Tag Archives: General Assembly

MD State Deficit—Half a Billion and Counting

By Barry Rascovar

October 27, 2013 — WHEN LEGISLATORS FINISHED the 2013 General Assembly session in April, they patted themselves on the back for putting the state on a glide path to wipe out Maryland’s long-running structural deficit in the next budget.

Think again.

That deep, dark fiscal hole has returned big-time.

This month’s fiscal prediction by the Department of Legislative Services projects a structural imbalance by next June 30 of over half a billion dollars with nearly as much red ink the following year.

It’s a stunning turnaround.

More Bad News To Come

Even worse, that projection came before carnage from the Republican-instigated federal government shutdown was fully factored into the equation.

It’s now almost certain December’s revenue update will show a dip in holiday spending (and tax collections) as Marylanders cut back on purchases due to worries over a second federal closure and a weak economic recovery.cropped-Maryland-seal.jpg

Economic uncertainty and the prospects of another train wreck in Washington will keep businesses from hiring or expanding. Federal contractors are especially vulnerable and will continue to lay off workers and hunker down.

Maryland is so heavily dependent on federal employment that another prolonged political stand-off could send the state budget into free-fall.

While much of Maryland’s dilemma is due to lingering effects from the Great Recession and a dysfunctional Congress, the main culprits are Gov. Martin O’Malley and Democratic leaders in the legislature.

Spending vs. Revenue Imbalance

Time and again they have resisted unpopular but necessary steps to rein in social spending. O’Malley, in particular, was determined this year to ramp up aid to colleges ($157 million), K-12 schooling ($187 million), health care ($138 million and Medicaid ($243 million) in spite of continuing weaknesses in Maryland’s economy.

Why hasn’t Maryland’s structural deficit disappeared? To quote the state’s fiscal gurus from last April, it’s simple: “ongoing spending exceeds ongoing revenue by $172 million.”

MD State Budget

MD State Budget

That $172 million gap between what Annapolis pays out and takes in is expected to balloon to a $307 million hole next year – and that’s not accounting for more bad news before the budget is released on the third Wednesday in January.

One of the key drivers is eminently fixable – but not by this governor and not in an election year.

Debt service on Maryland’s general obligation bonds is soaring.

This requires some explanation.

How It Works

Up until 2013, the state’s modest property tax (11.2 cents per $100 of a property’s assessed value) raised enough money to cover debt service payments to bondholders.

But because the state keeps issuing more bonds each year, the amount needed to cover interest and principal is rising 6 percent annually – despite ultra-low interest rates.

Unfortunately, property tax revenue is flat. It no longer covers rising debt expense, and will fall $300 million short of the goal next year.

Why? Because the Great Recession sent housing prices plummeting. Today, Maryland’s taxable property base is $43 billion lower than at its peak.

No rebound will occur anytime soon, either, because of Maryland’s phased-in and capped system of re-assessing property values.

Thus, O’Malley has to find $259 million in his January general fund budget just to cover debt service. That puts a huge crimp in his plans to make his final social spending plan especially generous.

A Partial Solution

There’s an easy way to remedy the situation: Raise the state property tax rate a penny or two. That would restore the rate to its 2006 level.

Such a move would cut in half Maryland’s general fund shortfall next year and restore the original intent of the state property tax – to pay all bond expenses.

Unless O’Malley acts, the situation will grow considerably worse. By 2017, the next governor will be diverting $531 million in state general funds to pay the state’s bond debt.

No Action Likely

O’Malley isn’t worried, though, about the next governor’s fiscal dilemma. He’s trying to burnish his reputation as he runs for national office. The last thing he wants in his final year is another rise in taxes.

So the property tax collection shortfall will continue – even though a small hike would barely be felt by homeowners ($30 or $60 on a $300,000 home).

It’s another example of elected officials failing to confront festering problems. They opt for the easy and politically comfortable way out instead.

No wonder American democracy is in such a mess.

No one in authority wants to make the tough decisions and fix what’s broken.

###

Why no leave a comment or subscribe for immediate receipt of all columns? See right-hand column.

MD Pension Fund Mystery Unearthed ! !

