Tag Archives: Annapolis

Missing: Democratic Moderates in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 14, 2014 — Hardly noticed in the Nov. 4 election that saw Anthony Brown wiped out in an embarrassing avalanche of rejection was the obliteration of the Democratic Party’s moderate-conservative wing in Annapolis.

Missing Democratic Moderate: Sen. Roy Dyson

Defeated Sen. Roy Dyson

Gone is Southern Maryland Sen. Roy Dyson. Gone is half-century veteran Baltimore County Sen. Norman Stone (retirement). Gone is a Howard County fixture, Sen. Jim Robey (retirement).

Also out of luck, conservative Western Maryland Del. Kevin Kelly, moderate Western Maryland Del. John Donoghue, conservative Baltimore County Delegates Mike Weir, Jimmy Malone (retirement), Steve DeBoy (retirement) and Sonny Minnick (retirement), moderate-conservative Del. Emmett Burns of Baltimore County (retirement), Eastern Shore Committee Chairman Del. Norm Conway, Cecil County Del. David Randolph, Southern Maryland Delegates John Bohanan and Johnny Wood (retirement), Harford County Del. Mary-Dulany James, and Frederick County Del. Galen Clagett (retirement).

The Democratic Party’s fulcrum in the State House now is dangerously weighted to the strident left. The party’s center-right legislators have shrunk to a handful.

It’s tough even coming up with who you’d place in that category in the House of Delegates once you get beyond House Speaker Mike Busch.  You can count less than ten moderates still left in the Senate, including President Mike Miller — Charles County’s Mac Middleton, Frederick’s Ron Young, Anne Arundel’s John Astle and Ed DeGrange, Ocean City’s Jim Mathias, Baltimore County’s Jim Brochin and Kathy Klausmeier.

Miller’s Leverage

Miller’s problem is much less severe than Busch’s.

The smaller Senate chamber gives the Senate president extensive leverage to impose moderation on Democrats. Senators there know that if you’re picked for a leadership slot, you’d better follow Miller’s cautious lead.

But in the 141-member House, riding herd on an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic Caucus could prove Mission Impossible.

Simply finding a leadership group willing to move toward the middle might be a challenge for Busch.

Even more daunting may be convincing leftist Democrats to cooperate with the new conservative governor, Republican Larry Hogan Jr.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

Already some of the left-wingers are talking ominously about fighting a partisan war rather than smoking a peace pipe with Hogan.

Busch and Miller don’t want a repeat of the dreadful gridlock and bitterness of the Ehrlich years. Neither does Hogan, who lived through that frustrating era as the governor’s appointments secretary.

But what will the two sides compromise on? And will their disagreements wind up poisoning the well of cooperation?

This will be the focus of attention as Hogan starts putting his administration together and formulates a brief agenda for the legislative session that starts in just two months.

Room for Agreement

Busch and Miller signaled in the last General Assembly session their agreement with Hogan that the O’Malley administration had neglected business development. Maryland must become more accommodating to companies. That’s a clear area where partial agreement is possible.

Ironically, Republican gains in the General Assembly could make it more difficult for Hogan to govern effectively.

The dearth of moderate-conservative Democrats in the State House robs him of potential allies. He still needs lots of Democratic votes to pass his agenda. Dealing with a ultra-liberal Democratic corps of lawmakers could prove perilous. It could force the governor-elect to take a go-slow approach in his reform plans.

Many of the newly elected Democrats may choose to join Miller and Busch in playing centrist politics with Hogan. After all, it is the best way to get things done and avoid the thing voters most detest — gridlock.

Yet without a counter-balancing Democratic center-right wing, the party caucuses in Annapolis could keep moving farther and farther to the left, ceding the center that voters admire to Hogan.

That would be foolish politics — but it could happen.

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Defending Joe Vallario

By Barry Rascovar

May 6, 2014 — THERE’S NO DENYING Del. Joseph F. Vallario, Jr. of Prince George’s County is a stingy gatekeeper when it comes to loosening Maryland’s civil and criminal laws.

But is the gruff chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis really the scourge of the legislature, the anti-Christ intent on malevolently doing in all liberal causes?

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

A recent op-ed in The Baltimore Sun by Sidney Rocke, an attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, accuses the conservative Vallario of being a one-man, “dictatorial” wrecking crew — especially on bills Rocke favors.

It’s true Vallario is inordinately protective of criminal defense attorneys. He’s one himself and he takes a hard line on bills that might narrow their legal practices — and their income — or make it more difficult for defense attorneys to win their cases. “Let ’em go Joe” is what Rocke says staffers call Vallario.

But to blame the defeat of liberalizing legislation solely on Vallario is a misreading of the inner workings of the Maryland General Assembly.

Serving Legislative Leaders

Vallario has performed a useful role for legislative leaders over the past 21 years.

He disposes of bills that are too sweeping, too revolutionary, too inflammatory, too impractical, too poorly thought out, too poorly drafted or ahead of their time.

Yet he does so with a majority vote from others on his Judiciary Committee. The panel is intentionally configured to act as the General Assembly’s execution squad.

Every legislature needs such a panel, where the presiding officer sends well-meaning but unrealistic crime and punishment bills for burial.

Intervention Yields Results

Sometimes important bills get the same treatment. Then the House speaker or the governor steps in to urge Vallario and other committee members to yield on bills such as marijuana decriminalization or handgun control. The pressure usually works.

It’s an old story in Annapolis, something Rocke neglected to include in his angry op-ed. Killer committees have been around a long time.

Remember Joe Owens, the highly conservative Judiciary Committee chairman from liberal Montgomery County?

Abominable ‘No’ Man

He dominated that committee for 14 years, earning the sobriquets “Killer Joe” and “the Abominable ‘No’ Man.”

Owens helped defeat or delay all sorts of liberal reforms on gun control, drunk driving, child support and victim rights. One year, 61 percent of the bills sent to his committee bit the dust.

