Tag Archives: Gov. Martin O’Malley

To Frack or Not to Frack?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 27, 2016–With apologies to W. Shakespeare, the continuing battle over gas exploration in Maryland’s far-western Garrett County reads like this:

“To frack or not to frack, that is the question.

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer environmentalists’ slings and arrows of an outrageous drilling ban or take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing them, let the state moratorium lapse, crack open Marcellus shale and unleash the fortunes flowing from natural gas.”

It’s a furious dispute which has dragged on for years.

Environmentalists view hydraulic fracturing of black Marcellus shale in mountainous Garrett County as pure evil sure to pollute drinking water, pristine streams, the health of citizens and lay waste to 100,000 acres in the state’s most remote county.

Proponents say that’s buncombe. Done safely and with plenty of state oversight, “fracking” as it is called can be accomplished – and is accomplished all over the country – without damning side effects.

(Fracking has been used in well production since 1950, but didn’t become the superstar of oil drilling until this century, thanks to recent advances in petro-geology, fluid dynamics, engineering, computing, horizontal drilling and 3D seismic imaging.)

Cracking Open Shale

Today, one-half of all U.S. crude oil production and two-thirds of all natural gas production comes from wells that employ fracking – sending a mix of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals through underground pipes drilled horizontally that cracks open ancient layers of shale, thus releasing previously unreachable pools of petroleum liquids.

Yet in Maryland, the “shale revolution” hasn’t happened.

Under intense pressure from a core Democratic voting group – environmentalists – Gov. Martin O’Malley declared a moratorium in 2011 while a scientific study was undertaken.

Much to the activists’ dismay, the panel concluded fracking could be done safely if the state imposed strong regulations. This led O’Malley to promulgate tough, restrictive rules for fracking in 2014.

Unsatisfied, anti-frackers got the legislature to approve another two-year moratorium in 2015. Gov. Larry Hogan refused to sign the bill but didn’t stop it from becoming law.

That led to new state regulations now awaiting approval by a joint legislative panel. Meanwhile, the moratorium runs out in October.

Push for Complete Ban

Environmentalists are determined to push through a permanent fracking ban in Maryland this legislative session. Whether there would be enough votes to overturn a likely Hogan veto remains in question.

Forgotten in this bitter back-and-forth are the land owners of isolated Garrett County who sorely need the financial boost that could come through drilling on their lands.

Farming communities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have reaped huge lease and royalty payments from oil companies who hit pay dirt in those two states.

In fact, Pennsylvania now ranks No. 1 in shale gas production (ahead of Texas) and West Virginia ranks No. 3. They are the prime beneficiaries of the massive amounts of Marcellus shale under land in that part of the country.

But petroleum firms no longer show interest in Maryland.

Deterrents to Fracking

First there’s the regulatory and legislative uncertainty. No company wants to risk tens of millions of dollars in a state where the door could be slammed shut at any time.

Second, there’s the extremely low price of natural gas, a trend that shows no signs of abating, possibly for decades.

Third, there’s the small amount of reachable petroleum liquids in the Marcellus shale beneath Garrett County and a portion of neighboring Alleghany County. The numbers just don’t add up for oil companies.

Tapping into shale formations with new technologies revolutionized this nation’s energy situation. Fracked wells tripled in just five years. Drilling has been most intense in North Dakota, Montana, Texas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But this fracking phenomenon also has driven down the price of natural gas to such low levels that exploration in questionable regions like Maryland is uneconomic.

A law permanently banning fracking in Maryland would foreclose any chance of Garrett landowners ever benefiting from higher natural gas prices and breakthroughs in drilling technologies that might make hydraulic fracturing safe and secure.

Events beyond the state’s control already have determined that fracking won’t happen in Maryland any time soon. That plus Hogan’s new regulations – said to be the toughest in the country – appear to provide assurance that environmentalists’ worst nightmares won’t come true.

That should have ended this rancorous discussion but it hasn’t. Environmentalists want a grand-slam home run that purges even the thought of fracking ever occurring in Maryland.

But forever is an awfully long time, a fact that may dissuade enough lawmakers from turning their backs totally on Garrett County land owners.

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Baltimore’s ‘Challenging Moment’

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 15, 2016 – That searing U.S. Department of Justice report on Baltimore’s police agency revealed an ugly truth we’d rather sweep under the rug. There is historic, deep-seated racism in what’s been labeled Charm City and it presents itself most hurtfully in city law enforcement.

What’s clear is that there are two Baltimores – one white, fairly prosperous and contented; the other black, impoverished, crime-ridden and desperate.

The DOJ report laid it out in uncompromising terms. Historic racism led to policing that focuses almost exclusively on black Baltimore. Racism helped create systemic practices that are unconstitutional, violent and discriminatory. No wonder the city’s black community expresses so much fear, hostility and anger.Baltimore's 'Challenging Moment'

Everyone who cares about Maryland’s largest city and its lone urban center should read parts of this report, especially the concise executive summary and early chapters on Baltimore’s perilous situation. The DOJ pulls no punches. It uses facts we don’t want to hear to explain how we got in this dreadful predicament.

