Tag Archives: Larry Hogan Jr.

To Frack or Not to Frack?

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cracking Open Shale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Push for Complete Ban

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

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

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

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

But petroleum firms no longer show interest in Maryland.

Deterrents to Fracking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Giving Frosh His Independence

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 20, 2017—You can’t blame Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., for getting irritated over the Maryland attorney general’s new authority – granted by the General Assembly – to sue the federal government without the governor’s permission.

This strips Hogan of a smidgen of his enormous powers. Yet if the Republican chief executive truly wished to stop this slight weakening of his powers all he had to do was pick up the phone and negotiate a compromise.

Instead, Hogan gave Attorney General Brian Frosh, one of the mildest mannered men in politics, the cold shoulder when Frosh requested the go-ahead to object in court to President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim nations.

Giving Frosh His Independence

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh

Hogan called the delegation of power to Frosh “crazy” and “horrible” – but the real nuttiness lies in Hogan’s refusal to talk through his objections with Frosh and come to a reasonable arrangement each could live with.

Political Divide

Sure, Hogan is a conservative Republican to the core and Frosh is a down-the-line Montgomery County liberal Democrat.

Still, Frosh almost never picks a fight. His 20 years in the legislature were marked by quiet persuasion based on facts, open dialogue and finding middle ground.

Only when Frosh asked for permission to sue, provided back-up documentation to the governor and was met by silence did he opt to make an un-Frosh-like aggressive move.

Democrats in the House and Senate were happy to help him, since they were alarmed by Trump’s executive order against Muslim refugees and immigrants.

Numerous state attorneys general sued to stop the president’s executive order and temporarily succeeded in blocking it. Frosh wanted authorization from Hogan to do the same thing.

He said he was concerned by clear indications the new administration will wipe out the Affordable Care Act that gives health insurance to 430,000 Marylanders and anti-environmental steps that could damage the health of the Chesapeake Bay. He wanted the tools to speak out on Maryland’s behalf in court.

Weak A.G.

Maryland is one of a handful of states that didn’t –until last week – give its attorney general the independence to sue the federal government without getting an okay from the governor.

Indeed, this state has one of the weakest attorney general offices in the country. Only on rare occasions can Frosh’s office conduct a criminal investigation and try the case—the state’s constitution handed over those broad powers to the local state’s attorneys in 1851.

Maryland’s attorney general primarily staffs the law offices of state agencies, gives legal advice to the governor, General Assembly and judiciary, handles consumer protection issues, defends the state in court litigation and files lawsuits on behalf of state agencies.

Yet this is a statewide office just like the governor and state comptroller. All three are elected by Maryland voters every four years. Their authority is spelled out in the Maryland constitution. Yet Frosh’s office is unusually dependent on the governor for permission to act.

That’s never been a healthy situation.

Why create a constitutional law office without giving that office the freedom to carry out the full range of legal responsibilities normally handled by an attorney general in other states?

Why make the Maryland attorney general such a weak reed, unable to speak for the state on legal matters without first coming on bended knee to the governor for consent?

The current conflict over separation of powers never surfaced when Democrats occupied both offices. Usually the two elected officers were on the same political wave length and agreed on occasional litigation to protest federal actions.

Cover for Hogan

Under Hogan and at times under Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich disagreements have surfaced. Yet this need not have reached a point of separation if Hogan had ordered his skilled legal counsel, Robert Scholz, to work out an accommodation.

Frosh may have been close to the truth when he suggested this new arrangement actually gives Hogan the best of both worlds – despite the governor’s public protests.

Hogan doesn’t want to go on record opposing the new Republican president. He’s trying hard to ignore anything and everything Trump says that provokes controversy.

Yet it’s no secret radicals in the new administration want to deep-six Obamacare and purge all sorts of environmental regulations that could set back efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Someone has to speak out and protest in court at the appropriate time. Hogan doesn’t want to alienate his Republican core base, yet extreme actions in Washington may require pushback from Maryland to avert harm to citizens and the “Land of Pleasant Living.”

The new delegation of authority by the legislature to Frosh solves that dilemma quite neatly for Hogan. He can continue to ignore Trumpian broadsides and dangerous executive orders while Frosh, on his own volition, tries to block Trump’s moves in court.

The governor’s hands are clean. He hasn’t forsaken the Republican president.

(He also can try to dissuade Frosh through well-reasoned arguments. The power granted Frosh requires that he notify Hogan of the attorney general’s intention to sue, wait 10 days so the governor can put any concerns he has in writing, and then Frosh must “consider the Governor’s  objection before commencing the suit or action.”)

Re-election Battle?

The real danger for Hogan could lie in the next six to 12 months if Trump takes such extreme steps affecting Marylanders, the state’s social programs and its natural resources that Frosh becomes the hero of the day – filing lawsuits repeatedly to stop or reverse Trump’s moves.

