Tag Archives: Larry Hogan Jr.

State Center Re-do Inches Forward

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 29, 2018 — Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration last week unveiled a $79,000 “Alternative Land Use Study” of the 28-acre State Center site in Baltimore that merely tells us what we already know. It moves any re-do an inch forward, at best.

On the positive side, Hogan released the 103-page report with laudatory comments about the site’s potential and his commitment to a redevelopment plan that could “have a transformational and lasting impact for Baltimore City and its citizens.”

Yet what might be plunked down on those acres remains pretty much a mystery.

State Center Re-do Inches Ahead

A portion of the 280-acre State Center complex in midtown Baltimore

Once thing remains clear. The original development project conceived under former Gov. Bob Ehrlich and propelled forward vigorously by former Gov. Martin O’Malley remains trapped in Hogan’s purgatory.

It would have been a bad deal for the state, Hogan maintains, costing “outrageous sums” to lease state office space the government now occupies for free (minus, of course, operating costs).

The state Board of Public Works unanimously rejected spending money that would have pushed the project ahead but also might have caused Maryland to lose its coveted triple-A bond rating, shattered the state’s debt ceiling and required legislative approval.

Since then, the question has been: What comes next?

Where to Put State Workers

Hogan’s study confirmed the best land use might be turning State Center into a combination of retail space (including a grocery), commercial offices, medical buildings, apartments, senior care buildings and a public park. The only thing that differs from the rejected development concept is that there is no mention of where to move the 3,000 workers in the complex’ state-owned buildings.

It’s curious why Hogan opted to spend $79,000 on this study. It is so limited in scope and the conclusions so predictable that the governor might have been better off requesting conceptual ideas from private developers.

The authors of the study, Crossroads Consulting Services, went to great lengths to explain the limits of its report. It is merely “a cursory market evaluation.” Two state agencies instructed the consultants not to talk with “the outside development community.” Thus, this is not “an in-depth, detailed” market analysis. Nor does the report provide Hogan with “a future development or implementation strategy.”

Crossroads did, though, study similar situations in 11 other “peer cities” and bored  in on how Kansas City, Minneapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh and St. Louis have handled similar development planning.

The consultants also zeroed in on a key problem that has gotten little attention — the highly congested and unaddressed road situation surrounding the site. It made suggestions as well on how to erect pedestrian bridges that would safely connect this “island of land” to nearby services and communities.

What is missing from the report is obvious:  Input from the private sector, Baltimore City, highway and urban planners. Each group needs to put forth visions for State Center’s future.

Nothing immediate is on the horizon, though: The state and the previous developer group are battling bitterly in court over the state’s refusal to move forward.

Hogan-Pugh Connection

Still, Hogan could simply pick up the phone and call Mayor Catherine Pugh so they can start cooperating on a number of State Center questions:

  • Where is the best place to move those 3,000 state workers?

The former Social Security annex near Lexington Market, undergoing renovation, might be an ideal site, pumping life into downtown’s west side and linking the state work force to the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus and the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Another option is re-locating workers to the Downtown Business District, which has a high vacancy rate, low rents and needs an economic boost.

Either option would be far cheaper than the now-discarded plan, which called for the state to pay sky-high rents at a new office building on the State Center site.

  • What do nearby communities want to see at a re-imagined State Center?

The voices of those diverse neighborhoods need to be heard, not just the carefully choreographed support of residents who have lined up behind the previous developer group.

  • How can re-development lift opportunities and the quality of life for lower-income residents in adjacent Upton?                                                                                                                                          
  • How can the massive Fifth Regiment Armory — site of the 1912 Democratic National Convention — find a beneficial and practical re-use? The heating and cooling bills alone for this immense structure might  sink most commercial projects.
State Center Re-do Inches Ahead

Fifth Regiment Armory, historic, fortress-like building in Baltimore’s State Center.

  • How might nearby academic and medical institutions play a role?

The University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and UMB all should get a chance to put proposals on the table. For example, why not a joint indoor fitness center/gymnasium that not only serves all three institutions but the community, too?

  • Health Care. How can the former Maryland General Hospital, now part of the University of Maryland Medical System, expand its health-care offerings and enhance its campus by occupying space on the adjacent State Center grounds?

 

  • Highways. What can city and state highway experts devise to improve traffic flow on heavily traveled Howard Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard? Where should pedestrian bridges be located to make this “island of land” accessible to all?

 

  • Housing. How can the residential character of Eutaw Street to the north best be extended into State Center?

There’s a prime opportunity for Hogan and Pugh to join hands on this major undertaking. Early planning is a natural next-step even as the court battles rage.

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Baltimore, oh Baltimore!

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 22, 2018 — Baltimore, oh Baltimore! How low can your situation go?

