Tag Archives: General Assembly

Abolish MD’s Lt. Gov.

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 1, 2014—If we learned anything from Anthony Brown’s eight years as Maryland lieutenant governor it’s that the office isn’t worth the taxpayer dollars it consumes.

Indeed, there is no good reason to have a lieutenant governor. There are sound fiscal and management reasons to abolish it.

No Powers

Brown’s mediocre performance was in keeping with others who have held the job since the office was re-established in 1970 by voters after a 102-year lull. The lieutenant governor has no constitutional powers. He or she does whatever the governor dictates.

Sometimes the governor hands out a few assignments, such as coordinating criminal justice issues (Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and J. Joseph Curran Jr.).

Sometimes the governor delegates budget decisions to his No. 2 (Blair Lee III).

At times, the governor may use the lieutenant governor to lobby bills and mediate differences between senators and delegates on important pieces of legislation (Mickey Steinberg).

Sometimes, the office holder is asked to act as a middle-man for local governments (Sam Bogley III and Michael Steele).

But more often than not, the lieutenant governor isn’t allowed to do heavy lifting. During the final terms of Gov. Harry Hughes and Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Bogley and Steinberg were left twiddling their thumbs.

Figurehead Roles

Brown was given a few figurehead roles on commissions – health care is the most glaring example – and he did take the lead on a small number of legislative bills.

But he made a mess of at least two of those.

He allowed lawyers for private developers to seize control of the governor’s public-private partnership bill to the point that lawmakers killed the measure. It passed the following year without the outside interference that had screamed political favoritism and financial windfall.

Brown also shepherded the fatally flawed health exchange bill through the legislature. What he created turned out to be a disaster.

The bill established the Obamacare insurance exchange as an independent agency. There were no oversight or management controls or back-office support from the state health department.

The bill also exempted the exchange from state procurement laws. That led to a horrendous outcome in which an under-qualified bidder won the IT contract by low-balling the price and over-promising its capabilities.

No wonder the health exchange’s IT system crashed on Day One.

That fiasco created an image of Brown in this year’s gubernatorial election as an incompetent and clueless office holder.

Mocking the Office

Composer George Gershwin once mocked the plight of No. 2 placeholders in a Pulitzer Prize winning playing, “Of Thee I Sing,” in which the vice president, Alexander Throttlebottom, has so little to do he spends his days in the park feeding pigeons.

Brown’s life was a bit better than that: He got to fill his calendar with speaking engagements, rushing from one meaningless event to a somewhat meaningless event reading prepared remarks, shaking hands and smiling a lot.

Is that worth $125,000 a year? Is a staff of eight really necessary to support such a pointless office?

The only job given to the lieutenant governor is to fill in if the governor is incapacitated, or to succeed to the top office if the governor dies.

‘Back to the Future’

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr. can save a quick million dollars by taking steps that would eventually abolish the office of lieutenant governor, streamline the executive department and establish a more sensible line of succession.

Hogan should go “back to the future” by turning the secretary of state into his No. 2.

In the early 1800s, that was the line of succession. The secretary of state already has designated record-keeping, election and foreign relations duties that are real and substantive. He’s got a staff of 25 and a $2.4 million budget.

Before the lieutenant governor’s office was re-established, Gov. Marvin Mandel named then Sen. Blair Lee III to serve in the official role of secretary of state and the unofficial role of lieutenant governor until voters decided if they wanted this new office.

There’s no reason the two jobs can’t be merged. Many other states do it that way. The secretary of state could step in if the governor is temporarily unable to perform his duties, and to serve as acting governor until a special election is held.

Combining the Jobs

Hogan could simply announce that Boyd Rutherford, his lieutenant governor, will also take over as unofficial secretary of state, with a combined, slimmed-down staff.

The new governor then would ask the General Assembly to approve a constitutional amendment abolishing the position of lieutenant governor, making the secretary of state next in line if something goes wrong and mandating a special election within 90 days of a governor’s death.

Voter then could decide if they approve of this new arrangement in 2016.

It’s pointless to continue the charade that has existed for 45 years.

Highly Paid

Rutherford is ideal for the job because his expertise is government management, not politics. He can contribute to developing a more efficient and cheaper state government.

But he could do the same thing for the governor as secretary of state.