Should Hogan continue to remain mum during that time, ignoring the human toll of Trump’s actions, it might hurt the governor’s re-election chances.

Thus, Brian Frosh might place himself at the head of the pack of candidates running for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Could Hogan then face off against the attorney general in November 2018 just as Frosh’s popularity in vote-heavy Central Maryland soars due to his role as Maryland’s defender against heavy-handed actions from Washington?

It’s not far-fetched.

That possibility gains credence with Frosh’s request for a future annual budget of $1 million to create a five-person legal staff to sue the Trump administration when the public interest or welfare of Maryland citizens is threatened – be it their health, public safety, civil liberties, economic security, environment, natural resources or travel restrictions.

If Hogan, for political reasons, won’t oppose Trump and radicals in the administration, Frosh is the logical person to fill that void.

Giving him the power to act isn’t wild and crazy. It’s in line with the way things work in most other states. It ensures that Maryland’s interests will be defended by at least one statewide, constitutional officer elected by the people.

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Avoiding MD’s Pension Reality

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 14, 2017 – Let’s be honest: No one wants to face up to Maryland’s giant $19 billion long-term shortfall in its retirement program for state workers and teachers. Not the Republican governor nor the Democratic legislature.

True to his Lone Ranger approach, Gov. Larry Hogan is calling for a dramatic change – an optional 401(k)-style retirement program for new state employees.

It sounds good but falls apart when examined close up.Avoiding MD's Pension Reality

The best that can be said about this plan is that it saves both the state and new workers upfront money. Unfortunately, it could leave tens of thousands of state workers far worse off in their retirement years.

Hogan didn’t bother consulting with legislative leaders, pension agency officials or the employee unions to get their input and cooperation. Thus, the governor’s plan has zero chance of passing.

But it goes over well on TV and radio. It allows Hogan to brag that he tried to fix Maryland’s pension problem – though he really didn’t.

Flawed Retirement Approach

Hogan’s plan would weaken the current retirement program by encouraging new workers to leave the system and instead sign up for his 401(k) savings plan. This could mean the loss of a huge sum of regular contributions to the existing pension system. The retirement system’s shortfall would grow, not shrink.

As for workers opting for this “defined contribution” program, 5 percent of their paychecks would go into their IRA account, matched equally by the state. (State workers today contribute 7 percent of their salaries into the pension fund.)

Workers then could invest all that retirement money into the stock market or other financial instruments.

That’s where the risk soars.

In bad economic times, state workers could lose much of their retirement nest egg if they’re not careful. Worse, they’d no longer be eligible to receive a regular state pension. They could find themselves leading a hard-scrabble life in retirement.

The notion of providing state workers with optional ways of saving for their “golden years” makes sense. But not if it means entirely eliminating that pension check.

Existing 401(k) Option

There’s no reason to embrace Hogan’s plan because the state already offers supplemental retirement programs that do much the same thing: a 401(k) investment option and tax-deferred annuity and investment plans. Workers can defer up to $18,000 in salary annually.

The only catch is that the state does not offer a matching payment, as nearly all private-sector businesses with 401(k) plans do. A healthy state match could go a long way toward encouraging workers to save a lot more for retirement.

Perhaps the best way to go is a hybrid system combining a smaller, defined pension benefit with a 401(k) savings component that includes a generous state match. That would put most state retirees in a much stronger position after they leave work. It also could ease the state’s retirement-fund shortfall over the long run.

The catch: It would cost Hogan & Co. a lot more money each year to get such a program started, money the governor doesn’t have in these uncertain economic times.

Besides, Hogan isn’t about to pour more money into worker pensions if he can avoid it.  In fact in his new budget he eliminated a mandated $50 million supplemental contribution to the retirement program created to help bring down the shortfall.

That move deepens Maryland’s pension predicament.

There’s no incentive for Democratic lawmakers to support Hogan’s poorly thought-through bill, either. They’d just as soon let the pension problems slide, hoping against hope for a return of strong economic growth, which could mean high investment returns for the retirement agency.

Thus, the governor’s bill will get a polite hearing – followed by a dignified burial.

Then Hogan can denounce Democrats for failing to “save” the state retirement program. He’ll score political points while kicking the true pension-funding dilemma into the future.

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Hogan and the Elephant in the Room

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 6, 2017 – If a Martian had landed in Annapolis last week and watched Gov. Larry Hogan’s State of the State address, he/she would have thought: “Wow, what a nice guy. What a perfect blend of bipartisanship and leadership. He’s my kind of governor.”

Indeed, that’s the image Hogan wants to project to the voting public – nice guy, good ideas, wants to cast politics aside and work with his foes to get things done.

Except the reality, rather than the distorted image, is quite different.

