Tag Archives: General Assembly

Will Hogan’s Slimmed-Down Budget Implode?

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

Maryland’s Budget Plight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget Quicksand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deficits Return

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

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

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

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

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

MDOT’s Growing Budget Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Business Comes First, Education Second

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 17, 2016 – He’s at it again! Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. issued another executive order that makes it even clearer he intends to usurp the powers of the Maryland State Board of Education and every local school system in the state.

So far, no one is challenging Hogan’s decree setting the start of the school year statewide after Labor Day and the last school day no later than June 15.  Nor is any school system threatening to defy his order, which screams “overreach.”

There is no valid education reason for Hogan’s action.

Business Comes First, Education Second

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The two orders are designed to bring cheers from Ocean City businesses and parents happy to take their kids to the beach in late August instead of getting them ready for an early return to classes.

Yet even Hogan’s own appointees to the state board are complaining the governor wants to neuter the board and that his order is not grounded in any education rationale.

Larry Hogan is, indeed, the “Maryland is Open for Business” governor. Perhaps his next slogan will be: “In Maryland, Business Comes First, Education Second.”

Perplexed School Leaders

Local school boards are in a quandary. Following Hogan’s directive means a loss of control over the school year. It could be just the first step in more gubernatorial dictates on which holidays to honor, what to teach in classes and what to forbid in local schools.

For instance, Hogan has repeatedly lashed out at teacher unions and accused them of calling the shots on education policy. Will he use future executive orders to crack down on them and strip from the school calendar the “professional training days” now built into the school schedule as days off for kids?

Will he dictate what he will allow the supposedly independent state school board to do on its own and what he intends to unilaterally mandate from his second-floor state House office?

Hogan has never been regarded as an education expert. His pronouncements on the subject have been few and far beyond –usually encapsulated in a brief one- or two-sentence quip.

He hasn’t even claimed his school-year decree is designed to improve the learning environment. For him, the executive order is all about boosting summer business sales and winning popularity for extending the summer season. Those are his priorities.

Hogan’s Power

The problem for local school systems is that Hogan can be vindictive if challenged. He might withhold millions in school construction funds for petty reasons. After all, he’s already done it to Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

He could hold back other education dollars from systems that refuse to knuckle under and instead honor their commitment to crafting a school calendar that furthers students’ ability to learn.

There are other flaws in the decrees. What if there’s a harsh winter that forces many more lost school days than anticipated? Or other emergency closures? Even stripping spring break to the bone might not be enough to avoid post-June 15 schooling. What happens then?

Hogan hasn’t said and he’s taken the power away from the state school board.

If a school system ignores Hogan because it feels the executive orders are unlawful intrusions on local education autonomy, what happens?

Does Hogan direct more executive orders at the wayward school system? Does he call out the National Guard to enforce his orders? Does he pull a Trump-like tantrum and say to the local school board members he appoints, “You’re fired”?

Education Losses

Meanwhile, the governor’s school-calendar mandate will hurt students’ ability to prepare for standardized tests whose dates cannot be changed. Kids lose ground in their learning when the long summer break is extended. Poor kids lose out on decent meals they don’t get at home. Research has clearly established those facts. But Hogan doesn’t seem to care.

It is unfortunate Attorney General Brian Frosh took a dive when asked to examine the legality of Hogan’s attempt to extend his power. Frosh’s agency issued an opinion that failed to give clear guidance, even though it concluded:  “. . . it is likely that a reviewing court, if presented with the issue, would conclude” Hogan exceeded his authority.

What Hogan has done is unprecedented. It could set a dangerous precedent.

Even if the orders are not challenged in court, there’s a strong chance the General Assembly will pass legislation sharply restricting and defining the limits of the governor’s power to issue executive orders, especially on matters pertaining to education. Lawmakers also are likely to pass such a law early in next year’s session so they can override an almost certain Hogan veto before adjournment.

Hogan’s handlers relish the chance to blame Democratic legislators for denying families a longer August vacation with their kids.

But it won’t be lawmakers reestablishing a longer school year that starts prior to Labor Day. Instead, they will simply return decision-making power to local school boards and the state education board – where it belongs.

Hogan may be looking for a way to win political points in this ludicrous dispute, but in the end all he’s doing is hurting Maryland school children’s ability to learn.

