Tag Archives: Larry Hogan Jr.

Baltimore: Opportunity Knocks

By Barry Rascovar

March 21, 2016 –Nearly a year after violence, arson and widespread looting tore apart impoverished portions of Baltimore there still is no comprehensive, long-term plan for reviving and improving Baltimore from the governor’s office.

Nor is there an all-inclusive recovery plan from the mayor’s office.

Leadership is lacking.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at least has the excuse that she’s stepping down as Baltimore’s leader in December. A detailed, long-range recovery program will have to be devised and implemented by her successor.

Her silence, though, is deafening.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has no such excuse. He’s had a long time to figure out how the state can step in with both feet and assist Baltimore rebound from a devastating blow.

He also had a golden opportunity to lay out his full range of ideas for a Baltimore renaissance in his State of the State Address in January.

It didn’t happen.

Vacant Housing Initiative

To his credit, Hogan announced a large, multi-year plan to demolish and replace blocks and blocks of vacant housing. Yet when his budget was released, not one penny had been allocated for this effort.

Pressed by the legislative black caucus, Hogan included a portion of the demolition funds in a supplemental budget, but not before he generated a good deal of ill will among legislators.

He also agreed to legislative demands to add $12.7 million to help Baltimore schools compensate for declining enrollment.

It was left, though to Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch to cobble together a multi-pronged package of economic and social initiatives to help Baltimore in its hour of need.

Such a move is not ordinarily the province of the Maryland General Assembly. Large bail-out and economic rebound efforts normally come out of the governor’s office.

But since Republican Hogan failed to formulate a Baltimore recovery agenda (other than the vacant housing plan), state legislators stepped into the void.

Legislative Plan

Their $290 million proposal, spread over five years (thus limiting the fiscal impact on the state) helps not only Baltimore but other parts of the state.

  • It offers Baltimore assurance that Hogan’s housing-demolition and replacement plans will be mandatory in future years, not voluntary.
  • It expands existing scholarship programs for disadvantaged kids throughout Maryland.
  • It adds mentoring and other support for middle-school kids in Baltimore and promises them scholarships if they stay out of trouble and get good grades.
  • It adds money to keep city libraries open longer.
  • It allocates funds for after-school and summer programs for children.
  • It provides grants for community groups to develop blighted city areas.
  • It gives Towson University funds to train Baltimore residents as construction workers.
  • And it provides $16.5 million to improve the city’s important system of public parks.

The Miller-Busch package roared through the House last week. The same thing is likely to occur in the Senate.

Hogan hasn’t said much about this important package of bills. His spokesman supported the good intentions of the legislative initiative but worried about the fiscal impact – even though state funding is limited to five years.

Now is the time for the governor to get off the fence and involve himself in shaping a significant Baltimore recovery effort coming from Annapolis.

The legislative package aims at improving depressed neighborhoods. It focuses on giving youngsters better schooling, more positive activities away from school, involving universities and non-profit groups in reviving communities and making Baltimore a more inviting city for those living there.

Time to Act

This is the moment for both Baltimore and the governor to join hands with the legislature in this ambitious undertaking.

With assistance from the governor’s office, objectionable elements of the bills can be modified, new ideas can be added and city officials can come together with the two branches of government in forming a triad of commitments for making Baltimore better.

Hogan brings to the table a businessman’s eye for how to help Baltimore. Even better, he is a businessman with expertise in private-sector land development. He needs to be involved.

Creating the environment for a phoenix-like bounce-back by Baltimore is important for Maryland. The city remains the state’s economic center as well as its regional population, cultural and education center. Tackling the city’s worst problems and overcoming them will pay handsome dividends for the governor in the long run – and for Maryland.

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Good Larry, Bad Larry

By Barry Rascovar

  March 14, 2016–From day to day, lawmakers in Annapolis don’t know what to expect from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.
  Will it be “Good Larry” who moderates his comments, works to find middle ground and comes out making everyone happy?
  Or will it be “Bad Larry” who uses heated political rhetoric; sounds false warnings of doom to energize his conservative base, and alienates the very legislators he needs to accomplish things?
Good Larry, Bad Larry

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, at press conference denouncing spending mandates.

   Perhaps someday Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. will learn how to govern and deal with Maryland’s co-equal branch, the General Assembly. So far, though, it hasn’t happened.
  Most of the time Hogan stays in partisan campaign mode, pretending he can have what he wants simply by reminding legislators of his popularity in polls.

Two to Tango

  Then he bumps up against the hard reality of American politics: Without support from the legislative branch, no state’s chief executive can make headway toward his goals.
  The “Good Larry/Bad Larry” dichotomy was on full display last week in the State House.
On Tuesday, “Bad Larry” went ballistic because Democratic lawmakers aren’t about to gift-wrap for him new budget powers so he can make deeper cuts in spending.
  Yet on Thursday, “Good Larry” mollified those same legislators by adding construction dollars for historically black colleges, by accelerating construction of a biomedical sciences building on the University System of Maryland’s Shady Grove campus, and by giving Baltimore City schools funds to partially offset falling student enrollment.
  It was a bravura Thursday performance after an embarrassing Tuesday display of staged anger.

