Tag Archives: Maryland

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.

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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.

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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.   ###

Pimlico’s Improving Future

By Barry Rascovar

March 20, 2017 – Thanks to revenue from Maryland’s successful slots casinos, the state’s thoroughbred racing industry has seen a re-birth that hints at prosperity for the Free State’s billion-dollar horse industry in future decades.

Breeders are returning to Maryland to take advantage of the huge jump in purse money fueled by slots proceeds. Off-track gambling revenue is rising. And the state’s most important day of sports entertainment, the Preakness, is breaking attendance and wagering records.

To keep those good times a-rollin’, though, will require a major investment by Annapolis political leaders and by their counterparts in Baltimore City.

Pimlico's Improving Future

The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course as horses near the first turn.

It won’t be easy but it is achievable.

The centerpiece of Maryland horse racing is the Preakness, run at historic Pimlico Race Course since 1873 (108 consecutive years since 1909). Last May’s second jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown drew 135,256 fans to Old Hilltop – a record turnout for any sports event in Maryland.

But Pimlico is badly in need of a facelift.

Stronach’s One-Track Plan

The Stronach Group that owns Maryland’s two major race tracks at Pimlico and Laurel, would love to shutter the Baltimore facility and run exclusively in the Washington suburbs to multiply its profits. Laurel is where Stronach is putting all its improvement money.

That would be a wise business decision if not for the history, tradition and psychic ties between the Preakness and Baltimore. Move the race to a more southern location and the race loses all its history and records. Close Charm City’s race track and the community, already in bad straits, suffers mightily.

A new Preakness site can never duplicate the warmth and friendliness that exists between Baltimoreans and the nation’s racing community during Preakness week. Ask any trainer of a Preakness entrant and you’ll hear nothing but kudos. Pimlico, despite its physical limitations, is far and away their favorite stop on the Triple Crown circuit.

Preakness guests are received like old friends and acquaintances and get VIP treatment in a relaxing, comforting environment.

If the Preakness moved to Laurel, where would Stronach take racing’s VIPs that week for fabulous, down-home evening functions? Beautiful downtown Laurel? The nearby Holiday Inn?

Move the Preakness and a century-old bond would be broken. The gloss and mystique of the Preakness would disappear. Stronach would be devaluing one of its most valuable commodities.

Legal Barriers

Beside, Stronach can’t move the Preakness or shutter Pimlico without approval of the state racing commission and the Maryland General Assembly. Neither is in a mood to oblige. Not now and in all likelihood not ever.

But Stronach certainly is trying to present a case for such a move.

This year it has put Pimlico on a starvation diet of just nine days of racing. That’s an insult to Baltimore area racing fans and to Baltimore officials. Mayor Catherine Pugh should take note.

There is a glimmer of hope, though.

Thanks in large measure to Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg, the Maryland Stadium Authority has come forth with a plan for modernizing and saving Pimlico.

It’s a “situational analysis” that paints an exciting future for a rejuvenated race track – if Pimlico’s owners are willing to take a realistic look at the state’s political landscape and accept a two-track solution.

Achievable Solution

This is a much-needed first step. It outlines a $285 million renovation program that is eminently achievable. There are amply ways to pay for this, thanks to the fact that it will have to be done on a multi-year basis.

By way of comparison, Churchill Down, home of the Kentucky Derby, underwent a $121 million renovation starting in 2001; it took nearly four years to complete. More renovations took place at Churchill in 2015 and 2016 (ultra-luxury suites, a fully renovated clubhouse and plans for a $37 million suite tower).

There’s no reason Pimlico’s re-make can’t be done in a similar phased-in way that divides the re-make into chunks with workable price tags over a decade.

Pimlico's Improving Future-2

Any they’re off on Preakness Day at Old Hilltop in Baltimore.

Stronach will have to chip in big-time if it wants Maryland and Baltimore to contribute handsomely, too. A public-private partnership only succeeds if all sides are fully committed financially.

Millions toward a Pimlico renovation could come from the 1 percent of slots revenue that already flows into a race track improvement fund. The $2 million in tax revenue generated each year by the Preakness also could be dedicated toward paying the interest on bonds for the renovations.

And remember how the Ravens’ football stadium was built: With special instant scratch-off lotteries. A similar money-raiser through the lottery agency could be devised for Pimlico’s facelift.