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Good Larry, Bad Larry

By Barry Rascovar

  March 14, 2016–From day to day, lawmakers in Annapolis don’t know what to expect from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.
  Will it be “Good Larry” who moderates his comments, works to find middle ground and comes out making everyone happy?
  Or will it be “Bad Larry” who uses heated political rhetoric; sounds false warnings of doom to energize his conservative base, and alienates the very legislators he needs to accomplish things?
Good Larry, Bad Larry

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, at press conference denouncing spending mandates.

   Perhaps someday Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. will learn how to govern and deal with Maryland’s co-equal branch, the General Assembly. So far, though, it hasn’t happened.
  Most of the time Hogan stays in partisan campaign mode, pretending he can have what he wants simply by reminding legislators of his popularity in polls.

Two to Tango

  Then he bumps up against the hard reality of American politics: Without support from the legislative branch, no state’s chief executive can make headway toward his goals.
  The “Good Larry/Bad Larry” dichotomy was on full display last week in the State House.
On Tuesday, “Bad Larry” went ballistic because Democratic lawmakers aren’t about to gift-wrap for him new budget powers so he can make deeper cuts in spending.
  Yet on Thursday, “Good Larry” mollified those same legislators by adding construction dollars for historically black colleges, by accelerating construction of a biomedical sciences building on the University System of Maryland’s Shady Grove campus, and by giving Baltimore City schools funds to partially offset falling student enrollment.
  It was a bravura Thursday performance after an embarrassing Tuesday display of staged anger.

Hogan’s Dilemma

  The Republican governor can’t decide whether he wants to govern or campaign.
  Governing requires that he be practical and pragmatic, compromising with Democrats so he can achieve partial victories.
  Campaigning requires that he abandon any chance of winning over lawmakers and instead launch a continuous barrage of verbal assaults on Democratic legislators in preparation for the 2018 elections – still two-and-a-half years away.
  Usually, Hogan has chosen to stay in campaign mode.

Distorting the Facts

  On Tuesday, he condemned Democrats for not taking seriously his bill to eliminate many of the spending mandates established by legislators over the years. Asking any legislature to cede budget power to the governor is a non-starter – unless the governor can provide some persuasive reasons.
  Hogan failed to do so.
  Instead, he blamed it on “eight years of financial mismanagement” under the prior (Democratic) governor and Maryland’s current “precarious fiscal situation” on the (Democratic-dominated) legislature.
  Neither statement is true.
  The state’s past fiscal woes stemmed mainly from the deep and long Great Recession. As for that “precarious fiscal situation,” it doesn’t exist at the moment – not when Hogan is sitting on a $300 million budget surplus and $1 billion in a “rainy day” account.

Powerful Governor

  It’s campaign hyperbole, as was the chart Hogan continually pointed to at his Wednesday press conference, the one claiming Democrats seek to impose on Marylanders $3.7 billion in spending mandates this session.
  Hogan already has more budget power than any other governor in the country. He doesn’t need extra authority to short-circuit spending mandates in troubled economic times.
  Why? Because he already can make drastic cuts in two different ways – with approval from the Board of Public Works, or with the cooperation of state lawmakers through a budget reconciliation bill.
  Thus, Hogan’s “mandates reform” is a bogus issue put forward mainly for partisan political purposes.

‘Power Grab’ or Transparency?

  The same is true of his earlier wailing over Democratic bills forcing Hogan to explain the rationale for building roads and bridges that appear to be low-priority items.
  Hogan claimed in almost hysterical terms how this was a “reckless power grab” and a “thinly veiled power grab.”
  It is neither.
  The package of bills doesn’t stop Hogan for doing whatever he wants in selecting the state’s transportation projects. The bills simply force him to explain why he’s picked road project F over road project A on the state’s priority list.
  Senate President Mike Miller clearly explained that these bills remove “the mystery of how, why and where roads get built.” The measures encourage government transparency while leaving intact the governor’s road-selection powers.
  What’s wrong with that?