Hogan’s Dilemma

  The Republican governor can’t decide whether he wants to govern or campaign.
  Governing requires that he be practical and pragmatic, compromising with Democrats so he can achieve partial victories.
  Campaigning requires that he abandon any chance of winning over lawmakers and instead launch a continuous barrage of verbal assaults on Democratic legislators in preparation for the 2018 elections – still two-and-a-half years away.
  Usually, Hogan has chosen to stay in campaign mode.

Distorting the Facts

  On Tuesday, he condemned Democrats for not taking seriously his bill to eliminate many of the spending mandates established by legislators over the years. Asking any legislature to cede budget power to the governor is a non-starter – unless the governor can provide some persuasive reasons.
  Hogan failed to do so.
  Instead, he blamed it on “eight years of financial mismanagement” under the prior (Democratic) governor and Maryland’s current “precarious fiscal situation” on the (Democratic-dominated) legislature.
  Neither statement is true.
  The state’s past fiscal woes stemmed mainly from the deep and long Great Recession. As for that “precarious fiscal situation,” it doesn’t exist at the moment – not when Hogan is sitting on a $300 million budget surplus and $1 billion in a “rainy day” account.

Powerful Governor

  It’s campaign hyperbole, as was the chart Hogan continually pointed to at his Wednesday press conference, the one claiming Democrats seek to impose on Marylanders $3.7 billion in spending mandates this session.
  Hogan already has more budget power than any other governor in the country. He doesn’t need extra authority to short-circuit spending mandates in troubled economic times.
  Why? Because he already can make drastic cuts in two different ways – with approval from the Board of Public Works, or with the cooperation of state lawmakers through a budget reconciliation bill.
  Thus, Hogan’s “mandates reform” is a bogus issue put forward mainly for partisan political purposes.

‘Power Grab’ or Transparency?

  The same is true of his earlier wailing over Democratic bills forcing Hogan to explain the rationale for building roads and bridges that appear to be low-priority items.
  Hogan claimed in almost hysterical terms how this was a “reckless power grab” and a “thinly veiled power grab.”
  It is neither.
  The package of bills doesn’t stop Hogan for doing whatever he wants in selecting the state’s transportation projects. The bills simply force him to explain why he’s picked road project F over road project A on the state’s priority list.
  Senate President Mike Miller clearly explained that these bills remove “the mystery of how, why and where roads get built.” The measures encourage government transparency while leaving intact the governor’s road-selection powers.
  What’s wrong with that?

Good Republicans, Evil Democrats

  Hogan and his second-floor Republican ideologues are good at promoting phantom crises they blame on Democrats. They’re applying national GOP tactics to Maryland: Make this a fight between good Republicans and evil Democrats and point an accusing finger at the party of evil.
  No wonder Hogan has won few legislative victories in a Democratic-dominated General Assembly. At the moment, it looks like he’s headed for a large basketful of defeats this session, too.
  That’s why Thursday’s supplemental budget from Hogan is so intriguing. The governor negotiated deals with Democrats on a host of issues and wound up getting praised by his opponents for working out win-win compromises.
  That victory could set the stage for more moments of Hogan playing the role of Great Conciliator as the General Assembly moves rapidly toward its conclusion.
  But he won’t get very far in that direction if he continues to alienate and infuriate key lawmakers with his “Good Larry/Bad Larry” routine.
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Hogan Wins an Important Victory

 

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

That was a very bad idea.

Partisan Rubbish

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

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

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

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

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

O’Malley vs. Grasmick

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

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

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

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

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

Costly School Reforms

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

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

Baltimore School Superintendent Gregory Thornton

Baltimore School Chief Gregory Thornton

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

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

Wrong.

Very wrong.

Appeasing the Multitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Hogan’s Foot-in-Mouth Disease

By Barry Rascovar

  Feb. 22, 2016 — Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s words and hyper-partisan messages caught up with him  last Thursday.
  He got hammered by Democratic legislators, and for good reason.
  The Republican governor forgot that the words he chooses can have consequences, especially when you belittle elected lawmakers and issue statements that are intended to insult and inflame.
Hogan's Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

  The Donald Trump approach to politics won’t work in Annapolis. It may make Hogan even more beloved by conservatives but his legislative agenda could go up in flames.
  Walling off Democratic lawmakers from participation in major state policy decisions is coming back to haunt Hogan. He’s out of touch with their thinking on key issues and his proposals could suffer as a result.

