Tag Archives: Maryland General Assembly

Advice to New MD Legislators

 By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 13, 2015 — Attention, newcomers to the Maryland General Assembly. Welcome to Annapolis and its historic State House.

You’ve been through an orientation and culture shock is starting to set in. But don’t get too comfortable. Things are about to change in a BIG way.

Wednesday’s ceremonial events, with family and friends, will give way to the realities of the General Assembly. It’s not as easy as it seems.

Here is some pro bono advice for you, offered freely and without charge:

1. Play nice in the sandbox.

You can’t shake things up in Annapolis by picking fights, insisting you’re the only one with the answers and hurling insults.

Maryland’s state legislature is a place where good manners count. It’s been that way since Colonial days. The presiding officers take courteous behavior very seriously.

Make a mess in the sandbox and you’ll likely wind up in a political Siberia.

2. Be practical, not ideological.

Neither far-left Democrats nor far-right Republicans get very far in Annapolis unless they practice pragmatism and leave their philosophical straitjackets at home.

Nearly all the thousands of bills you deal with relate to problems that need fixing in order to help people. It’s a form of non-partisan constituent service. Put an ideological label on bills and you’re almost certain to see them trashed.

3. Be polite, even in opposition.

Rants and angry outbursts bring embarrassment and ostracism. Those with passionate far-left or far-right beliefs will be sorely tempted to lash out when things aren’t going their way.

Resist that temptation. Your colleagues appreciate thoughtful comments, even when they don’t agree.

4. Make friends, not enemies.

It’s a truism that your opponents today could well be the allies you need tomorrow for success on legislation. Learn how to operate within this closed environment, which means “friending” as many colleagues as possible — regardless of party affiliation.

5. Lower your expectations.

You may still be puffed up after winning elective office, but let’s face it: You’re a small fish in big pond — one out of 188 legislators with plenty of great white sharks swimming in your fish tank.

Legislators who promised voters sweeping changes once elected quickly discover this is an empty piece of campaign rhetoric. It means nothing in the State House. Settle for small victories because that’s all you can achieve.

6. Take things one step at a time.

Newcomers don’t realize how difficult it is to get a bill enacted. It takes months of intensive persuasion, brokering and maneuvering just to push your bill through your own chamber. Gaining assent from the other chamber within the 90-day session can be even trickier.

Don’t expect miracles. It may take years, not months, to get consensus on your bills. Patience counts.

7. Keep your ego in check.

Legislating is a team game, and as coaches like to say, “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ Those who play Lone Ranger, seeking to become a one-person legislature, don’t fare well.

Pomposity and self-promotion in Annapolis frequently result in stone-cold silence and isolation.

8. Network, network, network.

It works in business and in legislating. You will need all the help and advice you can get to be successful in Annapolis. Throw out a broad net and gain as many new acquaintances as possible. You never know when you’ll call on them at a crucial moment for assistance.

9. Never stop learning, or listening.

This is going to be an eye-opener. Just mastering the legislative process, Maryland-style, will take time. It is a vast learning experience.

You will be exposed to information about issues you never dreamed about. You will hear an endless array of viewpoints from citizens, much of it conflicting, on matters big and small.

Your job: Be a committed listener.

Hear what witnesses and advocates are saying. Absorb that information and slowly evaluate its importance. Be willing to hear from people on all sides of the argument.

Four years from now you’ll feel like you’ve gained a PhD. in human nature.

10. Try to persuade, not emote.

Logic wins in Annapolis. Verbal pyrotechnics grab headlines but they don’t change the outcome on votes. To do that, you have to make convincing arguments, you have to marshal your facts and data, you have to get those on the other side to engage in a dialogue.

While pontificating may be self-satisfying, it won’t advance your cause. More likely it will prove a setback.

11. Do you best work in committee.

The nitty-gritty on bills occurs at the committee level. That’s where hearings take place. That’s where your ideas and an opponent’s ideas on a bill collide.

Hearings drag on all afternoon and into the early evening. Debate may turn on substantive disagreements or minute  aspects of a bill. Hammering out a committee-approved compromise on hundreds and hundreds of measures isn’t pretty, but it is truly democracy in action.

Floor action is often pre-ordained. The committee’s work is usually respected and accepted. That’s where you need to expend your resources. Those who influence the shaping of bills do so in committee, not the House or Senate floor.