Good Republicans, Evil Democrats

  Hogan and his second-floor Republican ideologues are good at promoting phantom crises they blame on Democrats. They’re applying national GOP tactics to Maryland: Make this a fight between good Republicans and evil Democrats and point an accusing finger at the party of evil.
  No wonder Hogan has won few legislative victories in a Democratic-dominated General Assembly. At the moment, it looks like he’s headed for a large basketful of defeats this session, too.
  That’s why Thursday’s supplemental budget from Hogan is so intriguing. The governor negotiated deals with Democrats on a host of issues and wound up getting praised by his opponents for working out win-win compromises.
  That victory could set the stage for more moments of Hogan playing the role of Great Conciliator as the General Assembly moves rapidly toward its conclusion.
  But he won’t get very far in that direction if he continues to alienate and infuriate key lawmakers with his “Good Larry/Bad Larry” routine.
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Hold Off on Internet Hotel Tax

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 12, 2016 – Vetoed bills are on the minds of all 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly as they begin their annual 90-day session in Annapolis. Indeed, it’s the first order of business on Wednesday.

Among the most controversial is a vetoed bill concerning a dispute between large hotel operators, like Bethesda-based Marriott and Rockville-based Choice Hotels, and internet travel companies. The fight is over tax payments to the state by those internet companies when they book in-state hotel rooms.

The vote to override Hogan’s veto puts three “swing” Democrats with centrist records on the hot seat — Sen. Jim Mathias of the Eastern Shore and Sens. Kathy Klausmeier and Jim Brochin of Baltimore County.

All three Democrats come from districts where anger over high taxes led to large Hogan victories in 2014 with margins topping 60 percent for the Republican governor.

Now Democratic leaders want the three senators to go against Hogan on the internet hotel tax bill. For them, that may not be the wisest political move, especially on a piece of legislation viewed by many constituents as a tax increase.

Travelocity

The big hotel operators want travel companies to pay taxes on the fees they charge customers when travelers book Maryland hotel rooms through an intermediary. (The internet sites already add the state sales tax to the negotiated rate going to the hotels.)

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. vetoed this bill.

He did so for the most sensible of reasons: Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot already is suing an internet company, Travelocity, over what he claims is $6 million in unpaid taxes on those service fees between 2003 and 2011.

Hogan’s Message

“The General Assembly should respect the long-standing practice of not passing legislation that would directly affect matters being litigated in a pending court case,” Hogan wrote in explaining his veto last May.

Why in the world would state lawmakers interfere in a court case brought by the state’s comptroller?

Why not do what nearly all prior General Assemblys have done and let legal proceedings play out before taking action?

The answer is partisan politics. Democratic leaders want to show Hogan who’s in charge by overturning the governor’s vetoes.

On this one, pragmatism and practicality should prompt lawmakers to let well enough alone until there is a definitive ruling from the Maryland Tax Court.

Hurting Ma and Pa

It’s a complicated issue. Legislative controversies usually are.

For instance, the hotel booking tax could hurt local Ma & Pa travel agents, who are having a hard time as a result of shrinking commissions from hotels and other destination sites.

The fees they charge customers are their profit margin. If those fees get taxed, it could mean staff reductions to make up the difference.

Besides, they already pay local and state income taxes on revenue derived from those fees.

The new sales tax also could have the unintended consequence of harming small businesses such as tour operators, event planners and service providers, who might be forced to pay a new tax.

Fewer Bookings?

Industry data indicates that for every percentage increase in hotel rates, there is a negative two percent drop in bookings. That could be huge in Maryland if the legislature overrides Hogan’s veto. It could easily wipe out the revenue gain, estimated at $3 million to $4 million, from taxing service fees on third-party hotel bookings at a rate of six percent.

Large hoteliers say this tax “levels the playing field.” Yet it also forces third-party booking agencies to hike their prices to consumers and thus become less competitive with the hotels’ in-house booking operations.

The biggest booster of the new tax is Marriott, which has enormous clout among legislators from Montgomery County.

Ironically, Marriott was a big beneficiary in 1999 of state tax breaks topping $58 million in exchange for keeping its headquarters in Maryland. Part of the deal called for Marriott to expand its HQ staff by 700. Instead, there’s been a major workforce reduction.

Think how much the state’s tax coffers would have benefitted if Marriott had followed through on its 1999 commitment.

Consumers Pay More

Those opposing this bill say this amounts to a new tax, which it definitely is for third-party hotel booking services. You can rest assured most of this tax increase would be passed along to customers booking lodging in Maryland through them.

As noted, this is not a cut and dried issue.

Should all services fees be subject to the state sales tax, or just fees charged by internet hotel booking companies? Should local travel agents and travel-related companies be exempt from the tax?

The legislature is acting prematurely. It should await a Tax Court decision. Then it should form a work group to study the full, wide-ranging implications, including the mixed responses to this problem in other states.

