Tag Archives: Maryland General Assembly

Re-fighting the Holocaust

By Barry Rascovar

March 17, 2014 – IT’S THE CLASSIC tug of war between emotion and logic, a crusade by legislators in Annapolis to enact punishment on a corporate Holocaust collaborator versus the cold reality that such a move would cost Maryland a new mass-transit line in suburban Washington.

So far, the emotion side of the human equation is winning.

Purple Line

The Purple Line

Lawmakers, especially those who are Jewish, are determined to right a terrible wrong by punishing the French national railroad, SNCF, and denying it any chance of gaining lucrative transportation contracts in Maryland unless it pays reparations to American Holocaust victims.

During World War II, the French railroad was seized by the Nazi regime, placed under German military commanders and forced to help transport 76,000 Jews and others to concentration camps.

Twenty-one hundred railroad workers who resisted or refused to assist the Nazis were executed – along with their families.

The French government pays reparations to Holocaust survivors, but only if they are French citizens or citizens of nearby countries.

SNCF

SNCF pays no reparations because it is 100 percent owned by the French government. It is considered an integral part of that government – similar to the U.S. Postal Service.

This tragic, 70-year-old tale of man’s inhumanity to man has re-surfaced at the Annapolis State House for the second time in four years.

MARC’s Saga

In 2011, the same group of lawyers pushing this year’s reparations bill conducted a six-month campaign against SNCF’s bid to run the state MARC commuter rail lines. This led to some of the nastiest hearings seen in the state capital. SNCF officials were verbally pummeled and abused by angry lawmakers. One hearing resembled a kangaroo court.

The net result: passage of a measure against SNCF that jeopardized federal funding for the MARC line because it illegally tainted the bidding process. Maryland got around that problem by fully funding aspects of the contract that previously had received federal dollars.

Then the state put the narrowed MARC contract out to bid. With so much negative pressure applied to the O’Malley administration, the outcome was never in doubt. SNCF lost the contract.

(Ironically, the contract winner — and the only other bidder — has a tainted history, too. Its parent company in Germany made munitions for the Nazi government during World War II and employed slave labor – mostly Jews – to aid the Nazi cause and reap a large profit. No stink was ever made about that horrific situation by state lawmakers.)

Reparations Bill

This year’s anti-SNCF effort seeks to force SNCF to pay reparations to Holocaust victims living in the United States. The bill makes it a prerequisite for bidding on the $2.3 billion Purple Line contract. SNCF is part of a consortium that wants to bid on this public-private partnership arrangement that could be worth $6 billion over the 35-year life of the contract.

Problems with the reparations bill are numerous. Under French law, SNCF can’t pay reparations, only the French government can. So the bill seeks to accomplish the impossible.

Such a bill violates international law because SNCF is part of the French government, not a private corporation. Maryland can’t demand reparations from an arm of a foreign nation. That’s the job of the U.S. State Department.

The bill also violates federal law by tainting the bidding process on federally funded programs. This bill clearly aims to punish SNCF by setting unrealistic barriers before the railroad can bid on the Purple Line contract.

Red-Headed Eskimo

That kind of one-company discrimination (a “red-headed Eskimo” bill in legislative lingo) is blatantly illegal in state and federal contracting law.

The state attorney general’s office has declared that to be the case. So has the Federal Rail Administration. So has the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Indeed, state DOT officials told lawmakers it would be impossible to win federal funds for the Purple Line if this bill is passed and signed into law.

That’s $900 million in cash, plus a $732 million low-interest federal loan, that would disappear. The Purple Line would vanish as a viable undertaking.

The bill’s House sponsor, Del. Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County, says he will revise the measure to get around these problems.

Del. Kirill Reznik

Del. Kirill Reznik

Surely the lawyers who have pursued SNCF for years will come up with a different approach, but any punitive action designed to force SNCF to pay reparations will be deemed discriminatory and illegal.

Trying to rectify a 70-year-old outrage isn’t realistic in this case.

The Nazis left SNCF in shambles after the war. No one profited from the transports. Besides, anyone at the railroad who had a role in the Nazi collaboration is dead or long since retired.

Today, the new SNCF is one of the world’s largest and most respected transportation systems. It does a considerable amount of business with Israel, which surely would never engage in commerce with a Holocaust enabler.

It’s also a big supporter of Holocaust remembrance programs and Holocaust museums. It has expressed regret and, given the historical record, asked for forgiveness for what happened.

SNCF’s Atonement

The Jewish community in France long ago accepted SNCF’s atonement, recognizing those who worked at the railroad during the war were forced to do so at the point of a gun.

Only the American Jewish community, egged on by lawyers, continues to target SNCF.

The Maryland Jewish community is at the head of this pack.

An SNCF subsidiary already operates Virginia’s commuter rail system that terminates in Union Station.