With bond interest rates near historic lows, this is an ideal time to start getting serious about what a beautified Pimlico will look like, the timing of improvements and the financing arrangements.

Racing Revival?

Moving the Preakness is out of the question. From a sports perspective, such a move would be a PR and financial disaster. It would be devastating to Baltimore and a black eye if the state of Maryland allowed such a travesty to take place.

Thoroughbred racing once was the Sport of Kings with huge crowds flocking to the tracks daily. The sport has been in decline in recent decades but there are signs of a rebound.

That rebound is clearly evident in Maryland. Additionally, cutting-edge technology advances such as virtual reality, augmented reality and electronic sports gaming hold immense potential to boost racing’s popularity and profitability.

For all those reasons, it’s time to get serious about making Pimlico a first-rate race course with all the creature comforts fan expect. It would be a big win for the surrounding communities, the city and the state.

Pimlico is an economic resource that holds considerable potential, but only if we take advantage of the opportunity.

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Hogan, Trump & Trouble?

By Barry Rascovar

March 13, 2017–Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, Jr., has done all in his power to separate himself from the new, controversial Republican president, Donald Trump.

Given Trump’s unpopularity in Maryland – he lost by a whopping 25% in November – that wall of separation keeps Hogan in good stead with most voters in this top-heavy Democratic state.

His popularity remains sky-high and Hogan continues to skirt controversial social issues that could bring him trouble with liberal voters while losing the backing of GOP conservatives.

Hogan, Trump & Trouble?

MD Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

His prime objective is getting reelected in 2018 while dragging in with him enough Republican legislators to ensure a veto-proof state Senate.

Then Hogan would have more leverage and ability to help the state GOP turn the corner in Maryland and become a truly viable statewide alternative to Democrat hegemony.

But that scenario could blow up in Hogan’s face through no fault of his own.

Trump Referendum?

The 2018 election is looking more and more like a national referendum on Donald Trump’s manic, unpredictable presidency. If that become the case, Hogan’s continuation in office could hang by a thread.

The beginning of the end for Hogan may have commenced last week with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s rush to eliminate Obamacare and replace it with a haphazard health-care insurance program that punishes the lower-middle class, the poor and citizens nearing retirement age.

It also is sending the nation’s health-insurance industry into a prolonged period of chaotic uncertainty. The result could be a rapid pullout next year by insurers from what’s left of Obamacare to avoid gigantic losses caused by the program’s slow, agonizing demise mandated by Ryan’s legislation.

The Congressional Budget Office on Monday estimated a whopping 14 million Americans would lose their health insurance coverage next year under the Republican plan being rammed through the House of Representatives. That’s terrible for Republicans who have to run for reelection in the fall of 2018.

Cutting subsidies out from under Obamacare also would devastate state health budgets. Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders now receiving health insurance support or care through Medicaid could be cut off without the resources to afford health-care protection (CBO says premiums could rise 20 percent next year alone).

Ryan’s plan calls for Maryland and other states to receive far less to undergird their health insurance programs. Hospitals could be flooded by non-paying patients with nowhere else to go. Preventive health care, a key component of Obamacare, would disappear; people would show up at emergency rooms needing far more costly medical treatment.

Bad timing

For Hogan, the timing couldn’t be worse. By next year, Maryland’s entire health care network could face an unprecedented financial and medical crisis. Maryland’s health expenditures could balloon, and many of the state’s citizens could be panicking over the loss of their medical safety net.

That’s a recipe for problems at the polls.

Unfortunately for Hogan, this could be just the initial blow coming from Trump’s Washington.

Sweeping federal layoffs this year and next seem in the cards — the largest cutbacks since the end of World War II by one account.

Last week, Comptroller Peter Franchot wrote down state revenue estimates for the next 18 months by $33 million and warned of the likelihood of major job losses in federal agencies employing hundreds of thousands of Free State citizens.

The budgets for programs affecting all aspect of the Maryland economy are at risk, from housing assistance critical in poor communities like Baltimore and rural Maryland to severe reductions in funding for the Coast Guard that could hurt the state’s important maritime economy and policing of the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland impact

Massive budget cuts in the space program, food and drug enforcement, agriculture, the Census Bureau, the Medicaid agency, education aid, medical research and environmental protection would reverberate ithrough Maryland, home to many of these agencies.

All of this is dreadful news for Hogan.

