Tag Archives: Gov. Martin O’Malley

Immigration Quandary

By Barry Rascovar

July 28, 2014 — Are Republicans poor spellers?

They might be, judging from the graffiti (“NO ILLEAGLES HERE”) spray painted on a former Carroll County military building. It briefly was under consideration as housing for immigrant children fleeing violence in Central America.

Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Or is it just that Republicans are narrow-minded bigots?

It seems they don’t want people entering this country unless immigrants are Anglo-Saxon Christians who believe the “G” in GOP stands for God.

Republican History

Hostility toward immigrants is in the Grand Old Party’s DNA.

The Republican Party started as a coalition of anti-slavery groups and the Know-Nothing Party (formally known in states as the American Party or the Native American Party).

The Know-Nothings’ near-hysterical hostility toward Irish-Catholics and Germans later turned into anti-Chinese venom.

Keeping “them” out of the U.S. of A. has morphed into today’s sweeping condemnation of 57,000 children from non-English-speaking, heavily Catholic nations in Central America who have crossed the border.

‘Combat Zone’

Frederick County’s arch-enemy of immigrants, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, recently toured part of the Texas-Mexico border, declared it a “combat zone” and called for full militarization.

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County

Fortress America, here we come!

“We’re being invaded by drug cartels, drug smugglers, human traffickers,” the sheriff railed.

Huh?

Unaccompanied children are crossing the border, not gun-toting thugs and narco terrorists.

And in Baltimore County. . .

You’d never know that by listening to Del. Wade Kach or Councilman Todd Huff of Baltimore County.

The two Republicans have joined the anti-immigrant mob.

They’re upset Catholic Charities wants to house 50 children from Central America at its secluded St. Vincent’s Villa that tends to children with severe emotional and behavioral problems — and which originally opened 174 years ago as an orphanage for immigrant children.

Meanwhile, Republican Baltimore County Del. Pat McDonough, who never misses a shot at outrageous publicity, is calling for the erection of tent cities along the border and immediate deportation of “them.”

Congressional Intervention

Then there’s the irrepressible Republican naysayer, Congressman Andy Harris.

He was quick to announce his bombastic opposition to Central American kids living temporarily at a former Army Reserve building in Westminster – a locale that is not in his district.

Harris, an anesthesiologist, cited among other reasons “the potential health risks to the community” — as though these kids were carrying the Bubonic Plague.

He wants the 57,000 children deported to their home country “and get back in line.”

Discrimination is alive and well in the Republican Party’s Maryland branch.

Christian Response

Catholic Charities’ proposal, thankfully, does not follow Republican Party dicta.

Instead, it follows Christian teachings that most Republicans ostensibly say they follow.

This is, as Pope Francis pointed out, a “humanitarian emergency” involving unaccompanied children in a foreign land. We must first protect and care for these children, the pope said.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Catholic Charities is extending the good work it does by undertaking this new mission at St. Vincent’s Villa in Timonium.

It’s not a permanent solution but rather a helping hand for 50 kids while their situations are sorted out. What’s wrong with that?

Governor’s Response

How does Maryland suffer from a local charity assisting some of the needy, regardless of their place of origin?

Gov. Martin O’Malley understands.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

He first complained to the White House about placing kids at a Westminster facility lacking security or running water – not to mention the seething animus in Carroll County toward outsiders (especially Spanish-speaking “illeagals” who might pollute Carroll’s idyllic surroundings).

He was right to tell the White House it was a ridiculous idea.

There are far better ways to assist these kids — such as finding compatible settings near Washington, where there are large Hispanic communities (and proximity to Central American embassies) or in Baltimore City, with its own Spanish-speaking enclave and ample support services.

NIMBY Republicans

The Republican line is that this crisis is “a federal problem” created by the hated Obama administration, which should handle this matter itself.

Republican NIMBYism is alive and well: Let someone else care for these desperate kids, all 57,000 of them.

Just make sure the federal refugee camps are “not in my back yard.”

What’s confronting the United States is a major human dilemma. It won’t be solved solely by the White House. It will take a combined effort by sympathetic states, non-profit groups and the federal government.

Republicans, though, don’t want any part of extending charity to these kids.

The best way to stop this unwanted influx is to help Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala curb criminal activity, bolster health and education opportunities and encourage business development that translates into jobs.

Republicans will have none of that.

They don’t want immigrants coming to this country and they don’t want to help other countries stem the tide, either.

Their only answer is stationing armed troops on our southern border.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori calls this problem “a test of the moral character of our nation. This is not a time for political posturing. . .”

Sadly, Republicans aren’t listening.

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Politics Ahead of Budgets

By Barry Rascovar

July 7, 2014 — The $77 million in budget cuts approved last week by the Maryland Board of Public Works mark the first recognition there’s a price to be paid for placing election-year politics ahead of fiscal realities. It won’t be the last spending pullback, either. Budget balancing Maryland has a serious, ongoing imbalance between its high spending habits and its lower than expected revenue receipts. Everyone knew this was coming.

Winter’s Frigid Blow

Much of it is a result of the severe cold weather over the past winter, which devastated sectors of the economy, drove up heating and electric costs and put a severe crimp in job creation.

