Tag Archives: Maryland General Assembly

Hogan’s Strong-Arm Schools Tactic

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 18, 2017 – In one of the oddest situations Annapolis has seen in recent times, Gov. Larry Hogan is trying to sabotage his own education commission.

That’s right. A state school board made up almost exclusively of Hogan appointees is scheduled today to submit to federal officials a plan for turning around under-performing schools.

The panel agreed to this improvement plan after 19 months of intense study that included five “listening tours,” 205 meetings, testimony from education experts and extensive staff research.

Yet the governor is intent on blowing up his school board’s plan before it arrives in Washington.

Hogan wrote a scathing letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos denouncing the school-improvement program approved by his own education panel. He says it preserves “the status quo in failing schools.”

Hogan's Strong-Arm Schools Tactic

MD Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meet with children at a Bethesda elementary school.

A reading of the state’s submittal doesn’t appear to support Hogan’s objection, which is rooted almost completely in politics, not education.

Hogan wants to turn under-performing schools over to private contractors to be run as charter, non-unionized schools. He’d like to strip counties and Baltimore City of authority over those schools and lump them into “recovery districts” controlled by the state. He’d love to shut down failing schools and give students vouchers to attend private schools.

Multiple-Choice Education

His notions are rigidly conservative and radical. He would sweep away much of the underpinnings of Maryland’s public school system, including local control. Hogan wants to replace weak-performing schools with a privatized, multiple-choice system for educating children.

That idea hasn’t gotten off the ground in the Maryland General Assembly. The Democratic-controlled legislature repeatedly has rejected Republican Hogan’s attempts to privatize parts of the state’s public education system.

To make sure Hogan can’t embed his conservative education ideas by way of state school board decisions, the legislature passed a measure earlier this year limiting reforms the state panel can include in a plan it must submit to Washington to deal with failing schools.

Essentially, Democratic lawmakers instructed the state board that reform efforts must deal directly with student deficiencies and teacher deficiencies at existing schools. The board’s remediation plan must be implemented within the current education structure. No radical steps like charter schools, privatized management, vouchers or recovery districts allowed.

Lawmakers also rankled Hogan by limiting how much weight can be given to controversial standardized tests in determining if a school is failing.

Hogan vetoed the legislature’s bill, which Democrats then easily voted to override.

Much of the language approved by the legislature is what the powerful state teachers union wanted to protect its members from being fired in a mass privatization movement.

Dealing with Failed Schools

Yet the legislature’s restrictions hardly amounts to “preserving the status quo.” It did restrain what Hogan’s school board can propose as far as school takeovers and other sweeping moves to turn to private-sector solutions.

Yet the final product gives a detailed description of how schools will be judged and how the state will support comprehensive improvements in the weakest public schools.

It’s a far more challenging and thoughtful plan than an “off-with-their heads” approach that would re-create faltering public schools along privatized lines.

Hogan could well gain backing for his subversion from DeVos in Washington. After all, the pair made a joint guest appearance at an elementary school in Montgomery County earlier this year. Their education ideas seem to mesh.

She, too, is an ardent believer in privatization of schooling, though that approach has a mixed record.

Despite reservations from some of its members, the state education board’s submission to Washington is a solid, commendable effort to directly confront failings in schools across Maryland. The stress is on comprehensive efforts to improve teaching skills and student performance.

That may not be radical enough for Hogan, who is using all his tools to try to gum up the works. The danger is that he succeeds, with $250 million in federal school aid hanging in the balance.

But don’t count on Democrats in the legislature letting the Republican governor have his way on education privatization, even if DeVos sides with him. They are unlikely to yield.

This could well turn into an election issue next year with Hogan appealing to his conservative political base, accusing Democrats of pandering to the teachers’ union and resisting wholesale reforms.

On the other side, Democrats are sure to exploit Hogan’s unyielding advocacy of school privatization as part of his effort to diminish state support of public education.