One Really Bad Day

  Look what happened Thursday.
  First, Hogan went on a conservative radio talk show and belittled Democratic legislators with a truly insulting and unjustified slap: “It’s like they’re on spring break,” Hogan said. “They come here for a few weeks. They start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony.”
  The comparison is without foundation.
  No wonder Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, one of the more moderate Democrats, responded angrily later that morning on the Senate floor and demanded an apology. Not a single Republican rose to defend the governor.
  Hogan is having trouble grasping the role of the General Assembly as a co-equal branch of Maryland government. He thinks his surprise victory in 2014 and his popularity in recent polls should allow him to do what he wants, regardless of what lawmakers think.
  It doesn’t work that way. Unless Hogan takes a more cooperative approach, he’s going to have trouble even getting his appointments approved this session.

Capital Priorities Questioned

  Also on the Thursday morning radio show, Hogan rejected the idea that he had favored a new, expensive jail in Baltimore City over badly needed school buildings on historically black college campuses
.
  Yet that’s exactly what happened when Hogan put together his capital budget. The jail project received top priority and new university buildings – many with business-development implications – were given the back of the hand.
  Black lawmakers were visibly upset at a Wednesday budget hearing after they realized higher education had been sent to the back of the bus so a new jail could arise more quickly in Baltimore.
  That rage boiled over Thursday with a hailstorm of denunciations of Hogan by black legislators for a long list of controversial decisions:
• Killing the east-west connecting Red Line subway through Baltimore.
• Refusing to fully fund education aid for Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, among others, last year.
• Neglecting black Marylanders, who constitute some 30 percent of the state’s population, and shifting state funds and programs to rural, white areas that favor Hogan.
• Not including funds in his initial budget for a new Prince George’s County hospital or for demolition of blocks of blighted houses in Baltimore.
  “There are assaults going on our black communities,” said Del. Curt Anderson of Baltimore. “We are not going to take it anymore. . . . We are not stupid. We know what’s going on, and we are going to retaliate.”
  Of Hogan’s preference for a new jail over new college buildings, Del. Barbara Robinson of Baltimore called it “unconscionable.”
  Black lawmakers indicated that Hogan gave the appearance of favoring a lock’em-up penal philosophy over improved educational and job opportunities.

Hasty Retreat

  By day’s end, the governor threw in the towel.
  He asked legislators to deep-six his jail planning funds and instead use the money for the very higher-education building projects he had put on the back burner.
  It was a humiliating defeat for the governor, and he had no one to blame but himself.
  Had he consulted initially with Democratic lawmakers about his jail project and the trade-off in delaying a half-dozen new college buildings, he would have learned immediately it was a non-starter.
  Instead, Hogan excluded elected Democrats from his jail deliberations and never bothered to test the capital budget waters with legislators.
  His hyper-partisan rhetoric only inflamed the situation with Democratic lawmakers last week.
  Unless Hogan tones down his spokesmen and his Change Maryland broadsides, there could be sharper responses from legislators.
  They have the power not only to get mad but to get even.
  Democratic Senate President Mike Miller tried to put a positive spin on the trials and tribulations of his friend the governor. “Everybody has a bad day and this was not a good day for the governor,” Miller said charitably.
  Unless he changes his approach, Hogan could experience many more bad days over the next six weeks.
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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at www.brascovar@hotmail.com.

Procurement Clash Coming?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 15, 2016 – First, the good news: Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. last week created a 19-member commission to come up with ways to fix Maryland’s maddeningly inefficient system for purchasing $7 billion worth of goods and services each year.

Here comes the bad news: This group may wind up trying to re-invent the wheel because state legislators appear ready to pass legislation, based on three years of study, that could dramatically change state purchasing practices.Procurement Clash Coming?

There’s no doubt Maryland’s now-antiquated and creaky procurement system needs an overhaul.

What once was a national model in the 1980s for sensible and effective state purchasing practices is now a costly embarrassment.

Practically every month, the Board of Public Works hears another horror story of botched bids, favoritism by state agencies in awarding contracts and an arcane set of practices and procedures that ties the bureaucracy in knots and delays major contracts for months and sometimes years.

It’s a procurement lawyer’s dream and a nightmare that costs the state dearly.

Broken System

Hogan was right to call Maryland’s system “a patchwork of archaic laws and processes that are inefficient, ineffective and results in wasted taxpayer dollars.”

Comptroller Peter Franchot has been on the warpath for years complaining about this “increasingly unworkable” and “broken” purchasing system “in dire need of reform.”

Lawmakers, especially Del. Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County, have been pushing for procurement reforms, too.

So why are the executive and legislative branches unable to synchronize their reform efforts?

Hogan, on his part, appears to want full credit for any changes. He’s hesitant to work with legislators and seems to have ignored the extensive work already completed on procurement reform.

O’Malley’s Role

There’s a lingering sense Republican Hogan wants nothing to do with anything initiated by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, whom the current governor has indirectly criticized time and again while announcing his own reforms.

Yet it was O’Malley who first took steps to revamp Maryland’s procurement system.