Yet early this year Gov. Martin O’Malley, with the support of Democratic legislators, introduced a budget for the current fiscal year that was wildly out of sync with prevailing economic conditions.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

The larger problem, which O’Malley chose not to confront head-on, is that Maryland’s spending isn’t affordable without more rounds of tax increases — or sizable reductions in agency budgets.

The $77 million in cuts approved last week amounts to a small down payment on what is likely to come later.

Maryland’s economy remains stalled, as Comptroller Peter Franchot underlined at last week’s Board of Public Works meeting in the Annapolis State House.

Comptroller Peter Franchot

Comptroller Peter Franchot

Wage growth is near-zero. Sales tax growth is about one-fifth of what it should be in a recovery. Withholding taxes are about two-fifths of the norm for a recovery.

Making matters worse was O’Malley’s failure to use the Great Recession to assess government services and identify cost efficiencies on a grand scale.

Instead, O’Malley simply slowed state government’s rate of growth during hard times. He papered over the need to downsize, shift or reinvent the way non-essential services are delivered.

Troubling Imbalance

At the end of the 2014 General Assembly session in early April, legislative analysts predicted Maryland’s spending would exceed incoming revenue by $236 million for the fiscal year that started July 1.

Ominously, those analysts noted O’Malley’s budget anticipated a whopping 5.2 percent economic growth in this fiscal year and general fund revenue growth of 4.6 percent.

While recent national economic reports for June indicate a stronger recovery in the months ahead, it is doubtful Maryland can reach its rosy revenue projections for this fiscal year.

Expect more spending reductions this winter.

The key question is whether O’Malley confronts that issue or passes the buck to his likely successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

Even before Maryland’s revenue projections turned south, legislative analysts had warned Maryland faces a growing cash shortage that could reach $404 million in the next fiscal year.

It would take an imposing 7.1 percent surge in state tax revenue to wipe out that structural imbalance — or a major retrenchment in state spending, which is highly unlikely.

Growing Cash Shortage?

Given the discouraging outlook that prompted last week’s budget cuts, next fiscal year’s  projected cash shortage of $404 million could grow by leaps and bounds.

O’Malley, though, will continue to “spin” this story in a politically positive way.

Other states — New York New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — he notes, are in far worse shape (though we don’t have a handle on how bad the situation really is in Maryland — and won’t till September at the earliest).

O’Malley’s Concerns

The governor wants to put a shine on his Maryland legacy as he moves toward a presidential campaign.

He also wants to keep Maryland’s budget woes on the back burner until Brown is safely elected governor in November.

Republican Larry Hogan Jr. will try to convince voters “the sky is falling.” But the worst news from last winter’s deep freeze is over and the national economy is showing encouraging signs of finally springing back to life.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Larry Hogan Jr.

That is good news for Brown in the short term.

But come December and January, Governor-elect Brown could be faced with an ugly reality — a far deeper state deficit, painful and immediate spending cuts and a budget for the following fiscal year that can’t deliver on his expensive campaign promises.

Read more from Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com

Racing: Green MD Industry

 

By Barry Rascovar

June 2, 2014 — Not far from my home, down a steep patch of Greenspring Avenue on the way to Glyndon, lies a glorious environmental sight — and a stark contrast between the past and present for Maryland’s horse industry.

Descending into the Worthington Valley, a broad, green panorama of horse farms reveals itself.  This is prime Maryland horse country.

As the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes approaches, with the best chance in decades to witness racing’s elusive Triple Crown for three-year-old thoroughbreds, it’s appropriate to review the state of Maryland racing.

Sagamore’s Renaissance

The vast 530-acre thoroughbred spread known as Sagamore Farm, restored to its earlier glory by UnderArmour founder Kevin Plank, dominates Worthington Valley, highlighted by Sagamore’s white painted fences and corporate training center mansion atop a distant ridge.

Sagamore Farm, training track

Sagamore Farm, training track

Far to the right lies Hunt Valley and the blueblood horse farms that have hosted the grueling, four-mile Maryland Hunt Cup timber race for 92 of its 118 years.

In the foreground, though, lies beautiful but empty barns on 100 acres of land. Their sad fate underlines the fragility of Maryland’s horse industry, just as Sagamore Farm and the Maryland Hunt Cup illustrate the strength of the industry’s future.

The empty barns used to have a sign on its gates that read “Maryland Stallion Station.” Prominent horse breeders joined together in 2003 to make the Worthington Valley once again famous for its thoroughbred champions.

Maryland Stallion Station

Maryland Stallion Station

What the owners didn’t count on was Maryland’s resistance to doing what neighboring states had done to resuscitate their horse industries: legalize slot machines and dedicate a small portion of the proceeds to rebuilding race  tracks and dramatically boosting purses — the lifeblood of the industry.

Horse owners quickly recognized there was money to be made in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania as purses soared at tracks in those states. They took their horses and left Maryland.

Meanwhile, politicians in Annapolis ignored the obvious trend and resisted legalizing slots.

Declining Racing Industry 

As a result, Maryland’s horse industry spiraled deeper and deeper into decline.