–A killing crime wave that won’t stop. Corrupt cops. A fired police commissioner.
–Losing its bid for the Amazon-East headquarters.
–Frigid school buildings caused by bursting pipes.
–Homes going without water for weeks due to crumbling infrastructure.
–Historic monuments horribly defaced by far-left vigilantes.
–A governor who practices “benign neglect” toward the city — and cuts $21 million from the state’s aid-recovery programs.
–An embarrassing screw-up at a downtown city hospital that leaves a mentally ill woman wandering the frigid streets in a hospital gown.
–An NFL team that blows its playoff hopes not once but twice in its final games.
–A baseball team about to lose its most popular and best player, with no signs of a recovery plan.

Baltimore, oh Baltimore!Yes, it’s been a terribly rough patch for Mayor Catherine Pugh in her first year. Can it get worse? Possibly. Then again, perhaps we’ve hit the low point:

–A new police commissioner, not an outsider but a 30-year veteran of the force. He comes with high praise and a plan to target the worst criminal offenders that he implemented immediately.
–A downtown residential building boom as the strong demand from millennials to live and work in the heart of the city persists in spite of its problems.
–The progress by Kevin Plank at Port Covington to create a city within a city — with or without an Amazon to embellish this already ambitious project.
–An aggressive city delegation in Annapolis that isn’t likely to allow the Hogan administration to treat Baltimore City as harshly as the governor indicated in his new budget.

The mayor herself seems to be breaking out of her lethargy — another good sign. Baltimore needs strong, proactive leadership, especially at this moment in its history.

Missing Partner

What’s missing is a true partner in the governor’s office in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget gives no sign of recognizing a role for the state in turning around a dreadful situation in the state’s most important metropolis.

Instead, the Republican governor has used the city’s woes as a political punching bag to boost his reelection drive.

There’s no extra money to transform Baltimore’s schools, its social welfare safety net, its rehabilitation programs or its under-staffed law-enforcement efforts.

Instead, Hogan has played to his right-of-center audience, hectoring city officials in mean-spirited jabs in which he condemns incompetence, bureaucracy, the mayor and always Democrats in charge.

That’s fine from a reelection standpoint. But on the ground, where people’s lives and futures are at stake, Hogan’s jabs merely deepen the problem and do little to reverse the tide.

Politics vs. Governance

It will be up to state legislative leaders to come up with creative ways to persuade the governor to become more than a sideline critic.

In an election year, Democratic lawmaker may also try to turn the tables on Republican Hogan — embarrassing him politically while directing more aid to make Baltimore safer and less of an albatross around the state’s neck.

At some point, Hogan has to recognize that Baltimore’s nationally publicized plight is damaging Maryland’s economic development efforts.

So long as Baltimore remains poor, under-educated and lacking in jobs for its residents, the city will drag down the rest of the state — not only financially but also in terms of the state’s reputation.

It’s a dicey dilemma for Hogan, who seems to relish his rants against what’s going wrong in Baltimore because it brings cheers from his followers in the suburbs and rural communities. Yet in his role as governor, Hogan is not burnishing his legacy by ignoring the steep decline of Maryland’s major city.

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Hogan’s Good & Bad Poll News

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 15, 2018 — Yes, we’re a long way from the November elections but Gonzales Research and Media Services’  first poll of 2018 contained some tantalizing results for both Democrats and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

The governor remains remarkably popular — 71 percent overall approval rating. That includes 61 percent approval among Democrats and 78 percent among independents.

Given those sky-high numbers, plus the staggering sums of money Hogan is raising for his reelection campaign, he looks like a shoo-in.

Hogan's Good & Bad Poll News

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

Yet other numbers in the Gonzales poll tell a more cautionary story.

As Gonzales points out in a column he wrote for Maryland Reporter, a stunning 90 percent of Democrats who said they “somewhat” approved of Hogan’s job performance still would not vote for him in the fall.

Why? Because the  poll identified Hogan as a Republican — a highly negative connotation in some quarters these days.

Even worse news followed in the poll. Hogan only leads the most likely Democratic nominee, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, by 10 points.

Here’s the kicker: President Trump’s disapproval rating is a whopping 60 percent — and over 80 percent of those people feel strongly about that sentiment. Moreover, 41 percent of those polled said the most important issue of the day is “removing Donald Trump.”

If those trends continue, the anti-Trump tsunami that seems to be building might threaten Hogan’s hopes for a second term.

Similarities to Ehrlich

Remember that the last Republican governor in Maryland, Bob Ehrlich, enjoyed high approval numbers going into his 2006 reelection campaign. Yet Ehrlich ended up with just 46 percent of the vote.

Hogan also has to be concerned by the spanking Republicans received last November in the off-off-year elections for local offices in many states. A huge wave washed over those state campaigns prompted by voters’ anger, fear and dislike for Trump.

Syndicated columnist George Will pointed out, for instance, the shocking GOP losses in stronghold suburban Philadelphia counties: For the first time ever, Republicans lost all offices in Chester County, all but one office in Bucks County and had their worst showing in Delaware County since 1974.

That’s just one of many examples across the nation of the 2017 “wave” election that favored Democrats amid growing anti-Trump sentiment.

The Gonzales poll indicates that Baker could well consolidate a huge vote in the populous Washington suburbs. Should an anti-Trump wave wash over Baltimore City and portions of its suburbs, Hogan might find himself in a nip-and-tuck battle.