Last year, the subsidiary won a huge contract to manage Boston’s 660-mile commuter rail system – a contract that could be worth $4.3 billion over the next 12 years. In neither case did the Holocaust issue become a bone of contention.

When this controversy arose in 2011, the O’Malley administration and legislators found ways to implement the anti-SNCF bill without harming the state’s interests.

Forgo the Purple Line?

That looks impossible to achieve with the 2014 reparations bill.

Unless Montgomery County legislators are willing to forgo the Purple Line, there’s no way to go after SNCF without winding up on the wrong side of international law and anti-discrimination laws dealing with competitively bid contracts.

Any legislative actions that delay the bidding process for the Purple Line could result in a withdrawal of federal support. There are too many other rapid rail projects clamoring for those same federal dollars.

Negotiations are under way between France and the U.S. to hammer out a reparations deal for Holocaust victims who are American citizens. SNCF is not  part of those negotiations.

But by the time that deal is sealed, we may be into 2015 or 2016 – long after the bidding on the Purple Line concludes.

In this instance, logic needs to triumph over emotion in the legislative hallways of Annapolis.

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Redistricting, Minimum Wage & TV Debates

A Weekly Roundup

By Barry Rascovar

March 7 — TODAY’S House of Delegates session will mark the halfway point for a bill raising Maryland’s minimum wage in phases from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2017 — nearly 40 percent.

Recent minimum wage protest

Recent minimum wage protest

Without question, the O’Malley administration’s bill will pass. The votes are there. But it’s not exactly the bill Gov. Martin O’Malley presented in January.

There’s no automatic inflation clause. Amusement park workers are exempted (largely to accommodate Six Flags in chairman Dereck Davis’ Prince George’s County). Implementation is delayed six months to ease the transition for businesses.

Senate Action Next

Most of the changes are sensible, but more may be coming in the Senate, where there is a little more skepticism about the advisability of such a major increase in business expenses during the weakest economic recovery in memory.

Rural counties in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore may need special attention. Living expenses are a lot less there. A 40-percent hike in wages for many small, rural businesses might prove counter-productive. Ocean City’s minimum-wage summer help is primarily college students, not adults raising a family.

Too Much in a Weak Recovery?

The bill’s three-year phase-in may be too aggressive during this exceptionally mild recovery. It might be wise to adopt a more gradual rise.

But one way or another, an increase in Maryland’s minimum wage is coming — and is necessary.

It’s now a matter of how willing lawmakers are to heed warnings by business that O’Malley’s original bill  could have unintended consequences.

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ON THE OTHER END of the economic spectrum, Senate and House leaders (but not O’Malley) are pushing a bill to lower Maryland’s estate tax. This is overdue.

Wealthy Marylanders are switching their residences to avoid this state tax. Some of Maryland’s most respected business leaders are among them. The tax makes no sense, especially when surrounding states are benefiting.

A gradual return to the days when Maryland’s estate tax matched the federal levy seemed likely to pass until revised estimates on Thursday showed a new quarter-billion-dollar hole in O’Malley’s budget. That may force lawmakers to delay implementation of the phase-in.

O’Malley has not been part of the estate-tax movement. It doesn’t fit into his presidential playbook.

Instead, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch are leading the charge. They’ve finally recognized the need to start reforming parts of Maryland’s unbalanced tax laws. They’ve figures out that chasing wealthy Marylanders out of the state is a terrible strategy.

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A SIDELIGHT of the minimum wage debate this week was an attempt by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur to go beyond O’Malley’s bill and raise the standard to $11.37 an hour by 2023.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

Mizeur’s amendment bombed.

She got just eight votes, including her own.

That indicates the narrowness of Mizeur’s ultra-liberal appeal, even in a liberal General Assembly. It does not bode well for her statewide campaign.

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A HANDFUL of bills in the General Assembly seek to reform Maryland’s politicized redistricting process. They aren’t going anywhere.

That’s too bad, because turning redistricting over exclusively to those in power has gotten out of hand.

The current maps are undemocratic and a disservice to voters. Maryland’s congressional maps, for instance, are appalling. No effort is made to create compact districts or keep communities together.

MD's gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Yet until the Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals change their tunes on redistricting, legislative reforms are meaningless.

The highest federal court has washed its hands of redistricting, claiming it is purely a political matter. So much for ensuring fairness and sane congressional districts.

Interference By Appeals Court

The state’s highest court, meanwhile, has become too deeply involved in redistricting, imposing archaic thinking in drawing legislative boundaries.

As a result, cross-jurisdictional districts that follow neighborhood growth patterns are virtually forbidden. Rigid adherence to county and city lines trumps everything, even when citizens pay no heed to those boundaries in their daily lives.

What a mess. Redistricting, as currently practiced, is giving representative democracy a bad name.

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TELEVISED DEBATES in the race for governor have been set. All three of them.

Don’t expect much.