At its worst point, the state lost 80 percent of its stallions, mares and foals because of the poor business climate here.

Finally, the industry’s distress became so obvious Gov. Martin O’Malley asked his Labor Secretary, Tom Perez (now U.S. Secretary of Labor) to study the state of racing in 2007.

Tom Perez

Tom Perez

His impartial and persuasive report laid out the facts.

Citing a University of Maryland study, he wrote, “The horse racing and breeding industry in Maryland accounts for over 9,000 jobs, and has an economic impact of more than $600 million.”

“A decade ago Maryland led its neighbors in handles and purses — the amount bet on races and the prize money awarded to winners — and the number of horses being bred. These statistics are the lifeblood of the racing industry. But the introduction of slot machines in Delaware and West Virginia has resuscitated and revitalized the previously moribund horse racing and breeding industries in those states. As a result, Maryland’s horse racing and horse breeding industries have been placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage.”

Perez continued, “The economic impact of slots on the horse racing industries in surrounding states is undeniable. Slots have generated thousands of jobs in these areas, and are subsidizing other priorities, such as education and transportation. In fact, Marylanders playing slots in Delaware and West Virginia are subsidizing education and other priorities in these states to the tune of approximately $150 million per year.”

Out of State Competition

The fate of Maryland Stallion Station confirmed Perez’s findings. It couldn’t compete against breeding farms in neighboring states offering generous racing subsidies.

Who would want to breed valuable race horses in Maryland when the purses, coupled with large bonuses for locally bred thoroughbreds, were growing huge in nearby states, thanks to slots revenue?

Maryland Stallion Station barn, 2005

Maryland Stallion Station barn, 2005

The owners of Maryland Stallion Station made a valiant effort, but they couldn’t overcome the state’s lack of favorable business conditions.

They relocated their stud animals in 2008 and went out of business.

Revived By Slots

Eventually, with the booming success of Maryland Live! Casino at Arundel Mills, the state’s racing slowly started to rebound, just as Perez suggested.

Sagamore’s fortunes are proof that this formula — tying a percentage of slots revenue to the racing industry — works. Both Sagamore’s breeding and training businesses are on an upward track.

The optimism of horse owners, trainers and breeders on Preakness Day illustrated the turnaround that is taking place.

Most encouraging has been the breeding uptick at Sagamore Farm in Baltimore County, Bonita Farm and Country Life Farm in Harford County, the Rooney family’s Shamrock Farms in Carroll County and the impressive Northview Stallion Station in Cecil County.

Northview Stallion Station

Northview Stallion Station

But danger still lurks in Annapolis.

Politicians already are talking about reneging on their agreement with the racing industry and stripping away some of the slots money reviving the industry. They want the money for other, more politically appealing programs.

What these politicians ignore is the giant environmental benefits flowing from a strong racing industry. They should review Tom Perez’s findings:

Green Racing

“Horse farms occupy over 685,000 acres of land, roughly 10 percent of Maryland’s open space. Horse racing and horse breeding go hand in hand. Preserving a viable horse racing industry helps maintain horse farms and protect open space. . . .

“The importance of reviving horse racing and breeding in Maryland extends beyond merely supporting the industry. Every breeder that can’t sustain his or her business because of a declining industry means one more farm that might succumb to development pressures. Growth in Maryland will continue, and without a vibrant horse breeding sector those open spaces could become prime real estate for developers.”

Perez noted that Maryland’s agricultural land is disappearing. Between 1970 and 2005, the state lost one million acres of farms to development — one-third of the state’s farmland.

“Retaining Maryland’s agricultural land is critical to the environment, and particularly the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” he wrote.

Sprawl Buffer

“The key to keeping farmers on their land is ensuring their operations remain economically viable. . . . As Maryland’s population grows and development pressures force farmers out, protecting the state’s horse industry becomes more and more critical to sustaining the legacy of rural Maryland and maintaining a healthy environment.”

Perez concluded that the racing industry “is an important economic engine for Maryland, and provides an important buffer against sprawl development.”

The governor’s office reports that Maryland’s horse industry today is valued at $5.6 billion. The horses are worth $714 million. The farms employ 28,000 people.

It also notes this surprising fact: Maryland contains twice as many horses per square mile as Virginia, Texas, California or Kentucky.

This state’s racing traditions run deep as symbolized by the large crowds drawn annually to the Preakness and the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Maryland Hunt Cup timber race

Maryland Hunt Cup timber race

After Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino opens late this summer, more slots dollars will flow into thoroughbred and standardbred racing purses. When the MGM Grand Casino opens in about two years at National Harbor, still more revenue will come racing’s way.

What lies ahead could turn into a grand revival for horse racing in Maryland.

Necessary Upgrades

Of course, that will depend on the ability of track owners to use slots revenue for major modernization upgrades that appeal to 21st century sports lovers.

The industry also must find a way to underwrite year-round racing. (There will be no Maryland racing at all this summer.)

Maryland’s political leaders have a responsibility to foster the growth of horse farms and high-quality racing in places like the Worthington Valley.

It’s great for the environmentl, strengthens an important agricultural business and is a sport worth saving.