DeVos’ decision on Maryland’s school-improvement proposal could play a prominent role in the state’s upcoming elections, especially the race for governor. It could have ramifications far beyond the classroom.

Sen. Kasemeyer Responds

This missive arrived the other day from Sen. Ed Kasemeyer of Howard County, chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee — a defense of his entire committee and his own role in the budget process.

Kasemeyer’s low-key approach to legislating — first in the Maryland House of Delegates and now in the Maryland Senate — rarely grabs the headlines. It is a refreshing reminder of how lawmakers can work effectively but quietly, with fewer partisan and parochial conflicts.

He chairs one of the hardest-working committees, given the unenviable task of cutting budget allocations rather than adding to them.

Sen. Kasemeyer Responds

Howard County Sen. Ed Kasemeyer

Here is Kasemeyer’s email:

“I was reading one of your articles in [MarylandReporter.com] dated 4/16/17 regarding the Maryland budget and the out-year predictions.

“I realize that most of the people who follow the legislature are constantly praising Sen. [Rich] Madaleno — and I totally agree that he is incredibly competent and intelligent.

“However, your comment about [Gov. Larry] Hogan, [Del.] Maggie McIntosh, and Sen. Madaleno working together to put the budget together is an insult to my committee and me.

“I met with Del. McIntosh from early in the session to deal with Baltimore City’s issues so that she knew we (the Senate) would be totally supportive. I think if you asked any of my members they would tell you I am firmly in control.

“As a progressive leader I am supportive of my members and try to put them in situations where they will shine (including Rich). Sometimes I wonder if you all know what is really going on.”

Ed Kasemeyer

###

Maryland’s Balanced Budget – For Now

By Barry Rascovar

April 17, 2017 – Another Maryland General Assembly session has come and gone with Gov. Larry Hogan proclaiming victory and legislative leaders breathing a positive sigh of relief.

There were no big wins for Hogan but no shocking defeats, either. His ideologically driven, conservative agenda may sell well with die-hard Hogan backers but it was a non-starter with Democratic lawmakers.

His most solid step forward?

A compromise bill giving manufacturers tax breaks, especially if they provide workers with new job skills (that’s the part Democrats insisted on). It’s not a huge benefit for those companies but it is another incentive that could help persuade manufacturers to move to the Free State.

His biggest defeat?

A set of restrictions imposed on the Hogan-selected state school board, which had its hands tied by Democratic lawmakers to prevent state intrusions into local school board autonomy on figuring out how to turn around failing schools.

Constitutional Mandate

Still, the most important issue of every General Assembly session revolves around dollars and cents.

Passing a balanced budget is the only constitutional requirement both the governor and legislature must achieve every year.Maryland's Balanced Budget--For Now

This time, they cobbled together a fiscal blueprint that avoids deep spending cuts while expanding state aid and services in targeted areas.

The outcome is a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 that grows only 1.2%, to $43.6 billion.

The general fund budget essentially remains level. The state workforce holds at 80,000 (no pay raises or longevity increases).

That is a tribute to Hogan’s ability to hold down spending without taking a Trumpian axe to state government and local aid.

That’s the good news.

Dark Days Ahead?

The bad news: Those ominous storm clouds coming from the nation’s capital – potentially massive federal job losses, large cuts in healthcare, medical research and local aid.

This could give Hogan an Excedrin-sized headache he doesn’t need as he approaches an election year.

There’s an additional problem, too.

The respected Department of Legislative Services (DLS) predicts that over the next five years, Maryland’s revenue will grow 3.5% annually – versus a 5.4% rise in state spending.

That yawning gap was partially closed in the just-passed budget, eliminating 88 percent of the state’s structural budget gap.

The trouble is that this budget magic was achieved by stripping out money from the state’s Rainy Day reserve fund and moving other money around –$202 million worth of “fund transfers.” Another $185 million was saved through budget cuts by the legislature.

