Tag Archives: Maryland

Hogan vs. the Legislature: A Constitutional Clash

By Barry Rascovar

On the surface, it seems much ado about nothing – an esoteric argument most folks can safely ignore. But the dispute over whether two state Cabinet appointees can legally remain in office without Senate confirmation raises an important constitutional question that cries out for judicial resolution.

Gov. Larry Hogan precipitated this divide with some unorthodox moves that appear aimed at stripping power from the General Assembly and enlarging his ability to ignore actions of the state legislature when it comes to appointments subject to Senate confirmation.

Following hearings earlier this year, two of Hogan’s Cabinet nominees raised alarms for lawmakers. That is precisely the way the “advise and consent” section of the state Constitution is supposed to work. It’s one of the defensive mechanisms James Madison and Alexander Hamilton inserted into the federal Constitution – and embraced by most states – to place a brake on the chief executive’s power.

It provides a chance for legislators to interview Cabinet nominees, question them on the issues and pass judgment on their readiness to serve in important, decision-making state jobs.

If the appointees are found lacking, the Senate can vote down the appointments. That’s how American government works. Each branch plays a role that is independent yet interdependent. Both the chief executive and the legislative branch must give the OK.

But what happens when the governor doesn’t want to share power, when the chief executive thumbs his nose at the legislative branch?

That’s the situation Hogan and lawmakers are facing.

Schrader and Peters

Hogan’s choice for health secretary, Dennis Schrader, has good management credentials, a government background and good political contacts but no professional medical or academic health care credentials.

Constitutional Crisis

Interim Health Chief Dennis Schrader

Lawmakers on the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, after hearing from Schrader, became alarmed and delayed a vote on his confirmation. Then Hogan, surprisingly, withdrew Schrader’s nomination – even though he had assurance from the Senate president that the full Senate would eventually assent to Schrader’s appointment.

Senators had even more concerns about Hogan’s Cabinet appointment as Planning Secretary, Wendi Peters. She lacks any professional planning credentials. She worked as a paralegal and served as a Republican on the Mount Airy Town Council before losing a race for House of Delegates in 2014.

Legislators heard horror stories about Peters terrorizing Planning Department workers, firing them for little cause and creating an oppressive work environment.

That led the Senate committee to reject her nomination. But before the full Senate could finalize that move, Hogan withdrew Peters’ nomination, too.

Once legislators adjourned in April, though, Hogan re-appointed both to their jobs on an interim basis, sticking a thumb in the eyes of lawmakers.

Legislative counter-move

Assembly leaders anticipated Hogan’s move. They’ve seen how he insists on having it his way. So they inserted language in the state budget that bars Peters and Schrader from being paid after July 1 because they lack confirmation by the Senate committee.

Constitutional Crisis in MD

Interim Planning Secretary Wendi Peters

The state attorney general issued a legal opinion noting that Hogan has every right to reappoint the two Cabinet officials but the General Assembly has the right to cut off their pay checks because the two failed to gain Senate confirmation.

(Hogan’s office made the astounding statement that the elected attorney general’s opinion doesn’t count for a hill of bean but Hogan’s own, unelected staff counsel’s determination should be the last word.)

Then Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has continually shown an eagerness to side with Republican Hogan, did so again, announcing he would pay Peters and Schrader.

But the key signature on those paychecks isn’t Franchot’s but state Treasurer Nancy Kopp’s.

She read Attorney General Brian Frosh’s legal opinion. Frosh’s office is, after all, the constitutional authority for all state government agencies. As a spokeswoman for Kopp put it, “Her attorney is the attorney general” – not Hogan’s staff lawyer.

Kopp’s conclusion: She has no choice but to follow the guidance laid down by the attorney general and abide by the language added to the state budget. Thus, Schrader and Peters will not be paid until this disagreement is resolved.

Shaky Power-sharing

Since his election as governor, Hogan has inveighed against sharing power with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. This is another example of his unwillingness to accept the limitations  laid down in the state constitution that make the two branches co-equal parts of Maryland state government.

Other governors, when faced with rejection of an executive department nominee would have moved on, recognizing that’s the right of the state senate. There are plenty of other positions Peters and Schrader could fill in Hogan’s expansive jobs orbit.

More important, there are plenty of better suited individuals who could ably fill those Cabinet slots, individuals that agree with the governor’s conservative views but are acceptable to Democratic leaders in the General Assembly.

That’s how governance is supposed to work in Maryland – and how it has worked in the past. Unfortunately, Hogan is looking for a fight rather than consensus.

This war of words could persist into the future if Hogan wants to it drag out, reappointing Peters and Schrader, then withdrawing their nominations before the full Senate votes to reject them, then re-appointing the two once next year’s session ends.

It would make a mockery of the “advise and consent” section of the Maryland Constitution. It would send a signal Hogan isn’t willing to share power.

That’s one of the reasons Hogan must take the matter to the Maryland Court of Appeals. When two co-equal branches of Maryland government disagree this strongly on the constitutional powers of the other branch, the third branch, the judiciary, is there to interpret the law and render a definitive answer.

Failure to seek a judicial decision on this constitutional issue would be playing politics instead of seeking a final judgment as to which side is right.