Worthington Valley

Bucolic Worthington Valley

A prosperous racing industry is a decided plus for citizens of the Free State, one that politicians need to encourage, not discourage, in Annapolis.

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Garrett County’s Isolation — Responses

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

Garrett County

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

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

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

The Rest of the Story

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

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

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

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

Deep Creek Lake

Deep Creek Lake

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

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

Wisp ski resort

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

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

Fracking Can Be Fractious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community College Guarantee

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

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

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

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

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

 

Garrett Co. MD

Garrett County (in pink)

 

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

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

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

“On the positive side:

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

Missing Key Points

Here’s a different perspective from a Garrett resident:

“The article totally misses several key facts . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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The Political Isolation of Garrett County MD

By Barry Rascovar

April 21, 2014–There is nowhere in Maryland more isolated and cut off from the rest of the state than Garrett County.

Distance (200 miles uphill from Baltimore) and the Alleghany Mountains present formidable barriers for the hardy souls who inhabit the state’s western-most county.

Garrett County-map of state                                                       Isolated Garrett County (in red)

It is a large, forested county with prime tourist attractions in the summer (Deep Creek Lake) and winter (Wisp ski resort).

But its tiny population, not surprisingly, is shrinking. Help from Annapolis has been modest at best.

Only Pittsburgh TV News

Here’s how bad the situation is for Garrett residents: They are considered part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan census area rather than the Cumberland census tract. The only news they get from cable TV is from Pittsburgh.

They see plenty of TV ads about Pennsylvania’s heated race for governor but not a peep about Maryland’s coming elections.

Only the recent intervention of the internet had allowed Garrett citizens to keep in touch with news from Baltimore and Annapolis on a timely basis.

Adding to the county’s isolation is a political reality: Garrett is overwhelmingly Republican. Democrats are outnumbered 2-1. The mountain politics practiced there are decidedly conservative and at odds with the ruling liberal Democratic majority in the megalopolis far to the east.

Speaking “Out West”

I ventured “out west” this past week to address the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Due to a late-arriving bout of laryngitis, those packed into a conference room at Wisp had to listen to my croaking, cracking voice. Their patience and tolerance were impressive.

Democratic (and Republican) voters in this county of 30,000 souls will be casting their ballots with scant information about the statewide candidates. No Democratic candidate for attorney general or governor is going to devote limited resources and time to educate Garrett voters.

So these mountain voters are pretty much on their own learning about the candidates. Of the three Democrats running for governor, only Attorney General Doug Gansler seems to offer a ray of political moderation. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown knows little about the county and will continue the beneign neglect policy followed by the O’Malley administration toward this small, conservative, Republican county.

On the Republican side, neither Harford County Executive David Craig nor businessman Larry Hogan Jr. of Anne Arundel County are targeting Garrett as a priority. How voters gather data for an informed election-day decision is a bit baffling.

Garrett County

Despite its isolation from the rest of the state, Garrett has much to teach those living on the other side of the Eastern Continental Divide.

Only in conservative Garrett have elected officials taken the lead in making sure their children receive a college education.

Every Garrett high school graduate knows the county will pick up the cost (after grants and scholarships have been applied) to guarantee college study or training at Garrett’s community college.

Garrett College Offerings

That small institution, with a main campus and three outreach centers, has developed a reputation for its programs in “Adventure Sports;” natural resources and wildlife technology, and business and information technology.

This is an aggressive, pro-active plan other Maryland counties should emulate. Government ensures full tuition payment for any Garrett high school graduate. In Maryland, that’s revolutionary.

Garrett’s leaders are providing their youth with skill sets needed to man tomorrow’s plants and offices. Government is playing a pivotal role in developing a local workforce that makes economic development appealing.

Garrett County map

That may not fit the mold of a “conservative” government, but it is a practical, real-life recognition that government is there to help people, not erect barriers to their success.

That same mind-set is evident in the kinds of individuals Garrett sends to Annapolis. Yes, these are conservative thinkers. Yes, they are rock-ribbed Republicans. But Garrett’s mountain life adds a bit of cooperative pragmatism to the mix.

Both Del. Wendell Beitzel and Sen. George Edwards are hard-core conservatives. They also are realists. They understand they are vastly outnumbered by Democrats and that taking rigidly ideological positions in total opposition to the Democratic majority will get them nowhere.

They are willing to collaborate and compromise on many issues. They understand their county’s many needs. They also understand that Annapolis works best when delegates and senators try to bridge the political gap through dialogue and finding common cause.

Collaboration Pays Off

Edwards and Beitzel work with Democrats. It pays off in small ways that mean much back home. In the most recent legislative session, Garrett took home an extra $464,000 for its schools, which suffer unfairly from a state aid formula that penalizes counties with shrinking school populations.

That’s a victory for common sense and the two legislators’ ability to show their colleagues that a real need exists for extra school assistance.

On other issues, Garrett’s politicians are simply outnumbered. Garrett is the one county that could benefit substantially from shale-oil hydraulic fracturing. But the O’Malley administration seems ready to impose the toughest “fracking” regulations in the country. That may be overkill.

