city’s too-high property tax rate more than prior mayors.

In case you haven’t noticed, business development is surging in Baltimore. A program is in place to attack vacant housing blight. The city has a $1 billion plan under way to modernize its public school buildings.

Sadly, all this was overshadowed by the mayor’s standoffishness, her failure to enlarge her inner circle of advisers and her arrogant behavior on the day when civil unrest broke out in Baltimore in 2015.

On that day, Rawlings-Blake closeted herself in meetings, refusing to take phone calls from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. about calling in the National Guard.

It was shockingly poor judgment followed by a continuing inability to display the kind of one-on-one contact with distraught citizens that might have helped tamp down the flammable situation.

Insular Mayor

Meanwhile, Rawlings-Blake, despite her years of City Council service, proved unable to win over council members on key issues. She feuded for years with Council President Jack Young and with Comptroller Joan Pratt, and also regularly criticized the governor.

She too often listened only to a small coterie of trusted advisers and longtime friends, then seemed surprised when her ineffective lobbying in Annapolis and in the Council chambers led to failure.

She spent too much time in her last year on official trips, promoting her national Democratic Party standing and grooming herself for a future career as a partisan TV analyst.

What a disappointing way to end her political life. She leaves the mayor’s office after seven years with barely a pulse-beat of citizen support.The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Yet Rawlings-Blake has in many ways set the table quite nicely for new Mayor Catherine Pugh, who will reap the benefits of her predecessor’s courageous budgeting reforms, school construction program and economic development moves.

Future historians will remember Rawlings-Blake far more favorably than Baltimoreans do today. It’s unfortunate that she leaves on such a low note. She performed some valuable services during her tenure as the struggling city’s top elected official. Yet her deeply flawed leadership on the day when Baltimore burned will always be a black mark against her mayoralty record.

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Trump & Hogan Agree: Corporate Welfare Works

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

Trump, Hogan Agree

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic Roadblock

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

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

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

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

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

Miller-Hogan Find Middle Ground

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

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

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

There’s plenty of irony here.

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

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

Demands to Stay In-State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump has a much more difficult field to plough.

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Advice to Hogan: ‘Take a Deep Breath’

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 28, 2016–Leave it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to make a positive, pro-active announcement and then gum up the works with snide, partisan remarks and a political snub that won’t be forgotten.

Here’s the good news: Hogan reversed course on what to do about the narrow, aging and dangerous Harry W. Nice Memorial Potomac River Bridge in Southern Maryland. He unveiled a $765 million plan to erect a new, wider and safer bridge nearby in just six years.

Advice to Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Charles County

Hip, hip, hooray!

Here’s the bad news: Republican Hogan refuses to work with Democrats on this important construction project. He froze out Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton of Charles County from the announcement ceremony in a political snub that could come back to haunt him.

He also continued to foolishly rant about a transportation planning law enacted by Democrats over Hogan’s veto that the governor inaccurately describes as potentially destructive to road and bridge projects.

To top it off, Hogan railed against a bill Middleton pushed through the General Assembly last session calling for the Maryland Transportation Authority to set aside $75 million a year over the next ten years to pay for the replacement bridge.

Pay-Go Proposal

Middleton’s pay-as-you-go approach met with fierce opposition from Hogan and his transportation minions. The bill, SB 907, passed anyway. Then Hogan vetoed the bill, though Middleton and his offended colleagues could override that veto a few months from now – unless Hogan comes to the bargaining table.

Clearly, Hogan doesn’t like to cooperate with those nasty Democrats. He certainly doesn’t like sharing credit at good-news announcements.

Is it any wonder Hogan has been unable to move his priority bills through the Democratic-dominated legislature?

He continues to float the bogus notion he is eager to compromise with Democrats. What he really wants is total agreement on his proposals. That’s Hogan’s version of compromise.

Middleton’s replacement-bridge bill was aimed at getting Hogan to negotiate with lawmakers over how to erect a safer Potomac River crossing in Southern Maryland. The highly-respected senator has been trying for 15 years to replace the 76-year-old, two-lane bridge.

Advice to Hogan

Sen. Mac Middleton of Charles County

Less-Costly Option

Hogan’s transportation team, though, opposed that plan and backed a less-costly, $150 million patch-up of the decking of the Nice Bridge – easily the state’s most terrifying water crossing. Middleton says the administration argued that not enough people use the Nice Bridge to justify the $1 billion price tag of a replacement structure.

Suddenly, though, Hogan has done a Trump-like flip-flop and essentially conceded that Middleton has been right all along: a new, safer crossing is needed.

Yet the administration continues to twist the truth.

The governor’s spokesperson made the ludicrous statement Middleton wasn’t invited to the announcement ceremony because he had nothing to do with making the project a reality.

What may have changed the governor’s mind was news that a slowly recovering economy has led to far more car and truck traffic on Maryland’s toll roads and bridges, resulting in a $62 million surplus over the past year. The surplus will be used to help pay for the replacement bridge.

If this trend persists the state could save a ton of money on the new bridge, reducing the size of bond offerings. That, in turn, would free up millions for other state transportation priorities.

Friend or Foe?

The situation might brighten even more if Hogan sat down with Middleton to find a middle ground on the two financing approaches. They are not that far apart.

For a governor who has seen his relationship with the legislature deteriorate, it might make sense.

Middleton, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is a powerful figure. He could be an important ally for the governor if Hogan wanted to build a partnership. Or he could be a thorn in the governor’s side. The choice is Hogan’s.

Last week’s bridge announcement won plaudits, as it should. A replacement is overdue. The governor found a way to slice 25 percent off earlier cost projections by relocating the planned structure 100 feet to the north over a deeper river channel.

Politically, Hogan’s new bridge plan will help him ramp up support in Southern Maryland as his reelection campaign ramps up late next year.

But the governor still needs to improve his batting average in the General Assembly before he goes before Maryland voters.

Perhaps he should take a cue from what he said following Donald Trump’s election on Nov. 8 when he advised Marylanders, “Everyone ought to take a deep breath” and give the new administration a chance.

Could this be the time for Hogan “to take a deep breath” and give bipartisanship a chance? It might lead to a compromise on paying for a new Potomac River crossing and open a channel for cooperation in the State House.

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