Some black critics are using the report to engage in an unhelpful blame game. Their protests outside the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police conference are counter-productive and only increase the “us against them” attitude that could tear the city apart.

Others want to vilify former Mayor Martin O’Malley for turning to a zero-tolerance policing strategy in the 1990s, an approach he adapted from New York City’s successful fight on crime.

Blame Game

Finger-pointing gets us nowhere. It also is unfair to O’Malley, who as mayor faced unprecedented increases in crime. He tried a new approach, the “broken windows” theory of going after every minor criminal offender and loiterer to get “bad actors” off the streets.

What critics conveniently ignore is that this “lock’em up” approach worked, with Baltimore experiencing a dramatic plunge in street crime. O’Malley’s mistake was not converting those short-term gains into a friendlier, long-term community policing strategy.

As a result of the DOJ report, O’Malley’s political career took a major hit. He continues to defend zero-tolerance policing as a legitimate response in the 1990s to unrelenting crime in the poorest sections of Baltimore.

What this means in the current presidential campaign is that O’Malley’s role as a surrogate speaker for Hillary Clinton may fade away. His chances for a highly visible job in Washington after the election don’t look good, either.

But those are secondary concerns.

Opportunity Knocks

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis hit the nail on the head when he said the DOJ report presents Baltimore with “a challenging moment.”

There is, he noted, a tremendous “opportunity to get better” if political and community leaders use the DOJ analysis to make major policing reforms and start addressing underlying causes of Baltimore’s malaise.

Davis, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her soon-to-be successor, Catherine Pugh, all have indicated that’s the direction they’re going to take.

But one leader has remained distressingly quiet, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

He has said nothing about the DOJ report, using the lame excuse he hasn’t read the document.

Hogan knows full well what the report found. He is fully informed about Baltimore’s tenuous plight. It’s just that the Republican governor has little interest in diverting state resources to a Democratic stronghold like Baltimore City. That’s been his record to date.

DOJ Report Summary

The trouble is the police department’s systemic problems and financially strapped Baltimore’s underlying weaknesses can’t be fully addressed without considerable federal and state help.

The city’s predicament is daunting. Just read how the DOJ summed up the situation facing city leaders (italics and paragraphing added):

“Baltimore is the largest city in the state of Maryland with a population of approximately 621,000. The Baltimore metropolitan area’s 2.7 million residents make it the nation’s 21st largest urban center.  The City’s population is approximately 63 percent African American, 30 percent white, and 4 percent Hispanic or Latino.

“While the City hosts a number of successful institutions and businesses, most economic measures show that large portions of Baltimore’s population struggle economically.

“Compared to national averages, Baltimore exhibits: lower incomes, with a median household income nearly 20 percent lower than the national average; higher poverty rates, with 24.2 percent of individuals living below the federal poverty level; elevated unemployment, with a rate hovering around 7 percent, and average unemployment rates per month that were 50 percent higher than the national average from 2014 to 2015.

“Baltimore also scores below national averages in education: 80.9 percent of the population has graduated from high school, while 27 percent has a bachelor’s degree or higher. In most grades and subjects, the percentage of students below basic proficiency in Baltimore was twice the rate seen in Maryland as a whole.

“These socioeconomic challenges are pronounced among Baltimore’s African-American population, owing in part to the City’s history of government-sponsored discrimination. 

“Schools and many other public institutions in the City remained formally segregated until the 1950s, and stark residential segregation has marked the City’s history.

“In 1910, Baltimore became the first city in America to pass an ordinance establishing block-by-block segregation, a policy that was followed by other discriminatory practices, including restrictive covenants, aggressive redlining, a contract system for housing loans, and racially targeted subprime loans. This legacy continues to impact current home ownership patterns, as Baltimore remains among the most segregated cities in the country.”

Historic Cop Problems

The situation within the city’s police department over the past century and a half has been even more depressing. The DOJ report doesn’t go into that sordid history.

After World War II, a half-dozen investigations of city policing found corruption on a massive scale, mismanagement and incompetence. More than a few commissioners were shown the door. Nothing really changed.

By 1964, here’s what Baltimore Sun reporter Richard Levine wrote in a detailed investigative series: “The Baltimore Police Department is manned, equipped and financed heavily enough for modern warfare on crime yet it is waging a primitive kind of guerrilla action marked by inefficient administrative procedures, haphazard planning and lax discipline. . .”

Jump ahead 30 years and ace Sun investigative reporter David Simon found a déjà vu situation in the police department – poor management, confused priorities and chaotic staffing policies: “Burdened by a lack of resources, devoted to strategies many veteran officers view as flawed and battered by record rates of violence and drug abuse, the department is watching its most essential function – its ability to deter crime –inexorably diminish.”