August 14, 2013

ONWARD WITH historical clarifications — and a new puzzle connected to Maryland’s pension fund mess and how the state stepped in such deep doo-doo.

First, in response to former state Sen. Bobby Neall’s corrective comments on the true birth-fathers of the now-discredited “corridor funding method,” for state pensions, Maryland State Treasurer Nancy Kopp has chimed in.

She emailed her staff and the pension board that Neall’s version as recounted in www.politicalmaryland.com  is “a very fair and accurate description of the origins” of this unorthodox approach that is now being phased out over 10 years.

SRPS_LogoKopp diplomatically describes it as “the legislature’s prudent attempt to constrain [Gov. Parris Glendening’s intentional] underfunding” of the retirement system. (In truth, it was a raid on the pension fund.) She also notes “the Board of Trustees opposed it from the beginning.”

Kopp explains that “regardless of the legislators’ intention, the corridor-based funding level was always subsequently treated in the budget as the required amount, rather than as a floor.” That short-sighted move helped Glendening pay for new social programs and enhance his reputation, but it created massive pension funding gaps that will take a decade to eliminate.

Neall’s “strong voice and incisive leadership” on pension matters might have prevented this terrible misjudgment, Kopp writes, but by then he had left the state Senate. He was “sorely missed” — an understatement if ever there was one.

And Now. . . . The Mystery

Skip forward a few years and the second pension blunder takes place.

Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich is facing a Hobson’s choice — sign an expensive pension enhancement bill sponsored by the state teachers union (passed unanimously by both houses) — or risk antagonizing that influential union when he runs for reelection in the fall.

Cecilia Januszkiewicz, the governor’s capable budget secretary in 2006, sent me this email in an attempt to elucidate:

“Saw your pension article. Just for the record, the 2006 pension enhancement was introduced by Mary Dulany James in her capacity as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Pensions. It was not an Ehrlich Administration initiative. It passed both [h]ouses unanimously. It became law without the Governor’s signature. You can look it up.”

Sure enough, the ever-alert Department of Legislative Services reports that the governor did not sign the pension bill Januszkiewicz refers to. Yet all news organizations (The Sun, the Post, the Daily Record, the Gazette, Associated Press) report that Ehrlich signed the pension enrichment bill that day.

Even more baffling, Ehrlich, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and the governor’s press office went to great lengths to praise his signing of the enrichment bill.

What’s going on?

. . . . The Rest of the Story

Here’s the way it happened: The pension enhancement bill, not sponsored by the administration, passed unanimously in both chambers, as Januszkiewicz wrote.

But so did a second pension bill — this one made minor changes to pension practices, simplified language and corrected grammatical errors. The bill had “no fiscal effect.”

It is the second, revenue-neutral pension bill, HB1430, that Ehrlich refused to sign or veto. Why remains shrouded in the mist of time.

The Republican governor did, though, sign HB1737, the expensive pension enhancement bill (total price tag to the state and counties: $2.1 billion). He vetoed the Senate version because it was duplicative.

End of this mini-mystery. It was a mix-up anyone could make. Case closed. Unless, of course, readers of this blog unearth some new pension twist buried deep in the recesses of Maryland’s state archives.

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

puzzle in this pension

View From the Pension Fund Ground Floor — Bobby Neall

August 7, 2013

THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM for clarification in this blog, especially when the clarifier was there at the Creation.

Below is an email I received from Bobby Neall, the former Anne Arundel County Executive, state Senator and state Delegate who knows more about fiscal and pension finances than just about anyone in Maryland. Here is his valiant effort (with stylistic editing on my part) to get the facts straight in my July 31 post on the history of Maryland’s pension problems:

“Am enjoying your columns immensely. Your most recent one on the pension system conflicts somewhat with my recollection, however.

“Warren Deschenaux [Director of the MD Department of Legislative Services] and I [then a state Senator] devised the so-called corridor methodology [for funding the state’s annual pension appropriation] as a means to prevent then Governor Glendening from diverting required pension contributions to discretionary spending.

” At the time [Glendening] was using the annual funded status of the systems — a mere snapshot — as the determining factor as to how much the [state’s] annual contribution should be.