He’s got nothing to do with what Trump and his Republican allies are foisting on the American public. Yet he may end up paying the ultimate political price.

Let’s face it. Hogan’s 2014 election victory was a fluke, the result of a well-run campaign and exceedingly good luck: Democrats nominated a historically bad candidate (Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, now a member of Congress) who ran one of the worst-ever gubernatorial campaigns.

Given Maryland’s 2-1 Democratic voter registration edge, Hogan’s re-election was always less than certain, even with his high poll numbers. Inflame the state’s Democratic voters and any Republican, even a popular incumbent, could have big problems.

So if Marylanders are infuriated with Trump & Friends; if hundreds of thousands are scared, angry and afraid of having little or no health coverage; if the state’s large federal workforce endures unprecedented layoffs and spending cuts, and if Democrats are so enraged they take out their fury on Election Day, Hogan had better prepare for the worst.

Déjà vu?

It’s happened before.

In 2006, Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich enjoyed exceptionally high polling numbers right up till the general election. Most people said Ehrlich had done a pretty good job. Yet he lost by 6% – nearly 120,000 votes.

How could that happen?

Ehrlich’s loss was linked to the unpopularity of a Republican president, George W. Bush, saddled with a wobbly economy, a flagging war on terrorism, an unnecessary, trumped-up war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and ineptness in the White House.

By the November 2006 election, Bush’s poll rating – which hit 90% after the 2001 terrorist bombings, had plunged to 38%. (It would continue to sink to a low of 25%).

Voters wanted to send Bush a message – and in Maryland the only way to do that was by voicing disapproval of the top Republican candidate on the ballot that year – Bob Ehrlich.

Hogan should be alarmed that Donald Trump’s approval rating as of two weeks ago was just 38% – identical to Bush’s low appeal in 2006. The Obamacare controversy and the new president’s angry Twitter insults, unsubstantiated allegations and inflammatory rhetoric could shrink Trump’s approval numbers to record lows for an American president.

Should 2018 turn into a “message” election, Larry Hogan’s “good guy” image and Marylanders’ lack of animus toward him may prove all but worthless.

He could well become, for state voters, Donald Trump’s surrogate on the ballot.

It could be 2006 all over again in Maryland.  ##  

Giving Frosh His Independence

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 20, 2017—You can’t blame Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., for getting irritated over the Maryland attorney general’s new authority – granted by the General Assembly – to sue the federal government without the governor’s permission.

This strips Hogan of a smidgen of his enormous powers. Yet if the Republican chief executive truly wished to stop this slight weakening of his powers all he had to do was pick up the phone and negotiate a compromise.

Instead, Hogan gave Attorney General Brian Frosh, one of the mildest mannered men in politics, the cold shoulder when Frosh requested the go-ahead to object in court to President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim nations.

Giving Frosh His Independence

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh

Hogan called the delegation of power to Frosh “crazy” and “horrible” – but the real nuttiness lies in Hogan’s refusal to talk through his objections with Frosh and come to a reasonable arrangement each could live with.

Political Divide

Sure, Hogan is a conservative Republican to the core and Frosh is a down-the-line Montgomery County liberal Democrat.

Still, Frosh almost never picks a fight. His 20 years in the legislature were marked by quiet persuasion based on facts, open dialogue and finding middle ground.

Only when Frosh asked for permission to sue, provided back-up documentation to the governor and was met by silence did he opt to make an un-Frosh-like aggressive move.

Democrats in the House and Senate were happy to help him, since they were alarmed by Trump’s executive order against Muslim refugees and immigrants.

Numerous state attorneys general sued to stop the president’s executive order and temporarily succeeded in blocking it. Frosh wanted authorization from Hogan to do the same thing.

He said he was concerned by clear indications the new administration will wipe out the Affordable Care Act that gives health insurance to 430,000 Marylanders and anti-environmental steps that could damage the health of the Chesapeake Bay. He wanted the tools to speak out on Maryland’s behalf in court.

Weak A.G.

Maryland is one of a handful of states that didn’t –until last week – give its attorney general the independence to sue the federal government without getting an okay from the governor.

Indeed, this state has one of the weakest attorney general offices in the country. Only on rare occasions can Frosh’s office conduct a criminal investigation and try the case—the state’s constitution handed over those broad powers to the local state’s attorneys in 1851.