Thus, Hogan, Del. Maggie McIntosh and Sen. Rich Madaleno, among others, worked together in the budget process and balanced the state’s books with $91 million to spare.

Tepid Economy

Yet DLS predicts the budget gap will reach $716 million next year, $1 billion in two years and a staggering $1.5 billion by FY 2022.

Why?

“. . .a combination of tepid revenue growth, fueled by a lackluster economy, and growth in mandated spending and entitlements.”

DLS concludes “the Administration will need to take action to address a shortfall in excess of $700 million in Fiscal Year 2019.”

It adds, “The magnitude of the projected shortfalls suggests that discussion will need to focus not only on what services are provided by the State but also the fundamental revenue structure currently in place.”

That’s a polite way of announcing tax INCREASES could be back on the table, whether Hogan likes it or not.

This is especially true if the dire forecasts of historic Trump budget cuts become reality.

Closing a $700 million fiscal gap next year in Annapolis exclusively through spending reductions would be extraordinary – and painful. If Trump multiplies that deficit through massive federal budget cuts and layoffs of Maryland residents, the state could face a financial crisis.

For now, though, the state’s revenue and spending plan for the next fiscal year is in good shape.

But things could change in a hurry between now and year’s end as Trump and the Republican Congress get serious about slashing federal programs, positions and aid to local counties and states.

###

MD General Assembly muscles up at Hogan’s expense

By Barry Rascovar

March 10, 2017 – When the clock strikes 12 tonight, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan will breathe a huge sigh of relief. With luck, the Maryland General Assembly – which has been increasingly aggressive in opposing the Republican chief executive – won’t return to Annapolis until next January.

There have been few reasons for Hogan to take comfort in his dealings with the state legislature this year – or indeed for the two earlier 90-day sessions.

Hogan and President Trump want to run things the way they did as private-sector real estate CEOs. Working cooperatively with a large, diverse and divisive legislature isn’t in their DNA. Nor is give-and-take compromise.

Yet that’s the very nature of the legislative branch, where no one ever gets 100 percent of what he or she wants.Md General Assembly gains power at Hogan's expenseLawmakers come to realize they must settle for a half-step forward or a partial victory while the opposition gains concessions that make tolerable what, in their eyes, could have been a truly bad law.

That sort of meeting of the minds hasn’t happened all that often during Hogan’s time in the governor’s mansion.

Going Nowhere on Bills

In many respects, 2017’s legislative session was the most miserable for Hogan. His No.1 objective – eliminating a paper-tiger of a law requiring transparency in ranking transportation projects – went nowhere.

He pilloried the Democrats’ “Protect Our Schools Act” designed to prevent state school board conservatives appointed by Hogan from stripping local school systems of autonomy to deal with underperforming schools.

The result? A humiliating defeat as the bill passed by large margins. The governor then vetoed the measure – as promised – only to see Democrats easily override the veto.

Hogan harshly assailed Attorney Genera Brian Frosh’s bill to expand his powers and allow Frosh to sue the Trump administration without first gaining the governor’s consent. That’s a huge increase in Frosh’s clout at Hogan’s expense.

Lawmakers also stripped Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot of their authority to dole out school construction funds in the humiliating “begathon” sessions imposed on school superintendents. The duo had withheld millions from Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools a year ago and that helped precipitate this session’s payback.

Hogan as Trump

In lawmakers’ eyes, Hogan came to symbolize President Trump, even though the two Republicans disagree more often than not.

Legislators approved language that would use state dollars to replace any federal funds taken from Planned Parenthood by Republicans in Washington. Maryland Public Television received the same assurances from Democratic lawmakers.

There were some areas of agreement in the State House, though.

Hogan and lawmakers worked together on a bill to stem opioid overdoses through treatment and prevention.

They found middle ground on a partial relief measure to help Baltimore City schools dig out of their deficit by tying this aid to school funds for Republican-voting counties with a similar lower-enrollment problem.