Hogan acts the role of bipartisan governor quite well for the cameras. Behind the scenes, though, he’s unwilling to open the door to Democrats and quick to play the blame game. He sharply mocks his political critics.

During his two years in office, Hogan rarely has worked cooperatively with Democrats. Instead, he lays down a take-it-or-leave plan of action – and he did last week – and refuses to negotiate a middle ground.

Back-Patting

You can chalk up his most recent State of the State speech to political hype and self-congratulatory back-patting. If there’s anything wrong happening in Maryland, it’s not his fault but those self-absorbed Democrats. Nary a negative word was sounded by Hogan – until he took some swipes at Democrats.

Hogan and the elephant in the Room

Gov. Larry Hogan delivers State of the State Address in House of Delegates Chamber

There’s no surprise here. Hogan wants to put a politicized, glossy filter on the Maryland scene.

What did come as a surprise was Hogan’s complete avoidance of the proverbial elephant in the room – widespread fear and trembling as a radical populist takes charge of the U.S. government just 32 miles away.

Hogan’s high popularity numbers stem in part from his careful “I’m not involved” approach to hot-button societal controversies. That now includes anything and everything happening in Trumpland.

Yet how can the governor ignore the dire situation Maryland could face later this year once President Trump and determined tea party Republicans in Congress demolish the Affordable Care Act providing health insurance for 430,000 Marylanders?

He said not a word about the ACA’s demise and what, if anything, he will do to avert a health-care crisis in the Free State. Hogan remains mum.

Cuts Coming from Washington

Similarly, Hogan ignored the clear and present danger to Maryland posed by vast federal budget cuts Trump and congressional Republicans have promised. Such massive reductions will reverberate throughout Central Maryland, costing possibly tens of thousands federal jobs.

The implications for Marylanders and Hogan’s budget are immense. That should have been a priority item in Hogan’s address to the legislature. Instead, he remained silent.

Once again, Hogan proved himself anything but a pro-active governor. He’s almost completely reactive, and only after factoring in popularity numbers and his reelection campaign effort.

Hogan gave no indication he is making plans to cope with what appears to be a whirlwind of destructive actions in Washington that could bring Maryland to its knees.

Maryland and Virginia are the states most at risk from Draconian budget moves by Trump and Congress. Federal employees constitute 8 percent of Maryland’s workforce.

Sweeping personnel and spending reductions will affect all of the Maryland economy. Yet we’ve heard not one word about this from Hogan.

No More Balanced Budget?

Trump’s anti-immigrant executive order is causing confusion, fear and uncertainty at Maryland colleges and universities and within immigrant communities.  It could create massive disruptions at research and education centers at College Park, the University of Maryland Medical Center and Johns Hopkins – both the university campus and the sprawling East Baltimore medical complex.

For state government, Hogan’s balanced budget could rapidly tumble into a deep deficit, requiring massive revisions this legislative session and special sessions later in the year to react to sharp federal funding cuts and job layoffs.

Hogan could have no choice but to make highly unpopular cutbacks, a move that won’t help his reelection chances.

It would have helped if the governor had reassured lawmakers and the public that he and his staff are hard at work developing alternative plans and creative approaches to help Marylanders who might lose health insurance or their federal jobs en masse.

Instead, Hogan pretends the threat from Washington doesn’t exist.

That’s not leadership; that’s pretending the problem doesn’t exist. His speech lacked transparency and honesty. Hogan gave listeners political Pablum.

Dark, threatening storm clouds are on the horizon, heading toward the Annapolis State House from the southwest.

Yet Hogan keeps telling us it’s a sunny day and everything is copasetic.

Maybe it’s time for the governor to adopt the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” and get the state and its people ready for what could be a tumultuous and unsettling time.

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Will Hogan’s Slimmed-Down Budget Implode?

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 30, 2017 – Through no fault of his own, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s slimmed-down, $43.5 billion budget could implode at any moment, depending on actions in Washington by President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress intent on slashing federal domestic spending.

Just one example: Trump wants immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act – the hated Obamacare he pilloried in the campaign. Tea party Republicans in Congress are marching rapidly down that same path.

It sounds wonderful to Trump’s followers and foes of the ACA.

But the loss of ACA funds would blow an immediate $1.26 billion hole in Hogan’s balanced budget – and would add up to a stunning $7.7 billion loss for Maryland over the next five years.

That’s just the tip of Maryland’s deficit iceberg if Trump and his Republican majority on the Hill start chopping with their budget axes.

Maryland’s Budget Plight

Losing ACA funds would cost Maryland $100 million in savings from drug rebates that Hogan is counting on in his budget, $62 million in child health matching money, $16 million for home care and $225 million in federal support that subsidizes health insurance for 60,000 moderate- or low-income Marylanders.