Maryland’s attorney general primarily staffs the law offices of state agencies, gives legal advice to the governor, General Assembly and judiciary, handles consumer protection issues, defends the state in court litigation and files lawsuits on behalf of state agencies.

Yet this is a statewide office just like the governor and state comptroller. All three are elected by Maryland voters every four years. Their authority is spelled out in the Maryland constitution. Yet Frosh’s office is unusually dependent on the governor for permission to act.

That’s never been a healthy situation.

Why create a constitutional law office without giving that office the freedom to carry out the full range of legal responsibilities normally handled by an attorney general in other states?

Why make the Maryland attorney general such a weak reed, unable to speak for the state on legal matters without first coming on bended knee to the governor for consent?

The current conflict over separation of powers never surfaced when Democrats occupied both offices. Usually the two elected officers were on the same political wave length and agreed on occasional litigation to protest federal actions.

Cover for Hogan

Under Hogan and at times under Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich disagreements have surfaced. Yet this need not have reached a point of separation if Hogan had ordered his skilled legal counsel, Robert Scholz, to work out an accommodation.

Frosh may have been close to the truth when he suggested this new arrangement actually gives Hogan the best of both worlds – despite the governor’s public protests.

Hogan doesn’t want to go on record opposing the new Republican president. He’s trying hard to ignore anything and everything Trump says that provokes controversy.

Yet it’s no secret radicals in the new administration want to deep-six Obamacare and purge all sorts of environmental regulations that could set back efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Someone has to speak out and protest in court at the appropriate time. Hogan doesn’t want to alienate his Republican core base, yet extreme actions in Washington may require pushback from Maryland to avert harm to citizens and the “Land of Pleasant Living.”

The new delegation of authority by the legislature to Frosh solves that dilemma quite neatly for Hogan. He can continue to ignore Trumpian broadsides and dangerous executive orders while Frosh, on his own volition, tries to block Trump’s moves in court.

The governor’s hands are clean. He hasn’t forsaken the Republican president.

(He also can try to dissuade Frosh through well-reasoned arguments. The power granted Frosh requires that he notify Hogan of the attorney general’s intention to sue, wait 10 days so the governor can put any concerns he has in writing, and then Frosh must “consider the Governor’s  objection before commencing the suit or action.”)

Re-election Battle?

The real danger for Hogan could lie in the next six to 12 months if Trump takes such extreme steps affecting Marylanders, the state’s social programs and its natural resources that Frosh becomes the hero of the day – filing lawsuits repeatedly to stop or reverse Trump’s moves.

Should Hogan continue to remain mum during that time, ignoring the human toll of Trump’s actions, it might hurt the governor’s re-election chances.

Thus, Brian Frosh might place himself at the head of the pack of candidates running for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Could Hogan then face off against the attorney general in November 2018 just as Frosh’s popularity in vote-heavy Central Maryland soars due to his role as Maryland’s defender against heavy-handed actions from Washington?

It’s not far-fetched.

That possibility gains credence with Frosh’s request for a future annual budget of $1 million to create a five-person legal staff to sue the Trump administration when the public interest or welfare of Maryland citizens is threatened – be it their health, public safety, civil liberties, economic security, environment, natural resources or travel restrictions.

If Hogan, for political reasons, won’t oppose Trump and radicals in the administration, Frosh is the logical person to fill that void.

Giving him the power to act isn’t wild and crazy. It’s in line with the way things work in most other states. It ensures that Maryland’s interests will be defended by at least one statewide, constitutional officer elected by the people.

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Will Hogan’s Slimmed-Down Budget Implode?

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 30, 2017 – Through no fault of his own, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s slimmed-down, $43.5 billion budget could implode at any moment, depending on actions in Washington by President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress intent on slashing federal domestic spending.

Just one example: Trump wants immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act – the hated Obamacare he pilloried in the campaign. Tea party Republicans in Congress are marching rapidly down that same path.

It sounds wonderful to Trump’s followers and foes of the ACA.

But the loss of ACA funds would blow an immediate $1.26 billion hole in Hogan’s balanced budget – and would add up to a stunning $7.7 billion loss for Maryland over the next five years.

That’s just the tip of Maryland’s deficit iceberg if Trump and his Republican majority on the Hill start chopping with their budget axes.