It’s time for Hogan to tell his minions to stop with the name-calling and angry allegations of unethical behavior and instead order his legal counsel to take the matter to court. It would be good for both feuding branches of state government. ##

 

Repeal Obamacare? Hogan’s Conundrum

By Barry Rascovar

July 10, 2017 – Though he’s a Republican, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan must pray each night that his fellow Republicans in Congress fall flat on their faces in their concerted efforts to wipe out Obamacare and replace it with a vastly inferior health care safety net.

Hogan quietly voiced opposition to House and Senate “repeal and replace” bills in a statement he had issued in Annapolis while on an overseas trip.

He’s trying hard to avoid offending Maryland Republicans who support an immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Yet he’s acutely aware of the harm, and human pain, such a move would have on hundreds of thousands of Marylanders.

Maryland is in a unique situation when it comes to the “repeal and replace” movement. Ending Obamacare could place this state’s entire hospital system in jeopardy. Hospitals in the Free State stand to lose a staggering $2.3 billion in Medicare and Medicaid payments if Obamacare abruptly ends.

Obamacare and Hogan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

Some hospitals, especially in rural parts of the state and in poor urban neighborhoods may not survive. One national study indicated up to 50% of all rural hospitals in the United States could close under an Obamacare repeal. In Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, up to 75% of rural hospitals could be driven out of business.

Nursing homes are under the gun, too, since two-thirds of its patients are on Medicaid, which is the primary budget-cutting target of congressional Republicans.

‘Tremendous Impact’

Passage of either the House or Senate repeal bills “could have a tremendous impact on Maryland,” according to the non-partisan Department of Legislative Services. This would “require the General Assembly [and the governor] to consider significant financial and policy decisions.”

That’s something Hogan cannot afford in 2018 as he runs for re-election. Yet the governor could find himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place next year, thanks to conservative Republicans in control of the House, Senate and White House.

The price to Maryland state government of an Obamacare repeal is in the billions. Maryland government would lose $1.3 billion in federal Medicare and Medicaid funds next year, growing to a loss of $1.5 billion in federal dollars in 2022.

If the law is repealed, Hogan and Democratic legislators in Annapolis would face a monstrous and agonizing choice.

Do they jettison Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid that now gives health insurance to 421,000 state citizens, many of them children? Do they leave 1 million Marylanders now covered through subsidized private insurance plans or the Medicaid expansion to the tender mercies of insurance companies?

Or are Hogan and lawmakers going to jump in, swallow hard and raise taxes – in an election year – by a huge amount to cover the lost $1.35 billion next year?

That’s why deep down inside, Hogan really but really wants Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to give up their insistent request to wipe out Obamacare and instead work with Democrats on a compromise plan that preserves the best parts of the ACA and fixes what’s not working.

Seeking a Magic Bullet

The odds of McConnell and Ryan finding a magical “repeal and replace” formula that satisfies the majority of Republicans are not good. It may yet happen but time isn’t on their side.

The more voters learn about specifics of the Republicans’ replacement proposals, the stronger the opposition. Over the July 4 holiday, GOP lawmakers who dared to venture out received heated criticism from constituents.

Part of the problem is that McConnell and Ryan are attempting to peddle a plan that calls for an unprecedented version of “income re-distribution.”

Obamacare re-distributed taxes collected from the rich, insurance companies, durable medical equipment companies and tanning salons. The ACA spent that money to help provide health insurance to the poor and lower-income families.

Now Republicans are calling for a reversal of this process – giving back all that tax money to wealthy Americans and profitable corporations while stripping from the poor and lower-class much of their health care benefits.

It’s “Robin Hood in Reverse,” in this case congressional Republicans want to take from the poor and give to the rich.

Had the GOP plans created an alternative health care safety net that protected the rights of the elderly, poor and near-poor, the furor today might have been averted. But in their haste to wipe out Obamacare, Republicans in Congress failed to develop a legitimate replacement program that would make things better, not worse.

Obamacare in Maryland

In Maryland, there have been good results from Obamacare. The state’s uninsured rate has dropped more than half, to an all-time low of 6.6%. This is a godsend for hospitals, which saved $311 million in just two years due to the shrinkage of uncompensated care cases.

Big problems remain in the current system. Large premium increases are pending before Al Redmer, the state insurance commissioner (and a likely Republican candidate for Baltimore County Executive next year).

If Redmer approves large rate hikes, many of those currently insured may be priced out of the market. The state’s uninsured rate could soar and hospitals could run deficits.

But if Redmer rejects those big rate hikes, private insurers may have no choice but to drop out of the Maryland marketplace, as Cigna recently did.

Regardless of what happens in Washington and what Redmer decides, Maryland’s health-care safety net is in danger of tearing apart – unless Hogan and state legislators are willing to intervene.

That’s a tough call in an election year, especially for a governor who made a no-new-taxes pledge.

But the Republican governor and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly may have no choice.

Fixing the existing system is far easier than wiping out Obamacare and starting from scratch. Either way, though, State House politicians likely will have some heavy lifting to do early next year. ##

Is Maryland like Georgia and Wisconsin?