Broadsides and Animosity

Hogan did a convenient flip-flop on banning hydraulic fracturing in drilling for oil and gas in Maryland to assuage environmentalists – a meaningless action since no such drilling takes place in Maryland or is likely any time soon.

But the governor kept hammering away at Democrats in the General Assembly with broadsides that only deepened the animus.

He was especially harsh of lawmakers indicted for a string of alleged wrongdoing, from campaign finance violations to local liquor board shenanigans to shady actions tied to the award of medical marijuana licenses to a payoff scam in return for promising passage of special legislation.

Yet when the legislature finally agreed on tougher ethics laws, Hogan was full of praise, though the result came nowhere near achieving what the governor had demanded.

Hogan did a good job working out differences on the state budget – largely because he proposed little that was new or controversial. He deserves credit for keeping a tight lid on spending as Maryland approaches a time of enormous economic uncertainty.

Unmet Needs

One thing the governor failed to do was formulate a comprehensive relief plan for beleaguered Baltimore City. Two years after the Freddie Gray riots, scant progress has been made. Hogan has been conspicuously absent.

He also has yet to take steps to prepare the state for what appear to be massive federal spending cuts that could cost Maryland and Virginia tens of thousands of jobs and create an enormous economic ripple effect.

So as legislators finish their chores and head for home, they can look back on a session in which they reversed roles with the governor. Lawmakers were the pro-active initiators of actions, not the chief executive, who became a reactive and largely ineffective objector.

It was not Larry Hogan’s best 90 days of work. That may be because his main focus continues to be winning a second term next year – not working out public policy deals with lawmakers.

For the rest of 2017, he’s likely to have Annapolis and state government all to himself.

That’s the way he likes it, especially as he moves into campaign mode to ease his way into another four-year stay in Maryland’s top elective office.

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

 

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

By Barry Rascovar

April 3, 2017–When it comes to dealing with the Maryland General Assembly, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan could well be called “Mr. Irrelevant.”

He’s threatening to veto a batch of bills recently enacted by Democrats in the state legislature – yet he lacks the votes to support his negative actions.

It amounts to more venting of angry “sound and fury” by the highly partisan governor that gets him nowhere.

He still insists on playing “Mr. Nasty” when he goes on conservative talk shows or holds a staged media event, denouncing Democratic lawmakers and their proposals in harsh terms as though their proposals will bring down the wrath of a furious GOP deity on Maryland citizens.

He demands that Democrats abandon their ideological beliefs and join Hogan’s Heroes in marching lockstep behind his decidedly conservative agenda.

A Week of Vetoes

This State House drama is nearing a climax in what could be called “veto week.” Democrats rushed through a number of bills Hogan could well reject – but there’s still time in the General Assembly session for near-certain veto-override votes.

The biggest Hogan hissy fit is likely to surround the “Protect Our Schools Act of 2017,” a Democratic measure that more accurately could be called “Protect Our State from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.”

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

MD Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Education Secretry Betsy DeVos meet with children at a Bethesda elementary school.

The bill stems from fear that Hogan wants to impose a Republican education agenda on local school systems – dozens of charter schools, lots and lots of vouchers for kids to opt out of public schools, more aid to religious schools, private companies running under-performing schools and a state takeover of the worst-performing schools.

Democratic legislators fear the new U.S. Department of Education secretary will move heaven and earth to eliminate public schools and replace them with charter, religious and privatized schools. That’s what DeVos – who married into the billionaire family that founded and runs Amway – has loudly advocated for years.

It’s pretty much what Trump trumpeted on the presidential campaign trail last year, too.

And it’s awfully close to what Hogan has been seeking as his way to “improve” education in Maryland.

He tried to get a bill passed this session creating a special board with the power to authorize charter schools at the drop of a hat and without local school board approval. Private schooling is Hogan’s panacea for improving education achievement.