No wonder O’Malley turned to a tougher law-enforcement method. But the DOJ report makes clear that only exacerbated racial alienation.

Fixing the Baltimore police department’s systemic problems can’t be done without tens of millions of new dollars the city doesn’t have. It will require massive re-training and education of officers, additional staffing and state-of-the-art equipment.

That’s where Hogan could make a difference. Baltimore’s limited tax base and underlying poverty means it must depend on greater support from Annapolis (and Washington).

Otherwise, Baltimore will remain the weak link in Maryland’s fiscal and socio-economic world, a tremendous drag on efforts by Hogan and others to portray Maryland as “the land of pleasant living.”

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Will O’Malley’s Folly Become Hogan’s?

By Barry Rascovar

March 28, 2016—The State Center boondoggle is back on the table.

This controversial deal, involving state buildings on 28 acres in midtown Baltimore, was tailored for developer-allies of former Gov. Martin O’Malley. It ended up on the back burner in December 2014 when the extent of the giveaway persuaded Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp to put a hold on the last approval necessary.

Since then, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has kept the project on the shelf – where it belongs.

Will O'Malley's Folly Become Hogan's?State Center vision

Developers’ $1.5 billion State Center vision in midtown Baltimore

But in the last few weeks, Hogan’s economic development chief, Mike Gill, said the administration was reviewing the $1.5 billion project anew. A decision on what to do at the Baltimore workplace for thousands of state employees could come before January.

There’s no question government workers deserve better quarters. The 60-year-old State Center complex is badly out of date. New accommodations need to be pursued. The worst course of action, though, would be to proceed with O’Malley’s white elephant.

Outsized Rents

Under the deal worked out by the former governor, the state, which now pays no rent at State Center, would be charged sky-high monthly rates for occupying space in a new, privately owned structure. The lease payments of $18.5 million a year would escalate every five years over the next two decades.

Such high rental rates are comparable to Inner Harbor, water-view office space.

The state also would be responsible for maintenance and security expenses, bringing payments to $30 million annually just in the first five years.

Additionally, the state would lease the entire 28-acre State Center property to the developer for a ridiculously low ground rent. A prime parcel near downtown would be virtually gifted to the development team.

The developers also want the state to pay for a costly underground garage in the first new office building. This $28.5 million expense would deplete the Transportation Trust Fund just when demand for road and bridge improvements is in high demand.

In another twist, state workers who receive free surface parking at State Center, would have to pay to use those underground spaces.

Bond Rating in Peril?

The most troubling aspect for Hogan is that the State Center plan could cost Maryland its coveted triple-A bond rating.

Because the developers want to use the state’s locked-in rent payments – nearly $500 million over the next 20 years – to obtain private financing for the massive project, the payments qualify as a capital project.

As such, the State Center development would blow the lid off Maryland’s debt ceiling. It would mean cutting other projects from Hogan’s construction plans and could lead to higher interest rates when Maryland goes to the bond market.

It’s a bad deal for taxpayers, and for Hogan, who inherited this mess from O’Malley (and from Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who announced the heavily subsidized state-private sector project prior to the Great Recession).

Joe Getty, Hogan’s chief legislative officer, was in the state Senate when his budget committee reviewed the State Center project in late 2014. He concluded that the excessive rent charged the state “sets us up to cut [other] projects that have strong commitments in other areas,” such as money for Baltimore City school construction and bond money for a new Prince George’s County hospital.

The Department of Legislative Services noted at the time that the State Center undertaking “will require a significant amount of annual general fund appropriations that could be avoided if the State instead constructed new or renovated space to replace the aging State Center infrastructure.”

Moving Downtown

Another promising avenue for Hogan: Move State Center workers into modern, renovated office space in Baltimore’s Central Business District.

Huge vacancies exist there – upwards of 30 percent and growing – which translates into deeply discounted rents. The state could lock in long-term leases at excellent prices and avoid paying future maintenance costs.

At the same time, DLS suggested the state could sell State Center’s buildings and 28 acres to the highest bidder. This would partly offset the cost of renting new office space downtown and avoid costly repairs at the current buildings.

That seems to make more sense than going forward with a sweetheart arrangement concocted by Hogan’s predecessor.

Here’s another oddity: The Ehrlich administration never bothered to seek competitive bids for the State Center project. After the initial development group dissolved during the Great Recession, O’Malley renegotiated the same deal with a slightly different group of developers.

Now may be the time to see what State Center’s 28 acres bring on the open market and what imaginative uses other developers suggest for the site – using their money, not the state’s.

No Termination Clause

That likely would require a payment to the current developers to terminate their contract with the state.