Then there’s Trump’s federal job freeze, with Virginia and Maryland most at risk of seeing large declines in its federal work force.

Think what it would mean for the Free State’s economy – and tax collections – if Trump and Congress slash the workforce at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Social Security Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health – all centered in Maryland.

There’s nothing in Hogan’s budget to cushion the state from a Trumpian-sized downsizing of the federal government. Instead, his fiscal blueprint ignores that approaching whirlwind and focuses instead on ratcheting downing spending without destroying existing social programs.Hogan's Slimmed-Down Budget

Clearly, the governor is trying to make it past the next election using smart spending hold-downs and a hoped-for upward bump in revenue collections.

He certainly wasn’t considering the anti-spending mood in Washington or the state’s precarious long-term budget outlook. Hogan just wants to get through 2018.

But legislative budget analysts noted last week there are very large deficits looming that Hogan hasn’t addressed.

Budget Quicksand

Those potential pools of red ink leave “the state vulnerable to expected federal cost containment actions” that include personnel cuts, greatly reduced agency budgets and repeal of the ACA without a viable replacement.

As it stands, Hogan’s budget could run into big trouble with Maryland’s Medicaid program this coming fiscal year. Legislative analysts politely wrote that the governor’s budget “contains optimistic assumptions” about slower Medicaid enrollment and the state’s ability to recoup drug rebates from pharmaceutical companies.

If Hogan’s number are wrong, his Medicaid allocation could be in deficit territory by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some of the governor’s budget-balancing tricks aren’t likely to work, either.

For instance, he figures he can save nearly $100 million if the legislature repeals spending mandates lawmakers approved last year. Don’t count on Democratic lawmakers giving the Republican governor what he wants.

Additionally, Hogan wants to increase the budget deficit in future years by handing out tax cuts to military retirees, police and firefighters, tax savings to those with student loans, and tax breaks to small business owners offering sick leave to workers.

The cost? $106 million in the first year and $488 million over the next five years.

Deficits Return

Hogan says he wiped out the state’s structural deficit with this budget – but only because he grabbed $170 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Even worse, analysts say Hogan’s financial plan does little to prevent a widening structural deficit in future years, growing to $432 million a year from now and $1.2 billion four years later – and that doesn’t even take into account the worsening fiscal situation if Obamacare is repealed.

The Department of Legislative Services also points to deeply troubling trends in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s six-year capital spending plan. MDOT can’t build all the projects it is promising due to a tightening revenue picture.

Maryland’s gas tax receipts are far less than expected, debt service costs are rising and MDOT operating expenses are galloping ahead of projections.

On top of that, Hogan has set aside $747 million in MDOT cash to greatly increase highway-construction aid to Maryland counties. That move would require a sharp cutback in bonds issued by MDOT, which means reducing the number of promised transportation projects over the next six year.

MDOT’s Growing Budget Hole

All told, MDOT is $1.7 billion short of the money it needs to complete projects on its list. Moreover, analysts say the department is underestimating its own operating expenses by $585 million in future years.

There could be tough questioning and resistance to Hogan’s transportation program when his minions try to explain this disturbing situation to the General Assembly’s budget panels.

Yet the MDOT quagmire could rapidly become a secondary concern if the White House and Congress go on a budget-cutting rampage this spring, creating “carnage” in state capitals.

On its own, Hogan’s budget appears to be a sensible, Republican-styled attempt to slowly diminish spending in ways that begin to align appropriations with the state’s annual revenue flow.

He resorts to a number of gimmicks to balance this year’s fiscal package, but what governor doesn’t?

There are almost certain to be fireworks over Hogan’s more questionable budget proposals in the next few months—especially if the man in the White House turns off much of Maryland’s fiscal pipeline from Washington.

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Politicizing Ethics Reforms in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 23, 2017 – Two bleak views of American society were on display last week coming straight from our elected executives – expressed first by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and the next day by President Donald Trump at his inauguration.

On Thursday, Hogan stood in front of the State House steps at a staged event so he could rail against the “culture of corruption” in Maryland’s legislature – though evidence of this “culture” is limited to a handful of examples.

Politicizing Ethics Reforms

Gov. Larry Hogan promoting his ethics reforms

Then he marched up the steps in photo-op fashion to present one of his ethics reform bills to House and Senate officials.

On Friday, Trump used his first speech as president to paint a deeply negative portrait of the country – despite years of prosperity and slow, steady growth. “This American carnage” he called the situation.

In each case, the Republican speakers left no doubt they were riding to the rescue on a white horse to save citizens from a clear and present danger perpetrated by the Democratic establishment.

Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric was understandable. That’s his style. This billionaire New Yorker sees himself as champion of “the people.” He says he inherited an Augean stable of stench – miserably failed government policies only “The Donald” can clean up and “make America great again.”