Rushern Baker

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker

The first- of-the-year poll also showed Baker with a 10-point lead over Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former NAACP president Ben Jealous. That lead could prove hard to overcome in such a large field, especially since there’s little difference among candidates on issues.

An early June primary also hurts candidates trying to catch up, as does the likelihood of a light turnout in early summer when folks are planning their vacations and trips to the ballpark.

For Hogan, though, the name of the Democratic nominee is less important than the Trump factor.

The president’s crude, uninhibited and spontaneous outbursts as well as his unconventional policy decisions have provoked an unprecedented furor. The more Trump engages in hot rhetoric and campaigns loudly for Republicans over the next ten months, the less secure Hogan’s chances become.

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2018 MD Assembly: All Politics, All the Time

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2018–Just in case there was any doubt the next 90 days in the Annapolis State House will focus like a laser on political opportunism, Gov. Larry Hogan tossed a Molotov cocktail into the air yesterday aimed at embarrassing Democrats.

Using Baltimore City’s weather-related school closings (extreme cold, bursting pipes, failing heating systems) as a foil, Hogan lashed out in a less than polite way at what he called a “horrendous crisis,” calling for the appointment of a state inspector general to police schools throughout Maryland — with subpoena power — looking for corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.

2018 Assembly Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

While you can debate the merits of a powerful state investigator sticking his nose into the operations of every single school system in search of wasteful spending, wrongdoing and poor judgment, keep in mind that Hogan’s theatrics are purely political: His suggestion doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in you-know-where when it is presented to the Democratic legislature. It will be dead on arrival.

And the governor knows it.

It’s a prime illustration of how the Maryland General Assembly session that starts Wednesday will be all about politics, all the time.

There’s no way House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller will allow Hogan a “win” during the 90-day session. It’s all about politics from their perspective, too. Anything these Democrats can do to put roadblocks in Republican Hogan’s re-election path is a victory in their eyes.

2018 General Assembly Session

Senate President Mike Miller

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

All Hogan really has is a bully pulpit to castigate Democrats in the party’s strongholds — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

He’s likely to continue his harsh rhetoric aimed at the struggling city in the months ahead.

It is raw meat for his devoted conservative followers. He might even gain some support from African-Americans by posing as the “savior” of their failing schools — even though he hasn’t lifted a finger to help solve this deeply entrenched problem.

Clash of the Politicians

Republican Hogan and legislative Democrats will clash on multiple fronts this session with political factors serving as the guiding light for both sides.

First up? Hogan’s veto last year of the Democrats’ paid sick-leave bill. The governor’s alternative plan may not even make it to a hearing, since a veto-override by both houses could happen almost immediately.

Call it a warning shot across the governor’s ship of state.

Some of Hogan’s appointments may find it rough sledding through the confirmation process, especially State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby of Worcester County, whom Hogan named to the Circuit Court late last month despite warnings the Legislative Black Caucus would vigorously oppose such an appointment.

Republican Oglesby was accused four years ago of using racially insensitive language and creating a racially hostile work environment. He’s involved in a related federal lawsuit, too.

Advice to Ogelsby: In this politically charged atmosphere, don’t quit your day job.

Tax-Code Politics

Wherever you look in the State House, politics is the word of the day.

For instance, sorting out the impact of massive federal changes in the income-tax code took on a political coloration when Hogan leapt at the chance to get on the good side of taxpayers by announcing he’ll do everything in his power to make sure no one in Maryland pays more state taxes as a result of those changes made by his fellow Republicans in Washington.

He said Democrats should jump on board his no-new-taxes bandwagon without hesitating.

If only it were that simple.

Tax reform, as enacted by Congress, is a highly complex issue, fraught with implications for state and local governments. Rushing to offset the federal tax changes that hurt Maryland filers won’t be easy and shouldn’t be done on a whim.

At the same time, Democrats see an opportunity in Washington’s tax changes to fund some of their top priorities, such as the Children’s Health Initiative Program (CHIP), countering the Trump administration’s steps to curtail Obamacare, providing more aid for public schools and finding more money to fight the crime and opioid epidemics.

Hogan’s view and the Democrats’ view on the Republican tax-cut law are starkly different. They may not find common ground during the next 90 days. Indeed, clarity about the tax-code changes and their impact in Maryland may not be apparent until later in 2018.

A special session in an election year is highly unusual, but it may become necessary.

Gerrymandering Stand-off

Hogan and the Democrats also will squabble over redistricting, with the governor putting in a DOA bill that sets up a non-partisan commission. This is a continuation of his efforts to give Republicans a boost during redistricting and to get on the right side of voters on this matter.

Lawmakers in the majority will try to embarrass the governor by passing gun-control legislation, such as a ban on bump stocks similar to the ones used in the Las Vegas massacre. That would force the governor to veto the bill — and antagonize moderate voters he needs for reelection — or sign the bill — and enflame his conservative backers he also needs to gain a second term.