12. Solve problems, don’t create them.

Gridlock isn’t pretty and it isn’t productive. Voters hate it. Yet with a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, gridlock is a possibility.

It happened in Bob Ehrlich’s administration and legislative veterans want to avoid a repeat under Gov.-elect Larry Hogan.

You can do your part by not dragging politics into the legislative equation. Amending and improving bills that attack societal problems is more about applying common sense than imposing an ideology.

Finally, a word of caution:  You’re not in Annapolis to transform the world. You’re there simply to make things a little bit better.

Now, go out and enjoy this unique experience few ever get to taste. But for goodness sake, don’t get carried away and don’t forget that the best things in life usually involve compromise.

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For This They Give Thanks

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 27, 2014–On this day of the year, we give thanks for our blessings. In political Maryland, here are some folks who have lots to appreciate as the cranberries, sauerkraut and turkey are served:

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr. His Thanksgiving blessing will probably be directed toward the state Democratic Party for heavily backing an artificially impressive lieutenant governor for governor.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown turned out to be a lightweight who made all the wrong campaign decisions. Hogan knew what he was doing; Brown didn’t.

Comptroller Peter Franchot. Easily re-elected, he is now the most important Democrat in the State House, thanks to the election of a Republican governor.

On the powerful Board of Public Works, Franchot will hold the crucial swing vote. He could lead the Democratic opposition to Hogan or work out middle-ground compromises. Either way, he’s the pivotal player.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. He should be thankful for the weak Republican opposition he encountered. George Harman of Reisterstown lacked campaign experience and spent almost no money. His campaign was a joke.

Yet he still received nearly 44 percent of the vote. It was a Republican year and Kamenetz might have had a difficult fight on his hands had the GOP recruited a better-known candidate.

Doug Duncan. He’s got to be thankful he lost in the June primary to incumbent Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. Instead of getting his old job back, Duncan can continue working for Leadership Greater Washington or even as a member of the new Hogan administration.

Either way, it will be Leggett who must confront what figures to be a four-year budget battle in the county. Montgomery citizens demand a high level of services. Yet tax revenue is likely to continue to decline, federal aid to the counties and states is shrinking and state aid is almost certain to drop. What a mess.

Senate President Mike Miller. He quietly blessed Hogan’s triumph on Nov. 4. Miller knows he can deal with the new Republican governor. The two worked cooperatively years ago in Prince George’s County. Hogan knows Miller is the key go-to legislator.

Miller could not have looked forward to four years of frustration dealing with the remote and detached Brown, especially with a highly protective staff shielding Brown from reality.

Ken Ulman. The outgoing Howard County Executive now has been given a reprieve by voters. Instead of four years of boredom and gritting his teeth as Brown’s powerless lieutenant governor, Ulman gets to spend time with his young children, build a law practice and prepare for his re-entry into elective politics.

Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin. He’s glad the next attorney general will be Sen. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County. Frosh gave up his chairmanship of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to run for higher office. Now Zirkin is a favorite to be tapped for this leadership slot — but only if he’s willing to follow the lead of Senate President Miller.

Retiring State Sen. Norman Stone. After a half-century in the General Assembly, Stone planned his exit at just the right time. He leaves triumphant instead of being blown out in the Republican sweep of his Dundalk-Middle River district.

Frederick County Commissioner Blaine Young. His Thanksgiving blessing extends to all the old-time practitioners of sleazy, backroom deal-making and “what’s-in-it-for-me” politics.

Having been defeated for the new post of Frederick County Executive, Young turned around and lined up the votes on the lame-duck county commission to get appointed to a five-year term on the county’s important Planning Commission. Developers are cheering.

The residual stench must have made carving the turkey tough to take for the rest of the Young clan.

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McIntosh Bites the Budget Apple

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 24, 2014 – Until last week, Del. Maggie McIntosh was an important member of the House of Delegates leadership.

Del. Maggie McIntosh

Del. Maggie McIntosh

Now, suddenly, she’s a Very Important Person.

The new chair of the House Appropriations Committee holds the second-most powerful post in the chamber. It even could put her in prime position to succeed House Speaker Mike Busch whenever the Annapolis lawmaker decides to give up his gavel.

McIntosh is no overnight success.