All that points to a go-slow approach.

When SB 190 comes before the Senate and House of Delegates on Wednesday, lawmakers should avoid a hasty decision. There’s no need to rush to judgment – unless bitter partisan politics overrules common sense.

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Hogan’s Curious Facebook Blasts

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

That doesn’t work as well, though.

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

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

Facebook Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misleading Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In His Own Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Do

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

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

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

He can’t have it both ways.

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Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

By Barry Rascovar

October 5, 2015 – Good intentions and wishful thinking will not get advocates of redistricting reform very far. They fail to grasp that the process is 100 percent political. The sweeping changes they seek won’t happen.

Reporters, editors and editorialists are strongly on the side of the reformers. So are political science academics and supporters of “good government.”

None of that matters one iota.

Ever heard of a homeowner relinquishing ownership of half his acreage so his neighbor can construct an obnoxious tennis court and swimming pool that increases the neighbor’s property value but decreases yours?

Ever heard of a politician putting his reelection in grave jeopardy by giving away his most loyal precincts?

Self-protection is a natural human response. Asking someone to place his or her career in harm’s way – especially a politician – is counter-intuitive.

Gerry’s Salamander

From the inception of political parties in this country, redistricting has been ruled by each major party’s burning desire to gain every conceivable advantage to win elections.

Thus in 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with a hard G) re-drew state senate districts to help his Democratic-Republican (Jeffersonian) Party. One of Gerry’s distorted Senate districts wrapped around Boston like a salamander.

At least that’s how the Boston Gazette depicted it in a now-famous cartoon, giving birth to the conjoined name, “gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

Famous redistricting cartoon from 1812 turning Gerry’s new state Senate district into a salamander.

The scheme worked, keeping the state Senate in Democratic-Republican hands.

Over 200 years later, little has changed.

Rules laid out by the courts require equally populated districts after each Census and due regard for forming majority-minority districts when feasible. In each state, local courts and laws set out additional mandates for state legislative districts, such as respect for geographic boundaries and communities of interest.

But ever since the early 1800s, one thing has remained constant in the United States: the political imperative of the party in power to tilt redistricted lines heavily in their favor every ten years.

Each Party is Guilty

In Republican-dominated states like Texas, that means grossly distorted political boundaries that throw most elections to Republican candidates. In Democratic Maryland, it means the reverse.

Maryland Democrats used their dominance in Annapolis to re-draw congressional lines in some weird ways after the 2010 Census.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s current congressional districts. Rep. John Sarbanes’ gerrymandered district is the one shown in light green.

Republicans were packed heavily into one district dominated by the Eastern Shore and conservative parts of Harford, Carroll and Baltimore counties.

Meanwhile in sparsely populated Western Maryland, dominant Republicans found themselves outnumbered in a new district that joined them to heavily Democratic and urbanized Montgomery County.

All the other congressional districts were tailor-made to keep Democratic incumbents in office. Not surprisingly, Democrats won seven of Maryland’s eight congressional seats (although the margin in the Western Maryland-Montgomery district last time was razor-thin).

The same tactics were used by Democrats in Annapolis in re-drawing General Assembly districts.

Is Reform Possible?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., has made a big deal about reforming the redistricting process. What he really wants to do is elect more Republicans and contort future redistricting maps in the GOP’s favor.

He’s got a redistricting commission holding hearings across Maryland, listening to disgruntled citizens and interest groups seeking a more equitable system. They’re also hearing from Republican outsiders who want to get inside the political tent.

The panel’s work is for naught.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly won’t listen to recommendations for an impartial redistricting process. There is no hope of changing their minds.

Hogan understands this reality, but he knows a good political theme when he sees one. He’s happy to campaign for “fair elections” and point to the prime example of horrendous redistricting – the bizarre congressional boundary lines Rep. John Sarbanes helped draw for himself.

Hogan has a winning campaign pitch with no effective push-back from the other side.

Still, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch aren’t about to commit political hari-kari to satisfy Republican Hogan and redistricting reformers.

They hold the high cards in this game of brinkmanship.

What to Do?

There’s no getting around the fact that Maryland’s congressional districts are Exhibit A in what’s wrong with gerrymandering.

That could be overcome if Hogan drops the pretense that he can achieve a redistricting revolution and instead starts dealing realistically with the two Mikes.