Joe Owens was a colorful and controversial figure: direct, open and honest.

“Let’s face it,” he once said, “the majority of bills we get should not be passed. . . [T]his is not a little contest. . . When we pass a bill, four million people have to live by it.”

Crusty But Lovable

Over in the Senate, irascible Walter M. Baker of Cecil County served the same role for 17 years chairing the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Crusty, curmudgeonly and a determined conservative thinker, Baker had a drawer filled with idealistic reform bills he side-tracked. “The only good bill is a dead bill,” he used to quip to the entertainment of his colleagues.

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Still, Baker conducted fair and deliberate hearings. He yielded when pressed to do so by the Senate president or governor while always defending his belief in limited government.

Political Counterweights

Often over the past 50 years conservatives chairing Maryland’s judicial panels have served as counterweights.

Vallario’s proclivity for killing bills balanced the liberal attitude of Sen. Brian Frosh’s Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Owens’ “killer committee” balanced the liberal mindset of Sen. Joe Curran, who chaired Judicial Proceedings for 16 years.

Earlier in Curran’s tenure running Judicial Proceedings he was paired against another conservative legal thinker chairing the House Judiciary Committee, Thomas Hunter Lowe of Talbot County — who later kept a firm hand on that panel as Speaker of the House.

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

To blame the demise of reform legislation on Joe Vallario is to miss the bigger picture.

Legislating in the State House is a delicate balancing act.

Senators and delegates come together in Annapolis with 188 points of view. They represent different parts of the state whose citizens hold diverse perspectives on the same issue.

Agreement Isn’t Easy

No wonder so many bills fail to win majority approval. Passing legislation is an art. Getting a green light from the Judiciary Committee takes lots of patience, negotiation, coalition-building and tactical smarts. It won’t happen just because a bill is well-intentioned.

Vallario faces a difficult challenge running for reelection this year in a new, unfamiliar northern Prince George’s County district. He may not return. Frosh definitely won’t be back: He’s running for attorney general.

We could end up with two new chairmen of these important committees. One of them might become the next stingy gatekeeper.

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Garrett County’s Isolation — Responses

By Barry Rascovar

May 4, 2014 — Who woulda thunk it? A column on Garrett County’s isolation in mountainous, far Western Maryland produced a tsunami of responses — both pro and con — including one from an offended gubernatorial wannabe’s staffer and another from an offended O’Malley administration.

And here I thought I was saying something nice for a change!

Garrett County

A few local residents felt I was too kind in my admiration; others appreciated that someone from the big city three hours away noticed there’s more out to Garrett than state forests, ski lifts and a man-made lake.

The governor’s folks didn’t like being accused of “benign neglect” when it comes to promoting and aiding the state’s most decidedly Republican county. The administration’s opus, though, inadvertently proved my point.

The letter noted that O’Malley has poured $70 million into Garrett’s roads since 2007. There’s another $10 million coming this year, too — nearly all of it to improve state highways in the county.

The Rest of the Story

Here are some facts left out of the O’Malley administration’s letter: Garrett received 20 percent less in local transportation aid, 15 percent less in recreation and natural resources aid, 4 percent less in library aid and 2 percent less in education aid from Annapolis this year — even as the overall state budget grew by 4.3 percent.

So much for the O’Malley-Brown administration’s claim of putting Garrett County on its priority list.

Indeed, there’s scant evidence either O’Malley or Brown have thought much about helping Garrett boost its economic potential as a recreation wonderland.

Ever hear about the governor or lieutenant governor making news by vacationing at Deep Creek Lake or at the Wisp ski resort?

Deep Creek Lake

Deep Creek Lake

Ever catch O’Malley or Brown cutting commercials that promote Garrett as a retreat for families who like outdoor activities?

To them, it’s a forgotten, Republican part of Maryland not worth their time.

Wisp ski resort

Meanwhile, a spokesman for businessman Larry Hogan Jr. wrote to protest the column’s assertion that no candidate for governor cares about Garrett County.

“Western MD is absolutely a priority for Hogan,” says Adam Dubitsky of the Republican candidate’s campaign staff, “which is why he visited shortly after announcing and will be back again. . . .  Larry has repeatedly criticized Annapolis elites for ignoring Marylanders who live west of Frederick City and especially those who reside west of Sideling Hill.”

Fracking Can Be Fractious

Other readers took issue with the column’s concern that overly strict state regulations could doom hopes for an economic boost tied to drilling for natural gas in Garrett County using hydraulic fracturing techniques, better known as “fracking.”

One resident wrote, “I live in Garrett county and do not want fracking here. Don’t be too quick to judge.”

Here’s another: “Thank you so much for your article about Garrett County. . .  in most areas you ‘hit the nail on the head’.  However, many in the county do not want fracking, many are concerned about the impact on our tourist industries including the lake and the many local state parks. . . .  noise and water pollution are the major concerns.  Fracking is a big, noisy business with big trucks and constant disruption.  I know that simplifies a problem. . .  but it is a concern, as well as a drop in the property values.  After living near a natural gas storage pumping site for 25 years. . .  the traffic and noise are an impact on daily living and enjoyment of property, or small acreage.  Just sayin’. . . Thank you for ‘listening!’ ”

A resident of Lonaconing wrote: “Very interesting article, although a couple minor errors, plus, I wanted to give you a little additional insight. . .

“First, Garrett Co is not the only county that will benefit from fracking. . . . Allegany County will also. . . western Allegany County (the George’s Creek valley) also sits over the Marcellus Shale reserve.

“Secondly, as far as gubernatorial candidates. . . when [Doug] Gansler did his Western Maryland tour, he only went as far as Cumberland (Allegany Co.). . . He never touched Garrett. . . Hogan is the only candidate I know of that’s gone to Garrett for a political visit. . .

“Other than that, nice article. . . nice to get a little focus up this way.”