By Barry Rascovar

June 26, 2017—Taken together, developments in Georgia (special election) and Wisconsin (redistricting lawsuit) have been read by some Maryland Republicans as positive indicators that things finally are moving in their direction in a state overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats.

Retaining a Republican House seat in Georgia indicates to this state’s GOP that there’s been no mudslide erosion of support within the party from President Trump’s erratic behavior.

Getting the Supreme Court to jump into the Wisconsin redistricting lawsuit means Maryland Republicans might get their state’s gerrymandered, Democratic-leaning congressional districts thrown out, too.

Yes, hope springs eternal, but a closer look at these two developments paints a far less rosy picture for Maryland’s minority party, outnumbered 2-1 by Free State Democrats.

Expected Victory for GOP

The Georgia special election should have not been close. This is a solidly Republican district in the growing Atlanta suburbs that hasn’t had a Democratic congressman in almost 40 years.

In 2014, Republican incumbent Tom Price won by nearly 24%. Yet this year the GOP’s winning margin plunged to 4%.

That shrinkage mirrors similar special elections in Montana and Kansas where the Republican candidates won but not by landslide margins of prior years.

The Trump factor is largely to blame. His controversial early months in office have roiled much of the electorate, even in safe GOP districts. The public’s distaste for Trump hasn’t reached the tipping point yet, which is good news for Republicans.

In Maryland, that’s especially true for Gov. Larry Hogan as he begins to chart his re-election course. The last thing Hogan needs is the Trump albatross around his neck.

This explains Hogan’s unexpected decision to criticize the Senate Republican health-care bill. Polls show nearly two-thirds of Americans dislike Republican health-reform proposals and Hogan doesn’t want to be standing by Trump on the wrong side of this issue.

It’s hard to imagine that a newly elected president could become so unpopular so quickly. Trump in just five months has seen his popularity ratings drop into in the mid-30s. Some recent polls have him in the high 20s.

At this rate, imagine what the voting public will think of the incumbent president when they go to the polls in November 2018.

So while the results of the Georgia special election on the surface look good for Republicans, the narrowness of the victory should scare GOP incumbents in marginally Republican districts, such as the Miami and Philadelphia suburbs.

It underlines Hogan’s delicate balancing act in Maryland: retain absolute loyalty from rank and file Republicans while appealing to independents and moderate Democrats.

So far, Hogan has done a magnificent job avoiding GOP erosion while not losing his broader appeal.

Still, if 2018 becomes a “message election” in which voters across the country let Trump know they don’t like his bizarre performance, Hogan could struggle to win a second term. Separating his own political persona from Trump’s is key.

Gerrymandering Meanders into Court

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, a redistricting case involving gerrymandered state Assembly districts has made it to the Supreme Court. Republicans in Maryland have their own gerrymandering case in federal court.

Would a victory over gerrymandering in the Wisconsin case mean a huge GOP win in the Maryland case?

That may not be the logical conclusion.

Maryland’s redistricting maps, while grotesque in geographic design, don’t come close to carrying out one-party gerrymandering the way the GOP did in Wisconsin.Is Maryland Like Georgia and Wisconsin?

That state is marginally Republican. Barack Obama captured the Dairy State in 2012 by 7%, but Republican Gov. Scott Walker won reelection in 2014 by 6%. Last year, Republicans won the presidential vote in Wisconsin by less than 1%.

The 2011 state legislative redistricting map Republicans enacted packed Democratic voters into a small number of districts in the state’s two urban areas – Milwaukee and Madison. That allowed the GOP to create Republican majorities in nearly two-thirds of the state’s Assembly districts –a “baked in majority” of 20 seats. In recent elections, Republicans have gained 15% more seats in the legislature—despite the almost-even split in statewide races.

A district court and an appeals court agreed this sort of gerrymandering goes too far. Now the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the fall.

Maryland’s redistricting lawsuit is quite different. Plaintiffs face an uphill battle in spite of the Wisconsin court rulings. That’s because the voter registration numbers don’t appear to support the GOP’s contention that political gerrymandering severely discriminates against Republican voters.

The GOP complains about the 6th Congressional District, which used to be represented by Republican Roscoe Bartlett until Democrats re-drew the boundaries by attaching Democratic parts of Montgomery County to Republican Western Maryland.

Suddenly a district that elected Bartlett with 59% of the vote in 2010, swung Democratic, electing John Delaney in 2012 with 59% of the vote.

Yet that large Democratic advantage didn’t hold up two years later, when Delaney won by just 1.5% of the 6th District vote.

Last year, facing a weaker Republican nominee, Delaney won with 56%.

The voter registration in that district (based on the 2010 Census) is fascinating: 43% are Democrats, 31% are Republicans and the rest, 26%, unaffiliated, Green Party or Libertarian.

It’s a competitive district. If Delaney decides at the end of July to run for governor, the race for his congressional seat could be wide open.

That’s hardly a winning court argument against gerrymandering.

The 6th District also is fairly compact, even with the addition of the Montgomery County precincts (instead of moving directly east the district turns due south).