He promised radical change and his Friday message signaled his intention to follow through on his pledge to disrupt the status quo.

White Knight in Annapolis

Hogan’s bombastic rhetoric on legislative corruption also was understandable. It’s all about positioning Hogan in his reelection bid as the white knight doing battle with evil Democrats in the General Assembly.

Recent indictments of an ex-state legislator, a nominee for a House of Delegates vacancy and the Prince George’s County liquor board chairman set the stage perfectly for Hogan’s call to clean up the political arena.

But he combined that call for ethical government with continual bashing of the Democratic establishment in the state legislature.

Remember the “let’s work together” governor who told lawmakers only a week earlier how much he wanted to set partisanship aside and solve problems together?

That proved a mirage.

The real Larry Hogan resurfaced on Thursday, full of outrage about the Democratic-controlled legislature’s “climate of corruption” he wants to erase. Instead of sitting down and devising a joint ethics package with lawmakers, Hogan took the partisan route sure to grab all the headlines for himself.

Weak Ethics Commission

Hogan says he wants lawmakers to turn over the power to punish wayward colleagues to the State Ethics Commission, which has very limited enforcement and punishment tools.

Indeed, the commission already oversees lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms – and in 2015 fined four legislators a whopping $250 each for missing the filing deadline.

The power to discipline, humble and even eject elected legislators lies solely with the legislative bodies themselves.

Hogan wants to change that, though whether a panel controlled by the governor should hold such authority over legislative branch officials could bump up against separation of powers provisions in the Maryland constitution.

In practical terms, Hogan faces a bigger problem: His reform plan won’t work.

It won’t root out or stop wayward lawmakers from pursuing unethical behavior tied to monetary payoffs.

How Corruption Happens

Legislative corruption in Annapolis usually occurs when a delegate or senator accepts cash or favors from businesses in exchange for helping those businesses gain passage of favorable bills or friendly regulatory actions.

Two former delegates are embroiled in a liquor board payoff scandal in Prince George’s County. Hogan’s reforms wouldn’t have stopped the alleged payoffs.

Why? Because the transactions were hidden from view. There was no way Hogan or the legislature or the State Ethics Commission could have known a crime was being committed.

The lawmakers apparently lied on their disclosure forms, knew they were doing it and continued pushing legislation to aid businesses that stuffed cash in their pockets. Only dogged work by federal prosecutors unearthed what was going on.

The same holds true in the case of Ulysses Currie, accused in 2013 of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars as a consultant for a supermarket chain while pressing state and local bureaucrats to give the company favorable treatment.

Hogan’s reform proposals wouldn’t have unearthed Currie’s questionable behavior. (A federal jury failed to convict Currie, whose defense boiled down to admitting that he wasn’t mentally alert to the fact his actions might be criminal.

Marijuana Mischief

Even in a current case involving Del. Dan Morheim of Baltimore County, Hogan’s ethics package would not have revealed Morheim’s unorthodox behavior or his links to a marijuana growing and distribution firm vying for state licenses.

Morheim, who claims he abided by legislative ethics rules, kept his employment arrangement with the marijuana company secret. Only when the company started touting the expertise of its newest employee to help win state licenses did reporters shine a light on this odiferous situation.

It’s clear state ethics laws need considerable strengthening. Unfortunately Hogan chose to turn the issue to his political advantage rather than initiating a non-partisan crusade aimed at overhauling government standards of conduct.

He opted to take the moral high ground and denigrate the legislative establishment because it helps his political advancement. That’s smart politics but dumb governance.

Like Trump, Hogan too often prefers a sledge hammer instead of a peace pipe. He’d rather boost his poll numbers than do the hard work of thrashing out complex details and compromises with Democrats in order to make significant ethics reforms happen.

To the public, though, Hogan is the hero. It is part of his strategy to claim the title of good-government reformer in the next election.

Democratic legislator now must carve out tougher ethics provisions governing public officials on their own. Hogan has made them the bad guys in this matter and they must prove him wrong.

But if ethics reforms are successfully enacted into law, citizens won’t give Democratic legislators much credit. They’ve been outflanked by Hogan once again.

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Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2017— Here we go again. In a few weeks, school superintendents will trek, en masse, to the second floor of the Maryland State House to grovel before the Board of Public Works for additional school construction funds.

It is a demeaning “begathon” that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise, and reward, their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.

This time, the target for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot is Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – a man who has signaled a desire to run for statewide office next year.

Anything Hogan and Franchot can do to undercut Kamenetz’ credibility helps their reelection chances.

That explains the consistent animosity by this tag-team tandem toward Kamenetz’ requests.

Comptroller’s Crusade

Franchot has conducted a consistent crusade to force the county to install portable, temporary air-conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.