Community College Guarantee

Here’s another response concerning Garrett County’s guarantee of a community college education for its high school graduates:

“As a Western Marylander, I appreciated this column. I thought you would be interested to know that, inspired in part by the Garrett County Commissioners’ decision to pay for community college for Garrett students, the Allegany County Commissioners have dedicated most of the revenue they receive from the new Rocky Gap Casino to paying for local students to attend Allegany College of Maryland and Frostburg State University. In discussions I heard, they talked about both the economic development benefit of having a better-educated populace, as well as the ability to keep our young people from having to leave the county for opportunity.”

From the president of Garrett College, Rick MacLennan, came this comment:

“Thank you for your recognition of the County/College partnership.  Existence of the County scholarship program was a significant variable in my decision to accept the presidency (and yank my family across the country from the state of Washington) in 2010.

“It was very nice meeting you—come back and see us again.”

 

Garrett Co. MD

Garrett County (in pink)

 

Others didn’t see it that way. Here’s a correspondence from Grantsville:

“I liked reading it, but I think you drank the Cool-Aid a bit too heavily! I have only lived out here for 6 years, so I hardly qualify as a resident let alone a local. I am a retired software engineer and teach at Garrett College (one course in computer science).  Some observations that I have gleaned:

  1. The average Garrett Scholarship student is ill-prepared for much of anything out of high school.  90% going to Garrett College have to take remedial math and English! . . . It may be that those going to other institutions are better-prepared, but I suspect it is self-selection rather than ability.
  2. Of my students, I have lost about 20% after the first week, 60% by the mid-terms, and 20% will pass. . . I am extremely lenient with no dings for late homework, open book and unlimited time for tests, etc. and still see only a couple of students get through the semester with good grades!
  3. The primary school system does not seem to adequately provide for vocational training. . . I suspect a lot of students should be pushed toward building trades, communications, wind turbine maintenance, etc.
  4. A lot of Garrett’s problems are self-inflicted.  There is a lot of NIMBYism that is often misplaced.  For instance, the objections to zoning prevent any useful regulation of land use including fracking, wind turbines, suburban sprawl, etc. . . .

“On the positive side:

  1. The roads are incredibly well-maintained, especially in the winter.
  2. The temperatures are about 10F lower than certainly Baltimore and even Cumberland (more like 8F there).
  3. Services are adequate and Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Morgantown, or Altoona (or even Frederick, D.C., or Baltimore) are a reasonable distance.
  4. Arts are OK — I . . . travel back to Frederick weekly to play in the Frederick Symphony because there is nothing close even at Frostburg University. We do have some arts at Frostburg, Cumberland, GLAF [Garrett Lake Arts Festival], and Music at Penn Alps. . . .
  5. The fall is fantastic!  Winter is a real winter (if you like that — if not, don’t come out here!)”

Missing Key Points

Here’s a different perspective from a Garrett resident:

“The article totally misses several key facts . . .

“Garrett County (GC) residents are partially responsible for their political isolation. They lean so far right that ordinary (above and below middle class citizens) hardly ever speak out regarding their concerns about important issues. . . . .

“The lack of public outcry has caused a severe excommunication of area residents. Since they don’t raise their voice, it leaves only wealthy business owners to push political ideas. This has turned Garrett County into a mecca for minimum wage. Our leaders complain that families don’t stay in the area, yet college educated people are left working at Lowe’s or Wisp, for a scant $ 7.25 per hour, because our local government has done nothing to address wage inequality. . . .

“While the state has certainly been unfair to the county, county government has done nothing but benefit a few select business owners, while largely ignoring the struggling working population.”

That’s a portion of the responses to my rather mild column.

Folks speak their mind in Garrett County, though they do so with extreme politeness. I found it a neighborly place that isn’t given sufficient attention by the powers in Annapolis. The citizens of that remote mountain county deserve better.

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When Duty Is An Honor

By Barry Rascovar for Maryland Reporter.com

Jan. 13, 2014 — John Hanson Briscoe and Bishop Robinson, who died this past week at ages 79 and 86 respectively, understood the meaning of public service.

They grasped the meaning of acting responsibly and honorably. Their lives remind us what running government is all about.

Portrait of Speaker John Hanson Briscoe

Official Portrait of House of Delegates Speaker John Hanson Briscoe

Briscoe was a calming antidote during the Mandel years in Annapolis.

He was the quintessential Southern Marylander, and came by this honestly.

John Hanson was a direct descendant of his namesake, a native of Charles County who was the first to serve a full term as President of the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1782).

You can look it up.

Briscoe fought the old Dorsey family machine in St. Mary’s County, and won. His polite and gentlemanly demeanor, combined with the patience of Job and a sly, biting humor made him an ideal Speaker of the House of Delegates.

He proved good at herding political cats.

Briscoe presided with optimism, dignity and grace, his Southern Maryland drawl providing a soothing tonic during heated debates.

John Hanson, 1st U.S. President under the Articles of Confederation

John Hanson, 1st U.S. President under the Articles of Confederation

Most of us knew him as John or John Hanson, the latter reference proving a competitive irritant to his Senate counterpart, President Steny H. Hoyer, who suddenly started referring to himself as Steny Hamilton Hoyer. Touche!

Statewide Outlook

His honesty and integrity came in handy during the shady Mandel years. He wasn’t parochial, either, understanding that in Annapolis you often have to go the extra mile for other parts of the state.

Thus, he alertly steered subway legislation for Baltimore through the House as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He also championed property tax reform, civil rights legislation and environmental protection laws.

He was a persuader and a mediator, but when required Briscoe could be firm and stern as a judge.

So it was no surprise when John Hanson Briscoe proved equally adept and conscientious as a Circuit Court judge in St. Mary’s County for 16 years. He was an exemplar of judicial temperament, fairness and human understanding.

Overcoming Segregated Times

Briscoe’s service never intersected with that of Bishop Robinson’s, which is a shame. They had much in common.

Robinson didn’t claim a genealogical link to the nation’s founders.