“The rationale for the corridor [funding method] was as long as the funded status was between 90-110 percent, an amount equivalent to the [state’s] previous year’s contribution was sufficient.

“Given the legislature’s anemic budgetary powers, this was all we could do to prevent the governor from skipping payments altogether.

” So, while our solution was not without flaws, it prevented the hijacking of money properly intended for the pension system.

” It was meant to be a FLOOR.

“Somehow during the Ehrlich term, it became a CEILING, no doubt because of the tightness of money [in the governor’s budget].

“The situation, as I recall it, was made worse by [the decision of the governor and legislature to improve] pension benefits without [the state] making ample provisions for higher commitments to the system.

“So in summary, the choice we faced was either mandate a specific contribution or risk a Prince George’s County-style pension finance scheme [i.e., contribution holidays].

“Clearly, in the second Glendening term our action was warranted and necessary.”

 Bob Neall  

[A further aside: Today, Neall is President of Priority Partners, the state’s largest Medicaid managed-care organization with over 225,000 members. My thanks to him for placing this matter in its proper context. An earlier editing change in the column for accuracy’s sake is due to the diligence of Major Morris Krome, a longtime trustee of the MD state retirement system.] 

MD State Pension Fund Revives

BY BARRY RASCOVAR / July 31, 2013

A funny thing happened to the Maryland state pension fund on the way to fiscal perdition: It recovered lost ground, reformed itself and came up with a 10-year plan to put its retirement programs on solid, long-term footing.

The pension fund topped $40 billion in assets this summer, regaining all its losses (plus $800 million) since the Great Recession swoon that saw a 20 percent drop in just one year. Since the recession’s trough in 2009, the state fund has added a whopping $11.75 billion in earnings, an average of 10 percent a year.

SRPS_LogoThat won’t please the naysayers and conservatives who have been predicting doom and gloom for the retirement program. Thanks to changes that require more local government and employee contributions, lower annual cost-of-living adjustments and longer years of service to qualify for benefits, the future is beginning to look brighter for Maryland’s fund.

A slowly recovering national economy — and stock market — certainly helped.

In bad times like the Great Recession it is easy to forget that the economic cycle, similar to a roller coaster, eventually ends its gut-wrenching plunge and starts climbing upward once again. Signs now point to a lengthy period of slow growth, which could give the Maryland pension fund a string of good-news stories in the years ahead.

Blame It On Glendening And Ehrlich

Not that everything is rosy. Some wretchedly poor decisions in the early part of this century guaranteed deep pension trouble. The worst move came from former Gov. Parris Glendening, who sacrificed the retirement fund’s future so he could spend more during his final years in office.

When Glendening intentionally underfunded the retirement system, the General Assembly — over the vigorous objections of the pension board and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer — adopted a fatally flawed methodology to shrink required state contributions and thus sanction Glendening’s action. Politics triumphed over sound actuarial policy.

This dubious plan, the “corridor funding method,” worked fine when Wall Street was hitting new highs and the pension fund earned double-digit profits. But the scheme collapsed like a house of cards when the stock market’s “technology bubble” burst and then the Great Recession hit. Each year, it seemed, the pension fund was digging a bigger financial hole.

This was compounded by a terrible political decision from former Gov. Bob Ehrlich to curry favor with state teachers by giving them extra pension benefits. He figured that with a few good years of stock market investments the pension board could afford these political goodies that might help him get reelected.

Neither happened. Teachers didn’t support the governor in 2006 and the more generous pensions dragged the retirement programs deeper into a giant pit of unfunded pension obligations.

At Last, Pension Reforms

That precipitated much-needed legislative reforms, which add more local and employee contributions to the system while slowing the growth in the fund’s annual payouts. Then finally this past legislative session, the General Assembly agreed to phase-out the ill-conceived (and illegitimate) corridor funding method

Combined with surging stock prices, what had been a bleak outlook today is a whole lot brighter.

Of course, debates over the viability of pension funds can distort reality if the funds are held to impossible standards. Those bemoaning the condition of Maryland’s state pension program make it sound as if it’s about to go broke. They want the retirement programs 100 percent fully funded.