Moreover, there’s precedent for turning Western Maryland and Montgomery County into a single congressional district: For decades, this was the case with Republicans J. Glenn Beall Jr. and Charles “Mac” Mathias from Western Maryland representing the combined areas – without a peep about unfair gerrymandering.

Republicans also complain about the 3rd Congressional District’s weird shape (like “a winged pterodactyl” according to an appeals court judge). The GOP says this illustrates Democratic efforts to dilute GOP strength, since only 25% of registered district voters are Republicans and 55% are Democrats.

The litigants have a point on the complete lack of compactness. Their argument falls apart, though, over the dilution of GOP strength. It turns out the 3rd District’s party split (55-25%) almost precisely mirrors Maryland’s party split (55-26%).

Republicans may be at a disadvantage in all but one Maryland congressional district. However, that’s due to the GOP’s 2-1 voter registration deficit statewide.

Still, it would be in the public’s best interest for the Supreme Court to get involved, once again, and clearly delineate general rules for redistricting after the 2020 Census.

There always will be political manipulation – by either party. But if the high court rules that all districts must be compact, contiguous and respectful of neighborhoods and natural boundaries, it would go a long way toward straightening out the extreme gerrymandering that plagues far too many states.

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Humpty-Dumpty and MD’s Higher Education Dilemma

By Barry Rascovar

June 26, 2017 – It could be a cringe-worry moment when U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake finally rules on the lawsuit by black state universities demanding sweeping changes in Maryland’s public higher education system that benefit only their own campuses.

In no way is Judge Blake qualified to disassemble Maryland’s well-regarded higher education network and then re-assemble the pieces in an entirely new way that miraculously makes historically black schools integrated and thriving learning institutions.

Indeed, if she tries, Blake could make a costly, destructive mess of one of the nation’s better public higher-education systems.Humpty-dumpty and MD's Higher Education DilemmaShe needs to be reminded of the children’s rhyme – “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.”

Maryland has a shameful past when it comes to integrating its public colleges and universities. But in recent decades, things have changed markedly with continuing emphasis on providing formerly all-black schools with modern buildings and a lot more funding.

(Construction projects tell part of the story. In a two-year span, fiscal years 2013 and 2014, the four historically black universities received capital funds from the state totaling $202 million; nearby integrated universities – Towson, UB, UMBC and Salisbury – received just $108 million.)

Correcting this dreadful situation – historically black institutions are middling to poor in quality while other state universities are good to excellent – isn’t something a judge trained in the law is equipped to do. Professional higher-education experts are the ones who should be handling the details.

Cherry-picking Plan

Those representing black institutions have put forward a selfish $1 billion plan that cherry-picks from other public universities many of their best programs. Yet there’s no assurance any of the moves will make their institutions less segregated.

That’s because students cannot be forced to attend a specific university. Nor is there any guarantee professors would make the move if academic programs are transplanted to lesser-quality campuses.

Higher education is the ultimate in this nation’s free-market economy. Freedom of choice rules.

The popularity of historically black institutions has been on the wane for many decades. Students and faculty are voting with their feet.

No judge can stop that.

Ironically, the three Baltimore-area public universities under attack all are run by minority presidents (two blacks and a woman). And on all three campuses, integration of minority students is leap years ahead of historically black institutions.

Wrong Lens

Blake is viewing this issue from the wrong perspective.

Rather than perpetuate historic vestiges of segregation in public higher education, the judge should ask a panel of highly qualified educators to develop a plan that merges the weaker schools with their more successful counterparts.

The University of Baltimore, Towson University and UMBC are integrated and recognized by students and faculty as schools on the rise.

The same cannot be said for historically black institutions.

If the judge truly wants to do away with segregated classes, she should twin Morgan with UMBC; Coppin with UB; UMES with Salisbury University, and Bowie with UM’s nearby College Park campus.

At the end of the day, quality programs and quality students and faculty – black, white and tan – would be spread around all those campuses on a far more equal basis than at present. Most of the positive traditions of historically black facilities could be maintained as well.

Yes, we need to end racially segregated public universities. But that won’t happen by decimating Maryland’s integrated campuses.

Historically black schools should be honored for the positive role they played – out of necessity – for so long.

However, like the segregated era of men’s and women’s colleges, the time for maintaining and perpetuating public institutions that attract students only of one race should come to an end.

In the card game of bridge, there’s a tried and true rule: play to your strength. In Maryland’s higher education system that means strengthening the state’s best integrated and most academically successful campuses, not weakening them.

It’s a tough reality to swallow for proud alumni of the weaker institutions, but the best way to improve and integrate Maryland’s public universities is to transform the campuses that represent the state’s segregated past through mergers.

That way their historical achievements can be recognized and built upon as those beleaguered institutions become part of a more stable, inclusive and accomplished higher education universe.

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

 

 

Mission Impossible: Non-political Redistricting

 

By Barry Rascovar

June 12, 2017 – Holy mackerel! Can you believe this? Former Gov. Martin O’Malley has admitted politics played a big role in re-drawing Maryland’s congressional districts after the 2010 Census.

The state’s major newspapers and good-government groups went bananas. Editorial writers had a field day denouncing O’Malley and other Democratic leaders for this dastardly admission.