As things now stand, Rutherford will be the seventh highest paid lieutenant governor in the United States ($137,500), and the third highest paid by the end of his term ($150,000).

Yet he has no constitutional powers. None. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Let’s use common sense and get rid of this meaningless office that is wasting a million dollars a year. That’s the kind of practical step voters expect from Hogan.

It would send a powerful message.

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

 

 

For This They Give Thanks

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 27, 2014–On this day of the year, we give thanks for our blessings. In political Maryland, here are some folks who have lots to appreciate as the cranberries, sauerkraut and turkey are served:

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr. His Thanksgiving blessing will probably be directed toward the state Democratic Party for heavily backing an artificially impressive lieutenant governor for governor.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown turned out to be a lightweight who made all the wrong campaign decisions. Hogan knew what he was doing; Brown didn’t.

Comptroller Peter Franchot. Easily re-elected, he is now the most important Democrat in the State House, thanks to the election of a Republican governor.

On the powerful Board of Public Works, Franchot will hold the crucial swing vote. He could lead the Democratic opposition to Hogan or work out middle-ground compromises. Either way, he’s the pivotal player.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. He should be thankful for the weak Republican opposition he encountered. George Harman of Reisterstown lacked campaign experience and spent almost no money. His campaign was a joke.

Yet he still received nearly 44 percent of the vote. It was a Republican year and Kamenetz might have had a difficult fight on his hands had the GOP recruited a better-known candidate.

Doug Duncan. He’s got to be thankful he lost in the June primary to incumbent Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. Instead of getting his old job back, Duncan can continue working for Leadership Greater Washington or even as a member of the new Hogan administration.

Either way, it will be Leggett who must confront what figures to be a four-year budget battle in the county. Montgomery citizens demand a high level of services. Yet tax revenue is likely to continue to decline, federal aid to the counties and states is shrinking and state aid is almost certain to drop. What a mess.

Senate President Mike Miller. He quietly blessed Hogan’s triumph on Nov. 4. Miller knows he can deal with the new Republican governor. The two worked cooperatively years ago in Prince George’s County. Hogan knows Miller is the key go-to legislator.

Miller could not have looked forward to four years of frustration dealing with the remote and detached Brown, especially with a highly protective staff shielding Brown from reality.

Ken Ulman. The outgoing Howard County Executive now has been given a reprieve by voters. Instead of four years of boredom and gritting his teeth as Brown’s powerless lieutenant governor, Ulman gets to spend time with his young children, build a law practice and prepare for his re-entry into elective politics.

Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin. He’s glad the next attorney general will be Sen. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County. Frosh gave up his chairmanship of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to run for higher office. Now Zirkin is a favorite to be tapped for this leadership slot — but only if he’s willing to follow the lead of Senate President Miller.

Retiring State Sen. Norman Stone. After a half-century in the General Assembly, Stone planned his exit at just the right time. He leaves triumphant instead of being blown out in the Republican sweep of his Dundalk-Middle River district.

Frederick County Commissioner Blaine Young. His Thanksgiving blessing extends to all the old-time practitioners of sleazy, backroom deal-making and “what’s-in-it-for-me” politics.

Having been defeated for the new post of Frederick County Executive, Young turned around and lined up the votes on the lame-duck county commission to get appointed to a five-year term on the county’s important Planning Commission. Developers are cheering.

The residual stench must have made carving the turkey tough to take for the rest of the Young clan.

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MD GOP Nightmare

By Barry Rascovar

August 18, 2014 — Just what the Maryland Republican Party didn’t need — a theocratic, paleo-conservative candidate who has renounced the General Assembly as ungodly and is deeply involved in a group advocating a white, Christian nation of the South.

Worst of all for the Maryland GOP, this 61-year-old, Bible-spouting secessionist with a bizarre view of government is the favorite to win the November election in Anne Arundel County’s Broadneck Peninsula-Severna Park-Arnold councilmanic district.

His name is Michael Peroutka, a smooth-talking, debt-collector attorney. He ran for president of the United States in 2004 on the Constitution Party ballot line. He got 150,000 votes out of 122,000,000 cast (0.1 percent).

Constitution Party logo

Yet in June, he shocked the GOP establishment by winning Anne Arundel’s District 5 council primary by a razor-thin 38 votes.