She’s put in 23 long years as a savvy and loyal worker in the legislative vineyards. It paid off when she was named chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee in 2003.

The Baltimore City delegate worked diligently to produce bills that advanced sensible environmental goals without going overboard.  She succeeded in maintaining good relations with both environmentalists and the business community.

Quiet Negotiator

McIntosh always has been a skilled political operative, someone you’d want running your campaign or developing a detailed get-out-the-vote drive.

She doesn’t crave the spotlight. Rather, she prefers quietly working to bring opposing groups together to find common ground.

She’s also highly regarded by her colleagues. She can be firm but always even-tempered. She likes to enliven conversations with a dash of humor.

Her promotion is well deserved, especially after serving as chair of the Environmental Matters Committee for 11 years. She’s also served on three other panels and dozens of joint committees and task forces.

She doesn’t come to Appropriations as a novice. McIntosh spent six years previously on this key budget panel. She got to study under one of the keenest minds to chair Appropriations – the late Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings.

Democratic Mishaps

Maggie McIntosh was thrust into this new role through a series of mishaps by the Democratic Party.

Redistricting dramatically changed many local political maps and persuaded a slew of House Democratic veterans to retire.

Then Democratic lethargy on Nov. 4 led to the defeat of many well-established members of House leadership, including Appropriations chair Norman Conway of Salisbury.

Del. Norm Conway

Del. Norm Conway

Add to that a number of delegates who decided to run for the state Senate and you have a recipe for a massive loss of leadership on Appropriations.

Eleven of the committee members elected in 2010 aren’t coming back. Most of the panel’s moderate Democrats are among the missing.

No wonder Speaker Busch decided to move McIntosh over to run his most important committee.

Big Cuts Coming

She assumes command at a very difficult time for Democrats, especially those who must grapple with the state’s perplexing budget deficit.

New Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. focused his campaign on sharply cutting state spending, Democratic lawmakers will be in a defensive mode when dealing with budget matters.

Given the large budget hole facing Hogan, he will cut existing spending levels by a substantial amount.

While McIntosh and other progressive Democrats will want to reverse Hogan’s cuts, the state constitution doesn’t allow it: The General Assembly can only reduce the governor’s spending plan. It has no power to increase appropriations – unless it raises taxes.

That last option isn’t going to happen this year. Maryland voters sent a clear message they’ve had it with the dozens of tax increases during the eight-year reign of Gov. Martin O’Malley.

In a Tough Spot

So McIntosh will be in a bind come January.

As a committed urban liberal, she understands the unmet needs in her community. Yet she also recognizes the weak hand she has been dealt. Hogan holds the budget high cards.

What McIntosh can do is quietly negotiate compromises with the new governor’s budget team to soften some of Hogan’s budget blows.

Meanwhile, her committee will be finding its own share of excess spending in the $16 billion general fund budget. Some of those cuts might give her leverage for striking a budget deal with the Republican chief executive.

It’s going to be a tricky few years for McIntosh. She’s proved that she is good when placed in delicate situations. Much will be riding on her succeeding in her new job.

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

 

Missing: Democratic Moderates in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 14, 2014 — Hardly noticed in the Nov. 4 election that saw Anthony Brown wiped out in an embarrassing avalanche of rejection was the obliteration of the Democratic Party’s moderate-conservative wing in Annapolis.

Missing Democratic Moderate: Sen. Roy Dyson

Defeated Sen. Roy Dyson

Gone is Southern Maryland Sen. Roy Dyson. Gone is half-century veteran Baltimore County Sen. Norman Stone (retirement). Gone is a Howard County fixture, Sen. Jim Robey (retirement).

Also out of luck, conservative Western Maryland Del. Kevin Kelly, moderate Western Maryland Del. John Donoghue, conservative Baltimore County Delegates Mike Weir, Jimmy Malone (retirement), Steve DeBoy (retirement) and Sonny Minnick (retirement), moderate-conservative Del. Emmett Burns of Baltimore County (retirement), Eastern Shore Committee Chairman Del. Norm Conway, Cecil County Del. David Randolph, Southern Maryland Delegates John Bohanan and Johnny Wood (retirement), Harford County Del. Mary-Dulany James, and Frederick County Del. Galen Clagett (retirement).

The Democratic Party’s fulcrum in the State House now is dangerously weighted to the strident left. The party’s center-right legislators have shrunk to a handful.