The candidates will be well rehearsed, especially the front-runner, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who needs careful scripting.

Televised Political Debates

Don’t expect one of these in MD’s 2014 TV debates.

But the real laugher will be the lone televised debate among lieutenant governor candidates.

These hopefuls aren’t elected on their own: They are the conjoined twins of gubernatorial candidates. So on TV, they will mimic positions taken by their far-more important running mates.

No Assigned Duties

That’s because their own views don’t count.

Under the state’s constitution, the lieutenant governor has no designated powers. He (or she) is there in case the governor drops dead or comes down with a disabling disease.

So if you happen to miss the scintillating debate among wannabe lieutenant governors, don’t fret.

Tuning in would be a waste of your time.

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MD’s Obamacare Fiasco Continues

By Barry Rascovar

March 3, 2014 – HOW HIGH will it go? How much more will it cost the O’Malley-Brown administration to fix or totally replace the dysfunctional online health insurance system that it bragged about until it crashed on Day One?

It already is the most costly debacle in state history.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

None of the state’s options are appetizing.  Meanwhile, the problems keep mounting, the latest being $30 million in extra taxpayer expenses due to the computer software’s inability to identify recipients no longer eligible for free Medicaid insurance.

Just fixing this deeply flawed software will cost untold tens of millions of dollars. Moving to a new, proven software system used in another state could send new spending into the stratosphere. Converting to the federal system has heavy costs as well as severe limitations and the potential for more breakdowns.

Frantic Scramble

“It seems like we’re shooting in the dark,” said an exasperated Del. Addie Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican at a hearing last week. She’s right.

State officials have been frantically scrambling ever since the administration’s highly touted online system froze and refused to work as promised on Oct. 1.

Officials are still grasping for straws, hoping the new prime contractor can make lemonade out of this lemon of an IT jalopy.

As for the next step once insurance enrollment closes on March 31, it’s another shot in the dark. Whatever the choice, it will be very expensive.

But will it work? There’s no guarantee that it will.

What a mess.

Loss of Federal Funds

Complicating matters is the looming end of federal largesse. Come 2015, the state is supposed to foot the entire bill for its health insurance exchange.

Maryland has expended $182 million in federal funds with little to show for it.  How much the state will be on the hook after Jan. 1 is another unknown, but we do know it will no longer by Martin O’Malley’s problem.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley on the air

What a distasteful present he’s leaving on his successor’s desk.

It’s baffling that no one running the legislator or the administration is insisting on an immediate and thorough investigation of this historic screw-up. This won’t be viewed favorably by future historians.

Not only is accountability lacking but the O’Malley-Brown administration is running away from this question as fast as it can.

Where’s Anthony Brown?

Note that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the widely promoted point man on healthcare reform, continues to be missing in action. Yet he owes the Maryland public a full and frank explanation of his central role in this debacle.

How this affects Brown’s candidacy for governor remains of pivotal importance.

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Does his “deer caught in headlights” performance disqualify him from serious consideration?

Is this the type of evasiveness on vital issues we can expect from him if he’s elected governor?

Do we want a governor who takes cover when controversies rage and lets underlings take the heat for him?

As Desi Arnaz famously said to Lucy, Brown has got “some ‘splainin’ to do.”

More Sinkholes Ahead?

Meanwhile, legislative committees continue to treat this disgraceful public embarrassment with kid gloves. History will not look kindly on their performance, either.

Digging out of this enormous sinkhole hasn’t been easy. The road ahead looks susceptible to similar perils.

What’s lacking is responsible, accountable leadership. That could become a dominant bone of contention as the June 24 primary approaches.

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Read other columns by Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com

MD’s Quarter-Billion Dollar Healthcare Fiasco

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 16, 2014 — ACCOUNTABILITY is sorely lacking when it comes to Maryland’s botched rollout of Obamacare. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown  is nowhere to be found when tough questions are asked. Gov. Martin O’Malley deflects “who’s at fault” inquiries, focusing instead on getting the deeply flawed software partly operable.

The computer system’s main contractor, Noridian Healthcare Solutions, blames its prime subcontractor, who in turn accuses Noridian — a healthcare services company, not an IT firm — of incompetence and conning the state. Given that Noridian has received $65 million to construct a failed system, the subcontractor may have a point.

No Probe Planned

Perhaps Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein will decide in April or May to pull the plug on this IT horror show and start all over with a proven system from another state or join the federal healthcare sign-up exchange. That will cost a pretty penny.

But no one seems in a hurry to find out who screwed up.

Governor O'Malley explains IT fixes to Maryland's healthcare rollout.

Governor O’Malley explains IT fixes to Maryland’s healthcare computer rollout.