The Republican nominee for governor, Larry Hogan Jr., disassociated himself from Peroutka. So did the GOP’s nominee for county executive, Del. Steve Schuh. Annapolis Del. Herb McMillan isn’t supporting Peroutka, either, because his views “are the exact opposite of the Republican Party.”

Like the slick lawyer he is, Peroutka is trying to sweet-talk District 5 voters into believing he’s an ordinary conservative who rails against the misnamed “rain tax,” abhors all taxes and demands drastically limited government.

It’s a con.

Peroutka didn’t even belong to the Republican Party until this year.

Peroutka button 2004

He and a Christian Reconstructionist cohort, David Whitney, tried to hijack the District 5 election by seeking to win both the Republican and Democratic primaries.

That would have guaranteed a seat on the County Council for this oddball alliance, which centers around Peroutka’s extreme Christian Institute on the Constitution, which he runs out of his law office in a strip shopping center along Ritchie Highway.

Peroutka is out to re-create the Anne Arundel Republican Party, and eventually the Maryland GOP, in his image. His pseudo-conservative rhetoric masks a deep hatred for the Republican Party of Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Here’s what he said last October about the GOP:

“Anyone, including those who identify with the ‘Tea Party,’ who loves America and desires real reform, would do well to disengage themselves from the Republican Party and their brand of worthless, Godless, unprincipled conservatism.”

Fifth-Column Action

Peroutka isn’t even following his own advice. Instead, he’s infiltrated the “Godless, unprincipled” GOP.

This fifth-column action is part of his campaign to turn the Republican Party into a Christian party that follows Peroutka’s “biblical view of law and government.”

To him, “the function of civil government is to obey God and to enforce God’s law — PERIOD.”

Any other government actions — what he calls “pretended laws” —  are heretical and should be ignored or resisted. No wonder he spoke at a radical Second American Revolution rally last November in Washington. He’s out to dismantle the entire American system of government.

Peroutka at Second American Revolution rally

Peroutka at Second American Revolution rally

How wacky is Peroutka?

He said last year the Maryland General Assemby is “no longer a valid legislative body” and its actions should be disregarded because they violate God’s law.

Of course, Peroutka is the one who decides what’s legitimate and what is “Godless.”

According to him, “It is not the role of civil government to house, feed, clothe, educate or give health care to . . . ANYBODY.” Government, Peroutka says, has no authority to take any role in education or alleviating poverty. Government must enforce only the word of God spelled out in the Bible.

Misleading Appearance

Peroutka doesn’t come across as a madman. He’s got a distinguished mane of white hair, a grandfatherly look and a soothing voice. How could someone so sincere and seemingly erudite promote such nonsense?

Peroutka is a board member of the League of the South, an Alabama group that openly advocates Southern secession and establishment of a white, Christian Reconstructionist society.

According to its website, the League of the South is “a Southern Nationalist organization whose ultimate goal is a free and independent Southern republic.”

At this group’s meeting last fall, Peroutka called “Dixie” the country’s national anthem.

Should Michael Peroutka win in November, he’s sure to use County Council sessions as a platform for bringing his theocratic notions of government into the proceedings. It will be his launching pad for an internal Republican Party revolution.

Just what the Maryland GOP didn’t need.

It already is struggling for relevancy in the state’s largest jurisdictions. Peroutka’s ravings as an elected Republican leader could be the nail in the coffin for the Republican Party’s hopes of winning over independents and conservative-leaning Democrats.

Can He Lose?

Stopping him will be difficult, but not impossible.

District 5 hasn’t elected a Democratic councilman in 24 years. It’s a wealthy, conservative part of the county stretching from Severna Park to the Broadneck Peninsula that ends at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Yet there’s hope in the voter registration numbers: 25,800 Republicans live in the district against 21,100 Democrats and 11,600 independents. Given the GOP leadership defections already announced, Peroutka’s election isn’t a sure thing.

He’s got millions of his own money he can funnel into his campaign, though.

Democratic Foe

He’s also running against a political youngster, Patrick Armstrong, a 31-year-old retail store manager who entered the Democratic primary to prevent Peroutka’s theocratic collaborator, David Whitney, from furtively gaining the nomination.

Armstrong did better than okay in the primary. He trounced Whitney, gaining nearly two-thirds of the Democratic votes in June.