Each side will try to out-maneuver the other. Substance will take a back seat to gaining political advantage in ways that could influence the outcome in November.

So get ready for lots of name-calling and hyper-partisan rhetoric in the coming months. Agreement on solving Maryland’s most pressing problems will have to wait until 2019.

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Neall’s Obamacare Challenge

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 3, 2018 — First, the good news: Gov. Larry Hogan has named a new health secretary who not only knows what he’s doing health-care wise but also is an experienced “Mr. Fixit” when it comes to devising solutions to knotty problems.

Now the bad news: Bobby Neall has a king-sized dilemma staring him in the face as he steps into his Baltimore office suite on Jan. 9: The perilous steps taken by Republicans in Washington to subvert and eventually kill the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Robert R. Neall, the governor’s new health secretary.

Over 150,000 Marylanders signed up for Obamacare insurance coverage in the recently closed enrollment period, even though premiums are skyrocketing.

According to Chet Burrell, president/CEO of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, without rapid response from State House leaders “we believe the individual market segment” of Obamacare  “will catastrophically fail in the next 12 to 24 months leaving tens of thousands of individuals without affordable coverage options.”

Given that CareFirst is far and away the dominant insurer in Maryland’s individual market, that’s an alarming prediction but one many health care economists have been warning about.

Here’s the immediate problem: President Trump and congressional Republicans tacked onto their giant tax-cut law a provision that eliminates from Obamacare the mandate that every adult have health insurance or pay a penalty at tax time.

Thanks to Trump & friends, there no longer is any punishment if adults want to go without health-care coverage.

‘Death Spiral’

This move “constitutes a direct threat” to Maryland’s individual market, Burrell says in a letter, “because it will almost certainly accelerate a ‘death spiral’ already underway in this market segment by spurring younger and healthier people to exit the market — leaving too high a concentration of those who are ill to make premiums affordable to all.”

Since 2014, CareFirst has jacked up Obamacare premiums 150 percent — “horrific increases” Burrell calls them — yet the insurer lost over $400 million insuring people in this market.

He says his company expects to lose as much as $100 million more over the next year and could be forced to raise rates another 50 percent in 2019.

At that point, he notes, health-care coverage for this group — whose incomes are not quite low enough to qualify for government subsidies — could become unaffordable, both for individuals and for insurers.

Burrell suggests it is time for Annapolis to devise “sound public policy” that helps provide insurance for “a population that undeniably needs coverage.”

Enter, Bobby Neall.

He’s got years of experience running the state’s largest managed-care organization for Medicaid recipients. In short order, he turned a money-losing operation into a profitable business for Johns Hopkins Health Care while also increasing quality indicators. He’s exceptionally well-liked and respected by state legislators, too.

Yet there’s not much time to come up with a brand-new state insurance program. In four months, health-care insurers must submit their rates for 2019. Time is the enemy.

Burrell’s Proposal

Fortunately Burrell has put a plan on the table that might be controversial with his fellow insurance executives but points to a way out of this bind.

Here’s what he suggests:

  • Simplify Maryland’s public insurance option by offering just one plan with a $1,000 deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,500.
  • Create a state health-care fund to re-insure individuals with high medical costs and for people needing premium subsidies.
  • Impose a 3 percent fee on insurers who do business in Maryland but fail to participate in the ACA market (at the moment only CareFirst and Kaiser offer such policies).
  • Pass a law mandating that every adult in Maryland obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty that goes into the state health-care fund.
  • Base future premium subsidies on age and income so that younger adults are eligible for attractive insurance rates.

CareFirst analysts believe these steps could lower premiums up to 40 percent, cut out-of-pocket expenses for most individuals and draw many more younger, healthier Marylanders into the program.

That would be a win-win-win.

This plan may not check all the boxes. It may draw considerable opposition. But it gives the new health secretary a concrete starting point and knowledge that the state’s largest insurer stands behind the plan.

Prompt Action Required

Burrell points out, though, that his proposal requires a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and General Assembly action. Lots of actuarial and economic analysis must be submitted and lots of discussions must take place to hammer out a consensus in Annapolis in short order.

From the governor’s perspective, finding an answer is a political imperative. Hogan cannot afford to be saddled with the charge he failed to help middle-income Marylanders keep their health insurance coverage.

The last thing he wants is to face that charge in the midst of his re-election campaign. It’s a potential issue that could anger and energize interest groups favoring broad health-care coverage.

Burrell is offering a public-private solution, which should appeal to the governor — not a state handout.

There’s much to like in his plan. But Health Secretary Neall knows only too well the proverbial devil lies in the details.

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Taxing Time for Maryland

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 3, 2017 — Now that a massive trillion-dollar tax cut is a virtual certainty in Washington,  Maryland officials must quickly figure out if the appropriate reaction is panic or relief.

The impact on budget-makers in Annapolis and in the counties is enormous. Since Maryland’s tax laws are coupled to rules for the federal income-tax collections, what happens on Capital Hill tax-wise reverberates almost immediately in Maryland.