It’s tough even coming up with who you’d place in that category in the House of Delegates once you get beyond House Speaker Mike Busch.  You can count less than ten moderates still left in the Senate, including President Mike Miller — Charles County’s Mac Middleton, Frederick’s Ron Young, Anne Arundel’s John Astle and Ed DeGrange, Ocean City’s Jim Mathias, Baltimore County’s Jim Brochin and Kathy Klausmeier.

Miller’s Leverage

Miller’s problem is much less severe than Busch’s.

The smaller Senate chamber gives the Senate president extensive leverage to impose moderation on Democrats. Senators there know that if you’re picked for a leadership slot, you’d better follow Miller’s cautious lead.

But in the 141-member House, riding herd on an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic Caucus could prove Mission Impossible.

Simply finding a leadership group willing to move toward the middle might be a challenge for Busch.

Even more daunting may be convincing leftist Democrats to cooperate with the new conservative governor, Republican Larry Hogan Jr.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

Already some of the left-wingers are talking ominously about fighting a partisan war rather than smoking a peace pipe with Hogan.

Busch and Miller don’t want a repeat of the dreadful gridlock and bitterness of the Ehrlich years. Neither does Hogan, who lived through that frustrating era as the governor’s appointments secretary.

But what will the two sides compromise on? And will their disagreements wind up poisoning the well of cooperation?

This will be the focus of attention as Hogan starts putting his administration together and formulates a brief agenda for the legislative session that starts in just two months.

Room for Agreement

Busch and Miller signaled in the last General Assembly session their agreement with Hogan that the O’Malley administration had neglected business development. Maryland must become more accommodating to companies. That’s a clear area where partial agreement is possible.

Ironically, Republican gains in the General Assembly could make it more difficult for Hogan to govern effectively.

The dearth of moderate-conservative Democrats in the State House robs him of potential allies. He still needs lots of Democratic votes to pass his agenda. Dealing with a ultra-liberal Democratic corps of lawmakers could prove perilous. It could force the governor-elect to take a go-slow approach in his reform plans.

Many of the newly elected Democrats may choose to join Miller and Busch in playing centrist politics with Hogan. After all, it is the best way to get things done and avoid the thing voters most detest — gridlock.

Yet without a counter-balancing Democratic center-right wing, the party caucuses in Annapolis could keep moving farther and farther to the left, ceding the center that voters admire to Hogan.

That would be foolish politics — but it could happen.

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Junk the ‘Lockbox’ Amendment

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 21, 2015 — Marylanders are being sold a bill of goods under the guise of fiscal accountability.

Voters ought to think twice before approving a constitutional amendment giving transportation priority status over social programs when the economy turns sour.

Conservatives — especially those who are staunch advocates of road-building — want to embed in the Maryland Constitution a high wall preventing the governor from dipping into the Transportation Trust Fund when the next recession creates a budget crisis.

If this amendment passes, it would be extraordinarily difficult for a governor to draw on transportation dollars to avert recession cuts in money flowing to local governments for schools, health care and social services. State workers’ jobs, pay and pensions would be at risk.

Once the transportation “lockbox” is approved, environmentalists will demand the same iron-clad protection for an array of “green” funds.

lockbox

We’re getting our priorities confused.

Is the No. 1 goal of state government protecting highway funds, even in the midst of a damaging recession?

Is that our top priority when state tax revenues dry up and the governor desperately seeks ways to avoid layoffs and deep cuts to schools, colleges and public assistance?

During the Great Recession, Gov. Martin O’Malley repeatedly took money from the Maryland Department of Transportation to keep important social programs afloat without imposing cuts that would hurt the poor and low-middle class.

Conservatives view this as theft. They want to stop governors from draining the transportation fund when recessions lead to deep budget holes.

O’Malley’s Mistake

Part of the problem is that O’Malley went overboard in shifting hundreds of millions from transportation to support other budget priorities.

He didn’t want to repay MDOT and he continually returned to this large source to pay for non-transportation expenses.

As a result, O’Malley ended up short-changing MDOT by refusing until late in his second term to address MDOT’s unmet financing needs.

Yet the extent of this problem has been greatly magnified by road-building advocates.

30 Year Trend

Over the past 30 years, a total of $574 million has been shifted from the transportation trust fund by governors during hard times to cover more important necessities. Over $325 million of that has been re-paid, with another payment due next year.