He’s also not, as he put it, “a liberal boogie man. I’m a reasonable person” who grew up in District 5, graduated from Anne Arundel Community College in the district, and lives with his parents in Cape St. Claire.

He’s smart enough to run in this district with a pledge to never vote for a new tax or fee increase but instead “come up with creative ways to find solutions to our problems.”

Being Responsible

Yet he’s also wise enough to recognize that opposing the “rain tax” isn’t going to win over district voters who care deeply about the well-being of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Magothy and Severn rivers that define District 5’s boundaries.

He calls the stormwater-runoff fee “the responsible thing to do.”

With strong backing from state Democratic leaders, Armstrong might give Peroutka all he can handle. But he’s got to get the word out about Peroutka’s dangerous views of government and the U.S. Constitution.

After all, Peroutka is advocating the dismemberment of the United States and turning what’s left into a society ruled by Biblical law.

The problem is that even if Peroutka’s Republican charade is unmasked in time and he loses in November, he will remain the Maryland GOP’s nightmare: In June, he also won for himself a seat on the Anne Arundel Republican Central Committee.

That gives him an opportunity to use the county’s GOP Central Committee as a launching pad for converting Republican governing bodies into advocates for Christian government.

As a central committee member, Peroutka also will attend statewide GOP meetings, where he can poison the well with radical resolutions and speeches meant to Christianize the state party. He’s leading God’s crusade against the Republican infidels.

Ignoring Godless Laws

On top of that, another Peroutka theocratic soulmate, Joe Delimater, was the lone GOP candidate to file for county sheriff.

Delimater will be on the November ballot against the incumbent sheriff, Democrat Ron Bateman, hoping to win the right to wreak havoc on Anne Arundel’s court and criminal justice system by ignoring laws and government orders he believes are Godless.

What a mess for the GOP.

Peroutka & Co. pose a serious challenge to the viability and future of the Maryland Republican Party.

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Primary Differences: Women & Turnout

By Barry Rascovar

July 21, 2014 – In a primary election wrap-up message e-mailed to his supporters, former state Sen. Art Helton of Harford County listed reasons why he lost his latest effort to re-gain his seat in the General Assembly.

Art Helton

Art Helton

Poor turnout, especially among African American voters, he wrote, hurt him in his race against fellow Democrat Mary-Dulany James. (The Senate seat is now held by Republican Nancy Jacobs, who is retiring.)

The results: James, 4,705 votes (61 percent); Helton, 2,997 votes (39 percent).

Mary-Dulany James

Mary-Dulany James

The other reason Helton gave for his loss:  the dominance of female candidates in Democratic primaries.

He listed 10 female Harford Democrats who were victorious in the June 24 primary.

“[N]ot one woman lost unless challenged by another woman,” he wrote.

“The percentage of women voting in the Democratic [p]rimary was 63.4%. You can view the results and draw your own conclusions.”

Making a Difference

Women indeed are becoming a pivotal force in local and state elections in Maryland. They are more likely to go to the polls than men. Given the right candidate, it can make a difference.

Baltimore City ousted its incumbent state’s attorney and replaced him with a woman. After November, three of the four citywide elected offices in Baltimore will be held by women, all African Americans.

Also after the general election, four of the city’s six state senators will be women.

Women in the Senate

Half of Montgomery County’s eight state senators will be female, too.

As many as six new women could take seats in the Maryland Senate in January – Gail Bates of Howard County, Susan Lee and Cheryl Kagan of Montgomery County, Addie Eckardt from the Eastern Shore, Shirley Nathan-Pulliam from a joint Baltimore city-county district, and James from Harford County.

Susan Lee

Susan Lee

They aren’t neophyte politicians, either.

Combined, they have served 88 years in the General Assembly. They will enter the Senate as highly seasoned lawmakers.

Bates and Lee are concluding their third four-year terms in the House, James is finishing her fourth term. Eckardt and Nathan-Pulliam are 20-year legislative veterans. Kagan previously served two terms in the House.

Addie Eckardt

Addie Eckardt

Yet the “women are dominating Maryland politics” theme shouldn’t be oversold.

Only 11 of 47 state senators today are women. After the November election, the number may rise a tad in the Senate to 13.

Cheryl Kagan

Cheryl Kagan

Many counties have few women in elective offices.

Overall, the fair sex remains under-represented in elective positions, but not as voters.