Former Baltimore County executives bear the brunt of the blame for leaving too many school kids in overheated classrooms during the early fall and early summer.

Kamenetz, on the other hand, has been making up for lost time with a $1.3 billion program to get students into air-conditioned schools. But his expensive plan is phased in due to fiscal constraints.

Maryland's Demeaning 'Begathon' Continues

School Construction in Montgomery County

Franchot has persisted in pummeling Baltimore County’s leader for not following his insistence that Kamenetz buy window A/C units.

Each has a point: Kids should not swelter on extremely hot days, yet it makes little sense to spend millions for a short-term fix when a long-term fix is in the works.

The ideal solution is for the state to forward-fund the money Baltimore County needs to finish the job ASAP through a combination of costly upgrades and replacement buildings.

Embarrass Kamenetz

However, neither Franchot nor Hogan has lifted a finger to support the county’s efforts. They could have designated a pot of school construction money for jurisdictions needing window-unit air-conditioners. Instead, they remained silent.

Their goal is to publicly embarrass Kamenetz. Thus, the dynamic duo voted last May to punish Baltimore County (and its school kids) by withholding $10 million in state funds for county school construction – thus delaying portions of the work on air-conditioning classrooms.

The two also withheld $5 million in badly needed construction dollars from Baltimore City, which also is in the process of getting all schools air-conditioned.

They demanded that the two jurisdictions air-condition all classrooms in a matter of months – an impossibility for any number of legal and practical reasons.

The two Annapolis politicos apparently think the city and county can simply wave a wand and, voila! they’ll reverse a situation that’s been festering for two decades.

The reality is that it will take a number of years – and billions – to correct this situation.

Political Favoritism

When the “begathon” parade shamelessly takes place on Jan. 25, it is likely Hogan in particular will look kindly upon Baltimore City’s requests, including the withheld $5 million, as a goodwill gesture toward the city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh.

He and Franchot will save their contempt for Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and, indirectly, Kamenetz. There could well be “plants” in the room to demonstrate Hogan and Franchot are supported by county residents in their harsh criticisms.

It’s all part of the set-piece melodrama the “begathon” has become.

In most cases, conservative, Republican-leaning counties will be treated with kid-gloves by the Republican governor while Democratic strongholds get a cold reception.

It’s quite a distasteful scene, one that is as unbecoming for the governor and comptroller as it is for the school chiefs forced to grovel before them.

Re-imagining State Center

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2017–As an early New Year’s gift to Maryland taxpayers, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivered the final blow to an outrageously priced scheme to turn over to private investors the 28-acre State Center complex in Baltimore for redevelopment.

Re-imagining State Center

The $1.5 billion State Center plan rejected by the Board of Public Works.

Hogan’s predecessor as governor, Martin O’Malley, had pushed hard  forthe State Center deal in a way that benefited the developers but left the state with unconscionably high rental payments for the next half-century – beginning at $30 million or more per year and escalating by 15 percent every five years.

O’Malley’s proposal also would have threatened the state’s triple-A bond rating by smashing through Maryland’s debt ceiling.

Additionally, the deal hinged on the state constructing for the developers a high-priced underground garage, costing $28.3 million. The money to pay for the 20-year bonds on the garage would come out of the state’s struggling Transportation Trust Fund at roughly $2 million a year.

As an extra kick-in-the-pants, state workers would have to pay to park in the underground garage even though they now get free parking on surface lots at State Center.

It was a boondoggle of immense proportions disguised as a mixed-used redevelopment of State Center to help revive midtown Baltimore.

Public-Private Partnership

The initial plan, worked out by former Gov. Bob Ehrlich in the early 2000s, made sense as a model for smart transit-oriented development. It was the sort of public-private partnership that would benefit Baltimore, the state and the developers – office space, retail, apartments and community amenities centered around two mass-transit lines.

Then came the Great Recession. What had been feasible plans for State Center’s re-birth crumbled. As lingering effects of the recession dragged on, the State Center proposal took on more of a Mission Impossible cast.

When O’Malley revived the concept with new developers and a new set of financing figures, what had been a good deal became more and more suspect.

The legislature started asking questions and looking at the proposal’s details. Analysts for the General Assembly didn’t like what they discovered.

The state was being asked, essentially, to underwrite this massive $1.5 billion project. There would be only one prime tenant in the developer’s lone Phase One building – the state of Maryland, occupying nearly all of the office space.

Even worse, the developers wanted to charge the state unheard of water-view rental rates for a mid-town building in a tenuous neighborhood overlooking other mid-town buildings, a hospital and a public housing project.

Then the underground garage was added to the state’s to-do list by the developers. As the Department of Legislative Services put it, “A significant amount of private investment has been continuously stripped out of the plan.” It was replaced by state taxpayer dollars.