Instead, he grew up in segregated Baltimore, graduating from segregated schools, enlisting in the segregated Army and joining a segregated Baltimore parks department and then its police department.

But like rich cream, Robinson rose to the top.

He had the smarts to acquire a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in his spare time while taking on just about every important post in the city police agency.

Schaefer’s Influence

He caught the eye of William Donald Schaefer, who became a mentor and made him Baltimore’s first African-American police commissioner.

When Schaefer left the mayor’s office for Annapolis, he took Robinson with him as corrections secretary.

Bishop L. Robinson

Bishop L. Robinson

Later, Gov. Parris Glendening recruited Robinson to run the Department of Juvenile Services.

Robinson proved an able manager who didn’t hesitate to make command decisions but also understood the importance of delegating authority to aides he trusted. No wonder so many people loved working for him.

Robinson’s demeanor demanded respect. Tall, imposing and ramrod straight, he maintained a regal bearing at hearings and executive meetings. When he spoke, people listened.

It was no accident that those who knew him started calling Robinson “the archbishop.”

Contributions to Maryland

Robinson helped expand and modernize the state’s prisons, giving guards better training and seeking ways to cut recidivism. He proved an ideal fit for  juvenile offenders in need of  “tough love.”

Both Bishop Robinson and John Hanson Briscoe approached government service as an honor. They dedicated their lives to making Maryland better for its citizens.

For today’s legislators and public officials, there are no better examples of how to do it — if you want to leave a lasting legacy.

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Dwyer, Bail, O’Malley & Bob Gates

By Barry Rascovar

January 9, 2014–QUICK THOUGHTS as the 2014 Maryland General Assembly session gets going and pols speak out, both in Annapolis and in Washington.

Dwyer’s Legislative Purgatory

Anne Arundel Del. Don Dwyer, a weekend jailbird, deserves no mercy.

He’s got a serious alcohol addiction that nearly resulted in multiple deaths on the road and on the water. He has forfeited the right to represent citizens in the state legislature.

Del. Donald Dwyer

Delegate Donald Dwyer

House Speaker Mike Busch removed Dwyer from all committee assignments today. He still can vote on bills and participate in floor debates, but he’ll have no role shaping these bills in committee.

That’s strong disciplinary action, and Busch deserves credit for cracking down on a disreputable legislator. But more may be required.

Why does the disgraced Dwyer, who is doing jail time on weekends, remain in office, collecting his state salary? (Hint: He needs the money to pay his lawyer.)

The man’s a mess and needs to get out of the public spotlight.

He” remain embarrassment to the House of Delegates every time he casts a vote or speaks on the floor. Expulsion might be in order if Dwyer persists in sticking around.

O’Malley and Mary Jane

No one has put it better than Gov. Martin O’Malley in explaining why legalizing marijuana in Maryland is a very bad idea.

Use of this drug can be “a gateway to even worse behavior,” O’Malley says. Getting stoned on “Mary Jane” is no different from getting drunk. Adding another legal intoxicant is a great way to increase lethal driving and dangerous psychological and physical behavior.

Marijuana Plants

Marijuana Plants

After all, marijuana use can lead to memory loss, impact your motor skills, alter your ability to think clearly, increase your pulse rate, lower your blood pressure and harm your liver, lungs and heart.

With O’Malley and Speaker Busch skeptical of recreational marijuana use, you can forget about this issue this session — though gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur already is trying to win the youth vote by touting the alleged benefits of legalization.

Weekend Work for Judges?

How nice of Chief District Judge Ben Clyburn to recommend more judges be added to handle an onslaught of bail review hearings in place of court commissioners. Let’s name it the “Judicial Full Employment Act of 2014.”

But Judge Clyburn didn’t call for his fellow District Court judges to extend themselves too much. Under his task force’s plan, no judge would have to work weekends to handle bail reviews. Commissioners would still assume that job.

District Court of Maryland

District Court

So people arrested on weekdays would go before a judge for bail review, accompanied by a lawyer, but on Saturdays and Sundays a lower-level hire, a court commissioner, would decide the temporary fate of inmates.

It’s an absurd idea.

If judges are going to take over bail review, it’s got to be an all-or-nothing plan.

When I started as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, I worked weekends covering police and fire stories, including Saturday and Sunday morning District Court hearings presided over by a judge, not a commissioner.

It’s time for the judges to take the appropriate step and reinstitute weekend court not only for bail review cases but for other matters, too.

No other solution works — even if it inconveniences those who applied in the first place to become members of the judiciary.

Million-Dollar Babies  

Want to look like a million? Work as a Maryland lobbyist.

Last year, lobbying in Annapolis resulted in payments to “legislative representatives” of $32 million. Indeed, the Top Ten lobbyists averaged over $1.1 million apiece.

Not bad, considering that in my reporting years in Annapolis the “King of the Lobbyists,” the white-maned, expensively suited Jimmy Doyle, gained headlines when he cracked the $100,000 barrier.

James J. Doyle, Jr.

James J. Doyle, Jr.

Doyle was a classy professional. He had integrity. His presentations before committees were marvels of legal and practical logic, couched in terms the densest legislator could grasp. He was one of the best at wining and dining lawmakers, too.

Are today’s lobbyists ten or 20 times better than James J. Doyle Jr.? Or is it a matter of inflation lifting all lobbyists’ boats?

I opt for the latter explanation.

Bob Gates’ Gaff

Turning to the Nation’s Capital, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates stirred a hornet’s nest with his tell-all book about working with White House occupants.

Gates didn’t hold back in excoriating President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for distrusting the military and thinking too often like politicians instead of statesmen.

Yet when Gates felt the two had gone too far in their comments, he stifled his anger.

In the process, he committed the greatest sin of all.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Think how history might have been altered if Gates had the courage to “speak truth to power.”

What if he had privately counseled Obama to show greater confidence in his country’s military leaders?

What if Gates had taken Biden aside and given him a well-deserved dressing-down?

Instead, Gates held his tongue.