Back in 2012 O’Malley asked the Board of Public Works “to bring someone in to kick the tires” of the purchasing system. “We need to pull this apart and put it back together.”

The board contracted with Treya Partners for a thorough study of Maryland’s procurement activities.

The consultant found fragmented oversight of procurement bidding and the ultimate awards, with multiple state agencies setting their own standards and procedures; conflicting and inconsistent interpretations of procurement practice;, lax contract management, and poor relationships with state vendors.

In other words, the system is pretty much out of control.

Suggested Changes

Treya made 11 recommendations. After studying these proposals in 2014 and examining procurement laws in other states, the Department of Legislative Services backed many of Treya’s suggestions and added some of its own.

Among the main recommendations to lawmakers: Create a Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) under the Board of Public Works and consolidate most procurement officials spread throughout state government under the CPO.

State purchasing would be centralized, uniform processes would be followed consistently and one official would be accountable for ensuring that Maryland gets the best deal and the best quality for dollars spent on services and supplies.

It turns out Maryland is one of only a handful of states lacking a Chief Procurement Officer. The Free State is way behind the curve.

None of this is reflected in Hogan’s announcement. Nor is there any recognition that Democratic lawmakers are ready to turn into law many of these procurement recommendations.

It’s as though the governor doesn’t want to give credit to the hard work already done on procurement reform one floor below him.

Two Ships in the Night

Even before Hogan’s procurement commission gets off the ground the panel’s work may be rendered meaningless. It’s another indication that in the Maryland State House, Hogan and Democratic lawmakers continue to steer in different directions.

Still, the governor can salvage the situation – but only if he teams up with Del. Peter Hammen of Baltimore City, who chairs the House committee that is likely to pass the DLS procurement reform package (HB 353) that gets a hearing this Wednesday.

That would mean sharing credit with Democratic legislators, which Hogan has not wanted to do previously.

It would mean altering the mandate of the governor’s procurement commission so its main purpose becomes assessing the effectiveness of any new procurement law enacted this session and then recommending how to make the new process more efficient, more transparent and more effective in giving Maryland the best value on every contract.

On its own, Hogan’s procurement commission cannot change Maryland’s purchasing laws. Legislators can do that and they seem ready to act.

Hogan can avoid an embarrassment and come out looking like a true reformer by joining forces with like-minded legislators – regardless of their political party – who want a better procurement system for Maryland,

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Manly Words, Manly Deeds?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 8, 2016 – Though lacking flair and imagination, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s second State of the State address proved a solid effort with just the right theme: conciliation and compromise.

That leaves unanswered the key question: Will these promising words be followed by matching deeds?

Manly Words, Manly Deeds?

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivers annual State of the State address in MD State House.

The governor called his speech “A Middle Temperament,” taking a page from Robert J. Brugger’s definitive state history – “Maryland A Middle Temperament 1634—1980” and from Captain John Smith’s written description of the Chesapeake’s munificent bounties in the early 1600s.

Hogan heaped ample praise on himself in the speech, taking credit for everything that went right over the past 12 months in Maryland – even if he had nothing to do with it.

For instance, he raved about Maryland’s job growth and his big budget surplus – both the result of national macro-economic factors in which any governor plays virtually no role.

Education Puffery

He boasted about his record spending on education – though that’s the result of mandated increases in Maryland’s education aid formula. Hogan didn’t lift a finger to make that happen.

He even claimed credit for being the first governor to fully fund a program giving extra education aid to higher-cost counties. This, despite the fact he cut that aid in half last year and only fully funded the program in his new budget because infuriated lawmakers made it a legal requirement.

Hogan also sounded alarm bells about Maryland’s ballooning borrowing costs. Yet the governor did little in his budget to sharply rein in borrowing over the next fiscal year.

Actions, not words, will tell us if Hogan is serious about working with Democratic lawmakers on that and other serious problems the governor discussed in his annual address.

Legislative leaders have plenty of reasons to doubt whether Hogan will follow through on his pledge to “seek middle ground where we can all stand together.”

Partisan Moves

In his early dealings with lawmakers, the Republican governor struck a partisan tone. He refused to meet them halfway. He has continued to shut them out of policy development and rarely keeps them informed about his plans before he makes a splashy PR announcement. He’s been the opposite of inclusive.

He also has lacked consistency.

Last fall, out of the blue, he announced extra education aid for three Republican counties to help them deal with falling student enrollment. Yet Democratic Baltimore City, facing a far larger and more costly enrollment plunge, got nothing.

Then last week, Hogan finally caved to demands from legislative leaders to ante up money promised by the O’Malley administration to support Prince George’s Hospital Center until a new regional medical complex is built.

Hogan did so only after the House speaker and Senate president announced they’d push through a bill forcing Hogan to put up these funds in future years.

Yet Hogan praised his action, asserting such an arrangement was long overdue – as though the O’Malley administration had dropped the ball. It was a transparent re-writing of history.