Democratic state lawmakers have put off till the summer a Department of Legislative Services analysis of what went wrong. That fits nicely with their support of Brown’s campaign to succeed O’Malley. It will be a long time after the June 24 primary before that DLS report surfaces.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Those same lawmakers tried to ignore the ongoing scandal during the current General Assembly session, but public pressure led to a series of hearings that deal with fixing the system rather than assessing blame. This helps Brown immensely, since he’s most likely to be fingered as the state official who was asleep at the switch.

First District Rep. Andy Harris wants the Department of Health and Human Services to probe Maryland’s waste of a quarter-billion federal dollars on a nearly inoperable system but that’s a political stunt by a tea party Republican who is becoming a nattering nabob of negativism.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris

Meanwhile, the O’Malley-Brown healthcare exchange continues to limp along with 29,000 Marylanders enrolled in private health plans — just one-sixth of the way to Brown’s previously stated goal of 180,000 and one-fifth of the way toward O’Malley’s 150,000 sign-up goal.

It’s a mess, the worst waste of taxpayer dollars in memory. Yet no one is launching a probe. It’s all being handled with kid gloves and diplomacy so as not to hurt Brown’s election bid or O’Malley’s longshot run for the White House.

Impartial Report

What’s needed is the equivalent of the Preston Report. Back in 1985, Maryland suffered a calamitous collapse of its privately insured savings and loan industry. It cost the state and S&L depositors hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gov. Harry Hughes and lawmakers created the Office of Special Counsel to probe “all aspects of the events” leading up to the S&L crisis. A prestigious Baltimore attorney, Wilbur (Woody) Preston, and a small team of his associates produced a package of legislative reforms and a 450-page report that detailed what went wrong and why. It was a honest and thorough assessment.

Special Counsel Wilbur Preston delivers his S&L report in 1986 (Baltimore Sun)

Special Counsel Wilbur Preston delivers his S&L report in 1986 (Baltimore Sun)

That’s what’s required now — an impartial dissection of this costly embarrassment by someone willing to lay out the facts without worrying about whether the blame falls on the lieutenant governor, the governor, the health secretary or the IT vendors.

How much of the blame belongs to O’Malley, who ultimately is responsible for what goes on in his administration? This was, after all, the most important initiative the state has undertaken in ages.

How much of the blame for this healthcare fiasco sits on Brown’s shoulders?

e’s made a big deal of his leadership on this reform, though he’s recently tried to weasel out by claiming he was only in charge of the legislation (also severely flawed) setting up the exchange.

Brown clearly was a figurehead leader — a general who showed up for the public meetings but left everything to his underlings. Even when he said he learned of the computer snafus, he apparently failed to sound the alarm.

Bleak Outlook  

Since Democratic lawmakers aren’t willing to ask the tough questions before the gubernatorial primary, and the governor has shown no eagerness to create a special panel to probe this scandal, we may never learn enough to reach a conclusion.

Even the DLS report is likely to be scrubbed of any finger-pointing at state leaders. That’s especially true if Brown wins the June 24 Democratic primary. Top Democrats in the legislature will circle the protective wagons around the presumptive governor.

What a mess.

We will glean quite a bit about the exchange’s IT failures from the competing lawsuits filed by Noridian and its prime subcontractor, EngagePoint. But that won’t lift the fog surrounding actions of healthcare exchange leaders, the governor and the lieutenant governor.

Sadly, this is one mystery that may never be solved.

 

 

 

 

 

O’Malley’s Latest Pension Grab

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 10, 2014 — IT TAKES quite a bit for the quiet, diplomatic State Treasurer, Nancy Kopp, to criticize her fellow Democrat, Gov. Martin O’Malley. But she gently laid it on the line in opposing O’Malley’s $100 million budget cut for state pension contributions.

“It’s a question of trust,” Kopp said.

Bond rating agencies will look askance at O’Malley’s effort to permanently reduce by $100 million a year the state’s commitment to funding future pensions. “It will be very difficult to defend” when the agencies question her, she told legislators.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp

“It’s a question of trust”, says Maryland State Treasurer Nancy Kopp

What Kopp didn’t say, but others are filling in the blanks, is that O’Malley’s action is a cold, calculated slap in the face of state workers.

He is reneging on an agreement he made with them just a few years ago.

The irony is that the very same “working families” O’Malley defends so passionately are the ones hurt most by his callous action.

O’Malley Walks Away

Working-class state employees and teachers were asked in 2011 to pay more into the pension fund and accept lower future benefits. Now they are watching the governor walk away from his part of the deal.

That will “be dimly viewed” by rating agencies, noted retirement fund executive director Dean Kenderdine. And for good reason.

What he and Kopp don’t know is how close Maryland could come to losing its coveted Triple-A bond rating because of O’Malley’s pension-funding duplicity.

The good news is that the General Assembly’s budget panels aren’t likely to accept the governor’s high-handed action.

When cuts are made, it’s a near certainty lawmakers will see that O’Malley’s pension grab is countermanded and that the next governor will be required to commit an extra $300 million annually to close Maryland’s yawning pension-fund gap.