By doing so, he forfeited his chance to make a difference. Sometimes the correct course is to tell the emperor he has no clothes.

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Mizeur’s Promises, Dirty Tricks and more

By Barry Rascovar

THE BIDDING RACE is on. Democratic candidates for governor are seeking to one-up each other on new programs and tax cuts.

All of them ignore the fact Maryland’s finances are unsteady and could continue that way. The next governor is likely to face a structural deficit exceeding a half-billion dollars.

Yet none of the Democratic candidates wants to face that reality.

Instead, they pander to voters.

Mizeur’s Promises

Del. Heather Mizeur leads the pack as far as spending on feel-good projects with money the state doesn’t have .

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

That’s not surprising, since Mizeur is on the far left of the Democratic spectrum.

Take pre-kindergarten. Both Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown want to expand it to more four-year-olds. They would dip into casino revenue to pay for it.

What they don’t say is that this will come at the cost of other education programs dependent on the same revenue stream — or the next governor will have to renege on a pact with Maryland’s horse owners and breeders to use a portion of casino tax receipts to resurrect the state’s troubled racing industry.

Mizeur, meanwhile, goes a step further. She wants pre-kindergarten for three-year-olds, at a cost of a whopping $279 million.

She neglects to say how she will pay for this while overcoming a half-billion-dollar structural deficit.

She also wants to boost teacher pensions and salaries through a “Thornton 2.0” commission. The first commission boosted education spending by billions without worrying about how to pay for it.

That seems to be Mizeur’s recipe, too.

She does want to soak the rich — a millionaire’s tax and combined reporting for multi-state corporations. Neither is a giant money-raiser, and combined reporting turns into a money-loser during recessionary times.

Tax Breaks For Nearly Everyone

What really sets her apart, and represents her most preposterous proposal, is her plan to give 90 percent of Marylanders (originally billed as 99 percent) a tax break.

This idea places her firmly in the Heather-in-Wonderland camp.

She will cut the income tax for 9 out of every 10 Marylanders by $112 million.

How will she pay for it? Through the new millionaire’s tax.

It sounds great except for one thing — her millionaire’s tax nets Maryland only $10 million. She’s woefully short of paying for her election-year giveaway.

She also proposes a tax break for small businesses, a vast expansion of the state’s existing $250 million a year school construction program — without listing a funding source — more money spent on job training and massive new transportation projects.

The funds will come from heaven, apparently, like snow flakes.

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MIZEUR ALSO made headlines by choosing a running mate with absolutely no government or elective experience.

It’s the worst lieutenant governor selection since former Ambassador Bill Shepard picked his wife, Lois, as his ticket partner in 1990. *

Once again, Mizeur identified herself as an issues candidate who isn’t serious about getting elected. The vast majority of voters have never heard of her running mate (quick quiz: can you give me his full name?). **

It’s a sign of desperation or a sign Mizeur is running as the gay-rights, super-liberal who simply wants to send a message.

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MIKE PANTELIDES, a former newspaper ad salesman, is the next mayor of Annapolis. To say he is unprepared for the job is an understatement.

Mike Patelides

Mike Patelides

It might not matter.

His predecessor, and loser by 59 votes in this month’s election, Josh Cohen, has done a fine job turning around a dysfunctional, deep-in-debt city government and putting it on solid financial footing.

All that progress came at a cost. Cohen rubbed too many Annapolis traditionalists the wrong way. Too many tax increases. Too many progressive changes.

Cohen actually wanted to rejuvenate the Annapolis harbor area. He wanted to allow a continuing care community to locate in the capital city.

But progress in Annapolis is usually resisted. Longtime residents fight change and protest the slightest alteration to the status quo.

No Progress on Key Issues

They would rather continue Main Street’s decline as a sad collection of tee-shirt and souvenir shops, the town’s terrible traffic and parking headaches and its lack of a coherent plan for the future.

So they dumped an experienced elected official for a 30-year-old neophyte. He’ll ride on the coattails of Cohen’s successes, avoid controversies and reduce city government’s reach.

Downtown Annapolis will continue its regression and residents will continue to insist that nothing change.

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BOO OF THE MONTH goes to the Maryland State Republican Party for reaching a new low during the Frederick town election this month.

The state GOP paid for a round of robocalls to Frederick voters castigating one Democratic candidate for failing to pay her property taxes.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

What Happened to Accuracy?

Nobody at the state GOP bothered to do any fact-checking. A phone call from the brother of a Republican candidate running for town council was enough to prompt the robocalls.

A newspaper story in May reported the unpaid property taxes, which was enough to spur the Democratic candidate to pay her overdue bill on July 5.

But since no one at the state GOP worries about truthfulness, the robocalls went out wrongly accusing the Democratic candidate of being unable to pay her taxes. (She still won.)

Let’s not allow facts to stand in the way of a good slur. Dirty politics survives in Maryland, thanks to the state GOP.

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LESS THAN ADMIRABLE tactics are surfacing in the governor’s race, too.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown has a video intimidator stalking every move of Attorney General Doug Gansler.

The Brown folks chalk it up to “everybody does it” in today’s politics.

Jeff Moring 'tracking' Doug Gansler

Jeff Moring ‘tracking’ Doug Gansler for Brown campaign

That’s not correct, which is beside the point: It’s inappropriate and smacks of harassment.

It also points to a “win at all costs” philosophy within Brown’s camp.

This is the equivalent of paparazzi stalking actor Alec Baldwin and intrusively sticking cameras in his face until he explodes with a barrage of x-rated language.

You’ve got to wonder if Brown intends to employ similar tactics as governor.

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GANSLER DOESN’T WIN a blue ribbon, either, for his shoddy effort to knock down a Brown proposal exempting most veterans from paying state income taxes.

It’s another tax cut Maryland cannot afford, and that’s how Gansler should have attacked this proposal.

Instead, he issued a statement blaming Brown for long delays in processing disability claims at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office in Baltimore .