While that’s not impossible — Maryland’s pensions were at 106 percent of full funding before Glendening messed things up — insistence on such a high standard can mislead the public.

Even in its lean years, the state’s retirement programs remained in good shape. It’s annual earnings and contributions from 244,000 teachers and state workers (and now local governments) are usually enough to come close to offsetting annual payouts to 132,000 retirees. it all depends on the fund manager’s investment success.

For the pension fund to go broke, it would take decades of poor investment results. History tells us that’s quite unlikely.

In the past quarter-century, even with recessions and bursting financial bubbles, the Maryland state pension fund’s annual  investment return averages around eight percent — in line with historic Wall Street rates.

And while the state spends too much on Wall Street professionals to guide its investments (a whopping $225 million last year), these advisers do earn their pay. The actively managed portion of the state’s portfolio added $800 million more than it would have in passively managed index funds favored by conservatives — even after deducting for the hefty consultant fees.

Taking Out A Mortgage

Ten years from today, Maryland’s pension plans should be nearing 100 percent funding. When that happens, trustees are committed to amortizing the state’s future retirement obligations — taking out a long-term loan similar to a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. That would take much of the uncertainty and volatility out of the equation.

Trustees also have agreed to lessen the pension fund’s reliance on the unpredictable stock market. Investments are gradually being shifted to private equity placements, which aren’t affected by the emotions and manipulations of Wall Street, and to other alternative investments that are safer and more diversified income producers.

Of course, the next governor could wreck this carefully constructed approach by promising big retirement raises to state workers and teachers in the gubernatorial campaign. Unexpected market upheavals could mean large equity losses for the fund’s managers, too.

Then again, maybe state leaders have learned some painful lessons. Pension giveaways have long-term, negative consequences. Investing too much of the pension fund’s capital in the stock market is a high-risk step that’s not worth taking.

The state retirement board, led by Treasurer Nancy Kopp, seems rejuvenated and headed in the right direction. It rode out the roughest storm in the retirement system’s history and came away the better for it.

(NOTE: This is a revised version that corrects the historical record on how the corridor funding method was adopted a decade ago.)

Why not subscribe to receive immediate delivery of all future columns? It’s free. Just click on the “Subscribe” button on the right-hand column of the www.politicalmaryland.com page. 

 

Baltimore County’s Changing Of The Guard

BY BARRY RASCOVAR / July 25, 2012

(A version of this article ran in the Carroll County Times online on July 24)  

You’d think every 50 years or so it would be nice to change faces in Annapolis.

Well, it will be 52 years before Dundalk’s favorite political son, Sen. Norman Stone, finishes his 13th term representing Baltimore County and departs the State House for the last time.

The changing of the guard in Baltimore County is led by Sen. Norman Stone, retiring after 52 years.

Stone will be missed. He was a dependable vote for Senate President Mike Miller and Democratic governors, a rock of support for organized labor and one of the few remaining conservatives in the Democratic caucus who acted as a counter-weight to the group’s liberal majority.

Baltimore County is losing many of its other right-of-center legislators next year, too.

On the west side of the county, Delegates Jimmy Malone and Steve De Boy of Catonsville-Arbutus have announced their intentions to retire as has Emmett Burns of Woodlawn-Randallstown.

Both Malone and De Boy have grown in stature over the years. They are constructive, hard-working lawmakers who have not forgotten their blue-collar roots. They are liberal on some social issues but conservative on fiscal and other matters.

Malone, a retired firefighter, is vice-chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee and a voice for moderation in leadership ranks. De Boy, a retired police officer, sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee where he has voted for sensible budget reductions that do minimal harm to people in need.

MORE WESTSIDE DEPARTURES

Burns, too, has cast some conservative votes, especially on gay rights and immigration issues that the ordained minister fiercely and loudly opposed.

Also in that part of the county, Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam of Woodlawn-Randallstown has decided to give up her seat to challenge incumbent Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell of Baltimore City in a re-drawn district that is two-thirds in the county and just one-third in the city. This should give Nathan-Pulliam, who has represented the county portions of the new district for 20 years, a strong advantage.