The problem with the lockbox amendment is that it ties the hands of future governors at the precise moment financial flexibility is essential.

Lock

Putting together a $40 billion budget is like solving a massive three-dimensional puzzle. There are thousands of moving parts.

Protecting government’s core services requires enormous fiscal dexterity in bad times.

The more maneuvering room a governor has, the easier it is to develop a recession-era budget that meets essential needs without creating hardships.

Recession Options

Sometimes that might mean borrowing from MDOT or from environmental programs set up to purchase green space or preserve farmland.

Or it might mean issuing general obligation bonds to free up cash sitting in a transportation or natural resources account.

The lockbox amendment dramatically limits a governor’s ability to meet future budget crises without imposing hurtful budget cuts.

It goes like this: If the governor cannot transfer $200 million from transportation accounts in the next deep recession to balance his budget, he’s got to take unpalatable steps — cutting aid to community colleges and private universities, local health departments and local school systems, medical assistance, pension programs and environmental funds.

Or he’s got to chop tens of millions of dollars from every state agency and dozens of local programs. Or he’s got to reduce support for state universities, which likely means a big jump in tuition. Or he’s got to fire thousands of state workers and eliminate services.

Strait Jacket for Governor

If the lockbox amendment is approved by voters, the governor’s options would be dramatically reduced.

Getting legislative approval to tap into the transportation fund (it would require a “super-majority” vote) could prove near-impossible in the decades ahead.

The governor might be forced to eliminate part of Maryland’s social safety net in the next recession, or make heartbreaking cuts to education and health care that damage people’s lives.

Segregating tax revenue in separate accounts that are virtually untouchable for other uses during economic downturns is unsound public policy.

It’s also poor public policy to plant this ticking time bomb in the state constitution, where it cannot be easily or rapidly removed.

Negative Consequences

At this late stage, though, the lockbox amendment has momentum on its side.

The idea sounds sensible — until you start examining the consequences that could result during hard times.

Chief executives in the public sector — and in the private sector — need a full financial toolbox when revenues plunge and the bills come due.

Creating a transportation lockbox robs Maryland’s governor of a vital tool.

It could make matters much worse in a future recession.

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Primary Differences: Women & Turnout

By Barry Rascovar

July 21, 2014 – In a primary election wrap-up message e-mailed to his supporters, former state Sen. Art Helton of Harford County listed reasons why he lost his latest effort to re-gain his seat in the General Assembly.

Art Helton

Art Helton

Poor turnout, especially among African American voters, he wrote, hurt him in his race against fellow Democrat Mary-Dulany James. (The Senate seat is now held by Republican Nancy Jacobs, who is retiring.)

The results: James, 4,705 votes (61 percent); Helton, 2,997 votes (39 percent).

Mary-Dulany James

Mary-Dulany James

The other reason Helton gave for his loss:  the dominance of female candidates in Democratic primaries.

He listed 10 female Harford Democrats who were victorious in the June 24 primary.

“[N]ot one woman lost unless challenged by another woman,” he wrote.

“The percentage of women voting in the Democratic [p]rimary was 63.4%. You can view the results and draw your own conclusions.”

Making a Difference

Women indeed are becoming a pivotal force in local and state elections in Maryland. They are more likely to go to the polls than men. Given the right candidate, it can make a difference.

Baltimore City ousted its incumbent state’s attorney and replaced him with a woman. After November, three of the four citywide elected offices in Baltimore will be held by women, all African Americans.

Also after the general election, four of the city’s six state senators will be women.

Women in the Senate

Half of Montgomery County’s eight state senators will be female, too.

As many as six new women could take seats in the Maryland Senate in January – Gail Bates of Howard County, Susan Lee and Cheryl Kagan of Montgomery County, Addie Eckardt from the Eastern Shore, Shirley Nathan-Pulliam from a joint Baltimore city-county district, and James from Harford County.

Susan Lee

Susan Lee

They aren’t neophyte politicians, either.

Combined, they have served 88 years in the General Assembly. They will enter the Senate as highly seasoned lawmakers.

Bates and Lee are concluding their third four-year terms in the House, James is finishing her fourth term. Eckardt and Nathan-Pulliam are 20-year legislative veterans. Kagan previously served two terms in the House.