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Turnout in Maryland’s primary election was, as predicted, abysmal.

It proved an embarrassment to leaders in Annapolis who devised the early June 24 primary schedule.

Voting booths

Only 20.7 of the state’s nearly 3.4 million registered voters cast an early, absentee or election-day ballot: 561,030 registered Marylanders voted; 2,831,570 didn’t.

Turnout proved truly terrible in the Washington suburbs – 18 percent in Prince George’s County, despite the fact the leading Democratic candidate for governor came from P.G.

In neighboring Montgomery County, total turnout was just 16 percent, even though two of the three Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls were local residents.

Best Turnouts

Baltimore County led the list of large jurisdictions with a turnout of just under 25 percent – still a terrible showing in a representative democracy.

The best results came from small, rural counties, such as Kent County (30.6 percent) and Garrett County (26.6 percent). Voting poster The highest vote totals came from Montgomery (84,100) and Baltimore County (82,900), followed by Prince George’s (69,800), Baltimore City (54,600) and Anne Arundel County (50,500).

Democrats far out-voted Republicans in the larger jurisdictions – a hint of what will follow in November.

One-Sided Figures

In Montgomery, 68,179 Democrats voted vs. 12,516 Republicans.

In Prince George’s, 64,982 Democrats cast ballots vs. 4,167 Republicans.

Baltimore County saw 59,980 Democrats vote vs. 22,906 Republicans.

In Baltimore City, the imbalance was far worse: 51,730 Democratic voters vs. 2,894 Republicans. Voting sign Howard County, once a toss-up jurisdiction, saw 19,193 Democrats cast ballots, vs. 8,967 Republicans.

The primary vote totals were close in Harford County – 11,795 Democrats vs. 14,935 Republicans.

In Anne Arundel County, voting numbers were almost even – 24,655 Democrats and 25,806 Republicans.

That could lead to a tight race for county executive in the fall between Republican state Del. Steve Schuh and the county’s former sheriff, Democrat George Johnson.

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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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Caution in Annapolis While Leaning Left

By Barry Rascovar

March 14, 2014–IT WAS A disappointment to liberal opinionators but the 2014 General Assembly proved surprisingly cautious and balanced in moving Maryland decidedly to the political left during its 90-day session that ended April 7.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, barely containing his national ambitions, took a hard-left turn in his legislative agenda. It was aimed at impressing liberal Democratic interest groups across the country.

But House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller wisely slowed the O’Malley Express and made sure Maryland didn’t get too far out in front of the Democrats’ march to the far left.

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Time and again, leaders in the House and Senate put a damper on overly ambitious liberal proposals. Here are a few examples:

–Minimum Wage. Yes, O’Malley is bragging that Maryland is leading the nation by passing a $10.10 minimum wage. But read the fine print.

The first wage boost next January is only seventy-five cents an hour. It won’t be till mid-2018 – over five years from now – when Maryland reaches O’Malley’s Nirvana, that $10.10 threshold.

This cautious approach is dictated by legitimate concerns that a rapid, 39 percent wage boost will hurt many small businesses and retail chains and could lead to layoffs, store closings or cutbacks in work hours.

Weakening the Bill

The final bill also exempts certain employers, adds a lower, trainee category, contains no automatic annual inflation boost and denies higher wages to tipped workers.

O’Malley can brag all he wants, yet the final version is a far cry from his original proposal. The new law does provide higher baseline wages for low-income workers, but it takes a decidedly conservative approach getting there.

Pit Bull Legislation

–Dog Bites. Yes, lawmakers finally found comity on reversing a dreadfully misguided ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals that called one breed of dog, pit bulls (though they are not really a breed) “inherently dangerous.”

Pit-bull owners aren’t off the hook, though. Lawmakers added language making all dog owners legally responsible if their pet bites someone. That thoughtful, moderate step levels the field and strikes a blow for individual responsibility when good dogs do bad things.

Puff-and-Pay

–Decriminalizing marijuana possession. This move is being hailed as the first step toward fully legalizing marijuana. In truth, lawmakers aren’t opening the floodgates.Marijuana smoker

A $100 fine for a first offense is a hefty price to pay for getting caught with pot. A $250 fine for a second offense will put a crimp in most wallets, and a $500 fine for a third offense comes with possible mandatory drug counseling.