The net result will be to scare off drilling companies, which already have flooded into Pennsylvania and Ohio. Garrett’s natural resources will be left untapped and its landowners will be denied an economic benefit that could give the county a much-needed economic boost.

Where’s O’Malley?

The O’Malley administration’s hostility toward fracking and other business development programs that involve environmental issues has left Garrett in a precarious position. Its economic issues aren’t being addressed by the governor.

There is scant attention paid to finding ways to reunite Garrett citizens with the rest of Maryland. Garrett’s economic needs just aren’t high on O’Malley’s priority list.

Maybe things will change with a new administration in Annapolis. But don’t count on it.

What Garrett could use is another William Donald Schaefer in the governor’s mansion, a chief executive who identifies with the state’s most isolated and needy jurisdictions and who comes into office with a “do it now” attitude.

Sadly, politicians like Schaefer don’t come along often. Then again, perhaps the next governor will seize the moment to show that he understands the importance of lending more of a helping hand to Maryland’s western-most county.

Barry Rascovar can be reached through his blog-site, www.politicalmaryland.com, or at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Caution in Annapolis While Leaning Left

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

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

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

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

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

Weakening the Bill

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

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

Pit Bull Legislation

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

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

Puff-and-Pay

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

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

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

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

Medicinal Pot Smoking

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

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

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

Early Start to Schooling

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

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

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

Easing the ‘Death Tax’

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

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

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

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

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

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

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

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

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Stonewalling MD Health Exchange Probe

By Barry Rascovar

April 7, 2014 – The Maryland General Assembly concludes its 2014 session Monday in good shape – except for one monumental omission: the mystery surrounding Maryland’s fatally flawed health exchange, which has squandered uncounted tens of millions of dollars.

It’s now clear both Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown are content to stonewall and impede any detailed investigation of what went wrong in setting up the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange until well after the June 24 primary election.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

Is there a cover-up going on?

Judge for yourself.

On Thursday, the state’s legislative auditor told lawmakers he had been thwarted in his attempt to conduct a meaningful review of the health exchange.

Because the exchange’s leaders only gave state auditors what was available to the public, “We don’t have the complete story,” said the chief auditor, Thomas Barnickel III. “There’s a lot we don’t know.”

Heavily Redacted

The documents auditors received were heavily redacted — a sure sign things are being hidden from view.

It’s also not in line with accepted auditing practices of state government agencies.

But when the governor and lieutenant governor want to make sure no one gets to the bottom of this historic debacle any time soon, the administration knows how to obfuscate.

No Sign of Rebecca Pearce

For instance, the exchange gave auditors 600 emails to or from Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein — the administration’s spokesman on this issue — but nary a single email involving Rebecca Pearce, who ran the troubled exchange until December.

Could such an astounding omission have been accidental?

The redactions were so numerous in the 14,500 documents that auditors couldn’t determine if the controversial contract awards were done legally or appropriately.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

Auditors also couldn’t figure out how the exchange went about selecting the vendor who screwed up the exchange’s computer program — Noridian of North
Dakota — or how in the world the exchange opted to buy off-the-shelf software — as opposed to customized software — from IBM.

This software proved incapable of doing the job.

Auditors did learn from documents there was confusion within the exchange over points of contact, meeting schedules, lack of a program manager and even a lack of details about the project plan.

They made one definitive finding: The exchange conducted no performance testing whatsoever.

Is it any wonder this lemon of a software program crashed on Day One and has yet to fully recover?

Limited Document Release 

Exchange leaders also saw to it auditors didn’t get enough information to figure out who made those horrendously poor decisions, who was really in charge and who should be held to account for this debacle.

Democratic leaders in the legislature aren’t in any hurry, either, to pin some of the blame on Brown because that would hurt his campaign for governor.

So no one was indignant when it became clear last Thursday at a hearing in Annapolis that the legislature’s own auditors had been stonewalled.

Earlier in the week,  O’Malley and Brown laid out their own line of attack: We’re not at fault because it’s the evil contractors who messed up.

And who, exactly, hired those contractors? Aren’t those the ones who ought to be fingered?

What was Brown’s role as co-chair of the exchange’s oversight committee?

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Didn’t he have to approve those contracts? Or was he only a figurehead?

It’s clear now the prime contractor never should have been chosen in the first place. Is that the contractor’s fault or the O’Malley-Brown administration’s?

What genius decided to launch the state’s most complex and expensive IT project with off-the-shelf software?

Is it IBM’s fault the O’Malley-Brown administration decided to take the cheaper route  and ended up with a turkey that was never designed for the tasks assigned it by the exchange?

Bait-and-Switch Tactic

Is it Noridian’s fault the O’Malley-Brown administration pulled a bait-and-switch?

Exchange leaders signed a fixed-price contract with Noridian that included 261 requirements for the software program — and then later added 227 new requirements, changed 28 of the original requirements and dropped 73 of the mandates Noridian had bid on.

O’Malley seems content to blame IBM for what went wrong. Yes, IBM made the off-the-shelf software, but it was never tailored for the complicated interfaces envisioned by the IT gurus in Maryland government. Yet IBM is now the governor’s fall guy.