Instead of trying to achieve the impossible, why not see if there’s common ground for removing the most flagrant abuses of redistricting?

Why not agree on a panel of six representatives – two pragmatic Republicans and four pragmatic Democrats – with the goal of producing for the governor and legislative leaders new congressional lines that eliminate salamander-like boundaries, that keep districts as compact as possible and that don’t hopscotch all over the state?

The results might be the same – six or seven Democrats and one or two Republicans – because that’s roughly the breakdown of the two party’s voter-registration strength in Maryland.

Yet giving voters compact districts that no longer divide communities three or four ways would help immensely. People might actually know, when asked, who represents them in Congress.

A similar gubernatorial-legislative panel could help the competing parties draw more sensible state legislative district lines.

The idea should be to eliminate the worst aspects of redistricting. That’s doable. Eliminating gerrymandering entirely in Maryland is a non-starter.

2020 Census

In the next redistricting fight after the 2020 Census, Hogan (if he’s still in office) could create headaches for Democrats, especially if Republicans win enough General Assembly seats in 2018 to uphold Hogan’s veto threat.

But Democrats are not going to give away the farm. They won’t sacrifice their built-in advantages.

What we have now is sanctimonious comments from the governor on the need for redistricting reform and support from shiny-bright, good-government supporters and Republican hardliners looking for a way to do in Democrats.

Lots of sound and fury signifying very little.

How nice it would be if Hogan momentarily set aside his political predilections and Miller and Busch did the same. Then they might reach a common-sense compromise that straightens out – somewhat – Maryland’s gerrymandered districts.

That, at least, is a realistic possibility.

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Hogan’s Holt Problem

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 24, 2015–Maryland Housing Secretary Ken Holt may be a nice guy, a financial expert, a former member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore County, a cattle rancher and a breeder of thoroughbred race horses, but he has turned himself into a giant liability for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Holt’s stunningly ignorant claim made at the Maryland Association of Counties gathering in Ocean City — that some low-income mothers poison their children with lead weights to get free housing — was so far afield from reality that both Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford disassociated themselves from his assertions.

Hogan's Holt Problem

MD Housing Secretary Ken Holt

The governor then had choice words for Holt in private about his “unfortunate and inappropriate statement” — but is keeping him on as housing secretary.

Holt’s comments were far more than “unfortunate and inappropriate.”

They had no basis in fact and showed an abysmal understanding of Maryland’s lead paint law — an area that Holt’s department deals with.

Lacking Evidence

Even worse, it turns out Holt has no evidence to back up his claim that low-income moms intentionally poison their kids to receive free, long-term government housing. It was an anecdotal story, he said, that came from a housing developer.

Holt told the MACO attendees that he wanted to submit legislation to ease the legal burden on landlords if their rental properties contain lead paint that harms children.

That proposal is now DOA — dead on arrival.

Indeed, Holt’s credibility with Democratic legislators has been destroyed by his hideous comments and intentions. Easing landlords’ liability for lead-paint poisoning on their rental units is a terrible idea.

Who’s responsible for not taking steps to encapsulate or remove the lead paint in these rental units? Holt’s proposal would turn those who are poisoned, and their parents, into the culprits while freeing landlords from their clear responsibility.

It’s idiotic and gives the appearance Holt is pandering to the whims and desires of landlords.

Reductions in Lead Poisoning

Over the past 20 years, Maryland’s lead-paint laws have led to a steep, dramatic drop in  poisoning cases, from 14,546 in 1993 to just 371 cases in 2013.

Hogan's Holt Problem

Flaking lead paint can poison children.

The law is working and the children living in low-income rental housing are being protected. Why in the world would Holt move to weaken this law without even researching the topic?

It raises major questions about Holt’s fitness for the cabinet-level post. He had no low-income housing expertise when he took the job. It shows.

What an embarrassment for Hogan and his administration. Is this the sort of pro-business “reform” the governor has in mind?

Holt’s blunder pretty much closes the door on legislative changes coming from his department. Indeed, it puts a bull’s eye on just about anything Hogan proposes in the next legislative session that would weaken existing laws designed to protect the public.

Bad Timing

The timing of Holt’s indiscretion doesn’t help, either. It looks more and more like the Hogan administration is hostile to Baltimore City and its minority citizens.

The vast majority of lead-paint poisoning cases are in Baltimore, and nearly all the victims are African Americans.