From the governor’s perspective, taking another $100 million from the state’s allocation to the retirement fund makes sense.

2015 Budget Book

O’Malley’s FY2015 Maryland Budget

The move doesn’t endanger anyone’s immediate retirement benefits. It helps O’Malley avoid cuts in other programs. It shrinks the state’s long-term structural deficit. And it only delays by a year the retirement agency’s target for reaching 80 percent of full funding.

O’Malley also knows that calculating pension and retirement shortfalls is more an accounting shell game than a science.

Does the state really need on hand today 100 percent of the money required to pay off all future retiree benefits  — 192,000 of them — decades from now?

The laws of probability are prohibitive that Maryland, or any other pension fund, will ever have to make a one-time, all-in payout.

Enough to Pay Current IOUs

Maryland’s $40 billion pension fund has more than enough money to write current retirement checks.

A 2011 law set out a gradual plan for raising the state’s retirement accounts to 80 percent of full funding in a decade or so, and to reach 100 percent in two decades.

That was a sensible approach — but not if O’Malley and his gubernatorial successors override that law and continue to use the pension fund as a grab bag whenever there’s a need for an extra $100 million or so elsewhere in state government.

Barry Rascovar’s other commentaries can be viewed at www.politicalmaryland.com

 

 

Do-Gooders Know Best

By Barry Rascovar

For MarylandReporter.com

Feb. 2, 2014 — RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE is all the rage among liberal Democrats and liberal advocacy groups. Listening to them it’s clear a much higher minimum will dramatically close the income inequity gap.

Nirvana is just around the corner.

All this is well intentioned. Yes, there is a widening gulf between America’s very rich and the middle and lower classes. Yes, the nation’s minimum wage needs adjustment. Those at on the bottom of American society need extra financial help.

But is the nearly 40 percent jump in the minimum wage proposed by President Obama and his wannabe successor, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the solution?

Obama State of the Union Address

President Obama’s State of the Union Address — “Raise the minimum wage”

Will prosperity sudden blossom, job-growth flourish and the poor take home enough pay to cover all expenses?

Sadly, the answer is “no.”

Indeed, a rapid and steep rise in the minimum wage may result in the Law of Unintended Consequences coming into play – fewer job opportunities, layoffs, cutbacks in hours worked, higher consumer prices and more delays in business expansion.

O'Malley State of the State Address

Governor O’Malley at State of the State Address — “Raise the minimum wage”

Put yourself in the small businessman’s position.

She employs mainly low-wage workers at two or three retail locations. Wages already eat up most of her revenue. Now those wages are going to rise by over a third.

Chance are this business person will take steps to curb her new overhead – letting some workers go, reducing hours for other employees and raising prices, if competition permits.

Some small businesses may be so hard hit that they can’t  stay open. Even larger operations might see profits dip substantially, forcing them to put growth plans on hold.

Negative Impact From Doing Good

Do-gooders could end up harming the very people they seek to help.

It is encouraging that House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller recognize caution is required in approaching the minimum wage issue.

One size may not fit all businesses in various parts of the state.

Behind the counter jobs at minimum wage.

Behind the counter jobs at minimum wage.

A $10.10 minimum rate in impoverished and isolated Garrett County goes much further than in Montgomery County, but Garrett business owners may not be able to afford such a large wage boost.

Ocean City’s part-time summer employment base attracts college students, not folks looking for full-time work. Boosting their pay by nearly 40 percent doesn’t help the poor at all. It may, though, force some small entrepreneurs to close up shop.

A Better Method

There’s a far better way to help men and women struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder. It’s called the earned income tax credit – a targeted wage supplement that rewards the working poor.

So why isn’t O’Malley proposing a major boost in Maryland’s earned income tax credit? Because it would require him to pay for it and cut tens of millions from other agencies and programs.

It’s far easier for O’Malley – as he has done throughout his terms as governor – to beat up on the business community and demand the private sector help the poor. It  becomes a private-sector burden rather than a burden on O’Malley’s budget.

There shouldn’t be a debate over raising the minimum wage gradually over a number of years. It’s too low now.

Deceptive Political Mindset

But liberal politicians have seized on this issue as an easy answer to the nation’s persistent slow growth. It isn’t.

They ignore the real purpose of minimum wage jobs – to get young people  starter jobs so they can learn about showing up regularly and on time, to provide supplemental wages for older folks, and to assist those whose full-time job doesn’t pay all the bills.

In most cases, these positions are not for those seeking permanent employment. They are entry-level jobs.

High turnover is expected. The work doesn’t require much brain-power. The jobs are designed to be a start or a supplement, not a career.

Cautious Approach Needed

Attacking income inequality is far more complicated than simply doubling or tripling the minimum wage.

Attacking the business community for pointing out the obvious flaws in this liberal crusade doesn’t help matters, either.