That’s quite a penalty for inhaling this carcinogenic weed.

Perhaps the bill will reduce jail overcrowding in large jurisdictions, as some predict, and allow police to focus on serious criminal offenses. Or it could mean a deluge of new pothead offenders. We’re in virgin territory that could well require a re-thinking of this move by the 2015 or 2016 legislature.

Medicinal Pot Smoking

–Medical marijuana. This law could make it easier for seriously ill patients to get relief from their pain, anxiety and/or nausea. Academic medical centers refused to participate in the existing program for fear of endangering their massive federal research grants, so now legislative sponsors are trying a different approach through pre-approved physicians.

Still, drawing up the rules and regulations will be complicated and could take quite some time to complete — at least 18 months. Lawmakers continue their go-slow approach.

Creating a market for marijuana growers could easily spin out of control. Some physicians may abuse the privilege of prescribing this controlled substance. The law may have to be revised yet again in future years to make it effective.

Early Start to Schooling

–Pre-K expansion. Yes, Maryland is enlarging its program to give pre-kindergarten education to underprivileged children. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is crowing about this grand achievement.

But wait a minute: Only 1,600 kids will be helped under this legislation. That’s a drop in a very large ocean.

At that pace, Brown will be eligible for Social Security before all the needy kids in Maryland get into this worthwhile program. His claims of a great step forward ring hollow.

Easing the ‘Death Tax’

–Estate tax reduction. O’Malley could still veto this bill to impress ultra-liberal groups that idolize candidates who bash the rich. Keeping this punitive tax on the wealthy would appease the left wing of his party.

Still, there’s no denying wealthy Marylanders are moving to Florida and other states that don’t punish the heirs of an individual who happens to leave relatives great sums of money.

Both Miller and Busch recognized Maryland was losing many of its best and most committed civic leaders as result of this soak-the-rich policy.

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

They pushed through changes that will make the state’s estate tax identical to federal limits – but only gradually over the next five years.

It’s a nod to the business community from top lawmakers based on practical realities. It’s also a pullback from O’Malley’s perpetual, liberal business-bashing.

All of these measures indicate that the state’s legislature remains stubbornly moderate in tone, fearful of moving too quickly or too aggressively on social issues. Rarely do Maryland’s legislative leaders fully embrace the knee-jerk crusade du jour. They keep worrying about the unintended, negative consequences.

Cooler heads prevailed in Annapolis this session. Though the legislature is increasingly dominated by liberal Democrats, it’s a positive sign that caution remains an integral part of the Maryland General Assembly’s DNA.

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MD’s Quarter-Billion Dollar Healthcare Fiasco

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 16, 2014 — ACCOUNTABILITY is sorely lacking when it comes to Maryland’s botched rollout of Obamacare. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown  is nowhere to be found when tough questions are asked. Gov. Martin O’Malley deflects “who’s at fault” inquiries, focusing instead on getting the deeply flawed software partly operable.

The computer system’s main contractor, Noridian Healthcare Solutions, blames its prime subcontractor, who in turn accuses Noridian — a healthcare services company, not an IT firm — of incompetence and conning the state. Given that Noridian has received $65 million to construct a failed system, the subcontractor may have a point.

No Probe Planned

Perhaps Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein will decide in April or May to pull the plug on this IT horror show and start all over with a proven system from another state or join the federal healthcare sign-up exchange. That will cost a pretty penny.

But no one seems in a hurry to find out who screwed up.

Governor O'Malley explains IT fixes to Maryland's healthcare rollout.

Governor O’Malley explains IT fixes to Maryland’s healthcare computer rollout.

Democratic state lawmakers have put off till the summer a Department of Legislative Services analysis of what went wrong. That fits nicely with their support of Brown’s campaign to succeed O’Malley. It will be a long time after the June 24 primary before that DLS report surfaces.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Those same lawmakers tried to ignore the ongoing scandal during the current General Assembly session, but public pressure led to a series of hearings that deal with fixing the system rather than assessing blame. This helps Brown immensely, since he’s most likely to be fingered as the state official who was asleep at the switch.