Now IBM is pushing back. The computer giant says it went the extra mile to fit a round peg into a square hole, but it couldn’t “overcome the state’s failure to properly manage the implementation of the exchange.”

We may never know if that’s true because O’Malley won’t launch an impartial investigation. Indeed, he’s not launching any investigation into how potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars were wasted.

This is the guy who wants to run for president?

Permanent Stain?

What an unmitigated calamity. No authority figure in Maryland state government wants to get to the bottom of this disgrace. No public group is pressing for action, either.

We’re left with an appalling mess.

The lack of accountability, transparency and responsibility — if not remedied — will become a permanent stain on the record of O’Malley and Brown. History will not remember this episode kindly.

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Is a Higher Minimum Wage Counter-Productive?

By Barry Rascovar

March 24, 2014 — Since it’s an election year, Democratic politicians in Annapolis are eager to pass an increase in the minimum wage. Gov. Martin O’Malley is poised to promote a higher minimum wage law in Maryland as part of his incipient campaign for national office.

But is it a good idea? Will there be unintended consequences in the form of job reductions?

That could well be the case, based on a recent Texas A&M economic study. It’s also the findings of a February study by the Congressional Budget Office.

Minimum Wage Increases

Minimum Wage Increases

Bottom Line: A jump in the minimum wage by 10 percent (Maryland’s proposal is 13 percent in Year One and a cumulative 39 percent over three years) will have a significant negative impact on future job hiring.

The non-partisan CBO forecasts that a federal hike in the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour could mean a likely loss of 500,000 jobs nationwide, although there’s a chance the job loss could top one million.

The Texas A&M study may be more relevant in that it looked at new job creation in the year following previous minimum wage hikes. “Net job growth falls in response to an increase in the minimum wage,” it concludes.

Tom Firey of the Maryland Public Policy Institute figures this could mean the loss of 25 percent of all newly created jobs in Maryland if the General Assembly ups the minimum wage.

His adds: “In this miserable economy, the last thing we need is to further handicap job growth and business start-ups.”

All this is fascinating data and under normal circumstances the facts and figures should prove persuasive.

Not for politicians in an election year, though. Not when labor unions and liberal advocacy groups are going overboard promoting a higher minimum wage as the Second Coming.

Minimum Wage protester

But beware of the side effects: Higher consumer prices, a contraction of small retail businesses and unemployment for many now employed at the minimum wage rate.

The trade-off: help for the lowest salaried workers, who would see their pay (before taxes) go up by 3 percent.

Yet raising the minimum wage amounts to a shotgun approach: Only 19 percent of those who would receive this raise come from households below the poverty threshold of $15,730 for a family of two and $23,850 for a family of four.

Indeed, 29 percent of those benefiting from a $10.10 minimum hourly wage would come from households earning three times the poverty level ($46,190 for a family of two, $68,450 for a family of four).

An Alternative Route

A far better way to deliver financial support to the lowest-paid workers is increasing the federal and state earned income tax credit. One hundred percent of that money winds up in the hands of a low-wage worker earning less than $15,000 annually (the cap is $54,000 for a couple with three children). It’s a highly effective income supplement for low-wage workers.

That’s not going to happen in Maryland because a more generous EITC means a big hit to the governor’s budget, whereas raising the minimum wage socks it to small businesses primarily, not the government.

Yet given Maryland’s shaky economic recovery, lawmakers in the Senate are beginning to have second thoughts about sharply raising the state’s minimum wage. After all, Maryland lost nearly 10,000 jobs in January. Passage of the governor’s bill might accelerate those job losses.

It’s a Catch-22 for liberal Democratic lawmakers. Advocates standing on the sidelines promote this bill as a huge boost to the economy. Yet no impartial economic study comes to that conclusion.

Middleton’s Demand

Now a key senator, Thomas McLain (Mac) Middleton from Charles County, has thrown a new issue on the table. The governor’s bill ignores the plight of workers who care from the state’s developmentally disabled. They’d end up earning less than the new minimum wage.

Middleton won’t move the governor’s bill until this oversight is addressed. Developmental workers — 18,000 in community settings — deserve far more in wages than they’re paid ($9.82). They perform some of the most emotionally trying work in society tending to 25,000 developmentally disabled people in Maryland.

Even more egregious, the state pays its own developmental workers in rural state residential facilities much more. That fundamental inequity makes no sense except in terms of saving money when the state budget is formulated.

O’Malley’s minions are negotiating with Middleton and likely will find a way to satisfy the senator. Yet this problem is just the tip of the iceberg.

How many other job categories within state and local governments will have to be adjusted because of a $10.10 minimum wage? Is it affordable?

Passage Coming

There’s no doubt a modified version of O’Malley’s bill will be approved.

It may not have all the bells and whistles far-left advocates and the governor desire, such as an automatic cost of living increase and a big boost in salaries for tipped workers.

The path to $10.10 might be phased in more slowly. More exemptions might be added to cover college students working the summer beach season in Ocean City.

In the end, though, Maryland lawmakers will put a higher minimum wage on the books — even though it may not make sound economic sense and might prove the wrong way to address this dilemma.