There’s little doubt O’Malley will get a modified minimum wage proposal through the General Assembly this session.

Yet a slow and cautious approach is advisable.

The next group of elected Maryland officials needs to focus more on designing programs that actually stimulate and encourage economic growth.

O’Malley and his liberal followers seem to have fallen into the political trap of calling for superficial solutions that do not come close to resolving the exceedingly knotty problems confronting society.

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Read other commentaries by Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com.

 

Rainy Day in Annapolis Towne

(Note: This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Center Maryland Magazine.)

By Barry Rascovar

It is often true that legislative reforms require a second round of revisions to make them workable. That’s the case with the misnamed “rain tax.”

Passed in 2012, this stormwater remediation measure attacks a troubling problem – pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from pet waste, sediment, fertilizers, pesticides and auto fluids. Storms wash this scum off urban and suburban streets, parking lots and rooftops. It winds up in the bay.

Impervious surface

Impervious Surface

This is a huge concern for those who treasure Maryland’s most precious resource.

For instance, stormwater pollutants account for 37 percent of nitrogen in the Magothy River, 94 percent of excess phosphorus, and virtually all sediment and bacterial contaminants.

Fifteen percent of the bay’s nitrogen stems from urban and suburban storm runoff.

The 2012 statute requires Baltimore City and nine counties to enact a fee for stormwater improvements. It’s part of the state’s compliance with Washington’s “pollution diet” for the bay.

Permeable Surface

Permeable Surface

Little controversy surrounded the 2012 bill, but as implementation day neared in mid-2013, Republicans raised a ruckus. In a slick PR move, they started calling it the “rain tax.”

Frederick County Commissioners set their stormwater fee at a symbolic penny. Carroll County Commissioners defied the state entirely.

Other Republicans played politics, too. Laura Neuman, the new Anne Arundel executive, vetoed a stormwater fee (it was overridden by the council). She is in a tough race to win a full term.

David Craig, the Harford County executive running for governor, wants to abolish his county’s stormwater tax – though he introduced the bill and signed it into law. He also wants to wipe out the state law, a sine qua non for GOP candidates this year.

Like it or not, legislators find this issue before them in the current session.

No politician wants to endorse an unpopular tax in an election year but Democrats are in a bind. Environmentalism is a key part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s national campaign and Democratic lawmakers won’t renege on their commitment to the bay.

The trick is making the law more palatable.

Republicans will have a field day protesting Democratic amendments, yet they know it’s all sound and fury.

Revisions could lead to a uniform stormwater fee in the 10 jurisdictions – such as a surcharge on the state property tax – or making the counties and Baltimore responsible for contributing a set amount to remediation projects but letting local officials decide how to raise the money.

In the end, a less incendiary version of the “rain tax” will pass. There’s too much at stake for O’Malley and Democratic lawmakers to back down.

Barry Rascovar, formerly a columnist for The Baltimore Sun and the Gazette Newspapers, writes regularly at www.politicalmaryland.com

 

 

Brown’s Healthcare Albatross

By Barry Rascovar for MarylandReporter.com

January 20, 2014 — MARYLAND’S LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR, Anthony Brown, has a problem that won’t go away — his still unexplained leadership role in the state’s disastrous Obamacare rollout.

This is the biggest sticking point in Brown’s run for governor. It could become an insurmountable obstacle if public attention remains focused on those computer glitches and poor sign-up results.

Week One of the General Assembly session brought no relief.

Brown testified before two panels on a Band-Aid measure to rescue perhaps thousands of Marylanders who couldn’t sign up for health insurance because of the state’s horribly dysfunctional software product.

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on health care bill

Reading from a prepared text is one of his strong points. Answering questions isn’t. Brown ducked the few hard queries tossed his way and headed for the door without fully admitting his responsibility for Maryland’s $170 million embarrassment.

He left Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein behind to make a heartfelt apology, give an explanation of what went wrong and take the heat.

What Wasn’t Asked

This left a number of key questions hanging:

  • Was Brown a figurehead leader of the health care insurance rollout?
  • What did Brown know about the behind-the-scenes fiasco that was building over the past year?
  • When did he know it?
  • Why didn’t he roll up his sleeves and get fully engaged in the administration’s most important project for which he was the designated point man?
  • Why was he left out of the loop?

We may never get complete answers.

While a few legislative committees will poke around in the state’s Obamacare closet, this won’t be a Watergate-style investigation.

Too many Democrats already have endorsed Brown for governor. They will take care not to make the lieutenant governor look bad.

Questions Won’t Go Away

Yet unless the sign-up numbers improve dramatically — not likely — the public will receive constant reminders of Maryland’s health care belly-flop during the General Assembly session.

And once the legislature goes home, the governor’s race will heat up, with Brown the center of attention.