Addie Eckardt

Addie Eckardt

Yet the “women are dominating Maryland politics” theme shouldn’t be oversold.

Only 11 of 47 state senators today are women. After the November election, the number may rise a tad in the Senate to 13.

Cheryl Kagan

Cheryl Kagan

Many counties have few women in elective offices.

Overall, the fair sex remains under-represented in elective positions, but not as voters.

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Turnout in Maryland’s primary election was, as predicted, abysmal.

It proved an embarrassment to leaders in Annapolis who devised the early June 24 primary schedule.

Voting booths

Only 20.7 of the state’s nearly 3.4 million registered voters cast an early, absentee or election-day ballot: 561,030 registered Marylanders voted; 2,831,570 didn’t.

Turnout proved truly terrible in the Washington suburbs – 18 percent in Prince George’s County, despite the fact the leading Democratic candidate for governor came from P.G.

In neighboring Montgomery County, total turnout was just 16 percent, even though two of the three Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls were local residents.

Best Turnouts

Baltimore County led the list of large jurisdictions with a turnout of just under 25 percent – still a terrible showing in a representative democracy.

The best results came from small, rural counties, such as Kent County (30.6 percent) and Garrett County (26.6 percent). Voting poster The highest vote totals came from Montgomery (84,100) and Baltimore County (82,900), followed by Prince George’s (69,800), Baltimore City (54,600) and Anne Arundel County (50,500).

Democrats far out-voted Republicans in the larger jurisdictions – a hint of what will follow in November.

One-Sided Figures

In Montgomery, 68,179 Democrats voted vs. 12,516 Republicans.

In Prince George’s, 64,982 Democrats cast ballots vs. 4,167 Republicans.

Baltimore County saw 59,980 Democrats vote vs. 22,906 Republicans.

In Baltimore City, the imbalance was far worse: 51,730 Democratic voters vs. 2,894 Republicans. Voting sign Howard County, once a toss-up jurisdiction, saw 19,193 Democrats cast ballots, vs. 8,967 Republicans.

The primary vote totals were close in Harford County – 11,795 Democrats vs. 14,935 Republicans.

In Anne Arundel County, voting numbers were almost even – 24,655 Democrats and 25,806 Republicans.

That could lead to a tight race for county executive in the fall between Republican state Del. Steve Schuh and the county’s former sheriff, Democrat George Johnson.

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Politics Ahead of Budgets

By Barry Rascovar

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

Winter’s Frigid Blow

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

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

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

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

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

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

Comptroller Peter Franchot

Comptroller Peter Franchot

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

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

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

Troubling Imbalance

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

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

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

Expect more spending reductions this winter.

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

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

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

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

Growing Cash Shortage?

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

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

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

O’Malley’s Concerns

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

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

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

Larry Hogan Jr.

Larry Hogan Jr.

That is good news for Brown in the short term.

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

Read more from Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com

Defending Joe Vallario

By Barry Rascovar

May 6, 2014 — THERE’S NO DENYING Del. Joseph F. Vallario, Jr. of Prince George’s County is a stingy gatekeeper when it comes to loosening Maryland’s civil and criminal laws.

But is the gruff chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis really the scourge of the legislature, the anti-Christ intent on malevolently doing in all liberal causes?

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

A recent op-ed in The Baltimore Sun by Sidney Rocke, an attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, accuses the conservative Vallario of being a one-man, “dictatorial” wrecking crew — especially on bills Rocke favors.

It’s true Vallario is inordinately protective of criminal defense attorneys. He’s one himself and he takes a hard line on bills that might narrow their legal practices — and their income — or make it more difficult for defense attorneys to win their cases. “Let ’em go Joe” is what Rocke says staffers call Vallario.

But to blame the defeat of liberalizing legislation solely on Vallario is a misreading of the inner workings of the Maryland General Assembly.

Serving Legislative Leaders

Vallario has performed a useful role for legislative leaders over the past 21 years.

He disposes of bills that are too sweeping, too revolutionary, too inflammatory, too impractical, too poorly thought out, too poorly drafted or ahead of their time.

Yet he does so with a majority vote from others on his Judiciary Committee. The panel is intentionally configured to act as the General Assembly’s execution squad.

Every legislature needs such a panel, where the presiding officer sends well-meaning but unrealistic crime and punishment bills for burial.