Kopp, Franchot Skeptical

Comptroller Peter Franchot bailed out as a State Center supporter some five years ago, complaining about the exorbitant rents and the fear of losing Maryland’s money-saving triple-A bond rating.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp kept worrying about breaching the state’s borrowing limit by undertaking the capital leasing costs of the State Center project.

Thus, O’Malley no longer had the votes to gain Board of Public Works approval to complete the revised deal with the developers.

When Hogan entered the picture, he tried to work out a fair settlement that would not leave the state holding the bag and the developers reaping all the rewards.

He even turned to mediation with the developers. But the numbers wouldn’t work unless the state contributed heftily to the privately built project.

So Hogan pulled the plug on the State Center arrangement just before Christmas and then sued the developers to leave no doubt the deal has been cancelled.

What Next?

The fate of State Center after the legal finger-pointing ends is an open question.

It would cost in excess of $200 million for the state to replace its office buildings on the site. That’s capital money the state lacks at the moment.

More sensible would be leasing deeply discounted office space for state agencies in nearly empty downtown high-rises while working with the city on a new residential-and-retail plan for the State Center acreage.

Franchot even proposed a pie-in-the-sky idea: a large sports arena for Baltimore at  State Center. Hogan immediately asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to investigate this remote possibility.

It’s unfortunate a prolonged recession cut the economic legs out from under the original State Center development plans.

But it did.

Now it’s time to start all over.

Let’s re-imagine what State Center could become a decade from now: A catalyst for strengthening midtown neighborhoods, creating a new corridor of residences and shops, and givng state workers quality office space for state workers on the current site or at a more affordable location somewhere in Baltimore’s downtown area.

Hogan faced reality and pulled the plug because the deal on the table didn’t work. His next move will be even more important: defining the future uses for this valuable 28-acre property.

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Hogan’s Holiday Hoax

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 19, 2016 – You’ve got to hand it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. What a prankster he is!

He’s pulled off one of the great holiday hoaxes of recent times in Maryland.

He’s got everyone convinced he is willing to kill 66 major highway projects in Maryland in order to get the legislature to repeal a law requiring a transparent advisory evaluation and ranking of big road, bridge and transit proposals.

Hogan's Holiday Hoax

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

He’s worked himself into a lather about what, for political purposes, he niftily calls “the road kill bill” saying it will “wreak havoc on our entire transportation system.”

Anyone who disagrees with Hogan’s the-world-is-ending interpretation “is ignorant of the facts.”

This repeal-law effort, he says with a straight face, is his No. 1 priority in the coming General Assembly session.

That’s pretty strong stuff.

It’s got to be a holiday hoax. After all, virtually nothing Hogan is saying is based on a truthful, fact-based assessment of the situation.

He’s made the whole thing up – hopefully to give us a good laugh this joyful season (ho, ho ho!).

Darth Vader in Annapolis

Under Hogan’s alternative-universe scenario, the law passed by Democrats in the legislature ties his hands and requires him to kill road projects in all but a handful of urban jurisdictions – even though that’s not even close to what the statute says.

The state’s highest-ranking legal officer, the attorney general, says Hogan’s “Rogue One” interpretation of the law is pure science fiction. But for some reason Hogan wants to play Darth Vader in this reality show.

If you read the law, HB 1013, you’ll conclude it’s pretty meek: A toothless attempt to force more transparency in the state’s transportation funding process.

The law has no enforcement provision.

There is no penalty if Hogan ignores the statute.

It merely calls for a quality analysis, and ranking, of proposed transportation projects. After that list is compiled, Hogan & Co. are free to disregard the results – without any negative consequences.

Free Rein for Hogan

To drive home the point that the new law gives Hogan carte blanche to do as he pleases, lawmakers added this concluding sentence: “[N]othing in this Act may be constructed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, Hogan can fund whichever road, bridge and transit projects he wants regardless of the score it receives.

All he’s gotta do is give “a rational basis for the decision. . . in writing.”

Like, “it will make the road safer.” Or “it will reduce traffic congestion.” Or “it will help economic development.”

Sounds easy for Hogan to abide by this law while he continues to dole out transportation dollars any way he wants.

Not according to the governor and his transportation boss, Pete Rahn. Indeed, Rahn has put forth four pages of regulations that ensure a fiery head-on collision in which dozens of road projects will be denied state funds.

As one witness put it at a Nov. 18 hearing on Rahn’s convoluted regulations, Hogan & Co. “are determined to not make this work.”

Transportation Funding Shortfall

Why would they do that?

One reason could be Hogan doesn’t have the funds to pay for all the road projects he’s promised the counties, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

DLS calculates Hogan will have to cut $315 million next year from his previous transportation proposals (and $1.6 billion over six years) to stay within the department’s debt ratio.