Gansler intimated that Brown — a state official — has a magic wand for fixing problems at the federal level. And then Gansler said as governor he could fix it!

Now there’s a whopper.

The statement smacked of desperation on Gansler’s part. It certainly didn’t get his stumbling campaign headed in the right direction.

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*Republicans Bill and Lois Shepard got 40 percent of the vote in the 1990 general election against William Donald Schaefer.

**For readers who didn’t cheat by googling the answer, Heather Mizeur’s lieutenant governor running mate is Delman Coates, pastor of a Clinton, Md., mega-church.

Read more columns from Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com.

The MD State Pension Debate Rolls On. . . .

September 24, 2013

SOME ISSUES never lend themselves to permanent solutions. Government-run pension plan projections fall into that category.

I posted a pension column on July 31, which spurred historical recollections from former state Sen. Bobby Neall (August 7), state Treasurer Nancy Kopp  (August 8) and  former Ehrlich budget director Cecelia Januszkiewicz (August 8), followed by Del. Andy Serafini’s plea for a more cautious approach to estimating future rates of return, and state pension director Dean Kenderdine’s explanation of why the state pension trustees opted for a gradually reduced rate, but not by as much as some urged.SRPS_Logo

Now Serafini delivers another essay that lays out more reasons why the state should further lower expectations of investment returns in the years ahead.

Economic Puzzle

His point echoes conservative economists, who see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full. This is an age-old conundrum: Should the Federal Reserve encourage or discourage higher interest rates and if so by how much? Should the Fed reduce its quantitative easing policy or maintain it? What’s the proper projection for pension investment returns?

No one has a crystal ball that is accurate all the time. Only after the fact does someone suddenly claim “genius” status for predicting a bull or a bear market — until the next time.

Del. Andy Serafini

Del. Andy Serafini

Serafini, a financial planner, notes there are political reasons for Maryland maintaining a much higher expected rate of investment return than he would like.

That was made clear when the pension trustees opted to gradually lower the projected rate of return a tad. Len Lazarick, ace reporter/publisher of MarylandReporter.com, covered the pension trustees meeting and noted that when the state’s actuary said it would be wiser to drop the projected rate right away to lower levels, state budget secretary Eloise Foster responded: “I don’t know whether we could afford it right now.”

It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year to drastically scale back Maryland’s assumed rate of investment return. That money would have to come out of the general fund budget, forcing major cutbacks in social programs and aid to the counties.

Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley isn’t about to ruin his reputation for preserving and strengthening social programs just to fortify the pension program’s financial underpinnings . Even Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich didn’t pursue that course.

Dissatisfied Conservative Voices

Given this fact of life in Annapolis, the pension trustees voted to take a gradual approach in shaving projected investment returns. It doesn’t satisfy Serafini and other conservative voices, as he makes clear in his latest essay:

Dear Mr. Rascovar,

I read with great interest [Dean] Kenderdine’s recent response to my comments. Unfortunately for Mr. Kenderdine [Executive Director of the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System] I have kept him very busy responding to my various letters to the editor or other past commentaries.  I should say that I have tremendous respect for members of the Board of Trustees as well as Mr. Kenderdine.  They have a very difficult job to do.  It is made more difficult having to put up with politicians.

Currently, there is a great debate occurring across our country regarding the proper basis for valuing liabilities in pension plans.  Whether it is the bond rating agencies, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation or the American Academy of Actuaries, the opinions vary greatly.  Corporate defined-benefit pension plans are federally required to use an index tied to corporate bond rates, which allows them to use a rate in the 4% to 6% range (with certain exceptions).  Many public pension plans justify their current rates in the range of 7% to 8% based upon past experience.  However, the current assumptions are forward-looking and few believe the next 25 years will prove to be as favorable to investors as the past 25 years.

I particularly found Mr. Kenderdine’s comment that Moody’s “arbitrarily” selected a lower rate in calculating the unfunded liabilities of states such as Maryland to be interesting.  If we are supposed to trust that the AAA rating Maryland receives to be well-earned through the august body of analysts such as Moody’s, why would we expect that they would be arbitrary in choosing such a significant method for determining pension liabilities?  For the record, they use an indexed rate based upon a corporate bond rate that is duration specific and relevant to most plans, including Maryland’s.

To remove all the clouds and esoteric conversations, we need to consider what is really going on here. If we consider what is known as the “prudent man rule,” it may shed a different light. This is a requirement of all fiduciaries that states that any one exercising control over assets for another person (i.e. the pension participants as well as the taxpayers) should exercise the care and prudence acting in the beneficiaries’ sole interest. The problem is that if we use a lower assumed rate like private pensions and the others are suggesting, that would lead to significantly higher annual contributions.

What Mr. Kenderdine did not say is it is politically uncomfortable to lower the expected earning rates because of these significantly higher annual contributions. These increases could be as much as several hundred million dollars or more over the years if we were to lower the rates just by a percent or two. Compounding matters, the annual growth in contributions to these plans is currently restricted by Maryland law, which precludes contributing an amount recommended by the actuaries.  Such a practice would be illegal in private sector pension plans. While it may create significant budget strains, I believe as fiduciaries the lower rates tied to an index is acting in the best interest of the plans. Keep in mind that if there are shortages the taxpayers and participants ultimately bear the risk. Just ask the people in Detroit.

They will argue that public plans can use higher rates due to the past performance and that, unlike corporations, they do not risk going away. In my previous letter I explained why future results will struggle to match the past 30 years. Warren Buffet has also said that anyone expecting over 7% is foolish.