Hogan also refused to allocate $11 million in sorely needed school funds to Baltimore City, where the vast majority of underperforming students are African Americans.

Then he killed the $3 billion Red Line rapid-rail project designed to help Baltimore’s inner city residents reach job centers and greatly improve their transportation options. The vast majority of citizens who would have benefited from the Red Line are black.

Just to rub it in, Hogan snubbed city officials in announcing the closing of Baltimore’s detention center. He didn’t even give the mayor the courtesy of a phone call before his announcement, which was highlighted by his harsh and gratuitous condemnation of his predecessor, Martin O’Malley.

Anti-City?

The Holt fiasco adds to the impression Hogan’s administration is anti-city and anti-black. At the least, it gives weight to the notion that the governor and his staff are insensitive and uncaring — and not well informed — when it comes to urban problems.

The best thing Holt could do to help the governor is make a quiet exit from state government later this year.

He’s become Enemy No. 1 to a large number of Democratic legislators. Everything he says or does from now on will be put under a microscope. He’s dragging the governor down.

Hogan, meanwhile, has yet to take any major step that shows he understands the state has a significant role to play in uplifting and improving life and economic opportunity in Baltimore.

Fortunately, it is still early in the governor’s tenure.

The situation in Maryland’s only urban center cries out for strong leadership and assistance from Annapolis. That is Hogan’s most complex and perplexing challenge, one he has yet to confront.

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Fracking Follies in Annapolis

By Barry Rascovar

March 30, 2015 — Shakespeare, as usual, had it right. “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” That describes the squabbling in Annapolis over hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”

It is Maryland’s phantom issue.

Environmentalists and do-gooder legislators are panicked that fracking will mean earthquakes, tainted drinking water, dirty air, despoliation of pristine farmland and other biblical plagues. They want to bar this drilling procedure forever in Maryland.

fracking-2

Hydraulic Fracturing

 

Never mind that wide-spread fracking has been going on since 1950. In those 65 years, more than one million wells have been fracked, in which a combination of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure deep into shale formations. This fractures the rock and sends deposits of oil and/or natural gas gushing to the surface.

Low Oil Prices = No Fracking

There’s only a tiny part of Maryland where hydraulic fracturing into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation is viable — in far Western Maryland, i.e., portions of Garrett County and a bit of Allegany County. The number of farmers who might benefit from oil and gas royalties is very small.

Moreover, no oil or gas driller is interested in Maryland any longer. The steep plunge in oil and gas prices makes fracking in the state far too costly now or any time in the foreseeable future.

So the arguments in Annapolis are largely speculative.

Environmentalists continue to spout off about the doom and gloom that will descend on Maryland if fracking is allowed — part of a larger argument by environmental zealots who seek to ban coal and even gas-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, the export of liquified natural gas, as well as wind farms in state parks (they won that fight) and wind farms on the lower Eastern Shore.

O’Malley Study

The O’Malley administration, never a friend of business-development if it bumped up against the fears of the environmental community, forbid fracking for three years while it conducted a lengthy, in-depth, scientific study.

The results pleased no one: The research showed fracking could be done safely in Maryland, but only under very strict state supervision — the strictest rules in the nation.

Even that hasn’t made environmentalists happy. Nothing short of a permanent ban will satisfy them.

A bill imposing another three-year moratorium — totally meaningless in today’s low-cost energy world — has made it out of the House of Delegates. Prospects in the Senate are less certain. The bill calls for a 36-month study that would largely duplicate the O’Malley administration’s extensive research.

Meanwhile, a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, offers an even more extreme step that kills any possibility of fracking coming to Maryland.

It creates extraordinary legal liability standards, calling fracking “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” and requires a $10 million insurance policy that must be in place for six years after drilling ends.

Few Side Effects

Funny thing: Over the past 65 years, fracking has been conducted without much in the way of negative side effects.

The industry has used fracking over 1 million times and the number of “ultrahazardous” outcomes has been tiny.

“Abnormally dangerous”? It would be hard to make that assertion stand up statistically.

It would be as if the Maryland legislature declared airplane travel “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” due to a few highly publicized crashes — even though the odds of being killed this way are 1 in 30 million.

The fracking follies in Annapolis are a case of populist rhetoric run amuck. It’s a do-gooder attempt to outlaw something that is no longer on the radar screen in Maryland — and won’t be for years or decades to come.