Attorney General Doug Gansler, his chief rival, will spend most of his $6.3 million treasury reminding voters of Brown’s leadership role in the state’s biggest disaster since the savings and loan collapse in the 1980s.

Televised debates between the gubernatorial candidates could provide a flashpoint. It may be the only time Gansler gets to directly point a finger at Brown for his culpability in the health care disaster and demand an answer.

Thanks to the Washington Post, we have a picture of the chaos and astounding incompetence that surrounded Maryland’s ill-fated launch of its health insurance exchange. (A grand total of four people signed up that first day.)

And thanks to the Baltimore Sun, we have a reminder of how screwed up the health care debacle remains. (Inadvertently directing people trying to sign up to call a Seattle pottery shop. The snafu continued for four months. A day after The Sun alerted state officials, the poor Seattle shop owner was still getting calls from frustrated Marylanders.)

Then today, the Post and  The Sun reported another screw-up. Up to 1,078 informational packets, containing the new Medicaid sign-up’s name, date of birth and Medicaid ID number, were mailed by the state to the wrong addresses — exposing those people to possible identity theft and delays in receiving medical care. The state blamed it on a “programming error.”

If people’s health weren’t at risk, these human absurdities would make a hilarious “Seinfeld” episode.

Brown’s Dilemma

The self-identified leader of this healthcare reform, Anthony Brown, remains all but invisible as the situation unravels.

How is he going to explain all of this?

At last week’s legislative hearings, he refused to apologize for what happened. He pretty much pointed an accusatory finger at everyone else for hiding the cold, hard truth from him.

Still, Brown appears well positioned to capture the governorship.

He’s got the establishment’s political endorsements. He’s got Gov. Martin O’Malley doing everything he can to ease his path to victory. He’s got more money to spend on his campaign than Gansler.

Yet it might not be enough if Anthony Brown continues to wear that conspicuous health care albatross around his neck.Albatross hung around his neck

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You can read Barry Rascovar’s other columns at www.politicalmaryland.com

 

 

 

 

 

Montgomery Co.’s ‘Living Wage’ for Elected Leaders

October 24, 2013

By Barry Rascovar

IT IS TOUGH being an elected official in Maryland’s largest and most sophisticated jurisdiction, Montgomery County.

Citizens there are demanding. They expected lawmakers will be super-vigilant, attentive to their needs and eagerly schedule long and long-winded public hearings on just about any bill that comes before the County Council.

But the job is rewarding, perhaps too rewarding.

Montgomery County seal

Montgomery County seal

More than any Maryland council, these solons engage in intense micro-management of government on a virtual full-time basis.

They can do this because they get a “living wage” that is the envy of other local Maryland lawmakers: $104,000 a year, which will rise over the next four years to $136,000.

That future pay level is more than the attorney general and state comptroller are paid right now. It’s more than council members in other Maryland jurisdictions receive.

In populous Baltimore County, council members take home $54,000 a year and in Baltimore city with its immense urban challenges council members are paid less than $53,000.

Apparently Montgomery’s councilmen and women are twice as good as those legislators. Or Montgomery has twice as many problems to handle.

Or they are overpaid.

Blame It On High-Cost Washington

Granted, Prince George’s County Council members also are overpaid, coming in at $102,000 a year. Council members in both Washington-area jurisdictions blame the six-figure salaries on the region’s high cost of living.

Some Montgomery solons complain that what they are paid isn’t enough to raise a young family. One councilwoman indicated serving the public merits high pay.

That’s how they justify an 8.6 percent pay hike in year one of the next Montgomery County Council’s term, 6.5 percent increases in years two and three and a further 6 percent raise in year four?

Compare that with the 3.25 percent cost of living raise given county government workers there for each of the next two years.

Apparently council members consider themselves twice as important as others in county government.

Even the Montgomery County Executive got dissed. The next executive will receive a 5.5 percent raise, to $190,000, which won’t increase for another four years. That amounts to a puny 1.125 percent annual raise over the next term.

A Council Member’s Life

There’s no question council members work exceptionally hard. It comes with election to the job.

But in every jurisdiction council members put in extremely long hours. Most of them juggle this public service with an occupation. It keeps them grounded in reality.

That’s what makes the Maryland General Assembly so effective in passing legislation while not protruding into the governor’s domain of running state government.

Delegates and senators are, by design, part-time lawmakers. They remain very much in touch with constituents nine months of the year and very much full-time lawmakers during the high-intensity, 90-day General Assembly session.

For their service, which is enormously important to the state’s well-being, each state legislator receives $43,500 a year. Lawmakers didn’t vote to raise their pay during the recession, either.

The mindset is different in the Washington suburbs, especially in Montgomery, where council pay could reach ridiculous levels in a few more terms — even though there’s scant indication the Montgomery council’s work is any better than council accomplishments in other Maryland jurisdictions.

It’s a nice deal, if you can get it — a powerful public service job with a six-figure income, courtesy of taxpayers who don’t have a say in setting these sky-high salaries.