Moving to the northwest section of Baltimore County, Del. John Cardin of Owings Mills-Reisterstown is running for Maryland attorney general, creating an open seat in the June 2014 primary. Jon Cardin’s hopes may rest on voters’ fondness for his uncle, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a fixture in Maryland elections since 1966.

Another State House departure will be north-county Del. A. Wade Kach, a quiet, studious conservative Republican first elected in 1974. Redistricting forced his hand. He’s leaving Annapolis to run against County Councilman Todd Huff, whose term in the Council has been marred by a drunk driving conviction and his attempts to use his position to avoid the consequences.

EASTSIDE CHANGES

Over on the eastern end of Baltimore County, Del. John Olszewski Jr., whose father-namesake sits on the County Council, is leaving the House of Delegates to run for Stone’s Senate seat. He has Stone’s endorsement and is the odds-on favorite.

Baltimore County's changing of the guard in Annapolis includes the departure of Sen. Norman Stone and his likely replacement by Del. John Olszewski Jr.

Olszewksi, 31, would be quite different in the Senate from the 78-year-old Stone. Yet both are reflections of their historic steel-town community.

Stone is a throwback to a bygone era. He got his start in 1962 when he was asked to run for the House by Michael “Iron Mike” Birmingham, the eastside boss who became Baltimore County Executive after voters approved home rule.

Stone served a single term in the House and an extraordinary 12 terms in the Senate. Ever-friendly, gracious and polite, Norman Stone is an ardent backer of labor unions. His votes reflect the cautious nature of his district’s older residents.

Olszewski also votes in line with his district’s residents most of time. But he comes from a “green” generation that is dedicated to environmental causes. In the last General Assembly session, the League of Conservation Voters gave Olszewski a 71 percent rating versus Stone’s 40 percent.

The departure of so much seniority in Annapolis will make it more difficult for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to leverage the next administration for local aid and assistance on important county projects.

While new legislative faces in the county’s state delegation may bring added enthusiasm and eagerness, this won’t make up for the loss of decades of experience in navigating the tricky twists and turns of political Annapolis.

Note: You can receive immediate delivery of each new column by clicking on the “Subscribe” button in the right-hand column of www.politicalmaryland.com.

You can also leave a comment (pro or con) about these columns.

 

Legislating From the Bench in MD — Not This Time

Court of Appeals Sustains Contributory Negligence Doctrine 

BY BARRY RASCOVAR / JULY 16, 2013

IT WAS SUPPOSED to be a grand finale for Maryland’s top jurist, Robert Bell — a sweeping re-ordering of this state’s ancient negligence standards by wiping out the common law doctrine known as contributory negligence.

Retired Chief Judge Bob Bell

Retired Chief Judge Robert M. Bell

But a funny thing happened on the way to Bell’s retirement as Chief Judge of Maryland’s Court of Appeals: He couldn’t get his colleagues to go along with him. Instead, as often was the case during Bell’s tenure on the state’s highest court, he found himself in a distinct minority.

By a 5-2 vote, the court upheld Maryland’s contributory negligence doctrine employing the same logic as did Bell’s predecessor, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, 30 years ago.

In Maryland, and a handful of other states, if you contribute to your own injury, don’t bother suing others for negligence. It’s a common law standard that dates to 1848 in Maryland, 1809 in England and possibly all the way back to 1606.

Under this doctrine, personal responsibility is deemed paramount. It’s a quaint libertarian view in a 21st century world that increasingly tries to insulate individuals from any and all harm while blaming others — especially those with deep pockets — for our own stupidity or irresponsibility.

Bell dearly wanted to discard contributory negligence. He even formed a special judicial panel to study the matter and report back to him. Those findings didn’t go Bell’s way. The group’s conclusion: This is a complicated matter best left to the General Assembly.

But the chief judge wasn’t deterred. When a test case came along, he made sure the high court grabbed it.

IF ONLY . . .

In an ideal world, a comparative negligence standard would make total sense. Juries would impartially analyze legal arguments and decide how much the plaintiff was at fault for an injury and how much the defendant was at fault.