Waste of Energy

Making it impossible for oil and natural gas companies to drill in Maryland — even under exceptionally close state supervision — is the sort of anti-business hostility Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. may not be able to tolerate.

A veto could await either the House bill or the Senate bill.

Still, all of this is academic — an exercise in wasted energy.

As long as oil and gas prices remain depressed, fracking has zero future in Maryland. The legislature has better things to do in its remaining days before its April 13 adjournment.

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Reneging on a Promise – Again

By Barry Rascovar

March 2, 2015 — The legislature’s fiscal leaders, in a truly bizarre move, are considering reneging — once again — on a commitment to state workers and the public by pulling the plug on supplemental state contributions to Maryland’s severely underfunded pension program.

It would save $71 million this year, $179 million next year and $233 million the third year. But, over a 25-year span this action would cost taxpayers a staggering $2.5 billion.

This suggestion from the legislature’s own analysts didn’t come out of the blue. The Department of Legislative Services was told by Democratic leaders in the legislature to find mounds of money that could be cut from the budget for later redistribution to their priorities — education and health care.

‘Deja Vu’

The result is an incredible prostitution of DLS’ fiscal stewardship. It is as though these analysts and legislative leaders learned nothing from the pension debacle of the past decade.

If approved, this proposal would be, as Yogi Berra once said, “Deja vu all over again.”

Solving a short-term budget problem would seriously threaten the state’s long-term fiscal viability — and its triple-AA bond rating.

Legislators would be gambling that a booming stock market continues over the next decade without let-up. This would easily erase the need for supplemental pension payments by the state to help close a whopping $19 billion unfunded liability.

But what if economic good times fade? What if — as is almost inevitable — the stock market suffers setbacks during that time?

Irresponsible Plan

Unfunded liabilities in the state worker and teacher pension accounts would soar, just as they did during the recent Great Recession.

It is a foolish and fiscally irresponsible proposal that never should have been presented to the legislature. It could make a bad situation worse and set off alarm bells at bond-rating agencies.

Interestingly, the Hogan administration considered this proposal and rejected it — even though it would have helped close a $1 billion budget gap.

Budget Secretary David Brinkley

Budget Secretary David Brinkley

David Brinkley, Hogan’s budget chief, said the decision was made to honor the state’s commitment to its employees.

In 2011, lawmakers approved reforms that raised employee payments to the pension system, reduced benefits for new workers and committed the state to increasing its annual payments.

Reneging on that agreement would be a terribly crass and unwise step, a slap in the face to state workers and public school teachers. They still must ante up additional paycheck dollars to fortify the pension system.

Moral Obligation

Why should state legislators walk away from their end of the bargain?

“What duty do we have to employees,” said Del. Tony McConkey of Anne Arundel County. “What moral obligation do we have”?

Del. Tony McConkey

Del. Tony McConkey

“A promise made is a promise kept,” noted Del. Mike McKay of Allegheny County.

Indeed.

Short-sighted illogic got Maryland into deep trouble the first time. Will lawmakers be foolish enough to go down that road again?

Glendening Started It

Back in the early 2000s, Gov. Parris Glendening intentionally underfunded state payments to the pension program so he could increase education aid. The legislature not only went along but came up with a flawed accounting gimmick to justify lower payments.

Known as the “corridor funding method,” this scam lets the state cut its pension allocations when times are good and stock market returns are strong.

But when the recession hit in the late-2000s that corridor became a dead end. The state’s pension liabilities skyrocketed. Tough, painful reforms had to be instituted.

Eventually, the state pension board agreed to phase out the corridor funding method that had caused all the trouble.

Walking Away

Now, DLS is proposing that Maryland repeat its actions of the early 2000s, but without calling it “corridor funding.” The state would walk away from its pledge to state workers and teachers and stop its supplemental payments.

Sure, there would be short-term benefits, enabling legislators to allocate more money for other priorities. Over the next 11 years, the state would save $2 billion that could be spread around to worthy programs.

But here’s the catch: In the subsequent 14 years, the state would have to shell out a staggering $4.5 billion in extra payments to make the pension fund whole.

Even worse, that calculation doesn’t consider what happens to the pension fund in the next two or three recessions. After all, economic downturns are inevitable and an integral part of the economic cycle.

Nightmare on State Circle

What a nightmare this could turn into.