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Maryland Governor: The Race is On

Establishment vs. Outsider?

By Barry Rascovar

September 30, 2013 — NOW THE RACE for Maryland governor starts for real. The two main contenders are in the ring for what promises to be an aggressive contest race that has no precedent in Maryland history.

What makes the 2014 gubernatorial election so unusual is the timing.

Ballot Box

Ballot Box

Rather than holding the primary in September as is traditional, this one takes place June 24. That early date will cut down substantially on turnout, play havoc with fund-raising and compress the full fury of the campaign into about 80 days once the General Assembly ends its session on April 7.

Making History

It’s also unusual in that the leading contenders hold two jinxed state offices.

No lieutenant governor has ever been elected to succeed his boss in Maryland.  Blair Lee III, Sam Bogley, Joe Curran, Mickey Steinberg, Kathleen Kennedy Towson and Michael Steele all had dreams of sitting in the governor’s chair but never did.

No attorney general has won election to the state’s top office in 75 years, either. Most settled for prestigious judgeships but a few considered running or failed trying — Tom Finan (1966), Bill Burch (1978) and Steve Sachs (1986). None made it past the primary. (The last attorney general elected governor was Herbert R. O’Conor in 1938. Ironically, he was succeeded eight years later by William Preston Lane, who had been attorney general  just before O’Conor.)

So Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler not only are battling against each other but also battling against history.

Two-Way Contest

They are far and away the ones to watch.

Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County is a peripheral issues candidate who is making this high-visibility campaign her political swan song. Republican candidates can’t come close to winning in Democratic Maryland unless there’s a inside-the-party revolt against the Democratic primary winner.

That’s not likely to happen.

Even worse, Republican candidates are taking extreme positions to appease Tea Party voters, thus eliminating their already slim chances. (More in a future column.)

Divergent Strategies

Brown prematurely kicked off the campaign by declaring in May — a stunningly early announcement.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

He followed by making an early choice for a running mate and announcing a slew of endorsements meant to show his bona fides. Yet few voters pay attention so far from Election Day.

Now, though, the media has turned its sights on the gubernatorial race because a second heavyweight, Gansler, has announced. He’s running as “the outsider” against the “entrenched political establishment.”

It’s an apt description given that Brown had been running a “coronation campaign” stressing the inevitability of his elevation.

Gansler wasted little time debunking that campaign myth. It’s now a two-person race with Mizeur providing intriguing side-commentary.

Brown is Gov. Martin O’Malley’s anointed choice. The governor will work hard to get his No. 2 elected. Why not? Brown claims credit for all of O’Malley’s achievements and then promises voters he’ll “do more.”

In fact, Brown was not a major contributor to most of O’Malley’s legislative successes and only played a role on a few issues late in the administration’s second term.

But O’Malley is joined at the hip with Brown and will push hard to make his No. 2 look good in the next legislative session. It’s the best way for the governor to ensure his legacy is embellished and extended.

Gansler the Outsider

Gansler had even less to do with O’Malley’s achievements so he can rightly claim the title of outsider. Indeed, the more endorsements Brown announces, the more Gansler can rail about the political establishment’s cabal to keep control of the state’s highest office.

Atty. Gen. Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Brown’s approach is to lock in all the top Democratic endorsements and ride to victory on the strength of O’Malley’s liberal record, the political establishment’s clout with voters and the unified support of Maryland’s large African American community, especially in Prince George’s County.

That leaves Gansler room to appeal to moderate and conservative Democrats who have been largely abandoned by O’Malley and Brown and to his strong base in Montgomery County.

The attorney general has staked out positions slightly to the right of O’Malley — opposing the gas tax increase, criticizing the governor’s embrace of a “zero tolerance” arrest policy, proposing a corporate tax cut, urging steps to bolster manufacturing and criticizing O’Malley’s prison policies.

At the same time, Gansler isn’t abandoning his long-standing liberalism. (He was, for example, one of the first state officials in Maryland to endorse Barack Obama’s candidacy and to endorse gay marriage). He spoke out before others on raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour. He proposes legislation to protect women from domestic violence and implement transparent policies for state government.

Two Big Tests

The next General Assembly session will test both candidates. Gansler will pick and choose where he wants to attack the O’Malley-Brown administration. Conversely, Brown has to show success in getting administration bills enacted. Much of what transpires for those 90 days will be colored by the campaign for governor.

Gansler has the clear edge in fund-raising at the moment. If that’s still true come May, he will have the upper hand in advertising his name and face on local television. At a time when neither candidate is a well-known commodity, that’s a big advantage.

What may settle the race are the campaign debates. Gansler is quick on his feet and a fierce advocate; Brown can be an impressive speaker when reading from a script.  How they match up on issues voters care about and how they come across to a large debate audience could determine the outcome.

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