First District Rep. Andy Harris wants the Department of Health and Human Services to probe Maryland’s waste of a quarter-billion federal dollars on a nearly inoperable system but that’s a political stunt by a tea party Republican who is becoming a nattering nabob of negativism.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris

Meanwhile, the O’Malley-Brown healthcare exchange continues to limp along with 29,000 Marylanders enrolled in private health plans — just one-sixth of the way to Brown’s previously stated goal of 180,000 and one-fifth of the way toward O’Malley’s 150,000 sign-up goal.

It’s a mess, the worst waste of taxpayer dollars in memory. Yet no one is launching a probe. It’s all being handled with kid gloves and diplomacy so as not to hurt Brown’s election bid or O’Malley’s longshot run for the White House.

Impartial Report

What’s needed is the equivalent of the Preston Report. Back in 1985, Maryland suffered a calamitous collapse of its privately insured savings and loan industry. It cost the state and S&L depositors hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gov. Harry Hughes and lawmakers created the Office of Special Counsel to probe “all aspects of the events” leading up to the S&L crisis. A prestigious Baltimore attorney, Wilbur (Woody) Preston, and a small team of his associates produced a package of legislative reforms and a 450-page report that detailed what went wrong and why. It was a honest and thorough assessment.

Special Counsel Wilbur Preston delivers his S&L report in 1986 (Baltimore Sun)

Special Counsel Wilbur Preston delivers his S&L report in 1986 (Baltimore Sun)

That’s what’s required now — an impartial dissection of this costly embarrassment by someone willing to lay out the facts without worrying about whether the blame falls on the lieutenant governor, the governor, the health secretary or the IT vendors.

How much of the blame belongs to O’Malley, who ultimately is responsible for what goes on in his administration? This was, after all, the most important initiative the state has undertaken in ages.

How much of the blame for this healthcare fiasco sits on Brown’s shoulders?

e’s made a big deal of his leadership on this reform, though he’s recently tried to weasel out by claiming he was only in charge of the legislation (also severely flawed) setting up the exchange.

Brown clearly was a figurehead leader — a general who showed up for the public meetings but left everything to his underlings. Even when he said he learned of the computer snafus, he apparently failed to sound the alarm.

Bleak Outlook  

Since Democratic lawmakers aren’t willing to ask the tough questions before the gubernatorial primary, and the governor has shown no eagerness to create a special panel to probe this scandal, we may never learn enough to reach a conclusion.

Even the DLS report is likely to be scrubbed of any finger-pointing at state leaders. That’s especially true if Brown wins the June 24 Democratic primary. Top Democrats in the legislature will circle the protective wagons around the presumptive governor.

What a mess.

We will glean quite a bit about the exchange’s IT failures from the competing lawsuits filed by Noridian and its prime subcontractor, EngagePoint. But that won’t lift the fog surrounding actions of healthcare exchange leaders, the governor and the lieutenant governor.

Sadly, this is one mystery that may never be solved.

 

 

 

 

 

O’Malley’s Boring Valedictory

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 27, 2014 — YES, THERE ARE TIMES when a picture is worth a thousand words — and more. Such was the case in Annapolis on Thursday when Gov. Martin O’Malley turned in an all-too predictable, stilted and boring valedictory in his concluding State of the State Address.

Judge for yourself in the photo below.

The facial expressions of Senate President Mike Miller, House Speaker Mike Busch, Attorney General Doug Gansler, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown speak volumes.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's final State of the State Address

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s final State of the State Address fails to excite his State House audience.

“Who’s that over there?”

“When is this going to end?”

“What’s next on my schedule?”

“What do I want for lunch?”

“Why can’t I stay awake?”

There’s a reason for the tepid legislative response. They’d heard nearly every bit of O’Malley’s speech before. There was nothing new in his text, no surprises, no informal, heartfelt ad libs.

The one exception: A cryptic line from an Irish writer O’Malley dangled for listeners but never explained.

“The only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart.”

Go figure.

Put O’Malley before a large audience in a formal setting and he delivers a stilted, overly theatrical speech. Yet this same politician, placed in front of a campaign crowd, turns dynamic.

O’Malley’s Place in Maryland History

He missed a golden opportunity last week to sum up his time as governor the way historians are likely to judge it.

O’Malley served during the worst economic times in 70 years. He kept Maryland’s ship of state afloat and in good shape during the Great Recession.

He did it by slowing, rather than reversing, the rate of government growth.