As Brinkley told the House Appropriations Committee on Friday, if the pension fund’s earnings performance turns south over the next 10 years, “this will be a disastrous decision.”

The legislature’s fiscal leaders, especially Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore and Sen. Ed Kasemeyer of Howard County, need to think hard about the dire consequences that could ensue by taking such a dangerous step.

They should remember what writer-philosopher George Santayana said:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Hogan’s Heroes Arrive

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 19, 2015 – The Changing of the Guard takes place in Annapolis this week: There will be a sharp course correction with the arrival of Hogan’s Heroes.

Hogan's Heroes Leader-Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

On Wednesday, Republican Larry Hogan Jr. takes the oath of office as governor, followed by the departure of former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley as he starts his quixotic quest for the highest office in the land.

On Thursday, Governor Hogan unveils his sharply reduced budget, which will be a shock to the system of Maryland Democrats.

Thus, the Hogan era begins.

Democratic interest groups will have to learn some new tricks.

The old way of bludgeoning a Democratic governor and Democratic legislature into submission won’t work.

Outdated Lobbying Methods

Massing hundreds, or thousands, of protesters on the State House steps used to do the trick when O’Malley was in power.

Hogan, though, could care less if the teachers union or the state workers union or the construction unions fill Lawyers’ Mall to overflowing or flood his office with form-letter emails.

Simply demanding more pay, more benefits, more school funds, and more social services won’t be helpful, either.

The new governor is approaching his job with a firm set of ideas on how to govern Maryland that is in marked contrast to the traditional Democratic method.

No longer will the state budget balloon to satisfy special interest groups within the Democratic Party. No longer will special-interest bills designed to mollify those same power bases within the Democratic Party hold sway on the second floor of the State House.

Businessman as Governor

Hogan takes a businessman’s approach to governing. He holds definite conservative views, but Larry Hogan is far from an extremist. He’s no friend of tea party fanatics. He’s not about to take Maryland back to the Stone Age.

That could be seen clearly in many of his appointments.

Hogan chose a well-rounded group of upper-level managers and advisers, including a good number of pragmatic, moderate Democrats with legislative experience, such as former Sen. Rona Kramer from Montgomery County, former Baltimore County Councilman Joe Bartenfelder, former Delegates Steve DeBoy and Keiffer Mitchell from the Baltimore area and former Delegates Van Mitchell and George Owings from Southern Maryland.

DeBoy in particular is an important choice, since he will be engaged in lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the Hogan administration. He’s a retired cop from Catonsville who was highly respected by fellow delegates for his friendliness, common-sense and conservative pragmatism.

Understanding Hogan

Many of the appointees have strong business backgrounds. That is the key to understanding Hogan’s mindset.

People with experience in business know the crucial importance of avoiding a deficit. You spend what you take in, and no more. You don’t expand services hoping that the economy soars. That is the path to bankruptcy.

Hogan won’t have much sympathy for teacher unions demanding ever-increasing amounts of school funding. That’s not how businesses work.

Hogan is going to take a jaundiced view of state worker union demands for pay increases and benefit gains every year. He knows that’s a sure way to drive a business to the brink of insolvency.

There will be plenty of pain as Hogan squeezes budgetary excesses out of Maryland’s funding programs. Businesses do that all the time. The goal is to build a leaner yet more effective company.

Losing Bad Habits

Hogan is almost certain to tell Marylanders that state government has gotten itself into bad habits: excessive borrowing; depleting all the government’s “piggy bank” accounts to paper over revenue shortages; shifting around funds; spending far more each year on education than revenues allow, imposing new taxes to cover up bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Righting the Ship of State in Maryland won’t be easy. The last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, rashly thought his charisma would be enough to win over doubting Democrats in the legislature.

Hogan was part of Ehrlich’s team. He saw the gridlock and ill will that resulted. He learned some painful lessons.

Centrist Politics

The new governor is a glad-handing, commercial land-development salesman and negotiator. Those skills will come in handy. He knows that the art of the deal involves compromise – on both sides.

Governing from the center is pivotal if Hogan is to succeed.

He can’t be a conservative ideologue, tea party libertarian or doctrinaire Republican. None of that will fly with a liberal General Assembly.

Hogan already has shown us he knows how to campaign as a Republican centrist. It proved wildly popular with voters in November.

If he can repeat that recipe as governor, Larry Hogan Jr. could be living in the governor’s mansion for a considerable length of time.

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