Missing Demolition Funds

In December, Hogan suddenly announced plans to pour $700 million over a number of years into Baltimore City’s housing demolition program. Yet when Hogan’s budget arrived, the first installment of demolition money wasn’t there, nor an explanation of where all that $700 million would come from.

Hogan blamed Baltimore City for this gap in his budget. He claimed the city had failed to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that had been in negotiation for months.

But wait a minute: There’s no signed MOU for the Prince George’s hospital, either. Yet that didn’t stop Hogan from putting supplemental funds into his budget last week.

Where’s the consistency?

“There is so much we can find agreement on,” Hogan said in his speech. Indeed there is. But it will take more give than take from the governor – a reversal of his style from his first legislative session.

t also will take less partisan one-upmanship, less headline-grabbing announcements that blindside legislative leaders.

The opportunity is there, though, for Hogan to put together a winning legislative record this year. That will mean not only saying the right things about “finding the middle ground” but making the right moves to make compromise possible.

That may not prove popular with his hard-core conservative base, but if Hogan is serious about avoiding a rough road for his priorities and avoiding hyper-partisan gridlock in Annapolis, he’s the one who must take the initiative by backing up his conciliatory words with conciliatory deeds.

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Hogan’s Budget Dilemma

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 18, 2016 – Tumbling oil prices, a bear market for stock and 401(k) investors and a sharp economic pullback in China and other developing countries could wreak havoc in Maryland as Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. prepares to release his budget for the coming fiscal year.

Even before lawmakers get a chance to analyze what’s in Hogan’s conservative spending plan, the state’s revenue assumptions for the next 18 months could be out of date.Budget balancingBudget projections made by the state’s Board of Revenue Estimates just a month ago have been eclipsed by the worst-ever start-of-the-year results on Wall Street, historic drops in oil prices and stock market losses totaling a staggering $2.5 trillion in just two weeks.

This bad news comes at a terrible time for Hogan. His budget already has gone to the printers. It’s too late to make adjustments. His fiscal blueprint could be out of sync with January’s realities.

Indeed, if this worldwide gloom persists, the modest economic growth anticipated by Hogan might prove optimistic. The governor’s spending and tax-cut proposals might have to be drastically reduced – even with a large surplus in the bank.

Maryland’s economy is tied to what happens nationally and internationally.

A sharp slowdown in China’s trade hurts the Port of Baltimore and BWI Airport. Ditto for the laggard economic activity in Europe and in emerging countries.

Too Much Oil

The oil glut is leading to 250,000 layoffs in the energy sector, which will mean less work for contractors, subcontractors and suppliers throughout the country, including Maryland.

Maryland’s income tax receipts will be hurt by the plunge in stock prices. Alarmed consumers, already unnerved by talk of terrorist attacks, could continue to rein in their spending, which hurts sales tax collections.

Economists aren’t yet predicting that international woes will lead to a second Great Recession.

But weak growth could make it exceedingly difficult for Hogan to carry out his pledge to cut taxes.

While the Republican governor will propose over $400 million in tax cuts in his address to the Maryland General Assembly this week, Democratic lawmakers aren’t likely to support them if economic conditions make those tax cuts unsupportable.

U.S. Resurgence?

The best news for Hogan would be if the current batch of bad news is replaced by a sharp and lengthy bounce-back on Wall Street and an uptick in consumer spending. The U.S. economy, after all, is in far better shape than the rest of the world.

Still, we live in an era of instant international linkage. What happens in China or France or Iran or Russia affects the U.S. economy. As journalist Thomas Friedman famously wrote, “The world is flat.”

Hogan has little, if any, control over Maryland’s overall economic well-being. He can’t stop the panicked selling on China’s stock exchange, or Iran dumping more oil exports on an oversaturated world petroleum market or a Republican Congress ratcheting down federal aid to the states.

Lower gas prices were supposed to stimulate consumer spending as drivers fill up their vehicles far more cheaply. Yet so far no such bump has occurred.

Low or No Growth

Shaun Driscoll, who manages T. Rowe Price’s New Era Fund, predicts low gasoline prices could persist for the next six months and the oversupply of petroleum might linger for a couple of years.

The U.S. could find itself in a sustained period of low growth or no growth. For Hogan, that would make tax cuts problematic not only this year but in the immediate future, too.

“Risks abound,” the state’s Board of Revenue Estimates warned last month, noting the nation’s economic outlook was “subdued.”

Those observations came before the history-making plunge on Wall Street and disappointing economic news from China.

Volatility around the globe and at home makes it tough for elected officials to accurately predict the future. Extreme caution may become the watchword as budget deliberations begin in Annapolis.

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

Hold Off on Internet Hotel Tax

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 12, 2016 – Vetoed bills are on the minds of all 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly as they begin their annual 90-day session in Annapolis. Indeed, it’s the first order of business on Wednesday.