Here’s why: O’Malley’s State Center deal lacked a “termination for convenience clause.” This is routinely inserted into every state contract – but curiously not this one. Thus, the state is locked into 20 years’ worth of lease payments – pure gold for the builders – unless the developers are bought out.

For Hogan to endorse the current project makes little logic. It would saddle the state with unnecessary additional debt and exorbitant annual lease payments for two decades, endanger Maryland’s bond rating and squeeze other state construction priorities.

It also would amount to an endorsement of a questionable state subsidy pushed through by his Democratic predecessor.

Proceeding in a new direction might be Hogan’s best option.

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Hogan Wins an Important Victory

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 29, 2016 – Mixing politics and education can be lethal. They are best kept far apart.

That’s why Maryland, for 100 years, has isolated the governor and state lawmakers from the process of choosing the State Superintendent of Schools.

Liberal Democrats in the General Assembly, though, sought to change that.Hogan Wins an Important Victory

They worry that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. might fill the State Board of Education with conservative-leaning members who would name a superintendent with a staunchly right-wing education agenda.

So they floated a bill giving the Senate in Annapolis veto power over the selection of a state schools leader.

That was a very bad idea.

Partisan Rubbish

Hogan’s office called it “complete and utter rubbish” and a malevolent attempt to politicize public education. He stood firm and the bill thankfully died.

Imagine 47 politicians with the ability to manipulate this appointment to serve their own partisan objectives.

Wherever politicians impose their will on educators, bad things can happen in the classroom.

Back in 1914, a study by Abraham Flexner, a noted American educator, concluded Maryland’s public schools were “infested with the vicissitudes of partisan politics.” Two years later, the governor and lawmakers built a dividing wall in which the appointed state board members would, on their own, choose a state school chief for a four-year term.

It’s been that way ever since – and it has worked exceedingly well.

O’Malley vs. Grasmick

When former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley took office in 2008, he tried to fire Nancy Grasmick as state school superintendent for political reasons. He soon learned he didn’t have the power and that even his appointees to the state education board backed Grasmick.

O’Malley was thinking only as a politician, trying to oust a school chief beloved by his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, and by another O’Malley foe, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

He ignored the fact that under Grasmick’s two-decade reign, Maryland consistently ranked at the top of state school systems offering an excellent public education.

Yet politicians’ urge to intervene and impose their ideological will on schooling remains strong.

Look at the situation in Baltimore City, a troubled city with a troubled school system.

Costly School Reforms

The last superintendent, Andres Alonzo, reenergized city schooling and turned much of the system on its head. But after he suddenly left, the city belatedly discovered Alonzo’s grand plans had been costly, leaving the new superintendent $105 million in the hole.

Indeed, the current city school boss, Gregory Thornton, was brought in largely to make difficult down-sizing choices, which pleased no one. He hasn’t won many fans among community and education activists or with the wannabe power brokers in Baltimore politics.

Baltimore School Superintendent Gregory Thornton

Baltimore School Chief Gregory Thornton

They are demanding that Thornton be canned. They insist he’s had 18 months to work a miracle and he still hasn’t done it.

Mayoral candidates are promising a takeover of city schools, placing education decisions firmly in the hands of the next mayor and City Council. That will fix everything, right?

Wrong.

Very wrong.

Appeasing the Multitude

Decisions on education policies are best left to skilled, experienced education managers, overseen by a school board of non-partisan, concerned citizens dedicated to improving the learning environment for children.

Thornton is no neophyte, either, having had considerable success as school chief in Milwaukee in uplifting minority classroom performance and closing a big budget gap.

He may not have Alonzo’s charisma or the ability to appease the multitude of factions vying to control education decisions in Baltimore, but he’s made headway in the face of enormous urban challenges.

His problems could multiply in coming months unless the very same politicians seeking Thornton’s head find a way to persuade the governor to help city schools fend off a new $25 million budget hole caused by declining enrollment.

Hogan has budgeted funds to help three other counties facing that same predicament, but so far he’s shown no willingness to plug in extra money to deal with Baltimore’s far larger enrollment drop.

It was the governor’s adamant opposition to politicizing the state school superintendent’s appointment that forced legislators to abandon their power grab this year. That’s a huge victory for public school children in Maryland.

Following up with added funds to bolster education efforts in Baltimore would be icing on the cake.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. His email address is barascovar@hotmail.com

 

 

 

After Iowa

By Barry Rascovar

After Iowa

Feb. 2, 2016 — ITEM: Now that Martin O’Malley is an ex-presidential candidate, he still has time to file for the Democratic mayoral primary in Baltimore.

Why not? None of the current candidates for mayor is catching fire in the polls, O’Malley loved the job when he had it, and he was a successful mayor. Even the New York Times liked his performance in Baltimore.

And he still lives in a big house in Homeland.

ITEM: Three out of four Iowa Republican caucus-goers voted for someone other than Donald Trump.

Yet you’d never have guessed that listening to the unprecedented media hype given The Donald.