Politics determining the shape of new congressional districts?

What is this state coming to? Why it’s almost un-American!

Exactly which alternative universe are these people living in?

Politics and re-districting have been wrapped tightly together since the nation’s formative years.

Changing Legislative Boundaries

Remember Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry? (He pronounced his last name with a hard “G” but today everyone makes it sound like a “J.”)

In 1812, Gerry so badly contorted state Senate districts in the Boston area to benefit his Jeffersonian Republican-Democratic Party that the map resembled a mythological salamander. Thus, Gerry’s salamander-looking re-districting map, and today’s distorted district lines, became known as “gerrymanders.”

Mission Impossible: Non-political Redistricting

Famous redistricting map from 1812 newspaper resembling a salamander.

Political manipulation of legislative boundaries has been embedded in our history ever since – and for good reason. Once a political party seizes control, it wants to retain or enlarge that control through any legitimate means.

As New York Sen. William Marcy explained after Andrew Jackson’s 1828 victory led to massive patronage appointments by the new Democratic president, “To the victor belong the spoils” – including the ability to engage in partisan re-districting every 10 years.

Both major political parties do it.

In Maryland with its lopsided Democratic dominance that means Democratic gerrymandering.

Doing in Bartlett

Thus, Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Western Maryland found himself unable to win re-election after Democrats re-drew his rural, heavily Republican district following the 2010 Census, adding a vast swath of populous – and Democratic – Montgomery County.

In Republican states like Texas and North Carolina, GOP leaders have been even more brazen in their gerrymandering, earning rebukes from the Supreme Court for unconstitutionally discriminating against African Americans and Hispanics in re-drawing congressional and state legislative lines.

Maryland’s congressional maps may not be unconstitutional (so far) but they sure are bizarre.

Democratic Congressman John Sarbanes’ district resembles a winged, prehistoric dinosaur, according to one federal judge. Sarbanes should be embarrassed he pressed for those wildly distorted boundary lines. A number of other districts are highly unorthodox, or illogical, as well.

It wasn’t always like this in Maryland.

Ernie Kent, who drew the redistricting maps after the 1970 Census for Gov. Marvin Mandel, said the “overriding concern” in 1971 was “numerical equality” dictated by the Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote ruling that called for equally sized districts with just 1% deviation.

Mandel’s one request of his “redistricting queen:” Protect the state’s first African-American congressman by keeping Parren Mitchell’s district totally within Baltimore City. This required juggling Congressman Paul Sarbanes’ district and swapping precincts [with] Congressman Clarence Long. “The rest was mostly determined by geography,” Kent recalls.

It helped that these incumbents were Democrats with the only Republican strongholds isolated in rural portions of the state.

Glendening’s Revenge

Kent says “the convoluted gerrymandering started with [Gov. Parris] Glendening . . . when he tried to punish Ben Cardin for having considered running against him for governor.” Cardin’s old district – coherent and compact – suddenly took on a grotesque U-shape, so much so “it became known as the ‘toilet seat.’ “

Note that Democrat Glendening’s boundary manipulation was designed to punish a Democratic congressman – intra-party gerrymandering. It failed miserably. Cardin kept winning re-election with ease in the “toilet seat.” He’s now a U.S. senator.

Kent sees no reason for Maryland to abandon the traditional method of re-districting “as long as so many other states controlled by the GOP gerrymander in their favor.”

Mission Impossible: Non-political Redistricting

Maryland’s Current Congressional Districts

In other words, “politics ain’t beanbag,” as the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill repeatedly said. (The original quotation comes from writer Finley Peter Dunne in an 1895 newspaper column, mouthed by his fictitious character, “Mr. Dooley”: “ ’Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripple an’ prhybitionists ‘d do well to keep out iv it.”).

Politics is a hardball profession in which the two parties engage in mano a mano contests for power. Unless both sides agree to support a nationwide, non-partisan redistricting system, there’s little chance for the kind of reform championed by idealists.

Republicans in Maryland are trying to persuade the federal courts that the gerrymandered Bartlett district amounts to unconstitutional discrimination against them.

There’s no question one political party is trying to disadvantage the other. But that’s the underlying basis of this nation’s two-party system.

A Supreme Court ruling to the contrary opens a Pandora’s box of unsolvable conundrums for the justices.

“Discriminated minority political parties” – Libertarians, the Green Party, the Constitution Party, the Americans Elect Party, the Independent Party and unaffiliated voters – all would demand that same recognition in re-drawing Maryland’s political boundaries.

If Maryland’s re-districting maps are unconstitutional because one political party gained a huge edge over other parties in re-drawing the lines, ipso facto, nearly every state in the union would find itself in the same boat. Sheer chaos.

Nine Supreme Court justices wouldn’t be enough to determine the new rules of the road for every congressional seat, every state legislative seat and every county council, city council and town council seat in all the states.

Far better for the high court to reverse its ill-considered determination to withdraw from redistricting disputes, except in cases of extreme discrimination against minority African American and Hispanic populations.

The Supreme Court could simply restore its earlier redistricting rules, which Maryland placed in its constitution for state legislative races in 1972: “Each legislative district shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.”