Among the most controversial is a vetoed bill concerning a dispute between large hotel operators, like Bethesda-based Marriott and Rockville-based Choice Hotels, and internet travel companies. The fight is over tax payments to the state by those internet companies when they book in-state hotel rooms.

The vote to override Hogan’s veto puts three “swing” Democrats with centrist records on the hot seat — Sen. Jim Mathias of the Eastern Shore and Sens. Kathy Klausmeier and Jim Brochin of Baltimore County.

All three Democrats come from districts where anger over high taxes led to large Hogan victories in 2014 with margins topping 60 percent for the Republican governor.

Now Democratic leaders want the three senators to go against Hogan on the internet hotel tax bill. For them, that may not be the wisest political move, especially on a piece of legislation viewed by many constituents as a tax increase.

Travelocity

The big hotel operators want travel companies to pay taxes on the fees they charge customers when travelers book Maryland hotel rooms through an intermediary. (The internet sites already add the state sales tax to the negotiated rate going to the hotels.)

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. vetoed this bill.

He did so for the most sensible of reasons: Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot already is suing an internet company, Travelocity, over what he claims is $6 million in unpaid taxes on those service fees between 2003 and 2011.

Hogan’s Message

“The General Assembly should respect the long-standing practice of not passing legislation that would directly affect matters being litigated in a pending court case,” Hogan wrote in explaining his veto last May.

Why in the world would state lawmakers interfere in a court case brought by the state’s comptroller?

Why not do what nearly all prior General Assemblys have done and let legal proceedings play out before taking action?

The answer is partisan politics. Democratic leaders want to show Hogan who’s in charge by overturning the governor’s vetoes.

On this one, pragmatism and practicality should prompt lawmakers to let well enough alone until there is a definitive ruling from the Maryland Tax Court.

Hurting Ma and Pa

It’s a complicated issue. Legislative controversies usually are.

For instance, the hotel booking tax could hurt local Ma & Pa travel agents, who are having a hard time as a result of shrinking commissions from hotels and other destination sites.

The fees they charge customers are their profit margin. If those fees get taxed, it could mean staff reductions to make up the difference.

Besides, they already pay local and state income taxes on revenue derived from those fees.

The new sales tax also could have the unintended consequence of harming small businesses such as tour operators, event planners and service providers, who might be forced to pay a new tax.

Fewer Bookings?

Industry data indicates that for every percentage increase in hotel rates, there is a negative two percent drop in bookings. That could be huge in Maryland if the legislature overrides Hogan’s veto. It could easily wipe out the revenue gain, estimated at $3 million to $4 million, from taxing service fees on third-party hotel bookings at a rate of six percent.

Large hoteliers say this tax “levels the playing field.” Yet it also forces third-party booking agencies to hike their prices to consumers and thus become less competitive with the hotels’ in-house booking operations.

The biggest booster of the new tax is Marriott, which has enormous clout among legislators from Montgomery County.

Ironically, Marriott was a big beneficiary in 1999 of state tax breaks topping $58 million in exchange for keeping its headquarters in Maryland. Part of the deal called for Marriott to expand its HQ staff by 700. Instead, there’s been a major workforce reduction.

Think how much the state’s tax coffers would have benefitted if Marriott had followed through on its 1999 commitment.

Consumers Pay More

Those opposing this bill say this amounts to a new tax, which it definitely is for third-party hotel booking services. You can rest assured most of this tax increase would be passed along to customers booking lodging in Maryland through them.

As noted, this is not a cut and dried issue.

Should all services fees be subject to the state sales tax, or just fees charged by internet hotel booking companies? Should local travel agents and travel-related companies be exempt from the tax?

The legislature is acting prematurely. It should await a Tax Court decision. Then it should form a work group to study the full, wide-ranging implications, including the mixed responses to this problem in other states.

All that points to a go-slow approach.

When SB 190 comes before the Senate and House of Delegates on Wednesday, lawmakers should avoid a hasty decision. There’s no need to rush to judgment – unless bitter partisan politics overrules common sense.

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2015’s ‘Dumb & Dumber Award’

By Barry Rascovar

Before we get too far into the New Year, let’s dispense with the Maryland political maneuver deemed as the low point of 2015: Civil rights advocacy groups waited till the very end of the year to file the worst and most counter-productive legal complaint that’s been filed in a long, long time.

The groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, are essentially suing Gov. Larry Hogan administratively for daring to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line rapid rail route through Baltimore. Their reasoning: Hogan made a racially discriminatory decision that harms African Americans in Baltimore City.Red Line logoNot only is the complaint historically inaccurate, it is pointless and damaging to their cause. For this publicity-seeking waste of time and energy, the groups’ complaint richly deserves 2015’s “Dumb and Dumber Award.”

Leap of Logic

Republican Hogan has been heavily criticized for cancelling the Red Line project, but racial bigotry isn’t one of the charges that sticks.