But juries often render emotional decisions based on the tragic plight of the defendant, heartbreaking tales of loved ones and fire-and-brimstone arguments from plaintiff lawyers urging jurors to hold Big Bad Business to account.

Opening up Maryland to comparative-fault standards would create a huge financial bonanza for litigators and a veritable tsunami of lawsuits swamping Maryland courts.

It also would present an enormous danger to the financial viability of many Maryland businesses, including the state’s medical industry. The number and size of malpractice lawsuits could go through the roof. If you think finding an obstetrician in Baltimore City — a jurisdiction notorious for outsized jury verdicts against doctors — is difficult today, imagine what it would be like if litigators started suing every doctor in sight for the most minor of medical problems patients encounter. If doctors think their malpractice insurance is high now, just wait.

Contributory negligence was embraced in this country in the early 1800s in part to guard against such predatory practices by litigators. Legislators feared that juries, egged on by plaintiff lawyers demanding huge damage awards, would award sums that could kill the nation’s newly developing industries.

That same fear, in a slightly different form, still haunts state lawmakers in Annapolis — and a majority of the state’s highest court.

SEPARATION OF POWERS

The larger issue facing the high court was whether to legislate from the bench.

The panel agreed it had the power to revise a common law rule like contributory negligence. That the jurists refused to do so is a tribute to the majority’s determination not to extend its authority beyond the traditional dividing line separating judicial and legislative branches.

Five of the seven judges concluded: This is a complex, deeply intertwined legal doctrine that can only be altered after considering a kaleidoscope of ramifications affecting the entire gamut of tort liability and insurance law. That’s the role of the legislature, not the courts.

Judge John C. Eldridge, who wrote the majority opinion, even used Bob Bell’s own words against him. He quoted from a 2008 ruling in which the Chief Judge had written, “It is well settled” that when the General Assembly makes clear its wishes on public issues, “the Court will decline to enter the public policy debate” — even if the issues involve a common law doctrine.

It is doubtful these jurists would have wasted so much time and energy debating this matter had not Bell insisted.

In the end, a substantial majority merely re-stated Bob Murphy’s 30-year-old logic for maintaining the legislature’s right to determine the fate of contributory negligence. Any other conclusion, Eldridge noted, “would be totally inconsistent with the Court’s long-standing jurisprudence.”

In Dissent

 ‘A dinosaur roams yet the landscape of Maryland’

Three cheers for Court of Appeals Judge Glenn Harrell for adding some levity to the dry and often ponderous writings of the state’s highest court.

Harrell passionately believes the state’s doctrine of contributory negligence needs to be deep-sixed. It is unfair and out of date, he says. He prefers a pure comparative negligence standard.

The problem is that he was virtually alone in making this argument. Only retiring Chief Judge Bob Bell sided with him.

Appeals Court Judge Glenn Harrell

Appeal Court Judge Glenn Harrell

Harrell, though, didn’t go quietly. He stated his arguments at great length — nearly three times longer than Eldridge’s majority opinion and nine times the length of a supplemental majority opinion by Judge Clayton Greene (with three co-signers).

What’s eye-catching about Harrell’s rant — he’s not a happy camper — is the judge’s opening salvo, which is dripping with mockery, humor and irony.

Here it is:

     “Paleontologists and geologists inform us that Earth’s Cretaceous period (including in what is present day Maryland) ended approximately 65 million years ago with an asteroid striking Earth (the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event), wiping-out, in a relatively short period of geologic time, most plant and animal species, including dinosaurs. As to the last premise, they are wrong. A dinosaur roams yet the landscape of Maryland (and Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina and the District of Columbia), feeding on the claims of persons injured by the negligence of another, but who contributed proximately in some way to the occasion of his or her injuries, however slight their culpability. The name of that dinosaur is the doctrine of contributory negligence. With the force of a modern asteroid strike, this Court should render, in the present case, this dinosaur extinct. It chooses not to do so. Accordingly, I dissent.

     “My dissent does not take the form of a tit-for-tat trading of thrusts and parries with the Majority opinion. Rather, I write for a future majority of this Court, which, I have no doubt, will relegate the fossilized doctrine of contributory negligence to a judicial tar pit at some point.”