Rick Dreyfuss a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute and pension expert argues there is another problem with the current funding methodology.  Most of the current employees that have significant accrued pensions will retire in the next 15 years. We are planning to pay off the unfunded liabilities for these individuals over 25 years. This would be like buying a car that you plan to own for five years and taking out a ten-year loan. This means that we will be paying for the liability well after the people retire. Not a prudent approach in my opinion.   Moreover, such a demographically driven accounting policy for pensions was recently revised and adopted by the GASB as their formal accounting standard. Bond rating agencies such as Moody’s also analyze credit risk with such a concept in mind.  Both entities also favor the use of the market value of assets to determine annual pension cost versus the rolling average approach used by most public sector plans including Maryland’s.  The use of the market value of assets is also a federal requirement of private sector defined benefit plans. This approach, while arguably creating somewhat more volatile results, better ensures costs are properly recognized rather than deferred to future generations.

The bottom line is, as I said in my earlier correspondence, a more cautious rate is more prudent to properly fund the pension plan. If the performance is better that would mean future contributions could be reduced once the funded status reached appropriate levels of 80% or more. Using higher expected interest levels reduces the mandatory contributions and passes the risk not only to pension participants but to the taxpayer who is the ultimate backstop. As a public official, taxpayer, and financial adviser I cannot support that type of approach.

Andy Serafini

Maryland’s Political Prison Puzzle

Corrections Dept.By Barry Rascovar / June 11, 2013

THERE IS NO WAY Gov. Martin O’Malley can make Maryland’s prison embarrassment disappear. Lord knows he’d like to. If he’s serious about running for President, O’Malley must explain why he was so slow to respond to the growing influence of street gangs within state prisons over the past seven years.

He can’t blame this one on his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich. The problem started to build back then but there were clear signs early in O’Malley’s first term gangs had become dangerously powerful inside prison walls.

He can’t blame all his tardiness on the FBI, which took two long years to finish its investigation at the Baltimore City jail. Yes, that stymied efforts to remove suspect prisoners and guards. But there were plenty of other steps — much-needed additional training, rotation of guards not under investigation and a review of the leadership team’s skills, abilities and honesty.

An outside audit earlier this year revealed a shocking lack of attention by the O’Malley administration to the basics: filthy cells, no standard security checks, antiquated security gates and guards ignorant of an inmate’s rights. Part of this is due to budget cuts during the Great Recession and the chronic under-funding of prison programs by government.

However, the audit also revealed a top-heavy, inefficient management structure. How could O’Malley’s highly touted State Stat gurus miss this? Why wasn’t this costly, ineffective administrative excess done away with during the state’s deep recession?

It’s a dilemma for the governor and a headache for Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who may have made a mistake with his early announcement of candidacy to succeed O’Malley.

Brown is in the uncomfortable posture of explaining the prison scandal on his watch. Attorney General Doug Gansler’s shot across O’Malley’s bow in asking for an independent inquiry is just the beginning of the political broadsides.

Yet O’Malley has got a right to be angry at the way federal investigators trumpeted their indictments. Instead of holding a joint press conference and sharing credit with state leaders, who had requested the investigation after all, the FBI and U.S. Attorney for Maryland decided to grandstand. They left the clear impression O’Malley and his underlings were asleep at the switch.

That may win federal officials in Maryland gold stars from their Washington bosses but it soured future relations with Annapolis.

Digging out of this mess won’t be easy, as House Speaker Mike Busch noted. One legislative hearing is the beginning of public discussions, not the end.

There are serious mid-level management weaknesses. Those can be corrected by prisions secretary Gary Maynard. He can institute tough new security measures to eliminate most contraband cell phones and drugs. Downsizing the prison bureaucracy is essential. A little money from the governor can make the Baltimore jail cleaner and safer.

Getting rid of dishonest guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center is a must but it brings up an equally serious problem: how to replace them? The pool of guard applicants in Baltimore City who are drug-free and have clean records is small, especially among males. Most applicants come from the same neighborhoods as the inmates. That’s not a healthy situation.

Female applicants in Baltimore City, meanwhile, tend to have self-confidence problems and are susceptible to the amorous sweet-talk of manipulative inmates. Recruiting better guard applicants won’t be easy and won’t happen quickly.

O’Malley erred several times by not personally taking control of the situation and setting the record straight as to who started this investigation, his earlier steps to attack the gang issue and his determination to continue the effort. He could have done this after he returned from his economic development trip to Israel or at last week’s legislative hearing.

Instead, he chose to govern through press releases. It didn’t work.

On this one he needs to lead the crusade. If not, he’ll be dogged by prison scandal questions at every campaign stop across the country — and his preferred successor will be bogged down trying to explain what went so wrong that it left Maryland in an embarrassing national spotlight.

 

 

O’Malley Keeps a Political Promise

newcarrollton-photo

By Barry Rascovar / May 30, 2013

IT WILL BE COSTLY for Maryland taxpayers but never let it be said Gov. Martin O’Malley reneges on a political promise.

This time he rewarded Prince George’s County politicians for their support during his initial run for governor in 2006. They wanted a state agency to relocate to their county and now they’ve got it — at a price to taxpayers of $60 million over the next 15 years.

As for politicians in Anne Arundel County (mainly Republicans), the Democratic governor gave them the political shaft: 380 employees of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, two-thirds commuting from Anne Arundel or the Baltimore area, will be forced to drive to New Carrollton starting in mid-2015.

Even worse, they will vacate a state owned-and-operated building on the grounds of the former Crownsville State Hospital outside Annapolis that is in fine shape.

Instead of paying $1.5 million in current operating costs, the state will fork over to a landlord 60 percent more — nearly $4 million annually. That equates to $40 a square foot — more than what it would take to lease premium water-view offices in Baltimore.

The state also is footing the bill for $357,000 worth of parking spaces for HCD workers for the first five years. Parking is free at Crownsville.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who revels when shams such as this pop up at the Board of Public Works, rightly compared the situation to a home owner with no mortgage suddenly moving out and renting similar space for an outrageous sum. It makes no sense — unless you’re a politician.

The excuse for this move is “Smart Growth.” Prince George’s County holds vast potential for “transit oriented development.”  Yet unlike neighboring Montgomery County, there are no large-scale TODs in Prince George’s. O’Malley wants to jump-start that process with a state-supported building at the New Carrollton Metro-Amrak-MARC hub.