But will it mean more state and local tax revenue or less? At the moment, there is no easy answer.

State legislators have little time to react, since they go into session for just 90 days starting Jan. 10. At this point, they have no hard data on a) what will be in the final bill that hurts or helps Maryland and its subdivisions, and b) what changes must be made immediately in state tax laws.

We do know many Marylanders could have their lives turned upside down.

People who spend large sums supporting themselves or family members in assisted living or nursing home facilities, or those with giant family medical expenses, no longer get to claim these payments as a tax offset under the House-passed version.

That could lead to hefty rises in tax bills for them, putting themselves and their loved ones in financial difficulty.

No more write-offs for state and local taxes. This adds to every Marylander’s tax burden. How will this affect the state’s tax receipts?Taxing Time for MarylandEvery analysis of the dueling House and Senate tax bills confirms that well-to-do Marylanders will reap huge tax savings, middle-class folks could receive either a small reduction in federal taxes or a larger tax bill from the IRS, and the lower class will see its tax bracket rise.

The rich get vastly richer, the poor get little if any help and the middle class get a relatively middling savings.

The “trickle-down” theory of economics is alive and flourishing in the Grand Old Party.

But how will this play out in government budgets in the Free State?

There will be far more uncertainty among Marylanders who joined the Obamacare program. Health-care insurance bills are likely to rise 10 percent or more each year under the GOP’s tax-cut bill. Potentially 13 million Americans could lose health care coverage.

That could reverberate in Maryland with hospitals bearing the brunt of thousands of newly uninsured citizens flooding emergency rooms with little or no money to pay for medical treatment.

More to Come

Meanwhile, Republicans are making no secret of their real targets: safety-net programs, especially Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio admitted as much last Wednesday, stating the “next step” is going after these big-ticket federal programs.

Why? Because the GOP’s tax-cut bill saddles the nation with gigantic new deficits — $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Another federal law requires Congress to make budget cuts as an offset.

Additionally, economists say the tax-cut bill will spawn rapid increases in inflation, which has been virtually nil in recent years. Rising inflation dampens economic growth, which was the raison d’etre for the GOP tax cuts.

How will all this impact Maryland?

Will companies with major Maryland employment centers reward stockholders when the corporate tax rate is chopped nearly in half or will they reward workers? Will firms hire additional employees or use the tax savings to automate production facilities and cut back on employment?

These are the kinds of questions fiscal analysts in Annapolis and county seats had better get a handle on sooner rather than later.

Placing a Big Bet

The Republican tax cut has not been wildly popular with Americans, according to polls. They seem to grasp that the vast majority of financial benefits flow to those who already live comfortably or to corporations.

Yet the GOP is placing a gigantic bet on the party’s ability to persuade voters that the tax-cut bill is a win-win for everyone. The fate of Republican dominance in Congress could depend on voters’ sentiment toward the tax-cut measure likely to gain final approval by Christmas.

Meanwhile, Gov, Larry Hogan, county executives and legislators have to cope with the impact of these fiscal changes on state and local budgets now being put together.

Hogan already is  planning to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of private-activity bonds before year’s end because the House bill eliminates these kinds of bonds — a move by Washington that could undercut all kinds of private-public partnerships like the Purple Line, affordable housing and student loans.

What other government funding programs are at risk?

When the Board of Revenue Estimates meets later this month, it could still be largely in the dark as to the ramifications of those taxing negotiations in Washington.

By the time the board meets again in March, far more will be known about the tax bill’s impact on states and localities. The board’s revenue revisions that month could prove pivotal in determining what immediate steps are necessary to adjust state tax policy.

Will the General Assembly have time in its 90-day session to make those adjustments? Will the governor fight or accept those changes?

Even in an election year, lawmakers might find themselves facing an extended session or a special session to grapple with the impact of the GOP tax bill on Maryland’s finances.

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Downsizing That Hurts

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 27, 2017 — We live in a Trumpian world of propagandizing and denial of reality, with the accusers distorting the truth and calling it “fake news.”

Unfortunately, some of this manipulation is taking place in the Maryland State House. Far too often, spokesmen for Gov. Larry Hogan engage in blame-pointing rather than fess up to the cold, hard truth.

Case in point: The adamant denial that Maryland state government is suffering from huge personnel vacancies in some of its key agencies.

“Nonsense,” said the governor’s spokesman. There’s no shortage of state workers, he asserted, as he questioned the validity of the Department of Legislative Services report.

Denying the Obvious

Yet there is a glaring problem — according to data from Hogan’s own government agencies, a judge and state prison officials.

Instead of admitting the obvious and explaining what’s being done to find creative solutions,  Hogan’s office sought to denigrate a non-partisan research office with a sterling tradition of “calling it like it is.”

The “fake news” is coming from Hogan’s suite, not Legislative Services.

The argument is over the size of state government in Maryland.

Hogan, a believer in conservative budgeting, has consistently clamped a lid on state spending, including hiring. Part of this effort is grounded in the old Republican saw that government bureaucracies are always “bloated,” overflowing with people filling make-work jobs.