Maryland’s Budget Plight

Losing ACA funds would cost Maryland $100 million in savings from drug rebates that Hogan is counting on in his budget, $62 million in child health matching money, $16 million for home care and $225 million in federal support that subsidizes health insurance for 60,000 moderate- or low-income Marylanders.

Then there’s Trump’s federal job freeze, with Virginia and Maryland most at risk of seeing large declines in its federal work force.

Think what it would mean for the Free State’s economy – and tax collections – if Trump and Congress slash the workforce at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Social Security Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health – all centered in Maryland.

There’s nothing in Hogan’s budget to cushion the state from a Trumpian-sized downsizing of the federal government. Instead, his fiscal blueprint ignores that approaching whirlwind and focuses instead on ratcheting downing spending without destroying existing social programs.Hogan's Slimmed-Down Budget

Clearly, the governor is trying to make it past the next election using smart spending hold-downs and a hoped-for upward bump in revenue collections.

He certainly wasn’t considering the anti-spending mood in Washington or the state’s precarious long-term budget outlook. Hogan just wants to get through 2018.

But legislative budget analysts noted last week there are very large deficits looming that Hogan hasn’t addressed.

Budget Quicksand

Those potential pools of red ink leave “the state vulnerable to expected federal cost containment actions” that include personnel cuts, greatly reduced agency budgets and repeal of the ACA without a viable replacement.

As it stands, Hogan’s budget could run into big trouble with Maryland’s Medicaid program this coming fiscal year. Legislative analysts politely wrote that the governor’s budget “contains optimistic assumptions” about slower Medicaid enrollment and the state’s ability to recoup drug rebates from pharmaceutical companies.

If Hogan’s number are wrong, his Medicaid allocation could be in deficit territory by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some of the governor’s budget-balancing tricks aren’t likely to work, either.

For instance, he figures he can save nearly $100 million if the legislature repeals spending mandates lawmakers approved last year. Don’t count on Democratic lawmakers giving the Republican governor what he wants.

Additionally, Hogan wants to increase the budget deficit in future years by handing out tax cuts to military retirees, police and firefighters, tax savings to those with student loans, and tax breaks to small business owners offering sick leave to workers.

The cost? $106 million in the first year and $488 million over the next five years.

Deficits Return

Hogan says he wiped out the state’s structural deficit with this budget – but only because he grabbed $170 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Even worse, analysts say Hogan’s financial plan does little to prevent a widening structural deficit in future years, growing to $432 million a year from now and $1.2 billion four years later – and that doesn’t even take into account the worsening fiscal situation if Obamacare is repealed.

The Department of Legislative Services also points to deeply troubling trends in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s six-year capital spending plan. MDOT can’t build all the projects it is promising due to a tightening revenue picture.

Maryland’s gas tax receipts are far less than expected, debt service costs are rising and MDOT operating expenses are galloping ahead of projections.

On top of that, Hogan has set aside $747 million in MDOT cash to greatly increase highway-construction aid to Maryland counties. That move would require a sharp cutback in bonds issued by MDOT, which means reducing the number of promised transportation projects over the next six year.

MDOT’s Growing Budget Hole

All told, MDOT is $1.7 billion short of the money it needs to complete projects on its list. Moreover, analysts say the department is underestimating its own operating expenses by $585 million in future years.

There could be tough questioning and resistance to Hogan’s transportation program when his minions try to explain this disturbing situation to the General Assembly’s budget panels.

Yet the MDOT quagmire could rapidly become a secondary concern if the White House and Congress go on a budget-cutting rampage this spring, creating “carnage” in state capitals.

On its own, Hogan’s budget appears to be a sensible, Republican-styled attempt to slowly diminish spending in ways that begin to align appropriations with the state’s annual revenue flow.

He resorts to a number of gimmicks to balance this year’s fiscal package, but what governor doesn’t?

There are almost certain to be fireworks over Hogan’s more questionable budget proposals in the next few months—especially if the man in the White House turns off much of Maryland’s fiscal pipeline from Washington.

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‘Honest Prince George’ Strikes Again

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 16, 2017 – Back when I was a naïve and newbie political reporter covering the Maryland General Assembly in the early 1970s, I was baffled when legislators joked in lounges and hallways about “Honest Prince George.”

I found out soon enough it was a jovial but derogatory reference to the questionable “pay for play” politics practiced by some leaders of Prince George’s County.