ITEM: Someone ought to remind Florida Sen. Marco Rubio that finishing a third still means you lost to two other candidates.

ITEM: As for retired Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, he did worse in Iowa than the 2015 Orioles in the American League East. The Os disappointed fans by barely finishing third. Carson disappointed his supporters by finishing a distant fourth.

ITEM: Carson’s efforts gained him 17,395 votes — about half the size of an Orioles-Yankees crowd at Camden Yards.

ITEM: Is winning the Iowa Republican caucus a jinx?

Is it the bad-luck equivalent of a team pictured on the pre-season cover of Sports Illustrated to win the World Series or Super Bowl?

It sure was for Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012). Et tu, Ted Cruz?

ITEM: When the media proclaims a “record” turnout in Iowa for the caucuses, better take that with a grain of salt. The GOP turnout was under 30 percent and the Democratic total made it just over the 30 percent mark.

ITEM: If you thought O’Malley got wiped out in Iowa (not a single delegate), what about former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore? A grand total of 12 Republicans voted for him in Iowa.

ITEM: Bernie Sanders’ big day is coming!

He came so-o-o close in Iowa, but he should romp in New Hampshire, the Vermont senator’s New England neighbor. He’s leading big-time in nearly every poll over Hillary Clinton.

But then reality starts to sink in. The next two primaries are in Clinton Country — Nevada and South Carolina, states with large minority voting blocs that adore the Clintons. Those states could be momentum shifters.

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Furniture, Iran & Mandel

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 11, 2015 — Odds and ends covering Government House furniture, the Iran odd couple and Marvin Mandel miscellany:

‘Junk’ Mansion Furniture

How quickly they forget!

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s criticism of the bargain-basement deal outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley got on distressed Government House furniture (beds, lamps, mirrors, chairs, desks, a couch) is a great political sound-bite but distorts the facts — and ignores history.

Furniture, Iran & Mandel

Government House, Annapolis

Hogan’s minions penned words for him about O’Malley’s unseemly stripping from the governor’s mansion of “expensive, beautifully used furniture.”

The stuff cost $62,000 new and after being appraised and declared “excess property” and “distressed” by a veteran Department of General Services employee, it was bought by O’Malley for $9,638.

Hogan thought that was an outrageously cheap grab of mansion furniture he could have used in his private quarters.

Fair enough.

But the check the state got from the ex-governor represents 15 percent of the furnishings’ original value.

My wife, who has done interior decorating and interior design for a living, tells me the going rate for furniture drops dramatically once it leaves the showroom. She says used furniture sells for about 10 percent of its original value, especially if it has some age on it.

Most of the O’Malley pieces were eight years old.

So maybe the state actually got a good deal.

It’s also worth remembering — which Hogan didn’t for obvious political reasons — that when fellow Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich left the mansion, he purchased nearly $10,000 worth of furniture for a mere $992 — 10 percent of the original price.

That’s still a fair deal for the state, but not nearly as good a deal as the state got from O’Malley.

Mansion furniture

One of the used pieces of furniture the O’Malleys purchased from the governor’s mansion.

Funny, but Hogan never saw it that way.

Either transaction pales compared with the biggest mansion furniture heist — the emptying of private-quarters furnishings by the late Marvin Mandel.

It was engineered by his second wife, Jeanne, and included removal of 57 items (including two wing chairs, a dresser, a leather sofa, a roll-top desk, Waterford lamps, Chippendale chairs, Lenox china, Waterford crystal champagne glasses, 350 liquor and wine bottles and $489 worth of dog food).

Here’s how the son and namesake of Mandel’s temporary successor, Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, recently described the appearance of the mansion’s private quarters after Marvin and Jeanne departed — “our family moved into the Governor’s Mansion and found it stripped bare. . .  the Mandels even took the frozen food and the fire wood!”

After the 1978 elections, Mandel tried to make amends with a check for $3,187, but Gov. Harry Hughes refused to accept it. A five-year legal battle ensued with Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs writing a 327-page report on Mandel’s moving-van loot.

Eventually, Marvin and Jeanne Mandel forked over $10,000 — more than triple what he had originally offered to pay.

According to O’Malley, though, two historic door panels taken by the Mandels remain missing.

Is any of this kosher? That’s the key question.

Technically, the sales violate government policy about not giving state employees preferential treatment.

But the Ehrlichs, the O’Malleys and the Mandels were just barely government officials at the time they paid for state furnishings their family had used in the mansion.

For instance, the appraisal of furniture O’Malley wanted to purchase was made the day the family moved out of the mansion and just six days before O’Malley became a private citizen. Mandel had been convicted and legally removed from office when his moving van pulled away from the mansion.

It’s a grey area in need of clarification.

The State Ethics Commission might provide Hogan with some guidance, but departing governors don’t easily fit under regulations covering state employees. For one thing, they are constitutionally elected officers and exempt from ethics commission rulings.