Sounding the Alarm

No wonder Democrats in Annapolis are alarmed. They aren’t going to let Hogan undercut public education systems in Maryland’s 24 subdivisions, which is what privatization, charter schools and a wide-spread voucher system could do.

Hogan falsely claims the Democrats’ bill he plans to veto will cost Maryland $250 million in federal funds under an improvement plan the state must submit to Washington.

But he intentionally ignores the fact that the new Republican president has essentially gutted that required improvement plan put in place by the Obama administration.

What Hogan has pledged to veto is a defensive bill Democrats urgently want on the books to block the Hogan-DeVos-Trump triumvirate from directly imposing their will on failing schools or creating – without local approval – charter schools and vast voucher systems.

The Baltimore Sun’s editorial page rightly pointed out that the legislature is stepping too forcefully into education matters better left to the state education board. The state board has complained, too, about legislative overreach.

Yet given the fact that the Republican governor is slowly converting that board into a conservative panel that could well embrace the Hogan-DeVos-Trump education agenda, the restrictions spelled out in the Democrats’ bill are quite understandable.

Reelection Takes Priority

None of this needed to happen.

Had Hogan opted to make love not war with Democratic legislators, Maryland could be making greater headway on classroom achievement – including agreements on permitting more charter schools in the state.

But Larry Hogan is first and foremost a political survivalist who appears most interested in his reelection, not in finding compromises on sensible bills that improve life in Maryland.

The result is a preventive measure drafted by alarmed and worried Democrats that almost certainly will go on the books. Hogan could have avoided this confrontation, but unlike General Electric, progress is not his most important product – politics is.

He’ll continue to denounce and demonize Democrats alleging that Maryland will lose federal school funds. He’ll continue to ream out Democrats for “outrageous and irresponsible” actions that he asserts are blocking his education reforms.

It’s all designed to construct a reelection campaign story in which the poor, underappreciated underdog governor, a man trying to do the right thing, finds himself once again under attack from mean, corrupt, unethical Democrats in Annapolis.

Meanwhile, the exceedingly difficult task of finding ways to improve learning in Maryland’s public schools gets shuttled to the sidelines. Politics, not policy, must come first. ###

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.

###

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.

###

Del. Dan Morhaim’s Response

Jan. 27, 2017 — Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim of Baltimore County, the subject of an ethics inquiry over his lack of transparency concerning his financial arrangement with a marijuana dispensary and growing company, took issue with last week’s column on ethics in Annapolis in which he was mentioned.

His lengthy, legalistic response — which delves into aspects not mentioned in my column — is reproduced below in full. He disputes any and all claims of ethics violations. He asserts he followed legislative rules of conduct.

Not discussed is what the legislature’s Joint Ethics Committee is still considering: Whether his decision to not fully publicize his financial relationship with a company applying for marijuana licenses was acceptable behavior.

Morhaim was a longtime supporter of legalizing medical marijuana and co-sponsored the bill that became law. He also spoke out frequently at meetings of the Medical Cannabis Commission as it promulgated rules for awarding grower and dispensary licenses. He failed to publicly inform the panel, his fellow lawmakers and constituents of his financial relationship with Doctor’s Orders, which won preliminary licenses. He is now the company’s medical director.

Does this constitute a violation of the public’s trust or the General Assembly’s rules of conduct? Morhaim says no.

Morhaim’s other work in the General Assembly over two decades has been exemplary, acting as a leader on procurement reforms and giving much-needed expert guidance, as an emergency room physician, on a host of medical matters.

Yet the marijuana ethics issue was so troubling to legislative leaders that Morhaim was removed from the committee handling key health policy bills and lost his subcommittee chairmanship.

This is not the first time Morhaim has defended himself against an accusation of unprofessional conduct.

In 2005, he was reprimanded by the state’s physician disciplinary board. He agreed to a one-year probation for pre-signing blank forms falsely certifying he had examined nursing home residents and found that they met conditions required for withdrawal of treatment.