Intervention Yields Results

Sometimes important bills get the same treatment. Then the House speaker or the governor steps in to urge Vallario and other committee members to yield on bills such as marijuana decriminalization or handgun control. The pressure usually works.

It’s an old story in Annapolis, something Rocke neglected to include in his angry op-ed. Killer committees have been around a long time.

Remember Joe Owens, the highly conservative Judiciary Committee chairman from liberal Montgomery County?

Abominable ‘No’ Man

He dominated that committee for 14 years, earning the sobriquets “Killer Joe” and “the Abominable ‘No’ Man.”

Owens helped defeat or delay all sorts of liberal reforms on gun control, drunk driving, child support and victim rights. One year, 61 percent of the bills sent to his committee bit the dust.

Joe Owens was a colorful and controversial figure: direct, open and honest.

“Let’s face it,” he once said, “the majority of bills we get should not be passed. . . [T]his is not a little contest. . . When we pass a bill, four million people have to live by it.”

Crusty But Lovable

Over in the Senate, irascible Walter M. Baker of Cecil County served the same role for 17 years chairing the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Crusty, curmudgeonly and a determined conservative thinker, Baker had a drawer filled with idealistic reform bills he side-tracked. “The only good bill is a dead bill,” he used to quip to the entertainment of his colleagues.

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Still, Baker conducted fair and deliberate hearings. He yielded when pressed to do so by the Senate president or governor while always defending his belief in limited government.

Political Counterweights

Often over the past 50 years conservatives chairing Maryland’s judicial panels have served as counterweights.

Vallario’s proclivity for killing bills balanced the liberal attitude of Sen. Brian Frosh’s Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Owens’ “killer committee” balanced the liberal mindset of Sen. Joe Curran, who chaired Judicial Proceedings for 16 years.

Earlier in Curran’s tenure running Judicial Proceedings he was paired against another conservative legal thinker chairing the House Judiciary Committee, Thomas Hunter Lowe of Talbot County — who later kept a firm hand on that panel as Speaker of the House.

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

To blame the demise of reform legislation on Joe Vallario is to miss the bigger picture.

Legislating in the State House is a delicate balancing act.

Senators and delegates come together in Annapolis with 188 points of view. They represent different parts of the state whose citizens hold diverse perspectives on the same issue.

Agreement Isn’t Easy

No wonder so many bills fail to win majority approval. Passing legislation is an art. Getting a green light from the Judiciary Committee takes lots of patience, negotiation, coalition-building and tactical smarts. It won’t happen just because a bill is well-intentioned.

Vallario faces a difficult challenge running for reelection this year in a new, unfamiliar northern Prince George’s County district. He may not return. Frosh definitely won’t be back: He’s running for attorney general.

We could end up with two new chairmen of these important committees. One of them might become the next stingy gatekeeper.

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Caution in Annapolis While Leaning Left

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

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

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

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

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

Weakening the Bill

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

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

Pit Bull Legislation

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

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

Puff-and-Pay

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

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

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

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

Medicinal Pot Smoking

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

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

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

Early Start to Schooling

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

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

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

Easing the ‘Death Tax’

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

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

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

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

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

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

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

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

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Obamacare Accountability — Oregon, not MD, Got It Right

By Barry Rascovar

March 31, 2014–Today’s the deadline for folks in Maryland to start the application process for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. If you miss this deadline, you face a tax penalty next year.

The good news is that tens of thousands of people have health insurance who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — obtain it before.

The bad news is that Maryland’s health exchange has been an unmitigated disaster — a painfully small number of people actually applied and paid their initial insurance bill.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

Those responsible for this stupendously costly debacle aren’t going to be held accountable.

Those at the top of Maryland’s political food chain still stonewall this issue hoping it fades from public view.

State legislators have ordered a slow-motion assessment of the damage by their own analysts. It’s doubtful this will be a detailed, CSI-style examination of what went wrong.

By the time the report surfaces in mid-summer it will be too late: The decision on what comes next — most likely connecting Maryland to Connecticut’s software system — will be made (as early as this afternoon).

And by the time that legislative report appears, the June 24 primary will have come and gone — and with it any danger Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s gubernatorial campaign might be fatally damaged by the findings.

It’s also possible any legislative report will be sanitized by House and Senate leaders so as not to embarrass Brown (by then he could be planning his inaugural) and Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has national aspirations.