At the least, common courtesy should have been in play.

O’Malley needed to ask Hogan if it would be OK to buy items in the mansion’s private quarters. Ehrlich should have done the same with O’Malley. Mandel should have requested approval from Acting Governor Lee.

It’s a minor brouhaha reporters are exploiting as though it were an armored-car heist.

The Board of Public Works should establish a new policy: If about-to-become ex-governors wish to buy used private-quarters furniture, the stuff must be appraised by private-sector professionals and the incoming governor must formally approve.

That would clarify matters and set in place a procedure for future ex-governors, which one day will include Hogan.

Iran Odd Couple

Who would have guessed that in the Maryland congressional delegation, just two members would come out in opposition to the president’s Iran nuclear deal, and that they would be polar opposites.

Liberal Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin has linked arms with ultra-conservative Republican Rep. Andy Harris to say “no” to the president’s negotiated agreement to slow, if not block, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

It may be the first and last time this odd couple sings from the same hymn book on a major, highly politicized issue.

Harris’ opposition was expected. He’s a knee-jerk, anti-Obama, anti-Democratic politician. If the president says the sky is blue, Harris sees grey skies.

Cardin, though, is a left-leaning Democratic loyalist. This time, he was under enormous pressure from Jewish lobbying groups in Maryland, especially within his own synagogue. He’s also up for reelection soon, which played into his thinking.

It also helped that his vote wasn’t needed to ensure that Democrats blocked Congress from rejecting the Iran accord.

Still, it’s rare when Harris and Cardin have something in common. Voters on both extremes of the political spectrum might find this Iran union hard to stomach.

Mandel Miscellany

Readers responded mainly with positive reviews of the two-part assessment of the late Governor Mandel. Here is a sampling:

Gov. Marvin Mandel

Former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel

Blair Lee IV (now a resident of Hilton Head, S.C.): “a wonderful trip down memory lane.”

Former Baltimore Sun reporter Bob Erlandson:  “That’s as good a concise exposition of the Mandel case as there could be. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten many of the details you wrote. Very well done!!”

Attorney and former Assistant Attorney General Tom Lingan: “Congratulations on finally setting the record straight. I believe you captured well the ambiguity of Governor Mandel which was lost in the deification following his passing. There are still a few of us around who remember.  Thanks for not giving him a pass.”

Attorney and Lobbyist Bruce Bereano: “You really should be ashamed of yourself that at Governor Mandel’s passing you wrote such an unnecessary, nasty and despicable piece in your Part 2 of the Mandel legacy. The sad thing is that you have no shame and you have no [conscience] about this.”

Former Sun reporter and Care First executive Jeff Valentine: “This was the best explanation of that convoluted transaction that I ever read. For the first time, I understand what happened.”

Former environmental lobbyist Ajax Eastman: “You really covered the essence of the man, the good and the bad in depth. Thanks.”

Former Sun reporter Skip Isaacs: “The two Mandel columns were terrific. I knew him much better as speaker than governor, but the contradictions you describe sound exactly right to me.”

Former television reporter Patrick McGrath: “Mandel’s extraordinary achievements that you reminded us of in the first piece, contrasted with the details of his downfall in the second piece  . . . paint a truly balanced picture of the complicated man.”

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

May 11, 2015 — Larry Hogan Jr. is proving to be an unusual governor for Maryland, in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessors, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Both Democrat O’Malley and Republican Ehrlich love publicity and making a PR splash. They craved the spotlight, issued a tidal wave of propaganda pitches and tried to dominate the daily news coverage.

Republican Hogan wants none of the above. He’s such a modest, low-key governor that he brings to mind the gubernatorial years of an equally low-key Maryland chief executive, Harry Hughes.

But there’s a difference. Hughes came to Maryland’s top office steeped in state government and political expertise. Hogan, in contrast, was a novice who had never held an elective post.

During his campaign last year, Hogan followed a disciplined KISS strategy — “keep it simple, stupid.” His themes purposely avoided divisive social issues and stuck to a few key promises — cut the state budget and then cut taxes.

Narrow Legislative Focus

Hogan followed a similar KISS approach in his first legislative session. His one and only focus: developing a slimmed-down budget that came close to wiping out Maryland’s chronic structural deficit.

The rest of his so-called “agenda” consisted of leftovers from the campaign trail — unrealistic Republican proposals that stood no chance in a heavily Democratic General Assembly.

During those 90 days in Annapolis, Hogan held few press conferences, issued few press releases and remained pretty much in the background.

By session’s end, he had won much of the budget battles, setting the stage for a similar push next year to make room for tax cuts.

He gave us a preview of his intentions last week by announcing reduced tolls on Maryland’s roads and bridges.

Bay Bridge toll cut

While this puts a giant crimp in Maryland’s efforts to replace aging bridges and improve interstate roads, the symbolism of Hogan’s toll-cutting action is what counted for the governor.