Morhaim, juggling two jobs as an ER doctor and a physician for a nursing home, maintained this was a clerical mistake and that no patient safety issues were involved.

The physician board felt otherwise but gave him one of it less severe penalties.

Here, then, is Morhaim’s letter explaining his side of the current ethics controversy:

“Mr. Rascovar/Barry:

             “You got several important points wrong in your articles about me.

             “First, this investigation began because of an erroneous Washington Post report that suggested I had not made proper disclosures.  In fact, I did. The Post has since retracted its erroneous report. [Editor’s Note: The Post did not retract its story nor indicate it was “erroneous.” It simply elaborated on the article, presenting more of Morhaim’s side and fuller details about Maryland’s legislative disclosure rules.]

           “The Washington Post made the following correction on 10/14/2016 that recognized that I followed all disclosure rules.  The Post wrote: ‘Correction: Earlier versions of this article included incomplete information about what Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County) reported on financial disclosure forms. While Morhaim did not report that he had been hired as a consultant to be the clinical director of the prospective medical cannabis company Doctor’s Orders, he did disclose that he might work as a consultant in the medical cannabis field and had received income as a consultant. Maryland law requires lawmakers to disclose sources of income but does not require those who work as consultants or lawyers to reveal their clients. A July 14 letter from Dea Daly, ethics counsel to the General Assembly, said Morhaim was not required to disclose his consulting clients on the form.’

            “In an email (9/28/2016) sent to me, the Washington Post reporter concluded that, ‘I plan on reporting that nothing in these emails shows that you were trying to lobby for Doctor’s Orders and nothing shows you pushing regulations that appear to narrowly benefit Doctor’s Orders.’  On 9/29/2016, the Post published, ‘The emails do not show Morhaim directly pushing for any changes­ that appear to be tailored specifically to benefit Doctor’s Orders’(This statement appeared in paragraph 20 of a 24-paragraph article.)   

             “It’s unfortunate and inappropriate that you’ve based your articles on allegations solely from other media. At no time did you contact me to get my perspective on these issues.

             “Second, before I had any business dealings with a medical cannabis applicant, I consulted with the Legislative Ethics Committee’s counsel about its propriety, and I followed their advice. All the proper disclosures as required by State Ethics Law were made, and these are in the public record.

            “Third, because I was following the written advice of the Legislative Ethics Committee staff, it was felt that there might be a conflict of interest on the part of that staff. Therefore an independent counsel was deemed advisable to insure that the investigation was above suspicion. There is no suggestion that retaining the independent counsel reflects on the gravity of the investigation. It’s also important to note that no charges or complaint have been filed in the case.

            “Fourth, I had no contact with any medical cannabis applicant until after the enabling 2015 legislation was enacted. I have been fighting for Maryland patients to have access to medical cannabis for the last 14 years, and my record on disinterested health public policy is second to none. For the one related bill I introduced after that (HB104 – 2016), I received clearance in writing in advance from the ethics counselor. Further, neither I, nor any member of my family, has any financial interest in any cannabis entity.

             “Fifth, my consulting work for an applicant was never kept secret. That’s why we’re having this discussion to begin with. It was properly disclosed on the application, which is a public document. I didn’t tout this association because this would have been improper. Had I done so, it would have been perceived as lobbying for the applicant instead of letting the rigorous double blind selection process of the Cannabis Commission play out. My consulting work was focused exclusively on clinical issues and concluded in the fall of 2015.

             “Sixth, my work as a consultant and as a practicing physician is not different in any way from the work done by the many legislators – in our citizen legislature – who are lawyers, accountants, or businesspersons. They are required to disclose that they have dealings with subject matter affected by state legislation, but as consultants they are not required to name their clients on the Legislative Ethics disclosure forms. The ethics counselor, as part of the disclosure filing process, confirmed this policy to me in writing.

             “If you wish, documentation of any or all of the above can be provided to you.