What a shocking lack of accountability to the public.

The Oregon Way

It stands in stark contrast to the way another liberal, Democratic state, Oregon, handled its own Obamacare calamity.

Oregon, like Maryland, has a two-term Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber. It has Democratic majorities in both houses of its Legislative Assembly.

But unlike Maryland, Oregon has a strong second party. Republicans hold 26 of 60 House seats and 14 of 30 Senate seats.

With such a potent countervailing force, it’s no wonder Governor Kitzhaber wasted little time launching an independent probe of his state’s dysfunctional health exchange, known as Cover Oregon.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber

Its Oracle-based software crashed so badly on Day One that all applications were done by hand. Yet Oregon still signed up more people for health insurance than Maryland.

What the independent review in Oregon found is likely to be mirrored in Maryland — if there’s ever a similar third-party critique.

Among the Oregon findings:

–“There was no single point of authority on the project.”

–The governance structure “was not effective.”

–There were “competing priorities and conflicts between [state] agencies.”

–Cover Oregon failed to hire a prime contractor or a system integrator.

–The governor and others were repeatedly warned by Cover Oregon’s quality assurance firm, Maximus, that the project was seriously off-track. These warnings started years ago and were ignored.

–In 2011, Maximus wrote that the state was acting as its own prime contractor and thus was assuming “more of the overall project risk.” How true.

–There was no Plan B as required by federal law — but there was a backup plan in case the lights went out.

–Cover Oregon picked off-the-shelf software; Oracle claimed it required only 5 percent customization. The actual number was 40 percent.

–The selected software “was not stable” and to this day “more items are breaking than are being repaired.”

–Top state officials “did not understand or acknowledge the significance of the website issues” until it was too late.

–There was a lack of “a consistent, cohesive enterprise approach to management of the project.”

–There was “no authoritative direction.”

–There was “Ineffective and at times contentious” communications and a “lack of transparency.”

Cover Oregon

The Oregon report is highly critical of the Executive Steering Committee leading the project — similar to Maryland’s oversight panel co-chaired by Brown and Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein:

–“Oversight authority was inconsistent and at times confusing or misinterpreted.” This led to “unclear or incorrect understanding about the true state of the project approaching the Oct. 1, 2013 deadline.”

–The steering group lacked “formal meeting notes and decision tracking and documentation.”

–Perhaps worst of all, the Oregon project did not have “a single enterprise decision-tracking tool to document and manage decisions across entities.”

When Kitzhaber received the damning 77-page report in March, he cleaned house.

He fired the state’s top health official — a longtime friend and ally — who had been running the exchange since January. The chief operating officer and chief information officer of Cover Oregon also got the heave-ho. (The exchange’s original leader had been forced out in December.)

The Maryland Way

Don’t expect such drastic action in Maryland. It doesn’t fit the image O’Malley and Brown want to project going forward. Accountability is giving way to practical political considerations.

Still, the Oregon autopsy rings many familiar bells in Maryland. What happened in Oregon seems to have happened here.

Here’s what a forensic analysis of Maryland’s failed healthcare sign-up effort is likely to show:

*O’Malley and Brown created the exchange as an independent agency unshackled from the state’s formal procurement process. Support services and the normal chain of command within state government were lacking.

*Brown and Sharfstein never gave the project the intense oversight and strong, authoritative leadership it needed.

*They hired the wrong contractor — a minor-league player in the world of healthcare IT — who then quarreled bitterly with the sub-contractor it hired to do the IT project’s heavy lifting.

*No one was riding herd on the contractor.

*The state’s IT gurus picked off-the-shelf software to save money and time, software that never had been used in this way.

*There was no back-up plan in case Plan A failed (as it did).

Quality assurance and system integration were lacking. There was no general manager and no effective tracking system.

*There was no exhaustive trial period built into the schedule. 

*There was a lack of clear and honest communication up and down the line. Transparency continues to be a problem.

What Citizens Deserve

That pretty much sums up what went wrong in Maryland — even without an impartial investigation by outside experts.

But it is worth considering whether Maryland citizens deserve the same type of no-holds barred forensic autopsy Oregon conducted into its health insurance debacle.

In a lopsided one-party state like Maryland, that may prove far too embarrassing for those in power to let it happen.

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