Even when dealing with the volatile protests and unrest in Baltimore, the new governor kept his participation low-key — and simple.

His actions were few but decisive — calling in the National Guard when requested, moving his office to Baltimore and delivering daily updates in which he basically introduced law-enforcement leaders to brief the media.

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

When cornered by reporters, Hogan refused to blame the mayor for what had occurred and refused to discuss details of events. He sounded a one-note response: “We are here to keep the peace.”

Compared with the frenetic, 24/7 campaign styles O’Malley and Ehrlich brought to the governor’s mansion, Hogan’s modest and even shy approach is a refreshing change.

His eternal optimism, concern and ready smile serve him well with Marylanders.

Next Big Test

That widespread popularity soon could be tested when Hogan decides what to do about two costly but critical mass-transit projects — Baltimore’s Red Line and the suburban Washington Purple Line.

He called them unaffordable during the campaign, but rejecting either project will create deep antagonisms and hostility toward the Republican governor that could dog him in the legislature for the rest of his term.

So far, Hogan has avoided these kinds of flash points, knowing that a Republican governor can ill afford alienating a large chunk of the legislature’s majority party.

How he navigates between his campaign statements and strong public sentiment for the Red and Purple Lines in three of Maryland’s largest and most politically influential jurisdictions will tell us much about Hogan’s ability to navigate his way through perilous political situations.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. Contact him at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Hogan Wins Round 1

By Barry Rascovar

April 6, 2015 — Even before the final votes are taken the verdict is in: The winner of Maryland’s 2015 budget fight, by a wide margin, is Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Actually, Hogan was playing with a stacked-deck.

Maryland governors almost always win these budget fights because they’re the only ones who can add money to programs and priorities; the legislature has the power to subtract, period.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

But remember where Hogan started: He was handed a wildly out of balance budget by outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who had neglected to take strong steps to stem the growing deluge of red ink on the state’s books.

Even worse, projections called for far wider deficits in future years. O’Malley wasn’t up to the task of pulling back hard on the spending reins because he was preparing to leave office and run for president as a darling of the Democratic liberal left.

So O’Malley passed the baton and dropped the budget mess he had created in Republican Hogan’s lap.

Judicious Budget-Cutting

Thanks to the work of career budget analysts and former state Sen. Bobby Neall, Hogan whipped up a budget-balancing plan in about six weeks. It was a tough but judiciously pared-down financial blueprint that went nearly all the way toward eliminating Maryland’s chronic and widening structural gap between revenues and spending.

Hogan also called for long-term steps to ratchet down future spending growth in costly education and health programs.

Democratic legislators didn’t bite on that last Hogan proposal. Yet there is nothing they can do to stop the governor from shrinking budget increases for state and local aid programs in each year of his administration.

The result is a half-loaf victory for Hogan, which is impressive for a Republican in a heavily Democratic state. If he persists over the next three years, he’ll almost certainly pick up the other half of the loaf — and more.Government Spending

Hogan came into office promising to squeeze excesses from the state budget so he can lower taxes.

He’s started down the first path with considerable success. The tax-cut pledge will be infinitely harder to fulfill, as Democrats have shown in this legislative session.

In office, Hogan has proved to be a realist. He recognized that without a truly balanced budget that slowed spending, there is no hope of gaining meaningful tax reductions.

He’ll have to keep shaving Maryland’s expenditures — and especially the state’s overly ambitious and costly capital spending program. Ever-rising health and education costs remain enormous challenges, too.

Power-Sharing

Still, the direction of future Hogan budgets is now transparent to both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

To the relief of Democratic legislators, the new governor isn’t a scorched-earth program cutter. He understands the importance of the social safety net, of education advancements and offering improved health care options.

He also understands the dynamics of Annapolis.

Hogan knows he must share power with the heavily Democratic legislature. He must find common ground and avoid the mistake of the last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, who proved too partisan and confrontational.

So far, Hogan is succeeding.

Fiscal Turnaround

He’s won this year’s budget battle, regardless of the final negotiations over legislative demands for restoration of funds for public schools and health care.

The new governor has turned around Maryland’s bleak fiscal forecasts in a matter of months, not years.

Once legislative adjournment comes on April 13, Hogan will have the rest of  the year to implement spending hold-down ideas, analyze where downsizing makes sense, educate lawmakers on sensible ways to shrink the cost of state government and start eliminating excessive and harmful business regulations.

Not bad for a guy given almost no chance of winning the governorship a year ago — or of working constructively and peacefully with legislative leaders of the opposite party.

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Fracking Follies in Annapolis

By Barry Rascovar

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

It is Maryland’s phantom issue.

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

fracking-2

Hydraulic Fracturing

 

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

Low Oil Prices = No Fracking

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

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

So the arguments in Annapolis are largely speculative.