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Re-fighting the Holocaust

By Barry Rascovar

March 17, 2014 – IT’S THE CLASSIC tug of war between emotion and logic, a crusade by legislators in Annapolis to enact punishment on a corporate Holocaust collaborator versus the cold reality that such a move would cost Maryland a new mass-transit line in suburban Washington.

So far, the emotion side of the human equation is winning.

Purple Line

The Purple Line

Lawmakers, especially those who are Jewish, are determined to right a terrible wrong by punishing the French national railroad, SNCF, and denying it any chance of gaining lucrative transportation contracts in Maryland unless it pays reparations to American Holocaust victims.

During World War II, the French railroad was seized by the Nazi regime, placed under German military commanders and forced to help transport 76,000 Jews and others to concentration camps.

Twenty-one hundred railroad workers who resisted or refused to assist the Nazis were executed – along with their families.

The French government pays reparations to Holocaust survivors, but only if they are French citizens or citizens of nearby countries.

SNCF

SNCF pays no reparations because it is 100 percent owned by the French government. It is considered an integral part of that government – similar to the U.S. Postal Service.

This tragic, 70-year-old tale of man’s inhumanity to man has re-surfaced at the Annapolis State House for the second time in four years.

MARC’s Saga

In 2011, the same group of lawyers pushing this year’s reparations bill conducted a six-month campaign against SNCF’s bid to run the state MARC commuter rail lines. This led to some of the nastiest hearings seen in the state capital. SNCF officials were verbally pummeled and abused by angry lawmakers. One hearing resembled a kangaroo court.

The net result: passage of a measure against SNCF that jeopardized federal funding for the MARC line because it illegally tainted the bidding process. Maryland got around that problem by fully funding aspects of the contract that previously had received federal dollars.

Then the state put the narrowed MARC contract out to bid. With so much negative pressure applied to the O’Malley administration, the outcome was never in doubt. SNCF lost the contract.

(Ironically, the contract winner — and the only other bidder — has a tainted history, too. Its parent company in Germany made munitions for the Nazi government during World War II and employed slave labor – mostly Jews – to aid the Nazi cause and reap a large profit. No stink was ever made about that horrific situation by state lawmakers.)

Reparations Bill

This year’s anti-SNCF effort seeks to force SNCF to pay reparations to Holocaust victims living in the United States. The bill makes it a prerequisite for bidding on the $2.3 billion Purple Line contract. SNCF is part of a consortium that wants to bid on this public-private partnership arrangement that could be worth $6 billion over the 35-year life of the contract.

Problems with the reparations bill are numerous. Under French law, SNCF can’t pay reparations, only the French government can. So the bill seeks to accomplish the impossible.

Such a bill violates international law because SNCF is part of the French government, not a private corporation. Maryland can’t demand reparations from an arm of a foreign nation. That’s the job of the U.S. State Department.

The bill also violates federal law by tainting the bidding process on federally funded programs. This bill clearly aims to punish SNCF by setting unrealistic barriers before the railroad can bid on the Purple Line contract.

Red-Headed Eskimo

That kind of one-company discrimination (a “red-headed Eskimo” bill in legislative lingo) is blatantly illegal in state and federal contracting law.

The state attorney general’s office has declared that to be the case. So has the Federal Rail Administration. So has the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Indeed, state DOT officials told lawmakers it would be impossible to win federal funds for the Purple Line if this bill is passed and signed into law.

That’s $900 million in cash, plus a $732 million low-interest federal loan, that would disappear. The Purple Line would vanish as a viable undertaking.

The bill’s House sponsor, Del. Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County, says he will revise the measure to get around these problems.

Del. Kirill Reznik

Del. Kirill Reznik

Surely the lawyers who have pursued SNCF for years will come up with a different approach, but any punitive action designed to force SNCF to pay reparations will be deemed discriminatory and illegal.

Trying to rectify a 70-year-old outrage isn’t realistic in this case.

The Nazis left SNCF in shambles after the war. No one profited from the transports. Besides, anyone at the railroad who had a role in the Nazi collaboration is dead or long since retired.

Today, the new SNCF is one of the world’s largest and most respected transportation systems. It does a considerable amount of business with Israel, which surely would never engage in commerce with a Holocaust enabler.

It’s also a big supporter of Holocaust remembrance programs and Holocaust museums. It has expressed regret and, given the historical record, asked for forgiveness for what happened.

SNCF’s Atonement

The Jewish community in France long ago accepted SNCF’s atonement, recognizing those who worked at the railroad during the war were forced to do so at the point of a gun.

Only the American Jewish community, egged on by lawyers, continues to target SNCF.

The Maryland Jewish community is at the head of this pack.

An SNCF subsidiary already operates Virginia’s commuter rail system that terminates in Union Station.

Last year, the subsidiary won a huge contract to manage Boston’s 660-mile commuter rail system – a contract that could be worth $4.3 billion over the next 12 years. In neither case did the Holocaust issue become a bone of contention.

When this controversy arose in 2011, the O’Malley administration and legislators found ways to implement the anti-SNCF bill without harming the state’s interests.

Forgo the Purple Line?

That looks impossible to achieve with the 2014 reparations bill.