Plans to do the same thing a few years ago fell apart because of the state’s poor choice of a developer. The entire procurement process was re-started.

What has evolved is a wonderful concept for the New Carrollton station in which the state plays the role of catalyst. That guaranteed $4 million a year in rental money will subsidize 40,000 square feet of retail space and 250 apartments, plus a second phase essentially doubling those components.

Whether any of this peripheral activity becomes reality is the big, unanswered question. If a mixed-use project at New Carrollton or at other Prince George’s Metro station were a can’t-miss proposition, there would be no need for the state to play Santa Claus.

Where the state dropped the ball is in Crownsville. The Department of General Services botched this entire episode first with the flimsily vetted initial procurement  and now with its lack of planning for the fate of the Crownsville property and HCD workers who don’t want to make this long commute.

Why hasn’t O’Malley targeted redevelopment of the 400-acre Crownsville campus as an economic priority over the past seven years? Probably because he didn’t want to help Republican officials who dominate the county. Still, the lack of a Crownsville master plan is a black eye for the governor.

Long before this matter reached the Board of Public Works, the state should have laid out an assistance program for HCD workers. And seven years is plenty of time to put together a comprehensive “Smart Growth” plan for Crownsville. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

In the end, O’Malley delivered on his long-standing promise to Prince George’s political leaders and left unhappy HCD workers wondering about their future. They became sacrificial lambs. As for the future of the Crownsville building and surrounding land, that’s a problem O’Malley is leaving at the doorstep of the next administration.

O’Malley’s success echoes Mandel’s 1972 triumph

Monumental victories 4 decades apart show how MD’s politics, demographics have changed

By Barry Rascovar

April 11, 2013 / The Baltimore Sun

Forty-one years ago, Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel pulled off a series of staggering triumphs that The Sun compared to winning the Triple Crown: Maryland’s first gun-control law; a unique, state-run auto insurance agency; and a higher gasoline tax to support Baltimore’s first rapid rail line.

He achieved this in the face of ferocious opposition from the National Rifle Association and the insurance and trucking industries. It took Mr. Mandel’s enormous persuasive skills — including arm-twisting and deal-making — to win those monumental battles.

Fast-forward to this week’s legislative wrap-up. To quote Yogi Berra, it was “déjà vu all over again.” Despite intense resistance, Gov. Martin O’Malley captured his own Triple Crown: a more restrictive gun-control statute, a package of gasoline tax increases and abolition of the death penalty.

Raising the gas tax this session was more difficult, and unpopular, than in 1972, when a gallon of petrol cost 55 cents. Abolishing capital punishment required an enormous number of one-on-one discussions to convince lawmakers this ultimate penalty no longer made sense. It was the kind of determined dialogue Mr. Mandel thrived on.

Thanks to the Newtown school massacre in December, which coalesced public opinion behind firearms restrictions, this year’s gun-control battle in Annapolis was loud but less intense that the 1972 showdown.

Two governors celebrated monumental victories four decades apart. They did it in vastly different ways, though, reflecting a sea change in Maryland since the days of the Nixon-Agnew presidency.

Mr. Mandel’s power came from his unrivaled mastery of the General Assembly. He recruited a lobbying team of irregulars that included a railroad engineer from Cecil County (who kept rural legislators in line), two slick Baltimore attorneys (who dealt with the area’s old-style politicos) and a scion of a South Baltimore political machine. They were the governor’s hammer.

For important bills, Mr. Mandel added the genteel lobbying of his lieutenant governor, Blair Lee III (to woo Montgomery County compatriots); his secretary of state, Fred Wineland (a force in Prince George’s County politics) and the state’s first transportation secretary (and future governor), Harry Hughes.

Rural and suburban conservatives held far more power back then, making Mr. Mandel’s task harder than Mr. O’Malley’s. Sometimes he secured votes by backing a lawmaker’s pet project, generously dispensing race track passes, or dangling the prospect of patronage jobs.

During the 1972 session, entire county delegations would march off the House floor and up the marble stairs to the governor’s office for a reminder of what was at stake.

Mr. Mandel knew how to win over lawmakers. He also excelled at obfuscation — seemingly indicating support for a legislator’s wishes while never fully committing to the specifics. In 10 years as governor, he rarely suffered a defeat.

Mr. O’Malley hasn’t been as fortunate. He was deeply embarrassed by the General Assembly’s failure last year to pass the state budget on time. It took two special sessions to straighten out the mess, followed by a nasty referendum battle involving four O’Malley-passed bills.

The governor’s luck changed this year. He got big assists from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who stopped feuding and started cooperating. The veteran presiding officers were at the top of their game — revising unpopular aspects of the governor’s bills and then lining up the necessary votes.

Mr. O’Malley chipped in by staying at home and getting actively involved in lobbying. That differed from last year, when he spent much time campaigning out of state for President Barack Obama.

Sharp population changes in the past four decades provided Mr. O’Malley with a winning edge in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Legislative power now resides in the populous urban-inner suburbs where minorities and liberal voters dominate: Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the Baltimore region. It made his job much easier.

O’Malley and his allies (the NAACP, gun-control groups and the business community) used persuasive arguments, not arm-twisting. Then the governor locked in the support he needed by agreeing to help Prince George’s build a new hospital, Baltimore build new schools and Montgomery build a new Metro line. Obviously, the quid pro quo continues its role a useful political tool.

His victories this session mark a high point for Mr. O’Malley’s administration. He made it happen in his seventh year as governor through hard work, close cooperation with Messrs. Miller and Busch and an improved grasp of legislative dynamics.

It was an updated version of Mr. Mandel’s 1972 triumphs and sets Mr. O’Malley apart from most of his predecessors.

Barry Rascovar, a former deputy editorial page editor at The Sun, covered the 1972 General Assembly session for the paper and has been a commentator on state politics and government ever since. His email is brascovar@hotmail.com.