That has led to a drive to hold down new hiring, even in cases where there is a dire need for more personnel.

Contempt of Court

Take the Maryland Department of Health, where top brass nearly went to jail after they repeatedly they failed to hire enough psychiatric nurses and physicians to handle all of the patients being sent to state hospitals for court-ordered mental-health treatment.

This has been a longstanding problem that started well before Hogan. His aides could have pointed that out.

Instead, the governor’s minions circled the wagons and refused to cooperate with the judge — until the state health secretary was held in contempt of court.

Or take the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which continues having a devil of a time finding qualified prison guards with clean records. Over 1,700 vacant positions exist in the department — a whopping vacancy rate of 9 percent.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances but there’s a critical shortage of guards in state prisons. There was no effort by the governor’s office to explain how the administration is working to proactively meet this serious challenge.

Instead, the governor’s spokesman put the onus on the prior Democratic administration.

That line of attack ignores the fact that Hogan has been in office nearly three years — more than enough time to craft an effective plan to remedy this dangerous worker shortage.

Too Many Unfilled Jobs

DLS reported to a legislative committee that in a number of key agencies — corrections, health, human services, juvenile services and the State Police — the vacancy rate is more than twice the norm — over 7 percent.

That should be viewed as unacceptable by leaders of the executive branch. Instead, Hogan seems fixated on budgetary hold-downs — and denying there is a problem.

The English would describe his view as “penny wise and pound foolish.”

It makes sense to trim the size of government if it is done carefully. Problems begin when the needs of individual agencies are ignored for the sake of downsizing and budget cuts..

The Hogan administration may succeed in papering over most staffing shortages until after next year’s elections. But eventually lack of skilled job-holders could diminish state government’s ability to perform basic obligations. There’s a limit to downsizing in the public sector, a point Hogan’s team may have started to reach.

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MD’s Transportation Travails

By Barry Rascovar

Nov.  20, 2017 – When it comes to improving transportation for citizens and businesses in Central Maryland, the state has dropped the ball.

A crucial east-west connecting subway line in Baltimore was summarily cancelled, foregoing $1 billion in federal dollars to save the state money.

An east-west light-rail line to relieve congestion on the Capital Beltway and provide more public transit access for less-affluent citizens in the Washington suburbs was reduced dramatically to save the state money.

A much-needed revamp of Baltimore’s third-rate bus system remains controversial and so far hasn’t produced any new riders.

A plan to experiment with high-tech traffic controls on busy state roads is so modest that the impact on the driving public could be virtually nil.

MD's Transportation Travails

Baltimore’s century-old Howard Street Tunnel

And now CSX, the railroad born and bred in Baltimore as the B. & O., has pulled out of a plan to enlarge the Howard Street Tunnel, sacrificing potentially enormous future benefits for the sake of short-term, cost-saving profits for its stockholders.

Those first four items are bad news for Jane and Joe Citizen; the last item is terrible news for Baltimore’s vital maritime industry, which badly needs a better way to move more shipping containers to and from the Port of Baltimore.

Priority No. 1: Highways

The Hogan administration is clearly interested in highways over mass transit. But even there, improvements could be a long way off.

Take the much-publicized $50 million upgrade of traffic signals. The governor called it “transformational.” But the “Smart Signals” program doesn’t do much more than experiment with signaling technology that holds great promise but may not be fully ready for prime time.

The sites picked for this upgrade won’t help drivers much, if at all. Take the upgrade in Towson – Charles Street between the traffic light at Kenilworth Drive and I-695 – a mere 1,200 feet. Not much will be gleaned from that “improvement.”

Or take the upgrade in Brooklyn Park, where the new technology will control traffic lights on just an eight-block stretch along Ritchie Highway.

Look at the Annapolis smart signal corridor, extending through just four intersections along Route 2 south from Annapolis Harbor Center. Not much help for drivers there, either.

It’s great the administration is embarking on “smart” transportation technology. If fully implemented, this technology could possibly reduce idling time and carbon dioxide emissions as well as speed commutes. But the choice of such short driving distances means citizens will benefit minimally from this $50 million investment.

Traffic Jam for Buses

Similarly, the much-heralded, $135 million re-make of the Baltimore bus system hasn’t markedly improved travel time for bus commuters. It has done little to effectively connect city residents to suburban job centers. It’s another expensive transportation exercise that seems stuck in traffic.

Meanwhile, CSX’s new CEO has delivered a crushing blow to the governor’s hopes for an economic boost through a public-private effort to enlarge the century-old Howard Street Tunnel. He is out to prove to stockholders he can slash costs, boost quarterly profits and boost stockholder profits.

The $425 million tunnel project became a victim of Wall Street’s lust for short-term earnings gains even if it seriously erodes CSX’s long-term ability to capitalize on Baltimore’s booming container shipping traffic.