It seems that the six-year forecast for gas-tax receipts is falling far short of Hogan’s estimates and that the governor is overspending on transportation operations.

Something’s got to give. So naturally the politician in Hogan wants to shift blame to those evil Democrats in the legislature.

Suddenly a law that is unenforceable and totally advisory gets transformed by Hogan into Maryland’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Political Posture

Hogan is likely to continue beating this bogus “road kill” issue to death as the 2018 election approaches.

He won’t get much help, though, from Democrats in the legislature.

It was clear at the Nov. 18 hearing that lawmakers want to work out a compromise in which the law is tweaked in ways that make it even more explicit Hogan remains fully in charge of deciding which transportation projects get funded and which do not.

Democrats aren’t going to cave in to Hogan’s illogical repeal demand. That is rightly seen as a politically inspired subterfuge.

Indeed, Hogan’s holiday hoax could backfire.

If, as expected, lawmakers amend the law so most everyone – except the governor – is happy with the outcome, Hogan no longer will be able to blame Democrats for killing road projects.

The governor remains the only person who can put forth funds for state transportation projects.

If he fails to deliver on his earlier road-improvement promises, he’ll have to man up to the fact that it was his decision.

That’s not the posture he wants as his reelection campaign draws near, which seems to be the most likely explanation for the governor’s bizarre “road kill” holiday hoax.

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What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 12, 2016 – Reality is beginning to set in: The political world has been dramatically altered by Donald Trump’s surprise victory on Nov. 8.

Some politicians are adjusting while others are wailing like it’s the end of democracy, organizing pointless protests a full five weeks before Trump even takes office.

In Maryland both kinds of politicos – the realists and the hopeless idealists – have been on display recently.

What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

Mayor Catherine Pugh and Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. at her inauguration in Baltimore’s War Memorial .

Count Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and new Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh among the pragmatists. They want to deal with reality on the ground.

The governor continues to steer an independent course largely free of ideological rigidity and party obeisance. His words and actions in Baltimore over the past week indicate that Hogan now understands the importance of carving out alliances with like-minded pragmatists such as the new mayor.

His gracious words of support at Pugh’s inauguration were followed by a celebratory event in West Baltimore marking a big step forward in attacking the city’s vast vacant-housing problem. Republican Hogan knows he has a quiet supporter in Democrat Pugh and it will be up to him to show her he’s determined to do what he can to uplift Baltimore’s economic development.

Putting Results Ahead of Ideology

For her part, Pugh made it clear she’ll be a non-ideological mayor who is interested first and foremost in results. Going to war with the Republican governor isn’t on her agenda – a marked change from the last City Hall occupant. She’s a lifelong networker who now intends to ask for favors and assistance from those in her wide-ranging list of business, political and foundation contacts.

Rather than snub the president-elect at Saturday’s Army-Navy game in Baltimore, she warmly met him and handed Trump a letter detailing how the “make America great” president-in-waiting can jump-start the city’s lagging economy with some big-ticket infrastructure projects.

She also has expressed the hope that she and Hogan can team up to win over the next president for development programs in Baltimore that create jobs and reduce government dependence.

Pugh isn’t being helped, though, by other Baltimore officials. The new City Council, as its first act, voted unanimously to condemn Trump and his intemperate Tweets and verbal assaults.

That counter-productive move achieved nothing positive and created a hostile atmosphere for Trump two days before he visited Baltimore.

Council Incompetence

It was a sign that the new City Council will pander to liberal political emotions and do little to help Pugh bridge differences with Republicans soon to be running the country.

What the new Baltimore Council members need to keep in mind is that war whoops and fiery denunciations bring nothing in the way of results. The city’s legislature already has a well-earned reputation for incompetence and irrelevancy. Sadly, it may get worse.

When faced with a staggering crime and drug crisis, intensely imbedded poverty and lack of economic opportunity, what action does the Council take on Day One? It alienates the president-elect. Now that’s really going to help address the city’s most pressing needs.

The new members of the City Council should step back and reconsider such rash behavior. They should take a cue from outgoing U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who made a strong call for civility and understanding among politicians of differing stripes in her farewell speech on the floor of the Senate in Washington.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Mikulski was a down-the-line liberal Democrat yet she never stopped trying to find common ground with Republicans and conservatives. Getting things accomplished was paramount in her mind.

That’s the lesson the eight freshman Baltimore City Council members need to learn. They’re off to a terrible start – and that soon may be compounded by votes to approve a $15 an hour minimum wage that could prove so onerous businesses will quickly flee across the city-county line.

Politics, veteran practitioners tell us, is the art of the possible. Hogan, Mikulski and Pugh understand the truism of that expression. Getting bogged down in emotional ideology and name-calling is a sure sign of a weak political hand – and a formula for continuing failure to produce constructive results and progress.

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