He shrank employee ranks, but did it through attrition rather than layoffs.

He used budgeting gimmicks and fund-shifting to keep things together in lean years.

He raised taxes often — maybe too often — to avert massive state and local cutbacks.

Now Maryland is gradually emerging as a state with a solid foundation, an educated work force and an optimistic future.

What Lies Ahead

Are there big problems O’Malley will leave behind a year from now?

Yes, indeed.

  • A hostility in Annapolis toward the private sector (“tax the rich”) that could cost Maryland jobs and businesses.
  • A deeply flawed health care insurance program that may unravel.
  • A progressive agenda that relies too heavily on taxation and government mandates to solve basic social woes.
  • An ineffective and weak economic development program given a low priority.
  • A belated effort to improve transportation options that was placed on a back burner.
  • A tax system lacking in equilibrium and fairness.
  • Structural budget gaps that will handicap future governors.
  • A bitter split between conservative rural and newer suburban areas and the liberal population core in Central Maryland.

O’Malley, meanwhile, has turned his focus to a far larger political objective on the national scene. He does have an interesting tale to tell, even if he stretches the truth about the Maryland story.

What he didn’t do in his valedictory was to lay out a “way forward” for his successor.

Yes, he brought us through the Great Recession in surprisingly sound shape.

But governing in a time of gathering prosperity, while facing a bitter political divide, requires a different mindset.

O’Malley left us in the dark on that one.

O'Malley at State of the State

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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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MD’s Fundraising Loophole

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 27, 2013 — LT. GOV. ANTHONY BROWN has a key advantage over his main foe for governor, Attorney General Doug Gansler.

Brown can continue raising millions of dollars during the General Assembly session through his conjoined ticketmate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

But Gansler cannot solicit funds during that 90-day period because his political partner on the ballot is Del. Jolene Ivey of Prince George’s County. Both are elected state officials and thus are barred from doing any fund-raising until mid-April.

Loophole in State Law

It’s a quirk of Maryland’s campaign finance law that is inherently dangerous to the public good.

It contradicts the spirit and intent of the campaign law that seeks to curb fund-raising that could involve quid pro quos on bills.

The state elections board ruling notes that since Ulman isn’t an elected state official he can continue soliciting campaign funds during the legislative session, even though his ticketmate, Brown, fundraising for that 90-day period.

Brown-Ulman campaign

Brown-Ulman campaign

It’s a preposterous situation, one that Linda Lamone, the state elections board chief, should have recognized. To condone such a devious and mischievous loophole gives Brown, through Ulman, a powerful tool for leveraging special interests during the General Assembly session.

What makes this so ridiculous is that every dollar raised by Ulman directly benefits Brown. It’s a charade to pretend otherwise.

The two men are part of a united pairing on the ballot. You can’t vote for one without the other. They share a single ballot line. They are joined at the head, hip and heart.

To pretend the two are separate candidates is laughable. Brown couldn’t even file for governor without Ulman being there to sign on the same dotted line. They might as well call their joint candidacy “Brulman.”

Gansler’s allies filed suit to overturn Lamone’s implausible ruling. On moral and ethical grounds, attorney Dan Clements should win that lawsuit. Legally, though, Brown and Ulman may find a way to retain their fundraising advantage.

Clear and Present Danger

To allow one member of a gubernatorial team to avoid the fundraising ban could lead to scary situations.

When the Brown-Ulman team’s aggressive fundraisers call on special interests that have important bills pending in the legislature, those groups will eagerly write big checks.

Otherwsie, they risk angering Brown and the O’Malley administration. Suddenly, bills they are pushing could die, and bills they oppose could miraculously pick up the votes needed for passage.

There’s no way to segregate Ulman’s fundraising from Brown’s campaign. Whatever is collected during the legislative session will be spent by Brown’s minions, not Ulman’s. They are a collective “we,” not two individual “I”s.

A similar situation exists in the Republican primary: Harford County Executive David Craig can continue raising funds during the 90-day session but his running mate, Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio of Talbot County, cannot.

Craig-Riccio-Haddaway team

Craig-Riccio-Haddaway team

That gives Craig’s fund-raising team added leverage in approaching special interests eager to win favor with another delegate during legislative deliberations.

Unfair?

You bet.

Unethical?

Yup.

Illegal?

If it isn’t, it should be.

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