 Yes, Harrell was outvoted on the state’s highest court. But at least for two paragraphs he was entertaining.

###

To receive immediate delivery of future columns, be sure to click the “Subscribe” button on the right-hand side of the www.politicalmaryland.com webpage.

 

 

Remarkable (?) Week in Maryland Politics

By Barry Rascovar / June 8, 2013

We are 13 months away from Maryland’s primary and already we’ve been hit by a tsunami of election news. What’s remarkable about the Week That Was is how unremarkable these developments turned out to be:

• Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown announced his running mate — Howard County Executive Ken Ulman — a fact we have known for weeks.

• That same day, Harford County Executive David Craig announced for governor on the Republican ticket. He’s only been campaigning for the past year.

• Not to be upstaged by Craig, Annapolis Del. Ron George announced for guv, too. He made his intentions clear weeks ago.

• Attorney General Doug Gansler lobbied for media time by putting out a statement that he isn’t running for a third term. Surprise, surprise: He’s been campaigning for the top state job since the day he was sworn in.

• These events were as predictable as Howard County Sen. Allan Kittleman letting it be known he’s announcing for County Executive on Tuesday. That’s been no secret for months. So was Harford County Sen. Barry Glassman’s County Executive announcement Saturday evening.

• Adding to the fun, Michael Steele — one-time lieutenant governor, controversial national Republican Party chair and TV commentator — told MSNBC he’s thinking about a run for governor in 2014. His name has been mentioned in that capacity since last fall.

What do these happenings have in common?

All these politicos crave publicity. None is a household word. It’s going to be a long, long campaign.

Brown once again proved inept at staging events. When he announced for governor he did so late on a Friday afternoon — terrible timing for TV and print reporters. Next, he buried the most important news angle of the day, the decision by Congressman Elijah Cummings to endorse Brown.  Then he staged his Ulman running mate announcement the same day as Craig’s media blast.

Craig won that match-up despite being a Republican in a solidly Democratic state. He got great front-page coverage in The Baltimore Sun; Brown-Ulman found themselves buried inside.

Gansler shouted loud enough to remind voters he’s still around. He doesn’t plan a formal announcement until the fall so his pitch to the media — “I’m not running again for A.G.” (ho, hum) — got his name in the papers and took some of the edge off the Brown-Ulman event.

Similarly, George couldn’t let Craig soak up the media attention since he sees the Harford County Executive as his main GOP opponent. So he sounded off this week, too.

Steele watched all this happening and decided to send his own media message. Best not to be forgotten.

No one said anything new. Everything was predictable and, frankly, uninspiring. Brown called Ulman a great county executive. Ulman promised he’d do great things in Annapolis, just like Gov. Martin O’Malley. Craig said he’d cut spending and stop Maryland’s Democratic wave of tax increases. George said he’d get rid of taxes, period. Steele said he’s ideally suited for the job.

Anyone still awake?

The only surprise this past week was Montgomery County Sen. Rob Garagiola telling us he’s stepping down as Majority Leader and won’t seek re-election. Ever since he lost in an upset to John Delaney for Congress last year, rumors swirled about Garagiola’s future. Now he is recently divorced, starting a new law practice and with no prospect of upward political mobility. You didn’t need a crystal ball to see his announcement coming.

Here’s another “surprising” development this week: Robin Ficker, Montgomery County’s professional gadfly, former delegate and political pest, is running for Garagiola’s seat. To make matters worse, his son, Flynn Ficker (say that name fast 15 times) is running for delegate in the same district.

One Ficker is too much for most sane voters. Now we might wind up with two?

Mercifully, the week ended without any more scintillating announcements.

 

Political Dimensions of Jim Smith’s New Job

Jim Smith

By Barry Rascovar / June 2, 2013

BY CHOOSING former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith as Maryland’s new transportation secretary, Gov. Martin O’Malley solved multiple problems, especially for his governor-in-waiting, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

O’Malley left the top MDOT post vacant for nearly a year. Smith, apparently, had been the governor’s choice but never accepted until after the governor did the heavy lifting in pushing a multi-year gas tax increase through the General Assembly, After all, what fun would it be to serve as MDOT secretary without $$$ to upgrade Maryland’s transportation network?