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

O’Malley Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

Few Side Effects

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

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

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

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

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

Waste of Energy

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

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

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

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

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Gill to the Rescue?

 By Barry Rascovar

(A version of this column was published by CenterMaryland.)

Jan. 13, 2015 — For Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr., there’s no more important cabinet appointment than secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development.

What happens on job-growth and business-growth are likely to determine the success, or failure, of the Hogan administration.

So there was a lot riding on last week’s choice of R. Michael Gill as DBED secretary. The response to date: overwhelmingly positive and complimentary. Hogan seems to have picked a winner.

Mike Gill

New DBED Chief Mike Gill

“He’s absolutely perfect for the job,” says former Sen. Frank Kelly, who served with Gill on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

“Mike has the most positive attitude of anyone I know. His enthusiasm is contagious. I think that’s what we need.”

Super-Salesman

Gill has a deep, abiding love for all things Maryland. He won’t have trouble “selling” the Free State to business prospects. It will come from his heart.

He’s a smart, personable super-salesman with a knack for retaining details about the people he meets. He’s quick on his feet, interesting to talk to and a true people-person.

Mike Gill has 32 years’ experience in information technology and wireless communication, starting with sales and marketing jobs at IBM, a fertile training ground.

He struck it rich by founding an early telecom wireless services and repair company (AMERICOM), but he also knows what it is like to take over a struggling technology company (Bluefire Security Technologies) and watch it flounder because its product was ahead of its time.

Gill is a master networker and civic presence, an investment banker (chairman of Evergreen Advisors) for middle-market companies and a never-give-up booster of state education institutions, especially his alma maters, Calvert Hall and Towson University.

Facebook Friends

The new DBED chief’s wide spectrum of acquaintances is reflected on his Facebook page, where “friends” are listed.

At the top is Hogan, followed by the state’s new insurance commissioner, Al Redmer, former state budget chief Chip DiPaula, and veteran Baltimore disc jockey Eddie Applefeld.

A second column lists University of Maryland Medical System vice president and lobbyist Mark Wasserman (a former DBED secretary), Towson real estate promoter Bob Latshaw, former Republican state chair and moving van mogul John Kane and business pal Ed Crawford.

Some are Democrats, though most are Republicans. Nearly all of them have important government experience and/or years of business know-how.

This symbolizes what Hogan is trying to achieve: Running government more like a business by turning to a mix of successful private-sector executives and entrepreneurs to light the way, along with folks possessing government management backgrounds.

Reviving DBED

Gill’s orders are to jump-start a moribund DBED weighed down for the past eight years by Gov. Martin O’Malley’s love-hate relationship with Maryland businesses. “Selling” Maryland was never at the top of his “to-do” list.

During those eight years, Maryland gained a reputation as a state where government was hostile to the private sector. No wonder O’Malley’s DBED secretaries proved lackluster.

It won’t be easy turning around the department and creating the sort of buzz that sparks corporate interest in moving jobs to Maryland.

If anyone can do it, though, it is Mike Gill.

Mike Gill

Keeping Spices at Home

He’s already waxing eloquent about retaining McCormick & Co.

Thanks to his decades-old relationship with McCormick, Mike Gill is well positioned to find a way to satisfy the Fortune 500 spice company so it will anchor its new headquarters near McCormick’s historic roots.

Gill has a wealth of knowledge about Maryland’s high-tech and bio-tech advantages and the state’s first-rate institutions of higher education.

North Carolina may have a Research Triangle, but Maryland has a Research Rectangle (NIH, UM’s flagship College Park campus, Johns Hopkins and UM’s professional schools and medical research campus in Baltimore).

Boston may have a Route 128 Technology Corridor, but suburban Washington has its own, high-powered I-270 Tech Corridor, which dominates Montgomery and Frederick counties.

Only Maryland has an emerging cyber-security corridor stretching from Fort Meade and NSA to Washington, D.C.

Combine this with business incentives Hogan is certain to propose from the State House, and DBED might start generating exciting news sooner rather than later.

No Desk Jockey

One of Mike Gill’s favorite quotes (from espionage mystery writer John Le Carre), goes like this:

“Behind the desk is a dangerous place to view the world.”

That is especially true in government, as Gill will discover. Too many State House leaders spend way too much time in meetings. Their daily schedules are chock full of paper-shuffling, conference calls and roundtable talkathons.

Gill insists on an outside-the-office routine, where he gets to know his staff intimately, learns from them about issues and problems and works cooperatively to find solutions.

It won’t be much different dealing with Maryland’s businesses.

As DBED secretary, Gill will be on the go constantly, searching for companies that appreciate Maryland’s quality of life and its vast potential, finding out what local firms need and offering start-ups guidance and hand-holding from economic development pros.

Mike Gill has been described by a business friend as “a man of action, not words.” That sounds like the right formula for DBED at this juncture.

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