Getting federal approval for this project may have been a longshot anyway, according to Mark Reutter in the Baltimore Brew. Yet give the Hogan team credit for pushing ahead in the quest for a solution to the freight-traffic bottleneck caused by the antiquated tunnel beneath downtown Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the governor is pushing forward on an impossibly expensive ($9 billion), largely privatized plan to widen the Capital Beltway, I-270 to Frederick and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Yet the obstacles are immense, the price-tag is sure to rise substantially and the benefits have been called into question by members of the Montgomery County Council.

Even if these improvements are in place a decade from now, the rapid evolution of travel technology may make these super-expensive construction projects obsolete before they open.

Driverless cars are coming sooner than you think, which could create a radical transformation of American highways. Among other things, those “Lexus” toll lanes could fail to live up to revenue expectations.

So while the publicity from the governor’s suite promotes a positive image for Hogan’s transportation programs, not much is going smoothly. There have been more detours and bumps in the road than progress.

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Bad Omen for GOP?

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 12, 2017 – No one predicted it: A tidal-wave election last Tuesday swept through numerous states, sending even entrenched Republican incumbents into retirement and shocking the most optimistic Democrats by the enormity of their party’s sweeping victories.

Does this foretell a similar tsunami a year from now, when control of Congress could be at stake? Does this indicate Maryland’s popular Republican governor, Larry Hogan, faces a far more daunting challenge in 2018 than previously expected?

Before we get carried away by the surprising results, let’s keep in mind that all elections are not created equal.

Some are endowed with predictable outcomes while others are swayed by outside forces.

Last Tuesday, outside forces held the winning hand.

If you’re looking for one, overriding factor in all these election upsets, it’s the guy living in the White House.

With the latest polls showing barely more than one-third of voters approving of Donald Trump’s performance as president, it had to be expected that anti-Trump sentiment would show up in the November balloting.

Surprising Results

What came as a stunner was the breadth and depth of anger toward Trump – from enraged Democrats who showed up to vote in far larger than expected numbers, from independents who sided by a lopsided margin with Democrats, from college-educated women in the suburbs who have been turned off by Trump’s boorish and destructive behavior.

The result: Anti-Republican sentiment that wiped out even well-meaning moderate Republican officeholders.

Bad Omen for GOP?The two governorships up for grabs, in New Jersey and Virginia, went to Democrats by very large numbers. A tight race in the Old Dominion turned into a rout and Democrats came achingly close to re-capturing the Virginia House of Delegates for the first time in decades.

Some of the most conservative and longest-serving officeholders in those states got walloped by candidates from the other end of the political spectrum – a transgender, a Peruvian immigrant and a 32-year-old African-American woman who had never run for office before.

In a “wave election” anyone on the wrong side of the wave is vulnerable.

That could include Larry Hogan next year.

Demographic trends throughout the country and in Maryland may have been accelerated by Trump’s distasteful actions as president. Suddenly millennials, Latinos, African Americans, gays and college-educated suburban women are taking the time to show up at the polls and register their anger.

Frederick and Annapolis

Look at Annapolis, where incumbent Republican Mayor Mike Pantelides should have had smooth sailing to another term. Instead, he got clobbered by Australia native and restaurateur-businessman Gavin Buckley, a first-time Democratic candidate. Pantelides lost by a stunning 24 percentage points.

The same thing happened in Frederick city, where Democratic Alderman Mike O’Connor ousted two-term Mayor Randy McClement in a runaway race (22 percentage points). Democrats swept all five alderman seats by landslide margins, too.

Upsets are bound to occur in politics. But when so many long-established Republican figures are defeated in one-sided elections across the country, the GOP had better take notice.

Even Hogan, despite his popularity, could find himself a victim of the “send Trump a message” sentiment that dominated on Nov. 7.

Still, Maryland’s governor won’t be a sitting duck for Democrats next year. He’s proved to be a crafty, difficult-to-categorize politician who remains a staunch conservative but knows how to appease moderates.

He’s still an overwhelming favorite next year, but now there’s an asterisk attached to his name:

*If the country remains deeply angered by Trump’s presidency in November 2018, it won’t matter that Hogan is a likeable guy with sky-high approval numbers. He could be swept out to sea in spite of the fact he parted ways with the president long ago.

The same might apply to other moderate conservative Republicans with high popularity numbers, such as Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. If Democrats can find a decent Eastern Shore candidate to run against far-right conservative Rep. Andy Harris, the incumbent also might find the going rough next year.

No Republican is immune. The Trump influenza could infect all sorts of unsuspecting Republicans.

Different Issues

But don’t expect 2018 to be a carbon copy of 2017. The issues will be different. Congressional seats will be at stake with huge sums of GOP money thrown into races to preserve Republican control of Capitol Hill.

Hogan will vastly outspend his Democratic opponent. He’s also got the power of incumbency, which can’t be ignored.

Still, Hogan has to be having a sense of déjà vu: In 2006, incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, with approval ratings nearly as high as Hogan’s, was shown the door, receiving just 46 percent of the vote.

In short, the only thing Larry Hogan has to fear is fear itself – in the persona of Donald Trump. This year’s astounding results could be a preview of things.