Not only is it a stretch to make that wild accusation, there’s no evidence to back up the charge.

Did Hogan sit in his office plotting the death knell of the Red Line so he could keep African Americans “in their place”? Did he divert most of the Red Line money to rural and suburban highway projects as a discriminatory move against blacks?

The accusation is preposterous on its face.

Protesters even claim the Red Line was a vital piece of the state’s plan to remedy racial disparities, and that rejecting the Red Line was part of an historic pattern of racially imbedded transportation decisions by state governors.

Pure hogwash.

Red Line History

Never once in all the years I have reported and commented on the Red Line project have I heard such a distorted argument.

Never once did the Democratic O’Malley administration or the Republican Ehrlich administration make the argument that they wanted to proceed with the Red Line because of its civil rights implications.

Never once did the Hogan administration even hint at a racial motive for stopping the Red Line in its tracks.

The civil rights groups are far, far off-base.

Yes, cancelling the Red Line, and the $900 million in federal funds, ranks as the most boneheaded decision of the century (so far) in Maryland.

Yes, it will harm African Americans in Baltimore – but also whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

But Hogan’s move was largely a political decision. Racial discrimination didn’t enter into the discussion.

Not Worth the Cost

He did it because he’s a rigidly conservative Republican who hates big government spending projects that primarily benefit Democratic strongholds. He didn’t feel this controversial construction undertaking was worth the huge outlay of state funds.

He wrongly called the Red Line a “boondoggle” because in his mind any oversized project that won’t help his voter base in rural and suburban Maryland isn’t a priority.

He called the Red Line “unaffordable” even though it clearly could have been downsized and revamped to make it more cost-efficient and make it fit into the state’s long-term transportation budget.

Nixing the Red Line was decided by Hogan long before he took office.

He promised during the 2014 campaign to kill the Red Line. Race had nothing to do with it; conservative ideology had everything to do with his decision.

The civil rights groups also make the argument Maryland has a long history of racially discriminatory transportation and housing decisions.

Excuse me, but how did housing get into this argument over building the Red Line?

Not in My Neighborhood

There’s no doubt housing discrimination was at play in the Baltimore region over the past 100 years. My former colleague at The Baltimore Sun, Antero Pietila, brilliantly presents the case against the federal, state and city governments for their racially biased housing policies in his book, “Not in My Neighborhood.”

But the issue here is transportation, not housing.

Where did the civil rights groups get the idea that building Baltimore’s Central Light-Rail Line and the region’s Metro Line were purposely designed to discriminate against blacks?

That’s buncombe. It rewrites history to fit the groups’ distorted, conspiratorial world view.

Marvin Mandel built the Red Line not to serve white Marylanders but because there was a right-of-way available from the old Western Maryland Railroad that ran through Northwest Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Today, Baltimore’s first mass-transit rail line well serves areas that are both black and white, as well as Hispanic.  Even the line’s county stations serve a very large and growing African American community.

Key Right-of-Way

William Donald Schaefer built the Central Light-Rail Line because there was an abandoned right-of-way available — the former Northern Central Railroad route. It was a cost-and-efficiency engineering decision. The goal, then as now, was to make public transportation to jobs, stores and entertainment easier for EVERYONE – especially those living in Baltimore City.

Neither Mandel nor Schaefer posed as George Wallace seeking to deny blacks better public transportation. Quite the opposite. Race was never a factor in their decisions to build those routes, plain and simple. It did not enter into discussions.

There’s no question Baltimore lacks quality public transportation. There’s no question the city and the state should have done a better job anticipating the need for a comprehensive, coherent and connected mass-transit system that gets low-income adults to job sites.

It’s been a huge failure by state and local officials.

You can blame it on politics, both in Annapolis and in Washington. But you cannot blame Baltimore’s sorry transportation situation on racial discrimination.

Civil rights groups are wasting time and money on this canard. There are important civil rights issues confronting Baltimore at this time, but not the Red Line’s demise.

Fait accompli

The civil rights groups’ complaint to Washington bureaucrats contains another huge leap of illogic: It’s too late to undo what’s been done.

Hogan killed the Red Line. It’s a fait accompli. The federal government is redistributing that $900 million to other cities that weren’t stupid enough to turn their backs on such a huge federal gift.

You can’t revise history to satisfy your wishes. The Red Line money from Washington is gone. A civil rights complaint, even if upheld, won’t make that money reappear.

Besides, who’s to say the Red Line would have solved Baltimore’s discrimination woes? Since when did these civil rights groups become experts in the most advantageous public transportation modes for Baltimore residents of color?

How do they view Hogan’s decision to spend $135 million on improving Baltimore’s sub-par bus system? That’s a whopping amount of money for such an undertaking that will primarily benefit the city’s lower-income workers and residents.

Is that part of the discrimination conspiracy, too?

What a distraction.