            ” Last, I respectfully ask you to do what the Washington Post did: print a correction to the facts.

             “Thank you for your consideration, and should you choose to write further articles about this one aspect of my legislative activities, I trust you will keep in mind the factual record provided to you now. 

“Sincerely,

“Dan

“Del. Dan Morhaim”

###

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.

###

Responsive Legislative Actions

By Barry Rascovar

April 18, 2016 – In chalking up results from the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session that concluded a week ago today, it appears lawmakers have much to crow about.

In at least four areas, they achieved major steps forward that should prove enormously beneficial to Maryland residents.

Re-shaping prison sentences and parole

No bill holds more promise than this one, which had the backing of blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the governor and lawmakers.

The goal is to unclog prisons by placing minor drug offenders in alternative treatment, counseling and training programs instead of sitting unproductively in a jail cell.

Proponents made a big deal of the supposedly enormous savings in the original bill, which is of minor importance compared to providing offenders with constructive ways to turn their lives around while reserving incarceration for society’s truly bad apples.

State senators hesitated to give full support to the advocates’ liberal “get out of jail card” approach, worrying hardened criminals might be getting breaks they don’t deserve and return quickly to a life of street violence.

In the end, they agreed to give it a try, but the issue is certain to return to the State House next year to close unintended loopholes and weaknesses in the bill that won’t appear until the law is fully implemented.

Underwriting a Baltimore renewal program

One of Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s worst moments this past session was his failure to present a city revival package to the General Assembly. Given the governor’s no-show on this vital issue, Democratic lawmakers stepped in and fashioned their own combination of aid bills.

It includes state money to upgrade city parks; mentoring for promising middle-school students; a guaranteed, multi-year housing demolition aid package; youth summer jobs, and longer library hours.

It’s a step in the right direction to engage city youth in positive activities and improve life in their communities. But far more needs to be done on the state level to help the city launch an economic revival in distressed, unsafe communities. Whether Hogan views this as an imperative remains a huge question mark.

Enlarging UM’s College Park-Baltimore research ties

No, it’s not a merger between the University of Maryland, College Park and UM’s impressive professional schools university in Baltimore. Instead, the legislation fully opens the doors for collaboration between talented researchers previously separated by insular university system politics.

Equally significant, the bill allocates millions of dollars to identify promising breakthroughs and get them on the commercial development fast track. That translates into jobs and strong economic growth.

The partnership bill also provides an overdue financial boost to two underfunded campuses that have become stars in the state’s higher education constellation – Towson University and UMBC. There’s also research-development money for Morgan State University.

Almost forgotten is the bill’s mandate that Bob Caret, chancellor of the vast UM system, move his office from the College Park area to downtown Baltimore. This holds immense significance. Caret will immediately become a key figure in city business and leadership groups, an advocate for Baltimore and a potent force in leveraging the university system’s brainpower to help reverse Baltimore’s fortunes.

A healthy Baltimore City remains pivotal to Maryland’s well-being. Taking steps to rejuvenate the city puts Maryland government in a stronger position to lure companies – and jobs – to the area, to boost the quality of life for the region’s citizens and to bolster the state’s tax collections in and around Charm City.

Thwarting repeat drunk drivers

It’s about time. From now on, individuals who get caught driving while seriously inebriated will be forced to install ignition interlock devices on their cars. If they ever abuse alcohol again and try to get behind the wheel to drive home, they won’t be able to start the engine.

The bill makes our streets safer and might persuade more abusers to think twice before imbibing alcoholic beverages away from home.

That’s an impressive foursome of major legislation. Missing from this list is any tax reduction – which actually is good news.

Maryland’s economic rebound remains uneven and modest, despite the solid March jobs report. It is wiser to till next January before messing with tax cuts. With luck, Hogan will have a much bigger pot of cash to use for this purpose – a welcome move as he starts gearing up his reelection efforts.

###

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