Rapid land development and the county’s population explosion made the Washington suburb prime ground for under-the-table payoffs to elected officials who got builders construction permits and re-zoning approval.'Honest Prince George' Strikes Again

Straight-arrow Prince George’s senators and delegates would join in the verbal State House sparring about their “honest” county, but they knew better than most what was going on.

Now “Honest Prince George” has surfaced again.

Blown Cover

Arrests by federal prosecutors so far have nabbed a liquor board commissioner, a longtime former councilman and a yet-to-be-named state legislator involved in a bribery and payoff scheme.

Will Campos, a ten-year councilman and ex-delegate resigned his state post in 2015 after only nine months in office, realizing the feds were hot on his trail.

He pled guilty earlier this month to taking nearly $50,000 in payoffs to direct $325,000 in county funds to business owners over a seven-year period. On one occasion, he was handed a white envelope in the bathroom of a College Park restaurant. It was stuffed with $3,000 in cash.

Another ex-delegate, Michael Vaughn, turned in his resignation letter last Wednesday due to “ongoing health challenges” – like avoiding a long prison sentence (clearly not good for your health).

Prosecutors say one of their targets is a delegate who voted in committee to extend Sunday liquor sales in Prince George’s as part of a bribery scheme. Vaughn was the only county delegate on that committee who voted in 2015 for that Sunday liquor-sales bill.

More shoes will drop as federal investigators continue the latest Prince George’s County corruption probe.  It’s certainly been a lengthy, and sad, saga.

Baggett First to Fall

The first bigshot in Prince George’s to fall was Jesse Baggett, chairman of the then-all-powerful Board of County Commissioners during the county’s massive land-development boom in the 1960s and early 1970s. Baggett went to prison in 1971 for taking a $3,500 bribe from a builder in exchange for help on re-zoning.

The county became ground zero for the headline-grabbing Marvin Mandel racetrack scandal in which the secret sale of a county half-mile track in Upper Marlboro formed the case against Governor Mandel and his co-defendants, including a prominent county lawyer, Ernest N. Cory, Jr., who lied repeatedly to the state racing commission about the Mandel group’s ownership of the track.

This unsavory reputation by county leaders helped unseat many of them in the 1970s. Leading the reform group was Steny H. Hoyer, now the county’s longtime congressman, and an influential lawyer-politician, Peter F. O’Malley.

Yet the smell of money proved irresistible for a few. A veteran state senator, Tommie Broadwater, went to prison for food stamp fraud. A delegate, Leonard Blondes, was found complicit in a bribery scheme.

A one-term delegate and county councilman, Tony Cicoria, stole $65,000 in campaign contributions, lied on his tax returns and then while on the council went AWOL for 13 months to avoid arrest. Cicoria eventually was nabbed in Florida  where his return to Maryland was delayed by local charges of using a phony drivers license.

Good old “Honest Prince George.”

Johnson’s Shame

In the 21st century, the most flagrant offender has been former County Executive Jack Johnson, who used his office to extort $1.6 million from developers during his eight years in office.

When Johnson and his wife, herself a county councilwoman, were arrested by the feds, Johnson was shouting at his wife to stuff illicit cash into her bra and panties and to flush the rest down the toilet. (Officers recovered $79,600 from Leslie Johnson’s undergarments and another $100,000 from the water closet.)

Then there was the sad case of current Sen. Ulysses Currie, accused of using his office and committee chairmanship to twist arms for his client while getting a kickback worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Currie beat the rap, but not without humiliating himself with a defense that claimed Currie was too dumb to be dishonest.

And of course there was Tiffany Alston, who avoided criminal punishment by resigning as a state delegate 2012 after she stole thousands from her campaign fund to pay herself and cover her wedding expenses.

Constant Surveillance

Unfortunately, a few politicians in Prince George’s continue to regard elective office as a way to enrich themselves through quid pro quos.

Other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore County and Baltimore City, have similar shameful histories – witness the recent indictment of Gary Brown, Jr. on the eve of his appointment as a state delegate for laundering $18,000 in campaign contributions for his boss, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, through his relatives.

At least Prince George’s voters had the good sense to elect a reformer, Rushern Baker, as county executive to help clean up the mess left behind by Jack Johnson.

Still, the ballooning liquor board scandal points to a continuing problem in the county that will need constant surveillance and scrutiny to scrub Prince George’s County of its “pay to play” reputation.

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