Then everyone would know the perimeters for re-districting – compact, adjoining areas of equal population size that make every effort to respect natural and subdivision demarcations.

Asking for non-partisan panels to draw the boundary lines just isn’t going to happen in Maryland, Texas, North Carolina or most other states.

If there is to be a fairer system of re-drafting political boundaries, the high court needs to apply the same, basic guidelines it foolishly abandoned. That’s the best way to restore a semblance of fairness to what is inherently a political process.

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

Maryland’s Mixed Economic Messages

By Barry Rascovar

May 22, 2017 – Talk about sending mixed messages, the latest jobs report for Maryland can be read as good news or the precursor of bad economic news.

Maryland added 3,500 jobs in April. That’s good, right?

Well, yes, but remember in March Maryland lost 7,900 jobs.

Want another mixed message?

Maryland’s unemployment rate rose slightly to 4.3%. That’s a disturbing sign, small though it may be.

It indicates more people who had dropped out of even trying to find a job are once again seeking work. A larger pool of job-seekers could keep the unemployment rate in Maryland on an upward path.

Yet it’s a good sign that Maryland’s jobless rate remains a notch below the national unemployment rate of 4.4%.

Conflicting Federal Signals

If you want to see an even bigger mixed economic message for the Free State, look at what’s about to happen in dysfunctional Washington.

President Trump will be releasing his first budget this week for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Early indicators point to a fiscal blueprint that slashes domestic programs especially for the poor and the environment but is exceedingly generous to the military.

How do you rate that package, good or bad?

Here’s one more: Trump trumpeted his “great day” in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, where a series of tentative agreements were announced.

Maryland's Mixed Economic Signals

President Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia

The White House claimed these still-evolving deals could be worth $110 billion, much of it in military equipment, plus a still-murky $40 billion joint infrastructure investment fund.

Good for the U.S. economy, right?

But these are merely “understandings” between the two governments. Nothing is written in stone.

First, these purchases may take a long time, if ever, to materialize. Tough and lengthy negotiations lie ahead.

Moreover, the Saudi government is demanding that a vast amount of the spending take place outside the U.S. – in the Arabian kingdom.

Lockheed Martin is trying to lock down $28 billion worth of military contracts with the Saudis, including air-missile defense systems and aircraft.

How much of this work will end up in Maryland remains unclear.

Signed contracts could be a long way off.

And the Saudi government is insisting much of this work be done in their own country. It’s part of the push by the deputy crown prince to move the Saudi economy away from its current over-dependence on petroleum production.

There’s also a sense of urgency in the kingdom to bring down the high unemployment rate among young adults who are well-educated but can’t find work.

So there may be less in Trump’s Saudi agreements for the U.S. economy than at first blush.

Budget Blues

Maryland’s bigger problem lies in the soon-to-be-unveiled Trump budget proposal.

The Environmental Protection Agency budget alone is scary: Eliminating the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, doing away with lead-abatement funding, cutting air and water quality cleanup grants by nearly half and tossing out lots and lots of environmental regulations.

There’s even $12 million set aside for buyouts and early retirement offers – part of the EPA’s determination to shrink the agency and restrict its role in state and local environmental efforts.

The good news is that Congress can disregard Trump’s draconian domestic spending agenda, though it is likely to give the military a huge budget boost. How the American public perceives this dramatic spending shift may remain uncertain until the 2018 elections.

Maryland and Virginia could be the biggest losers.

Trump can accomplish a massive government downsizing without congressional consent. While Capitol Hill may give Trump more money than he requests for domestic programs, the president need not spend that money.

This could mean more Marylanders thrown out of work. For state government, it could lead to a drop-off in tax revenue, a budget crisis in the State House and rising demands from localities for the state to step in and fund programs losing federal support.

Yes, the glass these days can be viewed as half-empty or half-full.

Yet it is hard to see how this is good news for those in Annapolis who must deal with the economic fallout stemming from Republican downsizing efforts in Washington.

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Get Ready for Maryland’s Democratic Circus

By Barry Rascovar

May 1, 2017–If the election for Maryland governor were held tomorrow, Alec Ross would win: He’s the only one who officially has announced his candidacy.

Alec who?

Get ready for a circus of a gubernatorial campaign among Democrats. Ross is just the first of what could be a carload of clowns pouring out of a small VW Bug with the bumper sticker: “Dump Hogan.”

Good luck on that one.

Ross’ slick, four-minute video introducing himself is instructive. He lays out the “poor boy makes good through education” saga. The opening line of the video:

“Growing up in coal country taught Alex Ross about hard work.”

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Alec Ross

He stresses his days teaching sixth-graders at an inner-city Baltimore school.

Ross preaches the need for bold thinking and innovation, especially in the area of education. More than anything, he hammers at Gov. Larry Hogan “for allowing Donald Trump to bring his agenda to Maryland.”

That’s THE theme of the upcoming Democratic primary campaign. Every gubernatorial candidate will be shouting it from the hilltops.

Ross zeroes in on Hogan joining Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, in a much-publicized photo-op session in a Montgomery County classroom. DeVos would love to see mass privatization of public schools – a radical but necessary solution in her eyes.