Unless Montgomery County legislators are willing to forgo the Purple Line, there’s no way to go after SNCF without winding up on the wrong side of international law and anti-discrimination laws dealing with competitively bid contracts.

Any legislative actions that delay the bidding process for the Purple Line could result in a withdrawal of federal support. There are too many other rapid rail projects clamoring for those same federal dollars.

Negotiations are under way between France and the U.S. to hammer out a reparations deal for Holocaust victims who are American citizens. SNCF is not  part of those negotiations.

But by the time that deal is sealed, we may be into 2015 or 2016 – long after the bidding on the Purple Line concludes.

In this instance, logic needs to triumph over emotion in the legislative hallways of Annapolis.

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Redistricting, Minimum Wage & TV Debates

A Weekly Roundup

By Barry Rascovar

March 7 — TODAY’S House of Delegates session will mark the halfway point for a bill raising Maryland’s minimum wage in phases from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2017 — nearly 40 percent.

Recent minimum wage protest

Recent minimum wage protest

Without question, the O’Malley administration’s bill will pass. The votes are there. But it’s not exactly the bill Gov. Martin O’Malley presented in January.

There’s no automatic inflation clause. Amusement park workers are exempted (largely to accommodate Six Flags in chairman Dereck Davis’ Prince George’s County). Implementation is delayed six months to ease the transition for businesses.

Senate Action Next

Most of the changes are sensible, but more may be coming in the Senate, where there is a little more skepticism about the advisability of such a major increase in business expenses during the weakest economic recovery in memory.

Rural counties in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore may need special attention. Living expenses are a lot less there. A 40-percent hike in wages for many small, rural businesses might prove counter-productive. Ocean City’s minimum-wage summer help is primarily college students, not adults raising a family.

Too Much in a Weak Recovery?

The bill’s three-year phase-in may be too aggressive during this exceptionally mild recovery. It might be wise to adopt a more gradual rise.

But one way or another, an increase in Maryland’s minimum wage is coming — and is necessary.

It’s now a matter of how willing lawmakers are to heed warnings by business that O’Malley’s original bill  could have unintended consequences.

+++++

ON THE OTHER END of the economic spectrum, Senate and House leaders (but not O’Malley) are pushing a bill to lower Maryland’s estate tax. This is overdue.

Wealthy Marylanders are switching their residences to avoid this state tax. Some of Maryland’s most respected business leaders are among them. The tax makes no sense, especially when surrounding states are benefiting.

A gradual return to the days when Maryland’s estate tax matched the federal levy seemed likely to pass until revised estimates on Thursday showed a new quarter-billion-dollar hole in O’Malley’s budget. That may force lawmakers to delay implementation of the phase-in.

O’Malley has not been part of the estate-tax movement. It doesn’t fit into his presidential playbook.

Instead, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch are leading the charge. They’ve finally recognized the need to start reforming parts of Maryland’s unbalanced tax laws. They’ve figures out that chasing wealthy Marylanders out of the state is a terrible strategy.

+++++

A SIDELIGHT of the minimum wage debate this week was an attempt by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur to go beyond O’Malley’s bill and raise the standard to $11.37 an hour by 2023.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

Mizeur’s amendment bombed.

She got just eight votes, including her own.

That indicates the narrowness of Mizeur’s ultra-liberal appeal, even in a liberal General Assembly. It does not bode well for her statewide campaign.

+++++

A HANDFUL of bills in the General Assembly seek to reform Maryland’s politicized redistricting process. They aren’t going anywhere.

That’s too bad, because turning redistricting over exclusively to those in power has gotten out of hand.

The current maps are undemocratic and a disservice to voters. Maryland’s congressional maps, for instance, are appalling. No effort is made to create compact districts or keep communities together.

MD's gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Yet until the Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals change their tunes on redistricting, legislative reforms are meaningless.

The highest federal court has washed its hands of redistricting, claiming it is purely a political matter. So much for ensuring fairness and sane congressional districts.

Interference By Appeals Court

The state’s highest court, meanwhile, has become too deeply involved in redistricting, imposing archaic thinking in drawing legislative boundaries.

As a result, cross-jurisdictional districts that follow neighborhood growth patterns are virtually forbidden. Rigid adherence to county and city lines trumps everything, even when citizens pay no heed to those boundaries in their daily lives.

What a mess. Redistricting, as currently practiced, is giving representative democracy a bad name.

+++++

TELEVISED DEBATES in the race for governor have been set. All three of them.

Don’t expect much.

The candidates will be well rehearsed, especially the front-runner, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who needs careful scripting.

Televised Political Debates

Don’t expect one of these in MD’s 2014 TV debates.

But the real laugher will be the lone televised debate among lieutenant governor candidates.

These hopefuls aren’t elected on their own: They are the conjoined twins of gubernatorial candidates. So on TV, they will mimic positions taken by their far-more important running mates.

No Assigned Duties

That’s because their own views don’t count.

Under the state’s constitution, the lieutenant governor has no designated powers. He (or she) is there in case the governor drops dead or comes down with a disabling disease.

So if you happen to miss the scintillating debate among wannabe lieutenant governors, don’t fret.

Tuning in would be a waste of your time.

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