These civil rights groups should be ashamed. Demonizing Larry Hogan for unfounded civil rights affronts is a terrible mistake that politicizes the legitimate work of those groups. It polarizes the situation and needlessly antagonizes the one person who holds the purse strings for future transportation projects.

The complaint hurts, rather that helps, Baltimore City in its appeals to Annapolis at a time when the city needs all the help it can get.

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Dump Those Hateful Lyrics

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 4, 2016 – I strongly disagree with “politically correct” crowds that frequently seek to re-write history for their own present-day purposes. But when it comes to the hateful lyrics of Maryland’s official state song, I say quite emphatically, “Dump them.”

The words to “Maryland, My Maryland,” composed by an emotionally wrought Rebel sympathizer, James Ryder Randall, are despicable.

Dump Those Hateful Lyrics

James Ryder Randall

Abraham Lincoln is called a despot. Those supporting the United States rather than the Confederacy are called “Northern scum.”

The poem is a blatant call for Maryland to separate from the U.S. and join the Confederacy.

It’s a blood-thirsty state anthem, written in New Orleans by the 22-year-old Randall following the first casualties of the Civil War during Baltimore’s Pratt Street riot of April 1861.

Rebel Call to Arms

Thus the words:

“Avenge the patriotic gore

That flecked the streets of Baltimore,

And be the battle queen of yore, Maryland! My Maryland!”

Randall, who spent most of his adult life far from Maryland in Augusta, Georgia and other Southern outposts as an editorial writer, quickly became a hero among Southern separatists.

His words, set to a catchy German college tune that we know today as “O Tanenbaum” or “O Christmas Tree,” caught on with Rebel soldiers and supporters.

Why such mean-spirited, blood-curdling words would come to represent the state of Maryland – whose citizens were decidedly mixed in their views of the Civil War – remains cloaked in mystery.

Adopting a State Song

Republican Gov. Harry Whinna Nice vetoed a bill making Randall’s lyrics the state song in 1935. He felt the words were inappropriate. Nice was on the mark.

But the next governor, conservative Democrat Herbert R. O’Conor, went along with legislators, especially those from rural parts of Maryland with Southern sympathies. O’Conor signed the bill making “Maryland, My Maryland” the state song in 1939.

Big mistake.

Other states have dumped offensive lyrics in their state songs. Florida did it twice (“Swanee”), Kentucky did it (“My Old Kentucky Home”) and so did Virginia (“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”).

Yet for 20 years, Maryland legislators have refused to get rid of lyrics that don’t come close to representing the state’s citizens. The words are hateful, viciously un-American and written to encourage Maryland to secede from the United States.

It is past time to reverse that dreadful decision by the 1939 General Assembly and Governor O’Conor.

Correcting a Mistake

This is not, as Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. put it recently, “political correctness run amok.”

He needs to re-think his position. Randall’s lyrics never should have been allowed to represent Maryland’s citizens. Does he really want school children singing those words?

Hogan’s right that the “PC Crowd” frequently careens out of control trying to revise history to further their own current-day ideological goals.

Taken to an extreme, this would mean tearing down the Washington Monument and re-naming the District of Columbia because George Washington owned hundreds of slaves, frequently ordered severe whippings and refused to liberate them until after his death.

It would mean tearing down the Jefferson Memorial and removing Thomas Jefferson’s face from American currency because he, too, owned hundreds of slaves and conceived children with them.

It would mean melting down the austere statue of Roger Brooke Taney on the grounds of the Annapolis State House because of his refusal as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to abolish slavery. Taney’s other sensible and forward-thinking Supreme Court opinions, and his extremely important work in Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet, would be ground into dust.

Byrd Stadium No Longer

The PC Crowd already had its way at the University of Maryland, College Park, where the name of Harry C. Byrd was erased from its football stadium – even though Byrd, who tried vigorously to keep Negroes out of University of Maryland colleges, arguably did more to turn UM into a first-rate state university than any of his successors.

“You can’t change history, and we’re not going to be able to rewrite history,” Hogan said. That’s true. The past is water under the bridge, it is time that already has ticked off the clock.

We can, though, learn from mistakes of the past. We can glean a greater understanding of the flawed decisions of former leaders and why those mistakes happened – so that we, in the present, don’t make similar mistakes.

As philosopher George Santayana wrote in 1924, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Lessons from Yesterday

Hogan should learn from Governor O’Conor’s mistake in 1939. He should review and learn from Governor Nice’s courageous veto in 1935.

There’s nothing sacred about a state song, especially one that fiercely and savagely promotes secession.

It makes sense to follow the suggestion of an advisory panel to replace Randall’s odious lyrics with words that better represent Maryland’s history and its citizens’ good intentions.

Overturning a legislative and gubernatorial mistake made 77 years ago isn’t a matter of political correctness.

It’s common sense that ought to be supported on a bipartisan basis in the State House.

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