Ross attacks the education problem from the Democratic far-left rather than the Republican far-right. He’d use technology and a massive boost in schooling that prepares students for 21st century jobs. He wants to employ innovation to bolster public schools, not obliterate them.

He goes on to attack Hogan for “not standing up to Trumpism,” for failing to oppose Trump’s budget plan that would wipe out Chesapeake Bay cleanup funds.

It’s the first direct shot across Hogan’s bow in the governor’s race – but it will sound all too familiar by the June 28, 2018 primary.

Ross was a Hillary Clinton adviser on technology in the Obama administration. Innovation and looking at problem-solving differently is his thing.

But will that be enough to win an election?

Resume Gap

Ross, like many of the likely candidates, is a new face to most Marylanders. He has never been elected to political office for dog catcher or anything else. He’s taught in a classroom, written a book, held a federal job as an adviser but never been in the thick of local or state politics.

He’s lacking a key element on his resume.

That’s also the case for Jim Shea, a highly regarded Baltimore attorney who ran Maryland’s largest law firm for 22 years. Shea devoted considerable time serving on civic boards and public service commissions. His slogan: “A Fighting Voice for Maryland.”

No elected office appears on Shea’s resume.

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Jim Shea

His theme is similar to Ross’. On his website Shea says, “Maryland and our country are under attack by Donald Trump, a man who cares only about himself and who is hostile tour American way of life. Meanwhile, our governor sits silently, watching from the sidelines, even as the progress we have made in Maryland is threatened on a daily basis.”

This is why Shea is “laying the groundwork” to run for governor. “There is simply too much at stake.”

Making the Rounds

Funny, but that’s what all the governor wannabes are saying.

Both Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker have been making the political and publicity rounds for months laying their own groundwork for a gubernatorial run focusing on the Trump threat and Hogan’s “go along to get along” attitude.

Kamenetz and Baker, though, have limited appeal and are widely unknown outside their home regions.

Baker has an added problem: Another African-American, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, is talking about a run for governor. That could split this large, influential Democratic primary vote.

Get Ready for Maryland's Democratic Circus

Ben Jealous

Jealous wants to be the far-left Bernie Sanders clone in Maryland, preaching a social agenda of drastic change. That may have limited appeal in a state where Sanders lost by nearly 30% to the more moderate Clinton in Maryland’s presidential primary.

Meanwhile, three-term Rep. John Delaney is looking at a run for Government House.

He’s much more in the moderate, “blue dog Democrat” camp, touting his own innovative plan for a massive re-building of America’s infrastructure and sharply taking Trump to task for his radical proposals.

Delaney, too, is little known outside his sprawling Western Maryland/Montgomery County congressional district.

One advantage: He made a fortune (estimated net worth: $180 million) by establishing two New York Stock Exchange companies that helped small and mid-sized businesses obtain loans.

Delaney could self-finance a very expensive campaign (think former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to make himself and his ideas a household word.

Montgomery Candidates

Name recognition would not be Doug Gansler’s problem – a two-term state attorney general and a two-term state’s attorney in populous Montgomery County.

Gansler, though, is remembered for a disjointed and sometimes comical race for governor in 2014 when he received only 24% of the Democratic primary vote.

He’s  now got the advantage of being an outsider (working for a Washington, D.C. law firm) and he has a statewide network of contacts and voters who supported him in the past.

He and Delaney, however, might split the key Montgomery County vote.

Gansler’s plight could become even more perilous if another Montgomery politician jumps into the race – state Sen. Rich Madaleno, a vocal foe of Hogan’s legislative policies.

Get Ready for the Maryland Democratic Circus

State Sen. Rich Madaleno

Madaleno would capture much of the state’s gay vote (as Del. Heather Mizeur did in the 2014 primary with 22%) and would be a popular choice in his home district.

His leadership role in Annapolis on budget issues isn’t well known and could relegate Madaleno to a back seat in a statewide race.

There’s also a chance still another Montgomery County politician could be pushed into the governor’s race – Attorney General Brian Frosh.

He’s been a popular AG and has not hesitated to criticize Trump. Frosh is positioned to grab tons of headlines in the next year, thanks to legislation passed over the governor’s veto giving Frosh full power to file suit against Trump actions if he deems it appropriate.

Frosh is a quiet, often cautious, liberal Democrat who could be viewed as a bridge-building unifier within the party. 

All of these contenders will be singing from the same “Dump Trump/Hogan” hymnal. How Democrats figure out which one is best positioned to take on a hugely popular, moderate Republican governor is the big question.

Or will the Democratic primary turn into a destructive civil war in which the party’s far-left, “progressive” wing wins a Pyrrhic victory, with little or no chance against Hogan in November? 

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Maryland’s Balanced Budget – For Now

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

His most solid step forward?

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

His biggest defeat?

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

Constitutional Mandate

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the good news.

Dark Days Ahead?

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

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

There’s an additional problem, too.