Smith has modest experience dealing with state legislative issues outside of Baltimore County delegation matters. He has minimal background in the inner workings of the statewide transportation program and its political underpinnings. He would have been of little use to O’Malley in lining up votes for a hefty gas tax increase.

Now it’s a different story. The gas tax rises by four cents a gallon on July 1 and there’s much more to come in future years. There will be a steady flow of construction announcements and ribbon cuttings. It’s a great time to be Maryland’s transportation boss.

Smith brings administrative skills to the job. He’s also a fiscal conservative, which means projects that bring the biggest bang for the buck will take priority. And he’s a first-rate political operator who knows how to massage egos and quietly seek common ground.

It’s an ideal landing spot for Smith, who sorely missed public service. It’s one of the most important posts in Maryland.

In selecting Smith, O’Malley did a big favor for his lieutenant governor. Smith might have ended up running on Attorney General Doug Gansler’s ticket next year, which would have aided Gansler in the Baltimore suburbs on election day.

But now Smith is locked into the O’Malley-Brown administration. If he wants to keep his job after 2014, Smith knows he’s got to working tirelessly to elect Brown. That could prove pivotal in Baltimore County, which often decides state elections. Smith also has a good chunk of campaign cash lying around, which might help Brown gain name recognition.

O’Malley owed Smith big-time, Without Smith’s hard work and vocal support for the Baltimore mayor, O’Malley might have lost in 2006 to incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich. In that election, Smith managed to hold Ehrlich to a draw in his home county, which locked up the race for O’Malley.

The governor has re-paid Smith with perhaps the biggest plum in state government. For at least the next 18 months, Jim Smith will be a big wheel in Annapolis.

 

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

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

By Barry Rascovar

April 11, 2013 / The Baltimore Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas tax unpopular yet necessary

By Barry Rascovar / The Community Times / April 3, 2013

No one likes it, which is why Marylanders haven’t seen a gas-tax increase in over 20 years. That’s about to change.

With final passage last Friday of a transportation revenue bill, state legislators set in motion a four-cent jump in gasoline prices come July. This will be followed by increases in later years so that by 2016 we’ll be paying 13 cents to 20 cents more per gallon.”

We’ve gotten used to sudden leaps in fuel prices. Those increases, though, fattened profits for Big Oil companies and OPEC nations. At least this time the money will stay in Maryland.

The revenue raised – $4.4 billion over six years – will revive the state’s depleted transportation construction program. That means more dollars for interstate improvements, bridge repairs and the Red Line mass-transit extension from Woodlawn to Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

This $2 billion rapid rail line will be the linchpin of Baltimore’s disorganized rapid rail system. The Red Line will give county residents on the west side – Randallstown homeowners take note – a quick, hassle-free way to travel into the city for business and pleasure.

Dundalk and Essex residents, meanwhile, will have a short drive to the Bayview rail terminus for downtown or westside commutes.

The big bonus is that this east-west transit line will tie together both the Light Rail Line and the existing Owings Mills-to-Johns Hopkins Medical Center Metro.

This means Owings Mills and Pikesville residents can commute by rail to their jobs at Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn or to the nearby Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It means city residents can hop on the Red Line, transfer to the Light Rail Line and wind up at work in Hunt Valley.

It means much easier travel options to Orioles and Ravens games, entertainment venues and downtown dining spots.

Without the gas-tax increase, none of this is possible. Maryland politicians consistently ran away from a gas-tax vote. This is the first time in two decades there has been enough support to pay for transportation improvements.

What made the difference?

Time was running out to prove to federal officials that Maryland would put up its share of the money to build the Red Line and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs. Without a commitment this year, both projects would have been shelved.

Legislators also weren’t about to vote to raise the gas tax in 2014, an election year. So this was Gov. Martin O’Malley’s last chance to solve the state’s worsening transportation situation before leaving office.

The price of progress is never easy to accept when it’s coming out of your own pocket. For now, this move is quite unpopular. The good news is that the benefits will become obvious in coming years.

Barry Rascovar is a writer and communications consultant living in Reisterstown. He can be reached at brascovar@outlook.com.