Or next year’s results could mark as return to the status quo for Republicans.

The one thing we know is that the world will look quite different in 12 months when voters get another chance to express themselves.

Either way, Republicans are on the hot seat. Much like football’s Baltimore Ravens, they had better up their game.

Otherwise, 2018 could be a blowout year in which candidates such as Hogan and Kittleman might be lucky to avoid turning into collateral damage.

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Hogan’s Off-Message Moments

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 23, 2017 – Gov. Larry Hogan is riding high with strong poll numbers, low unemployment and ambitious plans to turn Maryland into a cutting-edge economic-development state.

Yet amid these positives, Hogan has a tendency to veer into a form of pettiness and vindictiveness that to some degree mirrors Donald Trump’s off-message moments.

Hogan at times gets testy when his decisions are challenged. It’s as though he cannot stand even the mildest of criticisms.

A week ago, he briefly turned nasty after an event honoring his efforts as governor to support causes dear to the Jewish community of suburban Washington.

A handful of people told Hogan how disappointed they were he had mandated a post-Labor Day start to the school year because it could lead to the elimination of days offs in Montgomery County schools for the Jewish high holidays. (The same situation is cropping in Baltimore County schools).

Hogan’s glad-handing, smiling demeanor changed. He said he was “outraged” by even the suggestion his move would result in no days off for those two sacred Jewish holidays.

“That’s nonsense,” he said, then suggested angrily that the entire Montgomery County school board should be defeated at the next election.

Sounds like one of Trump’s tantrums in which the president responds to the slightest critique with searing criticism of the speaker and urges his defeat on Election Day.

Tag-Team Nastiness

A few days later, Hogan displayed moments of ill temper at a Board of Public Works meeting in which he laced into the interim school chief of Baltimore County for failing to have all county schools air-conditioned immediately.

This is an old tale, one Hogan and state Comptroller Peter Franchot have used yearly to vilify Baltimore County officials. The county has embarked on a billion-dollar system-wide renovation to solve this decades-old problem but it cannot happen overnight – though the tag-team of Hogan and Franchot imply that it can.

To conclude his week, Hogan assailed a federal appeals court for daring to conclude a giant, 40-foot cross-shaped war monument on government property violates the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

An “outrageous . . . overreach,” Hogan wrote. The court’s conclusion, he concluded, is un-American. “Enough is enough.”

He also vowed to fight the court decision – though the state does not own the land where the “Peace Cross” sits at a busy intersection in Bladensburg and thus is not a party in the lawsuit.

Hogan's Off-Message Moments

Bladensburg Peace Cross

This is the kind of social issue Hogan avoided during his campaign for governor in 2014 so as not to inflame a sensitive issue that might hurt him with voters.

Yet defending a Christian symbol erected on government land plays well with Hogan’s conservative Republican base.

That minorities might find a 40-foot Latin cross objectionable doesn’t seem to enter the governor’ calculations.

Unpleasant Parallel

Hogan’s stance on the Peace Cross has similarities to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s revisionist approach to constitutional provisions regarding church and state.

Moore was removed as his state’s top judge for installing a two-and-a-half-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the state Supreme Court building’s rotunda and then refusing to remove it when this was deemed unconstitutional.

Moore, like Anne Arundel County Councilman Michael Peroutka, is a zealous believer in Christian “moral law” superseding constitutional law. The two men would concur with Hogan’s stance on the Bladensburg Peace Cross.

The irony is that earlier this year Hogan removed a statue from the State House grounds due to its inflammatory, racist implications. He respected the sensitivity of offended minority groups.

Yet in the case of the Peace Cross and the possible elimination of school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan appears not to care about offending minority groups.

He seems oblivious to the fact a giant Latin cross on public land might offend non-Christians, or that this imposing religious symbol at a busy intersection gives the impression that government is endorsing Christianity.

What if a similar-sized Latin cross dedicated to soldiers were placed on the grounds of the Maryland State House? Would Hogan see anything wrong with that?

There’s really no difference between that hypothetical and the Bladensburg situation.

The Peace Cross issue could be resolved by moving the monument to a private location or urging the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to turn the land and monument over to a non-profit group, such as the American Legion.

That would be a common sense answer, but Hogan is more interested in reaping political points with his conservative voters, not in solving a problem that has deep constitutional overtones.

Political Danger?

As for school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan’s criticism may strike some supporters the wrong way.

The governor has captivated many Jewish voters by giving scholarships to parochial schools, increasing ties to Israel and increasing aid to Jewish social agencies.

But his post-Labor Day school commencement edict is creating problems. In some years, local school boards may not be able to schedule 180 days of classes and also give days off for the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar.

If that happens, there could be a political reaction against Hogan’s stance.

There is a middle-ground, common-sense way out for the governor that avoids offending Jewish voters: Make it clear that the state school board has the authority under his executive order to grant a waiver to local school systems if such a bind crops up when creating future school calendars.

That would be more of an on-message approach Hogan could take to would avoid making issues like these a point of contention in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign.

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