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

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

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

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

Tepid Economy

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

A Week of Vetoes

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

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

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounding the Alarm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reelection Takes Priority

None of this needed to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hogan dodges Trump bullet, fracking, ‘road-kill’ & more

By Barry Rascovar

March 27, 2017Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan can thank his lucky stars the bitter and intractable Republican disputes in Washington sabotaged plans to do away with the nation’s current healthcare plan, the Affordable Care Act.

Passage of the Trumpcare alternative – imposing horrific added costs on older Americans, endangering Medicare funding and removing healthcare coverage for 14 million citizens next year – would have had cataclysmic effects in Maryland and placed Hogan on an untenable political hot seat.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

President Trump

Instead, Hogan gets a slight reprieve, which helps his chances of getting reelected next year.

Then again, if the president and GOP hardliners insist on pressing a second time to wipe out the ACA and succeed, Hogan will be in the bull’s eye when furious Maryland Democrats seek revenge at the polls.

Equally ominous for the first-term Republican governor is Trump’s obsession with making exceedingly deep cuts in the federal budget. Even if Congress ignores the president’s budget submission from last week, the administration has its marching orders – cut personnel wherever possible, cut back severely on spending wherever possible and hold back on doling out money for programs run by the states.

Take, for instance, Trump’s budget that eliminates all federal funds for Chesapeake Bay restoration. Any sizable elimination of funds will infuriate many moderates and independents who voted for Hogan in 2014. Anger toward Trump could be taken out on Hogan on Election Day next year.

Hogan Dodges Trump Bullet

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The Maryland governor’s silence about Trump’s assault on federal spending isn’t helping him, either. Of course he’s in an unwinnable bind – criticize Trump and Hogan’s conservative followers will feel betrayed; support the president and Democrats will unload on Hogan.

It’s a tough time to be a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state. Hogan has his work cut out trying to separate himself from a wildly unpopular president without alienating died-in-the-wool Republican voters.

******

From the “sound and fury signifying nothing” department, here are two items of wasted energy by elected leaders in Annapolis who should know better:

Pointless fracking debate

Environmental activists are in a tizzy over their insistence that hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus shale rock formations deep beneath Garrett County and a portion of Allegany County be forever banned in Maryland.

They’ve made such a stink that Hogan has flip-flopped on the issue – abandoning his efforts to help Republican Western Maryland landowners who might some day benefit from extraction of oil and gas using this “fracking” technique that has been in use for over 60 years.

Yet here’s the reality:

·         There is no fracking taking place anywhere in Maryland.

·         There is no likelihood of fracking taking place in Maryland any time in the years to come.

·         Fracking in Maryland is uneconomical today and will be for a long time to come.

·         Regulations proposed by Hogan are so tough that no exploration companies in their right mind will venture into Maryland unless oil prices soar far beyond $100 a barrel – an unlikely scenario thanks to the glut of fracked oil wells in more hospitable, resource-rich regions of the country.

So environmentalists will win this empty victory and Hogan will win over some environmentalists come Election Day – but he might also lose votes from the Western Maryland landowners he betrayed.

Ludicrous “Road Kill Bill” dispute

Both Hogan and lawmakers are in the wrong here.

The governor has completely politicized a law that is so insipid and toothless it’s not worth arguing about.

The law in question has no enforcement provisions and leaves the governor in full control of road-building decisions. All it does is provide a bit of transparency on the relative value of each project being funded.

Hogan’s empty threat of not funding projects because of this law is strictly for next year’s campaign sloganeering. He’s made a mountain out of a teeny molehill just to win political points with rural and suburban voters.

Democratic lawmakers said they were going to amend the law this year to make it even clearer the law is strictly advisory. They also said they would simplify the evaluation process.

Instead, Democrats in the Senate are pushing for a two-year delay in implementing a toothless law while wasting time studying how to make the law even more meaningless.

The whole thing is pointless and a turnoff to voters of all stripes.

Surely the governor and lawmakers can spend the remaining days of this General Assembly session on something that really is constructive and helps Maryland citizens.

Moxie from the mayor

Here’s a shout-out to new Baltimore Mayor Catherin Pugh, who took an unpopular stand because it was the right thing to do.

She vetoed a bill mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage for most workers in the city – a move that would have been an economic calamity for Baltimore.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh at her inauguration in December.

We all want every worker to take home a decent paycheck. But not if it means businesses will fire personnel, reduce hours for their remaining staff and consider moving across the city-county line.

Those weren’t idle threats when this well-meaning but idealistic bill passed the naively liberal City Council.

Such an ordinance would leave the city deep in debt, according to its own financial analysts, with businesses fleeing to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to take advantage of a lower minimum wage, far lower property taxes and lower insurance rates.

Baltimore City must be competitive. The state’s minimum wage already is scheduled to rise this July and in succeeding years, too.

Besides, minimum-wage jobs are not intended to be permanent positions but rather a starting point for people eager to work their way up the economic ladder to more responsible and good-paying jobs with long-term career potential.

Pugh’s veto protects Baltimore’s economic well-being, even if liberal critics unfairly condemn her.

She’s been quiet and withdrawn during her initial months in office. Yet when it truly mattered, Pugh didn’t hesitate to analyze the facts and make a tough, courageous decision.   ###